What’s the value of planning?

You have probably heard the saying, “no plan survives contact with reality.” There’s a lot of truth in this–so what’s the value of planning?

Planning pays off before you take action, while you are taking action, and after you have taken action.

The most obvious benefit of planning is that it helps you anticipate possible contingencies, so you can avoid avoidable problems and take advantage of advantageous opportunities. If you take the time to predict how your day or your project will unfold, you are much more likely to bring to bear all of the information you know that is relevant to getting your tasks done.

For example, toward the end of planning my day today, I noticed a package I needed to mail. I had scheduled a shopping trip for 7 p.m. If I scheduled it earlier, I could ship that package on the same trip. After noticing this fact, I looked to see if I could move the shopping trip to an earlier time slot. As I re-examined my plan, I realized that my objective for my 12 noon timeslot was unrealistic. I was unlikely to complete it today, because it required responses from others. I changed my objective for today to simply reach out to the other people–leaving time to go on the errands during that timeslot.

All of this planning took less than 10 minutes. But as a result, I have more realistic expectations for the day, and I will have fewer things on my mind at the end of today.

The simple act of planning helps you see risks and opportunities that you wouldn’t see otherwise. This change to my plan occurred because I happened to spot the package that was ready for shipping. Knowing I was scheduled to do errands after dinner, I immediately wondered if I could ship the package on the same trip. I saw an opportunity–and then thought it through.

You may be thinking, “Fine, but what happens when the plan falls apart in a few minutes or a few hours?” I confess that it’s only recently that I have seen the true value of the plan when you need to adjust your course.

And you often will need to adjust.

When you plan, you use information you already have to predict the future. But when you take steps toward your goals, the future unfolds in much more detail. You learn much more about the actual challenge–today, here now–than you could have possibly anticipated.

For example, yesterday I sat down to write an article on a different topic. The article fell apart when I tried to write it. My plan had been to draft the article in 1 hour. But halfway through the time, it was clear that I was not going to meet that objective.

So what was the use of my plan?

In such a situation, you may be tempted to ignore your plan and just choose your next action ad hoc. In the past, I probably would have just doubled down on the newsletter and put in a couple of more hours–maybe with success, maybe not. I would have forgotten about my plan and tried to “just do it.”

What I recommend in these situations is that you make a conscious decision about whether to follow your plan or not. Yesterday, I decided to put in the full hour to see if the topic was salvageable. When I saw no progress by that time, I decided to continue with my planned activities, and regroup today to write an article on a different topic. I consciously re-planned (in just a couple of minutes).

As a result of that trivial amount of re-planning, I had my eyes open for a better newsletter topic. When I discussed planning in a one-on-one consult last night, I realized it was a great topic. At the end of the consult, I outlined this newsletter in about 30 seconds, knowing I could draft it today.

In other words, I don’t recommend blindly following the plan, I recommend working the plan. As needed, make a conscious decision about how you are changing the plan.

Why? Because you put in your best thinking about what to do. If you are tempted to deviate from your plan, your best thinking deserves at least a hearing. Taking a couple of minutes to decide how to change your plan ensures that you don’t miss some obvious complication that you already thought of. Get the benefit of that forethought–don’t just throw it away.

There’s an emotional benefit, too. You will feel proud of the change, instead of vaguely guilty that you aren’t following your plan.

When things don’t work out the way you planned, treat it as a red flag signalling a need to do a little more thinking. Your expectations were mistaken. This is a huge learning opportunity–a great chance to discover mistaken premises. By taking the time to think through your change in plan, you address the issue head on, and learn what you need to learn.

For example, when I re-evaluated what I was doing yesterday, I realized that part of the problem was that I was distracted. I had started doing the family laundry the night before, and I was finishing it up that morning. Because of the laundry, I was having trouble concentrating fully on the writing. (This is one reason I decided to give the topic a full hour attempt–to make sure the problem was not just distraction.)

I’ve always thought of laundry as something that I can do on the side of almost any work. But yesterday, because I consciously thought about what was going wrong, I saw the truth. In the future, I’ll do my best to finish the laundry the night before, or start back on it after my writing time, which requires a high degree of concentration.

This leads me to the lasting value of planning and re-planning as needed. When you work the plan, you really learn what works and what doesn’t. You become self-aware of more of the obstacles to being productive. This can only help you be a better planner in the future.

Because let’s face it–having things go according to plan is much more satisfying than the alternative. When the plan falls apart, your stress goes up. When life goes according to plan, you feel calm and in control. By planning–and working the plan–you get better at planning, and you reap both the intellectual and emotional rewards of that.

I finished drafting this article just as my timer sounded the end of my planned hour for it. Hurrah! My satisfaction is that much more positive, because I finished as planned.

April 8, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting More Emotional Impact from Good Things that Happen in Life

Some years ago I recommended the daily practice of identifying three good things that happen each day. This idea, which I got from Martin Seligman, helps you develop a more optimistic mindset. The original tip is still up on the Thinking Directions site.

In addition to making you more optimistic, identifying “three good things” also helps you understand your values. Over the years, I have used this simple exercise as a starting place for clarifying my own value hierarchy and deepening my appreciation for the values in my life.

Here are two more steps you can take to extract more value from the “good things” that happen to you.

1. Ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?”

I’ve often suggested asking “what does this mean to me?” to dig deeper into a negative emotion. It’s a question that can send you into tears when you’re feeling vulnerable. But it’s equally powerful for fleshing out why a “good thing” is good.

I figured this out one day, quite a while ago, when I was discouraged about the political situation. I had written my list of “good things,” but I still felt down. So I decided to try this extra step, and I was able to turn around my mood.

It wasn’t hard. One of the items on my “good things” list was that I had edited a piece of writing and sent it out. Its meaning for me was that I had fulfilled my commitment, and that I take pride in fulfilling my commitments. Another item on the list was that I completed an apparently trivial chore (bringing a necklace to be repaired). When I thought about the meaning to me of that chore, it had some personal symbolic significance.

