Use Your Listening Skills to Help You Think

When something’s on your mind, talking over the issue with a friend is a real value. A good listener can gently encourage you to untangle your thoughts, without taking over the conversation and/or enforcing his own agenda. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a good listener on call every time you had something you needed to think through?

You can be that person for yourself–if you train yourself to listen to your own subconscious.

Listening to your own subconscious is similar to the kind of “active listening” you use when listening to others. You need to slow yourself down, stop multi-tasking, pay attention, and actually take in the thoughts you’re hearing internally. In active listening, the listeners repeat back what they’re hearing to make sure they get it. In listening to the subconscious, you are the listener and you write down what you’re hearing from your subconscious. In both cases, having the thoughts reflected back helps you get objectivity on them.

It’s particularly important to “listen to the subconscious” using “thinking on paper,” because listening to your own mind takes extra concentration. You don’t have another person there, keeping you on track. You don’t see body language and other cues that keep you connected to the conversation. So you need “thinking on paper” to help you focused on what’s happening.

Your subconscious is a storehouse of knowledge, values, and associations. If you are feeling frustrated, there is likely some very helpful information in there that could help you out of the bind. By taking a few minutes to listen to your subconscious, you can get the most relevant, most obvious information out of storage and into consideration where it can help you.

So, next time you need an ear to listen to your problems, and no one’s handy, lend an inner ear. You can be your own best listener.



November 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Deja Vu All Over Again

“How did I wind up here again?” We’ve all had the experience: a bad situation keeps repeating itself. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a particular person that keeps coming up and going badly. Maybe it’s the feeling of being overloaded by the administrivia again–even though you cleared it out last week. Maybe it’s seeing a project fizzle to a stop again. You keep gearing up on it, taking a step, and it never gets any momentum.

When you are feeling “deja vu all over again,” chances are you are “flailing” on the task. Flailing means trying the same approach again and again, without getting a different result. When this happens, you always need to step back, and change something farther back in the process. The mistake is always a few steps back, not right before you get in the mess. Here are a few ways you can take some steps back:

  1. Ask the experts–they often know a better way to approach problems. For example, there are great books on how deal with confrontation–and they all involve doing preparation before the confrontation occurs. (One I like is Difficult Conversations by Stone et. all.)
  2. Use a creativity process. Brainstorming and other creative processes are designed to help you generate alternatives. Brainstorming comes in many forms. A good book on it is: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking by Paul Sloane.
  3. Sometimes you can just experiment. Write down how you always do the task. Then systematically change the process piece by piece to see what makes a difference.

The bottom line is: when you are flailing (doing the same thing, again and again, and expecting a different result), you need to stop what you’re doing and make a radical change.

Unless you like having deja vu all over again.


October 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Catching What Triggers You

Here’s another blog post from Peter Bregman: Quash Your Bad Habits by Knowing What Triggers Them. He’s a terrific thinker on productivity and execution issues. What I like particularly about this article is that he documents the physical warning signs that Jeff was about to explode:

Minute 1: Nick steps to the front of the room (I knew Jeff had an issue with Nick’s lack of accountability so, as soon Nick stood to facilitate, I knew Jeff was at risk of losing his temper).

Minute 3: Jeff starts tapping his foot.

Minute 4: Jeff starts tapping his pen on his pad.

Minute 6: Jeff’s breathing changes. He is taking deeper, exasperated, audible breaths. Like sighing.

Minute 8: Jeff is shifting in his chair. He can’t sit still. He is physically uncomfortable with what’s going on.

Minute 9: Jeff stops breathing. He is literally holding his breath.

Minute 10: BOOM!

Noticing your own body and your own actions takes a little extra self-awareness. But the physical evidence is there if you look. Once you know what to look for, you can set a standing order to do something different, e.g., “If I start tapping my foot, take a quick timeout to do a breathing exercise and remind myself of the context.”

Again, here’s a link to Peter Bregman’s article: Quash Your Bad Habits by Knowing What Triggers Them

And to mine on setting standing orders: Setting Standing Orders


October 27, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Tackle the “Blob” with a “Maybe” List

Imagine that every time you faced a daunting task, you could immediately hit on a way to make it easy and inviting to get started. I bet you can—if you make a “Maybe” list.

The problem you have is a blob of overload and uncertainty in your mind. You know too much about how hard the task is. You know you can’t just plunge in. But you don’t know enough to see clearly what would be a good first step. That’s why it’s daunting. It’s big and you don’t know how to tackle it.

In this situation, you can exploit what you know by making a “Maybe” list. Write down all the things that you “might” do that “maybe” will help with the daunting task. Try for 10-20.

For example, if you realize you have too much to do in a day, don’t just let your stomach sink. Make a list of things you “might” do that “maybe” will help you stay on top of things.

Or if you are supposed to get a project done by a certain deadline, and it seems hopeless, make a list of things you “might” do that “maybe” will help you get it finished that early.

It is crucial that you ask yourself what you “might” do that “maybe” will help, because those are answerable questions. Don’t ask yourself what you “should” do or “need” to do or even “can” do. You don’t know how to handle this task (it’s daunting), so those questions are too hard.

On the one hand, you do know a lot about the daunting task. And based on what you do know, you will probably find that you can make up a list of “maybe’s”—things that might help you get it done. After you have the list, you can then look through it and see which ones would in fact be worth doing to help you get started.

This process is amazingly helpful. I find that when I make the “Maybe” list, I immediately relax. I see that there are a couple of things I can do to deal with the “blob,” and that gives me confidence to get moving. And then, of course, once I start taking action on the task, I learn what I need to know to figure out the next steps. (And if not, I can make another “Maybe” list.)


October 22, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Not in the Mood? Make a Mental Transition

An important part of execution is managing transitions. That’s where the time gets wasted and the distractions rule. If you’re not “in the mood” to transition to the top priority item on your list, you can waste a lot of time getting down to work.

To get out of the wrong mood, first you need to know, what mood or mental set do you want to transition to? If you’re upset, maybe you want to calm down. If your brain is feeling sluggish, maybe you want to rev it up for thinking. If you are feeling distracted, maybe you want to zero in on your purpose.

Just noticing, “I’m not in the mood” won’t help you get into a better state. You need to identify where you want to go. If in doubt—aim to go to a neutral state. It’s hard to go from upset to happy. But upset to neutral is not so difficult.

Once you know your goal, you can start taking baby steps in that direction. Little steps are important, because when you’re unmotivated, big steps are a deal-breaker. But with a few little steps, you move yourself in the direction that is good for you, and it becomes easier to take the next ones.

For example, sometimes I feel bored and restless in the evening. I want to do something “fun,” but in that mood, nothing sounds all that fun, even though I know, for example, that singing songs is enjoyable. So, now I have a procedure to transition out of the blahs with three small steps:

1) I move the guitar to the couch.
2) I pull out my songbook.
3) I tune the guitar.

I take these three steps without the slightest commitment to singing, but sure enough, by the time I’ve tuned the guitar, I figure, “why not sing a couple of songs?” After a couple of songs, I’m no longer feeling bored and restless. I might keep singing, or I might switch to some other recreational activity–but in any case, I’ve beat the blahs.



October 20, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Distracted? Try a Time Log

Many time-management books recommend you do a detailed “time log” to find out how you really use your time. They recommend you keep a record of every activity, with 15-minute precision.

These have always struck me as a little compulsive, without much obvious benefit. I thought keeping track of my activity with that much detail would really bog me down. So, I’ve resisted doing them.

But a book I read (The One-Life Solution by Henry Cloud) persuaded me to try one for a few days. I didn’t learn too much new about where I spent my time. But much to my surprise, I learned that a time log can boost productivity.

For example, at the time I wrote in 2.5 hour blocks. Because I was being meticulous to note interruptions (to eat or play with the cats), I also noticed how far I was through my time block. One day I noticed I had only 30 minutes left, and I wasn’t close to finishing what I needed to do. Another time, I would have been caught by surprise and I probably would have messed up the day’s schedule. But because I was monitoring the time, I noticed the problem while it was brewing, so  I was able to do a few minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to best use the remaining 30 minutes. No problem! The day went as planned.

In another case, I noticed that I did a few 5-minute side activities in a row, when I was supposed to be starting a new task. I did a couple of minutes of “thinking on paper” about how to get started, and was able to dig into the new task with no more foot-dragging. The transition was quicker and easier than usual.

Just by doing a time log, I became more aware of distractions and floundering while they were occurring. When I notice a problem, I am motivated to fix it. So, doing a time log actually helped me be more productive.

Here’s how I did it (so it wasn’t too intrusive): I kept a pad of paper with me, and every time I changed activities I updated it. I wrote down the new time on a fresh line, and wrote in (or corrected) what I had been doing in the previous chunk of time.

I had to correct it sometimes, because I would write down what I intended to do. It turns out I didn’t always follow my intentions immediately. I would finish feeding the cats, and mark the time “8:30: Start writing,” but then I’d realize I needed to do one other chore before starting writing. That was eye-opening, too.

So, I do not recommend doing a time log to find out where you spend your time. Doing a time log changes how you spend your time.

Instead, I recommend doing a time log to help you monitor your time as a special review. Done only occasionally, this can help you find the holes in your productivity and renew your focus on getting things done.



September 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Build Confidence in Your Mental Databanks with Mental Hygiene

There is misinformation in your mental databanks. I guarantee it. Sometime in your personal history, you’ve overgeneralized or dropped context or missed something. Yet you rely on information from your mental databanks in all your thinking! How can you be sure you’re not working with bad data?

It’s conceptually simple: you need to systematically root out conflicting information during your thinking process. You need to “clean up” as you go, by testing assumptions and doublechecking your conclusions. A top signal that you need to clean up is the feeling of “cognitive dissonance.”

“Cognitive dissonance” is that uncomfortable experience you have in your head when the thing you’re saying or thinking now doesn’t compute with what you said or thought the other day. It can be a mild discomfort,  or discomfort accompanied with intense guilt if the issue is important.