None of these “good things” generated much positive emotion–until I thought about their meaning. In fact, I was amazed at how inspired I got from this extra step. I noticed that instead of feeling discouraged, I was energized.

2. Identify the deep rational values at stake

It’s not always easy to discover meaning yourself. An aid to this is to look specifically for “deep rational values.”

In Ayn Rand’s words, “a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” A rational value is a value that is in fact good for you. A deep rational value is a fundamental one, a value that is closely related to meeting basic needs of human existence. You can see my list of deep rational values in my OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

Every action you take is motivated in some way by your deepest values. This list can help you find that link.

For example, here are three good things that happened to me yesterday:

  • I caught up on sending out recordings to clients.
  • I played tennis with a “real” person.
  • My mother arrived for a visit.

I didn’t see sending out the recordings as deeply meaningful at first. It helped me clear my task list. But when I looked at the list of deep rational values, I saw that it helped me gain two mental values: “crow” space and closure. In addition, it was a contribution to the learning of the clients who got the recordings. It was also fulfilling a responsibility, and, an instance of productiveness–actually creating a material value.

On the other hand, playing tennis with a “real” person had obvious meaning to me. As background, you need to know that last October I decided to learn to play tennis, not knowing the rules of the game, nor how to throw a ball, hit a ball, or run. (That is a slight exaggeration, but only slight.) I have been taking lessons 4-5 times a month ever since. However, I had been playing only in lessons, because I wasn’t good enough to play with a “real” person, or at least not the real people I know. We would not have been able to maintain any kind of volley.

Well, I have now reached a minimum level of competence–so I and my opponent could both have some fun hitting the ball back and forth. It was meaningful to me that I have reached an objective level of mastery. This sport is turning into a bona fide source of playtime for me. I now have more freedom to play at will, instead of just in paid lessons.

Mastery, play, freedom: these are all deep rational values. Looking at my list, I realized another value was at stake here: celebration. There is value in pausing to mark important events. This is a value I hadn’t even thought about until checking the list–but I feel deeply satisfied to celebrate the occasion right now.

As for the meaning of my mother’s arrival–the value is mutual visibility. Having her visit means I can see how she is, hear how she’s doing. And in turn, I will be seen and heard.

Taking the time to identify deep rational values helps you develop the language of values. Soon you see deep values everywhere. This practice helps you maintain a benevolent world view.

I have used these extra steps when I am feeling sluggish and unmotivated to turn around my attitude. I just write down three good things that have happened, and what each one means to me, and what deep rational values are at stake. Each time I am a bit more inspired, and more eager to take action.

It’s a keeper: it’s easy and inviting to do, and there’s an immediate payoff.

April 1, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Alternative to a “No Choice” Rule

I am halfway through The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person. Judith Beck’s exercises, combined with MyFitnessPal, are helping me adhere to a lose-a-pound-a-week diet. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I give it a qualified recommendation.

My biggest reservation concerns Beck’s advice to tell yourself you have “no choice.” To help avoid overeating, she recommends you make a written food plan the day before (which is good). But if you are tempted to eat something which isn’t on the plan, she says:

Tell yourself that you don’t have a choice. You made a plan, and you’ll follow that plan–no ifs, ands or buts.

Firmly saying, NO CHOICE, decreases both the struggle and the discomfort.” [Emphasis in the original.]

I disagree deeply. Telling yourself you have “no choice” may sometimes give the illusion of reducing struggle in the short term, but in the long term, it sets up a vicious cycle of suffering and increasing struggle. Think: lose weight, then gain it back plus a little extra, repeated ad nauseam.

Telling yourself you have “no choice” is wrong for many reasons. The primary reason is that it’s not true. A decision made today does not constrain your behavior tomorrow. You still face a choice. Telling yourself that you have “no choice” doesn’t change that fact. Rather, it’s an attempt to manipulate yourself into pretending there is nothing more to think about.

I don’t believe in telling “white lies,” and I don’t believe in trying to fool yourself into pretending that things are other than they are. In this case, it’s particularly destructive. You are trying to get yourself to do something that at some time in the past you predicted would be the right course of action in this present moment, because by some convoluted reasoning you think that manipulating yourself to do it would be easier and more comfortable than just making a fully conscious rational choice now.

Look at the psychological ramifications of such an approach:

This method works by moral pressure. When you feel the temptation or resistance, you shout it down with “NO CHOICE.” What backs up “no choice”? It’s unspoken but it’s understood: if you give in, you are no good. This is motivation by guilt and fear.

Notice the mechanism by which motivation by fear functions: by shutting down thinking. You are not to think for one second about this decision. You are to go by faith that what you concluded yesterday is still correct today. You are not allowed to question that.

And notice the implicit premise in this approach: it doesn’t matter how you feel right now. Your feelings are irrelevant to your choices. Feelings should not be given credence. You can suffer those contrary feelings or suppress them, but don’t take them seriously.

This is the exact opposite of what I teach. The best policy, in dieting as in life, is full awareness. That means thinking more actively when you face a problem, so that you can get to the bottom of it. That means introspecting feelings more deeply when you’re in a conflict, so that you can understand the values at stake in the moment. That then permits you to make choices based on pursuing values rather than avoiding threats, which serves to integrate your value hierarchy, reducing conflict over the long term.

There’s a lot I could say about how the “no choice” method sets up a vicious cycle, but I expect the most urgent question on everyone’s mind is, what do you do instead?

The appeal of the “no choice” method is that it’s fast and simple, and when you use it, you get instant results. It is rewarded with a shot of pride–or to be more exact, a shot of relief. You’ve passed the test for the moment. You’re a good person.

The alternative I have developed is pretty much the opposite in every respect. It starts with the premise that you’re a good person. That is not in question. Nor is it a test: you sometimes (though not so often) will decide to eat the forbidden food as a result of examining your feelings, but you will be morally satisfied with your decision. When you are first introduced to my method, it does not seem particularly fast or simple. But once you have practiced the method, it becomes fast enough and simple enough and gratifying enough that you will be willing to use it any time you are conflicted about doing something that you believe you should do.

Here is how the method works:

When you feel you have “no choice” but to eat what you planned, you first remind yourself of what that means: it means that yesterday, you concluded that the best way for you to reach your health goal was to eat this and not something else. My assumption is, if that is true, then when you look at the issues fully, the decision to follow your plan will become a no-brainer. The next steps help to look at the issue fully.

To do that, you remind yourself that your conflict or resistance or temptation is a feeling, and that all feelings are caused by the idea that some value of yours is threatened by your intention to stick to your meal plan in this moment.

This means that there is a contradiction between yesterday’s conclusion and some idea (you don’t know what yet) that underlies the feeling. Right now, all you know is that one of them must be mistaken. It cannot both be better for you to eat the food right now, and better for you not to eat the food right now. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.

The “no choice” method assumes you were right yesterday. But that is just an act of faith. You have some evidence that there is an issue you hadn’t considered. The full awareness method says, let’s look at it.

You want to figure out what is best for you in this moment. To do that, you need to activate the full value context. The method I use for this is something called “Decision Cards,” which I learned from P. J. Eby. In short, you start by listing all of the negatives of each option. You examine them carefully, identifying “intolerable” negatives and adjusting your options (and sometimes your attitude) until you see you face two tolerable options (though they might be unpleasant).

Once you have established that the two options are tolerable, you reconceive all of the motivation in terms of pursuit of values. Motivation by fear is an attempt to protect a value. It can be translated into motivation by values by identifying that value. So, for example, a negative of sticking to your plan might be that you will be distracted by the craving for a candy bar. This means that a positive of eating the candy bar is short-term concentration and reduction of distractions.

Once you have translated all of the pros and cons into positives for each option, it is a simple judgment call to decide which is the best. You then give a one-sentence reason for your conclusion. Why is this the better choice? With the choice and the reason, you will feel motivation to follow through at that instant.

Most of the time, this analysis turns your choice into a no-brainer, and you act on it. You get the same jolt of pride that the “no choice” method gives, but without the need to suppress or suffer emotional conflict. And you get an added bonus: that contradictory idea has been disintegrated. It has a little less hold on you. It will be a little easier to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Some of the time, you will decide to have one cookie, perhaps to celebrate the completion of a task. You’ll enjoy the cookie thoroughly and go back to work. Then you might choose to spend an 5 extra minutes on the Stairmaster that night, so that you can make your weight-loss goal, despite eating a cookie that was not on your plan. You end the day satisfied that you have many options for losing weight, glad that you can fit in the occasional little treat. You are more willing to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Finally, some of the time, you will realize later that you were mistaken.  Suppose you decided, “I am going to eat one cookie now, because it will satisfy my craving and let me concentrate.” But then you see in hindsight that you ate 3 cookies, and promptly dozed off. So you couldn’t concentrate anyway. And then, one hour and fifty-eight minutes later, you were craving more sugar.

You have now given yourself evidence that sugary snacks undermine concentration–something you obviously didn’t know, or you wouldn’t have thought you’d be able to concentrate. You can feel satisfied that you have learned a real lesson, from firsthand experience, which will make it more compelling for you avoid sugary snacks in the future. You will see more clearly the risks of not sticking to the meal plan.

In contrast, if you had just eaten the cookies without this kind of thought, you would properly feel guilty about it, and that guilt would overshadow and confuse any evidence you might get about the effect of the sugary snack on your energy level. You would not associate any loss of energy with the sugary snack. Rather, you would attribute it to guilt. You wouldn’t learn anything from your mistake–but you would reinforce the idea that you really are no good. You would be discouraged, and less interested in even looking at your meal plan for the next day.

The principle is: trust full awareness. If your preconceived notion is clearly the best course for you, then examining any conflict about it will turn your choice into a no-brainer. And if it isn’t, choosing based on the full value context will help you untangle the value issues at stake, helping you see all issues more clearly. Over the long term, that makes sticking to a diet–or creating any other life-affirming habit–that much easier.

March 18, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Magic Words to Counter Social Pressure

I have just finished reading a short book on sales explaining the “magic words” to use to persuade people to do what you want. I have had a conniption fit several times while reading it. The purpose of the book is to teach the reader to become a “professional mind-maker-upper.”

Making up your mind is not a job to outsource.

To help you, the targets of these strategies, I have worked out some “magic words” to counter these manipulative tactics.

Don’t get me wrong–a persuasive sales presentation and compelling marketing copy are a value to every potential customer. A sales person who understands the issues and is good at drawing out your concerns can help you articulate your challenge and see more clearly the choice you face.

For example, one valid sales technique is to draw out the ramifications of buying versus delaying. Delaying an important decision is often a disaster–the same bad situation gradually decays, nothing changes, the misery grows. But these negatives are often ignored. Delay is the easy, passive choice. A good salesperson can help you see the penalty of delay. This is a benefit to you.

But no matter how good and honest the salesperson is, he does not have your full context. And a manipulative salesperson will attempt to lead you to drop the full context, and make a decision impetuously.

My standard operating procedure, and my recommendation to you, is to decide tomorrow. I try not to make any decision that requires the commitment of more than an hour of time, or more than $200, when in conversation with another person. There is too much risk of being caught up in the current context and ignoring what I already know. Indeed, I have a resolution to use the focused choices decision process for these decisions–especially the time commitments–so that I don’t overschedule myself. As a shorthand to hold this resolution, I “decide tomorrow.”

I put such decisions on the agenda for my morning planning time, or for a conversation with my husband, or for a particular time. I make the decision consciously, after having mulled over it and used my decision process.