Every time you re-read your thinking on paper, you probably get a few subtle nudges of cognitive dissonance. It happens anywhere you overstated or exaggerated the situation or left something out. The step of re-reading and asking “is this literally true?” helps amplify these signals so you can zero in on where you need to test your assumptions.

“Cognitive dissonance” can be particularly strong when you think you should do something that you’re not doing (or vice versa). For example, if you told yourself that your priority for today is to get something particular finished (your taxes? a report? you name it), and you aren’t doing it, you’ll feel some conflict.

This is a great time to do up to three minutes of thinking on paper to investigate what’s going on in your databanks. Often you will resolve the issue in three minutes. If you don’t, you finish with an open question: e.g., what should be my priorities? Or what is the truth about that issue? You’ll eventually answer the question (maybe not now), and you’ll have cleaned up that little area of your database.

This is mental hygiene. There is no way to systematically scrub the data in your mental databanks. But if you treat any signal of “cognitive dissonance” as a prompt for cleanup in a particular area, you keep the whole database in good working order.

To change the metaphor slightly, to organize your house, you don’t have to go through the entire thing from one end to the rest. You can start with one extra messy area and reorganize that. If you keep tackling one messy area at a time, you eventually get a very orderly house.



September 8, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Align Strategic Decisions with Long-Term Priorities

Marcia Yudkin is a veritable sage who has taught me many things about marketing and writing. She’s given me permission to share this article from her “Marketing Minute” which concretizes the need to align strategic decisions with your long-term priorities. Mr. South does not see the implications of his choices.

In “The Millionaire Next Door,” Thomas Stanley and William
Danko contrast wastrel “Dr. South,” who spent more than 60
hours to get the best deal on a $65,000 Porsche, and frugal
“Dr. North,” who spent just a few hours six years ago to buy
a three-year-old Mercedes for $35,000. “Dr. North” spends
30 hours a month on his investments, compared to four hours
a month for “Dr. South.”

Although both men earn roughly the same as medical
specialists, the Norths have a net worth more than 18 times
that of the Souths. Such is the impact of strategic

In marketing, what do you spend your time and resources on?
Like “Dr. South,” are you researching and bargaining hard
on expenses that feed your ego and make you look impressive?
Or like “Dr. North,” do you focus more on your long-term

To be a quietly well-heeled “Dr. North” in marketing, make
sure you are serving customers who can and will stick with you,
and that you’re doing your utmost to keep them happy.

Marcia Yudkin is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Marketing for Introverts and many other books and ebooks. She helps entrepreneurs and business owners attract ideal clients, turn their knowledge into products and earn what they deserve. Sign up for her free weekly ezine, the Marketing Minute, at



July 16, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Key to Brainstorming

Brainstorming means: generating a long list of creative ideas to solve some problem or answer some question. Any time you are feeling a little blank, you need some form of brainstorming to start ideas flowing again.

Often we think of brainstorming as a group activity, with these four guidelines:

1) Just blurt out ideas as they occur to you.
2) No criticism–of yourself or others. (You’ll evaluate the ideas later, after you have a long list.)
3) Try to jump off from a previous idea to get a new idea.
4) Try to generate as many ideas as possible.

People often treat brainstorming as a magical process, which mysteriously generates results. I think brainstorming is an entirely understandable process, and when you understand it, you have much more control over your own creative capacity.

To see how it works in an individual mind, consider the “dictionary” version of brainstorming, which uses these four steps:

1) Spell out the question.
2) Pick a random word from the dictionary.
3) Free associate on the word from the dictionary: what’s the first word that comes to mind?
4) Ask your subconscious for a bridge: How does the new word help answer the question?

The two creative steps are #2 and #3. In step 2, you get a concrete idea (a trigger) to think about. On the face of it, the trigger might not have any particular relevance to the question. But it is highly specific, so you can make associations to it. In step 3, you free associate on the trigger. It’s these new free associations (not the original trigger) that might help you answer your question.

Here’s why: the free associations are connected both to the trigger you chose in step 2 and the question you spelled out in step 1. Both of those are part of the context that is stimulating subconscious associations. The question influences what spontaneously occurs to you.

This is why, when you get to step 4, you can ask yourself for a bridge between the free association and the question: the free association does have some connection to the question in your subconscious databanks, and all you are doing is asking for it explicitly.

In a group brainstorming process, one person’s idea is another person’s trigger. Everyone is free associating on whatever came before–suggestion, joke, etc., and these free associations then
suggest other possible solutions.

The thing to remember is: the trigger does not have to seem useful.  It just has to be concrete enough so that you can easily free associate  about it.

This is why you should never censor in brainstorming. If you censor the trigger, you never get the free associations. If you censor the free associations, you never get to make the connection between them and the question. Or in other words, if you censor, you never get to the solutions.

You can use this process of triggering and associating in many different forms of brainstorming.

Next time you feel blank, try brainstorming with these four steps:
1) Identify question
2) Pick a concrete trigger
3) Free associate
4) Build a bridge from the free association to a solution


July 9, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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