In contrast, the “magic words” in the book I was reading were designed to short-circuit the decision process and pressure you into a “yes.” Here are some magic words you can use in response to break the spell:

Scenario 1: You say, “I need some time to think about it.” He says, “What is it you want to think about?” This is a ploy to try to get you to run out of arguments at the moment, so you feel you have no reason to say no. But the reason you need to think about it, is that you don’t necessarily think up all of the negatives on your feet, in a social situation. So, here’s what I say:

“I need some time to think about it.”
“What is it you want to think about?”
“I always make decisions the next day, so I have a chance to reflect on how the decision fits with my other priorities.”

Scenario 2: You demur in some way. He says, “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”This is a ploy to make you feel like saying “no” would make you “close minded.” No one likes to view himself as close-minded. But as Ayn Rand said,

[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term–as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices–and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

She concludes that what you need is not an “open mind,” but an active one. Here’s how I would answer the “open minded” ploy:

“Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”
“On the contrary, I prefer to be active-minded, recognizing that ‘giving this a chance’ is a commitment of time, energy and resources. I don’t fall into decisions, I make them consciously. That is why I will spend time tomorrow thinking about how this fits with my priorities.”

Scenario 3: You say you don’t have time to discuss this. He says, “When would be a good time?” This is a ploy that assumes facts not in evidence: that this is high enough priority for you to devote time to even talking about it. As it says in the book, which I am not naming, because I don’t want to give it publicity, this question “prompts the other person to assume that there will be a good time and that no is not an option.”

This question is an example of the logical fallacy, “complex question.” The classic example of that is: “When did you stop beating your wife?” The response to a complex question is to name the false assumption. Here’s how I would handle the “when would be a good time” ploy:

“When would be a good time?”
“That assumes that this is high enough priority for me to make time. I don’t see that. You are welcome to send me written materials, and if I see from them that this would be worth more of my time, I’ll set up a call with you. But right now, my priorities lie elsewhere.”

As I said, I had a conniption fit when I read this book. I picked it up, because I was hoping for advice on how to explain the value of my services. But manipulation is antithetical to my morality–and of course to my brand. I kept reading the book, because it concretized a wide range of the thinking problems that I am trying to help people conquer.

My mission is to help everyone be his own mind-maker-upper.

One way to become a better mind-maker-upper yourself is to choose to make your decisions tomorrow–safely apart from the pressure of a “professional” mind-maker-upper attempting to influence you.

March 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How to say “That’s BS” in RCC

Each month in the Thinking Lab, I run sessions on “Rationally Connected Conversations” (RCC) an adaptation of Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC). In January, I hosted a session with Jeff Brown, a Certified Trainer in NVC, to discuss “How to say ‘That’s BS’ in RCC.”

I learned a lot–and thought I would work through one crucial lesson by concretizing it thoroughly.

But first I had to establish the logical and emotional foundation for the method. That’s what I’ve been doing in some recent newsletters. The three conclusions were:

  1. It takes quite a bit of evidence to conclude that someone is dishonest. The fact that someone stated a falsehood or ignored something obvious is not enough to establish dishonesty.
  2. Honesty is such a fundamental necessity in relationships, that any hint of dishonesty has the power to trigger strong emotions. If you suspect someone else is being dishonest, you are likely to become triggered emotionally by the apparent betrayal. If he suspects that you think he is being dishonest, he will become triggered emotionally, too. If he’s innocent, he’ll be angry at the apparent injustice. If he’s guilty, he’ll be fearful of consequences of his action.
  3. Given all of this, if you are tempted to confront someone about his apparent untruths, you need to proactively deal with your own emotions. You need to become emotionally grounded so you can make a fair assessment about the evidence and the values at stake. What actually matters most to you in this situation?

As I see it, this last is the key to figuring out what to say. You need to have completed the internal work so that you are emotionally grounded and you know your purpose. Then, to quote Jeff Brown, you can “express your needs by taking full responsibility for your thoughts, interpretations, and conclusions.”

Only if you believe there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation does it make sense to engage. If you believe that is true, you can and should treat the person respectfully. Otherwise, you will unnecessarily alienate him. (If you are rationally convinced the person is dishonest, there is no reason to engage at all.)

You would engage differently, depending on your purpose. Let’s work this through, using the following real situation as a jumping off point:

A while ago, I submitted an application for a volunteer position that required computer skills. I got an email back from someone, call her Mary, telling me the application I had submitted online had come through blank, and asking if I could send her a copy by email.

I checked my copy of the application and discovered it was blank, too. After some sleuthing, I saw what happened. I had filled out the editable PDF online and then saved. Apparently that doesn’t work. You need to save a copy of the form, then fill it out locally in a PDF editor, then save using the PDF editor. I redid the application, doublechecked that it included my data, resubmitted it, and sent Mary a copy by email for good measure. Problem solved.

But suppose I hadn’t figured out what caused the problem? Suppose I had repeated the same failed process and sent her a blank copy? Supposed I was so sure that the save “should” work that I didn’t check the file before sending to her? Suppose I did this twice more?

Let’s make up someone–call him Bob–and say that’s what he did. Three times he wrote to Mary, saying “here’s my application.” And three times, what Mary got was blank.

Mary might have gotten miffed or worse with Bob. Adopt your most suspicious mindset, and imagine the worst interpretation possible: Was Bob too slipshod to be suitable for the role? Was Bob evading the need to check the file before sending it? Was Bob lying to try to get an extension on the deadline without asking for it?

When you suspect dishonesty, you need to get in touch with your own emotions and values, so you can decide whether there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation and/or some positive foundation for connecting. That is necessary if you are going to engage. Here, there is a pretty clear possibility that Bob had a technical problem.

Let’s just speculate that there are many possible reasons Mary might want to engage with Bob, despite his submitting three blank applications. Here’s how she might engage using RCC in these three cases. (The letters O, F, N, & R stand for Observation, Feeling, Need, Request–the OFNR four step process that is used in several ways in both RCC and NVC.)

  1. Suppose Mary were frustrated and concerned about what this meant for their working relationship. Assume for this case that the application was a formality–she would be working with Bob. She wants to be able to trust what he says. She wants an open, frank conversation that could lead to their working together effectively. She might say:

O: When I heard you say you had checked the application before emailing it, I was hopeful. When I opened it, I saw it was blank like the other ones.

F: I’m concerned that there is something else going on here.

N: It’s important to me to have openness and trust in my working relationships so we can succeed together.

R: Is there any truth to my suspicion that there is something else going on here? If so, would you be willing to tell me what that is?

This is an example of leading in a relationship. She wants mutual openness, so she is being open. She wants mutual trust, so she is being trusting. She is taking the first step to a closer, better relationship.

  1. Suppose Mary had seen this problem before, and was genuinely curious about how it was happening. She wanted understanding so that the problem could be avoided in the future. She might say:

O: I’ve received three blank applications.

F: I’m genuinely curious and concerned about whether I or my organization is contributing to this problem

N: and wanting understanding of what is causing this problem.

R: Would you be willing to tell me what you see is happening?

This would likely start a conversation about the nitty gritty details, which could reveal that the website doesn’t save the data. It would get to problem-solving mode–completely sidestepping any question of “BS.”

  1. Suppose Mary had decided that Bob was unsuitable for the job, even if there were extenuating circumstances. She wanted to disengage. But since it was a volunteer organization, it was important to handle the situation respectfully. Then it might look like this:

O: I’ve gotten three applications from you, all blank.

F: I’m disappointed,

N: and am really needing support from someone who can figure out technical problems autonomously.

O: I thought about it and

F: I’m sad to say

N: I need freedom to look for another candidate.

R: Would you mind telling me how you feel about what I’m saying?

This language, in which Mary clearly owns the responsibility for meeting her own needs, is less likely to trigger defensiveness in Bob. By asking for his reaction, she can neutralize any negative reaction.

These openings do not guarantee an ideal conversation. For an ideal conversation, you need to be able to respond to anything the other person says–even if he gets very upset. But they do minimize the chance of triggering defenses in the other person.

They do this because you have taken ownership of meeting your own needs. You have taken responsibility for having the emotions you do, and making a conscious decision about what is most important to you in this moment. By doing so, you have become emotionally independent of him–you are not passively reacting to him, you are proactively requesting cooperation to help achieve your top value at the moment. This–your own emotional independence–is what lets you challenge another person’s “BS” without insulting an innocent person–and leaving open that this confrontation will actually strengthen the relationship rather than break it.

February 24, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How Do You Know You’ve Chosen a Good Next Step?

It’s a truism that you should break a complex or difficult project into small steps. The difficulty in applying that truism is in figuring out which of many possible steps to take next. You need to choose a good next step, quickly and effectively, without falling into analysis paralysis or perfectionism.

Let’s take a trivial example: I need to pack my suitcase and load my car after I finish writing this. There are a thousand ways I could step through that process. Some of them are long and inefficient. One of them is optimally efficient. Most are somewhere in between.

It would be a waste of my time to work out the most efficient method. Indeed, figuring out the best possible method would probably take longer than the packing.

Some people would say, you should just take a step–it doesn’t matter which.

However, if you take any step, it is possible to work yourself into a frenzy while packing a suitcase. You run from the bedroom to the bathroom to the closet and back again. If you weren’t in a frenzy before you started, you are frenzied by the time you finish.

If you’ve ever packed by the whirling dervish method, it is imprinted on your brain, and you will feel resistance to doing it again. As you pick up a shoe, it will occur to you that you can’t pack that shoe properly until you have packed something else, say the garment bag. Before you know it, everything you pick up will have an objection associated with it, and you’ll be paralyzed for a moment, not knowing where to start.

I assume nobody on this list needs help with how to pack a suitcase. The solution is to plan just a bit, so that you create some order. Then you can be reasonably efficient with very little effort. My usual method is to lay out everything to be packed on the bed. Then I select items to pack from the array spread before me. You may have a different method that works for you.

But my point is, even a straightforward task such as packing a suitcase cannot be accomplished effectively by either the “just take a step” approach or the “plan the optimal way” approach. You benefit tremendously from having a simple packing system.

So what do you do when you are taking a step into the unknown? How do you figure out the steps to take when you don’t have a system, or wide enough experience to make one easily?

This is a big question, which I could literally deliver two days of training to answer. But there is also a short answer: have a robust decision-making process, that either leads you decisively to a decent choice of next step, or immediately raises a red flag if there an urgent need to think a little more about the decision.

I’ve been sharing aspects of my decision-making process in recent posts. I believe you start where you are. You are an adult with decades of experience making choices. Most of your decisions are not a problem. Therefore, the first thing to do is to just try to make a decision about what step to take, off the top of your head.

If you can’t seem to make a decision, you need a thinking tactic to help you deal with the confusion or overload. But assuming you can make a tentative decision, then I recommend two more steps to vet it and make it stick.

First, give a reason for your next step which passes the “Laugh Test.” I wrote at length the on the value of these steps in two previous articles.

Second, ask yourself, would you be willing to take that step now?

Yes, instead of ordering yourself to take the step, ask yourself if you are willing to take it. One of three things will happen.

You may hear a “yes.” Even if the task is uncomfortable, you may be willing to do it. Wonderful: you have found a decent, doable next step. Take it. Accompanying that “yes” will be a small action impulse, that you can exploit to jump into action–if you start acting now.

You may hear a “no.” If so, it will be accompanied by a wave of resistance–and important new information to factor into your decision. You need to do a little more thinking.

Finally, you may hear a non sequitur, such as “I don’t feel like it” or “this might not be the best step.” Those answers are neither a yes nor a no.

In this case, I encourage you to push yourself to answer the question directly. Often, we do things we don’t feel like. You are not asking whether this next step is fun and wildly motivating–if it were, you’d already be taking it. You are not asking whether this is the perfect step. You know you don’t know.

You are asking whether or not you are willing to take this step.

It is crucial to get into action. When you take a step, you reinforce your values and you learn about the world and yourself. You don’t want transient feelings to get in the way of that. On the other hand, you do want to be alert to any indication that this step is going to create some significant problem for you.

Answering the question, “would I be willing to take this step?” is a great way to get a clear reading on whether you have in fact identified a good next step.

Now I face a new decision point. I could explain more or end here and get on with my packing. Would I be willing to leave it at this? Yes, I would. More another time.

February 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Take the Laugh Test

In another article, I mentioned that whenever you give a reason for your conclusion, you should pause to make sure it passes the Laugh Test.

Yes, the “Laugh Test.”

Sometimes your reason will turn out to be a patent rationalization, and you won’t be able to repeat it without grimacing. A rationalization is a pseudo-reason that substitutes for the real reason because the real reason is unknown or unpalatable.

For example, imagine you are ready to start work on the most difficult, most important work of the day, when it occurs to you that you should check your email, “just in case there’s something important there.” That reason just doesn’t pass muster. There’s something important in front of you–and a hundred distractions in your email inbox. It’s a rationalization for avoiding the hard work you just sat down to do. When you realize how lame that reason is, you’ve got to laugh.

Or at least I hope you will. Responding to such mistakes with laughter, not self-condemnation, puts you in an excellent state to do the work you need to do. You need to figure out what your real motivation is without prejudice. You do not know how to evaluate the rationalization until you investigate further.

After all, rationalizations can occur to you innocently. They do not necessarily mean anything in particular, except that you haven’t yet identified a good reason for your decision.

For example, I remember an incident from when I was an undergraduate that shows how easy it is to make a decision without knowing the real reason. I was in the dorm dining hall, having just made myself a waffle and buttered it, when my friend Maria asked me if I wanted syrup. I said no, I used sugar, “fewer calories.” She looked at me skeptically and said, “I don’t think so–not with six pats of butter on your waffle.”

I remember being embarrassed and surprised. She was absolutely right. Those were the good old days when I was oblivious to how many calories I was eating. I wasn’t dieting. I wasn’t trying to diet. The best I can reconstruct it, I asked myself, “why do I use sugar?” and it occurred to me that I put less sugar on my waffles than most people put syrup, which results in fewer calories. So I blurted that out.

It was only when I started to write up this story that I asked myself more seriously, why do I use granulated sugar instead of syrup? I didn’t know offhand! I remember when I switched. I was at Girl Scout camp, which had only fake syrup, which I detested. So I switched to putting sugar on pancakes and the like. But ever since then, I’ve used sugar even when real maple syrup was available.

In writing this story, I finally really put some thought into it. Here’s why I use sugar: I prefer the texture of butter and sugar to the gloppiness of syrup. Even now, probably 25 years after my last waffle smothered in butter and sugar, I salivate when I remember that crunchy greasy combination. Yum. And I recoil slightly when I think of how syrup would make everything soggy and sticky in my mouth.

Who knew? I didn’t.

It was not obvious to me why I used sugar instead of syrup. My subconscious threw up “fewer calories” as a hypothesis. I grabbed that idea unthinkingly, when a few minutes of thought could have given me an accurate reason.

This particular incident was embarrassing in hindsight–and may have given Maria a poor opinion of me–but it had no particular import. It was caught and corrected in my mind. The real problem comes when a rationalization is motivated, and is neither caught nor corrected.

A rationalization is “motivated” when the truth is known but unpleasant. For example, it’s common to blame being late on last-minute emergencies (something outside of your control), instead of a failure to plan enough buffer time to accommodate any last-minute difficulties at all (something in your control, for which you are responsible). In these cases, when the plausible, more pleasant idea occurs to you, it is appealing, in part because it diverts attention away from the guilt-producing alternative.

Nothing is ever gained by ignoring unpleasant truths, but rationalizations can occur to you with such speed and plausibility that you may not realize what’s happening. That’s why it’s helpful and important to take the Laugh Test to catch obvious rationalizations.

Let’s stipulate that no one reading this article would be consciously dishonest. No one would deliberately try to deceive himself about the truth behind his decision. The great risk for the honest person is that the rationalization could be automatized. The real reason could be tied to “old baggage”–painful issues that have been repressed, and are not easily accessible.

Usually when you have “old baggage” in the background, your subconscious will offer up a plausible alternative explanation. The first time a plausible rationalization occurs to you, you may be fooled by it. But if you keep testing to see if your reasons pass the laugh test, you’ll eventually see there is something fishy.

For example, suppose you stay up past your bedtime “just to get one more thing done-one night with less sleep won’t matter.” The first time this idea occurs to you, it might be plausible. If every night you struggle to get to bed on time, and every night you want to stay up “just to get one more thing done,” over time your track record will show that the desire to “just get one more thing done” is part of the reason that you don’t get enough sleep. When that same reasoning leads to failure again and again, you realize it is bogus. There is some deeper, less palatable reason that you are not going to bed on time.

It’s quite unpleasant to catch your own rationalizations. It’s embarrassing to see that you were taken in by a fake explanation. It’s shocking to realize you’ve been avoiding the real reason. But these negatives pale in comparison to the havoc created by not knowing the real reason that underlies your motivation.

If you catch a hint of rationalization in your thinking, it is a huge warning bell indicating you have a lead to significant new information that needs to be factored into your decision. You need to stop and think a little more deeply, so you can know the truth.

That’s the payoff from taking the Laugh Test.

February 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Two Facts to Remember in Judging Honesty

The ideal relationship is open, honest, and equal. If you find that someone has lied to you or evaded, it puts the whole relationship in question.

But I’ve noticed that some people jump to the conclusion that another person is dishonest without establishing it logically. There are two key facts which are often ignored:

1. The fact that someone said something untrue does not mean per se that he lied.

Usually, people make false statements because they are mistaken, not because they are intending to deceive. To lie, a person needs to know the truth, and yet say something untrue with the intent to deceive another.

Here’s an example of saying something untrue without lying: A couple of times I’ve told someone that I had sent him an email, but later I was surprised to find the email in my drafts folder, fully written and unsent. I am, of course, apologetic about my goof when this happens. I suspect I get distracted before hitting send, or maybe sometimes there’s a technical problem. I remember that I had written the response, without realizing I hadn’t sent. There is no sense in which I lied. Misremembering is not lying. Making a mistake is not lying.

Lying is a serious issue. But to establish that someone lied, you need to know more than that he stated a falsehood. You need some evidence that he intended to deceive you.

2. The fact that someone ignores something that you believe is obvious does not mean per se that he evaded.

What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another person. There is such a thing as a blinder–a strong value or a mistaken premise that activates some information so strongly, that certain other facts or values don’t register clearly to you. Your attention is directed by the blinder, so you don’t notice all of the relevant facts.

Uncovering blinders is a large part of the work of logical thinking. Other people can help you identify your blinders, which is one reason many people like to use friends and colleagues as a sounding board.

I remember a surprising blinder I uncovered many years ago. I was participating in a 5-day workshop on personal growth at Farr Associates. On the last day, Friday, each person was scheduled to spend half an hour talking with Jerry, the presenter, about lessons learned and next steps.

On Thursday, other members of the class asked if we could change the schedule such that some of us would have our one-on-one sessions that afternoon, not the next day. I was concerned–I didn’t want to have mine that afternoon, because I hadn’t sat down and thought about what I wanted to talk about. When I voiced this concern, Jerry looked at me and said, “you could have yours tomorrow.”

I believe I laughed–a common reaction to seeing a problem dissolve before your eyes. And I remember being surprised that Jerry’s solution had not occurred to me. You may be wondering why it didn’t. The alternate solution seems obvious.

With the caveat that I am speculating many years later, here’s what I think happened: I think part of me wanted to be a “good” student who shows initiative. I usually volunteer early and often when I am in a class. Other things being equal, I would feel a strong urge to volunteer for one of the first slots. But in this particular case, I had already decided that I wanted to take an hour that evening to think deeply about my upcoming conversation with Jerry. I was in conflict and a little overloaded. Result: I had an emotional brain freeze, and I missed something obvious.  Duh. I could be one of the people the next day.

(Just FYI, catching and thawing emotional brain freezes during conversation is the main work of “Rationally Connected Conversations.”)

I doubt anyone in the class thought I was evading. But the same kind of thing can happen in trickier cases. It’s important not to assume that the person was being dishonest.

For example, I once had a long talk with a boyfriend about why he had not comforted me after a distressing incident which he had witnessed. He told me that he didn’t know that I was upset by it. I pointed out that I had been crying.

I’m happy to report that our conversation was constructive. As we discussed it, he gave me all of the comfort and support I could want.

But you might ask, given that I was crying, how could he have missed that I was upset? Wouldn’t that require evasion?

No. Not at all.

In our discussion, it came out that he didn’t think I should have been upset by the situation. Again, to speculate decades later in order to flesh out the example, he may have so disapproved of my crying, and been so ashamed by my behavior, that the fact that I was distressed didn’t even register. He was not lying when he said, “I didn’t know that you were upset.” He was just blinded by his own concerns and assumptions.

Which brings us back to the point that you can’t conclude that someone has evaded just because he is ignoring some fact which seems obvious to you. You need to know more about what is going on in his mind to reach that conclusion.

In the culture, there is a tremendous antipathy toward judging other people. But you need to judge other people if you want to surround yourself with fellow valuers. You need to judge other people if you want to find the best in the people you meet, so that you can connect with their best (and limit your exposure to their worst).

Unfortunately, people are horrible at judging other people fairly. They see a falsehood, and they assume the person lied. They see him make a false step, and they assume he evaded what seemed obvious. They jump to the conclusion that someone else is dishonest.

If that is your method of judgment, you might be better off in the short run by avoiding judging others. Perhaps that’s where some of the cultural antipathy to judging comes from.

But I do believe that in the long run, if you don’t judge the good and bad around you, you’ll become a victim of the worst that people have to offer.

January 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How to Distract Yourself from Distractions

The other day I got a call at 9:00 a.m. about an event I’m planning for my Toastmasters club. I felt I needed to take it. Soon afterwards I noticed an email from a fellow volunteer in another organization. It concerned a problematic situation, and I was lured into a quick back and forth.

I was supposed to be working on my book.

Those of you who read my newsletter regularly will recall that the best way to ensure you can concentrate on your top task is to insulate yourself from interruptions and distractions early in the morning. Keep the rest of the world at bay until after you finish the concentrated work. Otherwise, these other issues will kill your ability to concentrate.

Sure enough, when I tried to settle down to work, I was wildly distracted by thoughts about these two situations. As I noticed my difficulty concentrating, I felt incredibly frustrated. I know better than to permit distractions–and I generally do better. But I have recently taken on two volunteer positions, and I see that I’m having some difficulty maintaining my boundaries when there are urgent issues that need attention.

I will eventually sort out my boundaries, but at the moment, I was in trouble. Irrational thoughts like “she shouldn’t call me at 9:00 a.m.” or “she shouldn’t reply to my email so quickly” ran through my head. I got a hold of myself, reminded myself I was responsible for my state, and faced the fear underlying these: that I might not be able to get into the concentrated state I needed to work on the book.

Actually, what I wrote in my journal was:

“I need to get all of that out of my head.”
“That ship has sailed. Let’s do my morning routine.”

But I couldn’t! I couldn’t even plan the day without being distracted by the Toastmasters and other business. The ship was not just sailing, it was accelerating.

In the past, I might have just had one of those days where I did all sorts of things, but not the concentrated work I had planned. Fortunately, I have gotten pretty good at confronting the situation when I need to take decisive action.

I didn’t know what to do, but I refused to accept my apparent fate. I did a little thinking on paper (literally 93 words), and here’s what I came up with:

  1. Get the distraction off my mind by writing down the issues in abstract, general terms.
  2. Get the book on my mind by looking at concrete, specific issues.

(In case the terms are not clear, “Concrete” means available to direct observation by the senses of seeing, hearing, touching. “Abstract” means grasped by multiple steps of comparing and contrasting using concepts, not just directly observable similarities and differences.)

This worked beautifully. Let me elaborate.

My temptation was to make a list of “to do’s” related to the distractions. The Toastmasters list would have looked something like this:

  • Distribute flyer to everyone
  • Get phone numbers for presidents
  • Ask Anne about printing flyer
  • Set call with Lenore to discuss food, club visits
  • Ask Anne about “budget”

That’s just the first five concrete, specific tasks for this project. As I write them, I’m thinking of more–which I will save you from reading.

This is what happens when you get concrete and specific. As you become clearer on one concrete, you trigger associated concretes–and emotions about them. If there are urgent issues, the items will come bearing a sense of urgency.

For example, the sixth item that occurred to me was that I needed to contact someone who has missed his self-imposed deadline for making a video about the event. I need to nudge him. It’s getting urgent. Indeed, as I write this, I’m feeling a little concerned, and I’m wondering if I should stop writing this article and email him…

I have written that task on a post-it so I don’t forget. Fortunately, I am well into the article writing context so that just writing it down got it off my mind.

But writing down concrete tasks didn’t work the other day when I had not yet activated a writing context. I could see that getting concrete and specific about the Toastmasters event was drawing me in–multiplying the distracting thoughts, not getting them off my mind.

So, I tried a switcheroo. Instead, I tried writing down an abstract statement:

“There are a lot of details and I know I will get to them.”

This statement is useless as a “to do” item. It’s hopelessly vague. But it had the virtue of acknowledging the distraction without increasing the number or intensity of distracting ideas. And it set a reasonable intention for the future.

I then did the reverse on the book project.

I had been thinking in general terms that I needed to work on chapter 4. This formulation is abstract and general. I needed to get concrete and specific.

So, I re-read my notes from the previous day. This reminded me of some tricky issues involving how to introduce the next major topic. I spent about 5 minutes simply identifying concrete, specific issues I needed to think about. By the end of that time, I had activated the book context, and the distractions had floated away.

I’m sure some people reading this will draw only a narrow piece of advice: if you’re distracted, take five minutes to refresh your recollection of the work you need to do. This is helpful, as far as it goes.

But there is a deeper message here regarding how to distract yourself from distractions. Distractions get their power from their concreteness. Go abstract and you deprive them of their force. And that gives you some mental space to take a small step in the direction you want to concentrate.

January 21, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Add a 15-Second Check to Your Decision

As a general rule, it is proper to trust your mind. Your conscious conclusions are based on all of your past choices, your past experiences, and the cumulative expertise you’ve built up over the years.

However, when you make a decision based on limited information, you know that you may have lacked crucial knowledge. It doesn’t matter how experienced or diligent you are–it’s inherent in the situation. You need to keep your eyes open for information that would change your mind. You need a reliable way to spot evidence that you may have made a significant mistake.

That’s why, when you make a decision, I recommend a simple policy of “trust but verify.” Assume that you made good use of all of the information that was available, but take an extra 15 seconds to verify your decision with the following process:

  1. Give a one-sentence reason for your decision.
  2. Ensure your reason passes the “laugh test.”

This 15-second verification has many benefits. The first you’ll notice is that it gives you an efficient first check to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious in your decision-making. If you can’t give a one-sentence reason for your decision, or your reason doesn’t pass the “laugh test,” your decision needs further analysis.

When I say “give a reason,” I mean blurt out a one-sentence reason that sums up the process that you used to make the choice.  In certain circumstances you may need a special high-power decision process, but in general, I assume that you are an experienced thinker and decision-maker, reasonably satisfied with your existing method. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I simply suggest that you add on 15 seconds to the end of your decision process to help you verify it.

Give a reason for your conclusion. By a reason, I mean an objective, fact-based explanation for why you are going in this direction–not just a statement of your feelings. Why did you choose the way you did?

For example, suppose you decide to start work on a project before going through your email inbox. Why? Don’t settle for “it seemed like a good idea” or “I felt like it.” These are contentless. They are subjective–they simply report the state of your mind.

When you give an objective reason for your decision, you make your assumptions and your expectations explicit. For example, suppose your reason were “I want to do the project before my mind gets caught up in the other work and I can’t concentrate.”

This explanation includes some implicit predictions that you can test. It implies that if you do the other work, then came back to the project, you’d have trouble concentrating. If something happens so you don’t follow your plan, then you try to come back to project later, do you have trouble concentrating? That will validate your reason. If not, it will invalidate it.

To take another example, suppose you decide to tidy your desk first, because “Tidying the desk will take just a few minutes and make it easier for me to settle into work.” If tidying your desk starts dragging on, you will notice that your assumptions were off. In contrast, if your reason was “that’s the way I work” (a subjective explanation), nothing follows from that.

The difference between an objective reason and a subjective thought is: an objective reason includes an appeal to facts that can be validated. It could include a factual assumption, a factual prediction, a factual comparison–any factual information that has implications for the future. In contrast, a subjective thought refers only to one’s present inner state. It adds up to only “here-now-this seems good.” It has no implications for the future. It may be true, but it is useless for validating your decision. Your reason for your conclusion doesn’t need to be certain, it just needs to be fact-based.

Giving a fact-based reason for your conclusion is the first and most important step to ensuring you make the best decision possible–one that you won’t regret. You can do it in 15 seconds without changing any aspect of your decision process.

Of course, sometimes once you come up with your reason you’ll realize you can’t say it out loud with a straight face. It doesn’t pass the “laugh test.” Then you have some more work to do, but that’s another topic for another time.

January 16, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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