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

Resources for Learning to Get to the Point

“Getting to the Point” in communication is an art. I don’t know any book or course that truly explains it. I think there are three parts to developing the skill.

First, you need to know your purpose in the conversation. This involves knowing what you want to get out of it, and also what the other person wants to get out of it. The best book I know for clarifying this issue is, Getting Through to People by Jesse Nirenberg. It has great ideas but it is out of print. (Women–you’ll need to overlook the fact he writes to men, not women. It’s one of only two books I’ve ever read that seemed to do that.)

Second, you need to know how to condense a complex thought into its essence. At some level, you can do this if you ask yourself to put the thought in one sentence. But if your sentence is still long and complicated, you need more practice formulating clean sentences. This is something you can learn by practice.

The best book I’ve found to practice this is Joseph Williams Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, which includes exercises. (He also has a version without exercises, called Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.) Although this book is on writing in general, a lot of space is devoted to making individual sentences clear and direct. His biggest tip: make the grammar match the action. So, put the agent as the subject of the sentence, and put the action as the verb.

(If that amount of grammar is too complicated for you, I recommend doing the exercises in Rex Barks: Diagramming Sentences made Easy by Phyllis Davenport.)

If you want an in-depth course on this, I used to teach this skill as part of a course on “condensation,” which is a study skill for extracting the main points and theme from a piece of writing. It’s currently only available for Deluxe and VIP members of the Thinking Lab.

Third and finally, you need to notice during the conversation that it’s time to get to the point–and then “one-sentence” your thought or use the “pyramid” technique. This may require you change long habits of speech!

The best way to practice this is to join a Toastmasters club.  ( These clubs are all over, and each meeting has a section called “Table Topics” in which you are asked a question and give an extemporaneous 1-2 minute answer. Every time you do this, you get a chance to practice “getting to the point” at that moment.

I hope this doesn’t make “Getting to the Point” sound ridiculously complicated. Like most skills, the best way to get better is by trying to do your best and learning from experience. Books help– but only if you have been trying on your own and can read the book in light of your firsthand experience.


July 7, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

In Communication, Less is Better Than More

“Less” sounds undesirable. Who wants to settle for less when you could have more? Well, in communication, less is often much better than more.

For example, if you are offering a proposal to a prospective customer, it’s much better to offer just the top three options rather than eight possibilities. If you give too many options, you make the decision harder, distract attention away from the top options, and make it less likely that the customer will buy anything at all. That’s not good for you or the customer.

The same holds true in a report. A concisely-written page is often more valuable than a sprawling 15-page report–even if the sprawling report has more information in it. Why? Because it’s been essentialized, your reader can read it faster, and get the main points quickly, without a lot of analysis. When they read something that meanders, they have to do the summing up and integrating and prioritizing that you didn’t do for them.

Essentializing is good for the mind. We can only hold a few units in mind at any one time. When you can package your message into a few meaty units, you get clearer on your message, and your audience has to do less work to “get it.”

How do you do essentialize what you want to say? It takes extra thinking to turn a pile of ideas into a targeted message. Here are three ways to help:

1) Think about your purpose before you think about your message. Why do you want to have this conversation or write this report? Do you want the listener or reader to do something as a result? Knowing your goal can help you figure out what’s important to include versus what’s not.

2) No matter how long a piece you’re writing, or how much you’re talking, make sure you can reduce your message to its core thought. That’s a single grammatical sentence, under 15-20 words. You can think of it as the theme, or the point of the piece.

When you can pare it down to that size, you can communicate the essentials in a mind-friendly unit: a sentence. When you share that core thought, it will help organize and integrate everything  else you say.

3) Make the message more precise using differentiation. Go through your core thought, looking for places you could insert an “as opposed to ____” phrase. Then elaborate on each one. When you state explicitly what you are NOT saying, you demarcate your positive message.


July 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How do you know you need to think about that?

Some things need thinking. Some things don’t.

Thinking is a purposeful process of integrating new observations with existing knowledge and values to figure out something new. The goal of thinking is either to put something into words (conceptualize it), infer a conclusion, make a decision, or imagine a new possibility (as in forming hypotheses or coming up with possible solutions to a problem). Thinking is a means of achieving many goals, but most goals are action goals, not thinking goals.

If you’re stuck, you probably are confused about whether you need to set an action goal or a thinking goal.

For example, if your goal is “write an article” and you’re stuck, you’re stuck in action. You probably need to think about a few things before you can write, such as “what should my theme be?” and “what are the main points I want to make?”

In contrast, someone in my workshop needed to figure out how to train his replacement on new software which might or might not be released before he moved. In this case, the solution is not something he could figure out by himself. It was literally impossible for him to make a plan with so many unknowns. Instead, he needed to raise this problem with the other people involved to even get clear on the scope of the problem. He didn’t have enough information.

There are three tests for whether you can profitably think about something:

1) Is this a question that can be answered by thinking in general?
That is, is the goal to conceptualize, decide, infer, or imagine something? Can you  figure this out based on things you already know, or are observing?

2) Do you want and need to know the answer? If you already know the answer, you don’t need to think about it. If you don’t care about the answer, you shouldn’t waste time and effort thinking about it.

3) Are you the right person to figure out the answer? That is, do you have reason to believe that you know things relevant to the question? If you don’t know anything about the topic, you will have to do research or get information from someone else. That’s an action goal. You can’t think unless you have relevant knowledge to draw on!

If you’re not sure why you’re stuck, these three questions can help you figure out what you need to think about versus what you need to do:
What information do we need to answer this question?

  • What can I do in this situation?
  • Who can help answer this question?
  • What do I need to tell them about the issue?


June 30, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoiding Setbacks When You Add a Weekly Commitment

When you are on a program of continuous improvement, you are often adding  some new activity to your weekly schedule, or improving the existing one. But by continually raising the bar you create a hazard: the increased potential for failure!

Here are a few things that can help you add a weekly commitment without so many setbacks.

1) Before you add a new activity to your life, make sure it’s important enough to push out some other activity.

This is true even if you’re just adding 15 minutes a day for journaling (an excellent activity to add). It is rather hard to make 15 minutes consistently. You already have morning, noon, and evening routines, which are timed to get you to work or home or sleep on schedule. You will need to cut out something: maybe reading the paper, or maybe late-night TV or surfing the web, or maybe a leisurely meal.

If there is nothing you would remove to make space for the new activity, it’s better not to commit. The new activity is not important enough for you.

2) Plan it for a suitable time block.

All times are not created equal. You will have more energy at some times, less at others.

If you’re adding recreation—maybe you want to see more movies—you can probably schedule it for an evening when you’re less energetic. But if you’re trying to start a business on the side, you will need some high-energy time for it—most likely in the early morning, or in the morning on weekends. (Unless you’re a night-owl. Then you might choose go to the matinee, and work on your startup at night.)

3) Set a physical reminder so you don’t forget to follow through.

Routines have inertia. One activity triggers the next. You will need to make a special effort to break the routine. You can’t count on remembering, you need a physical reminder.

One way to do this is to set an alarm. For example, you can set an alarm to go off 30 minutes before your usual bedtime to remind you to plan the next day.

Another way to do this is to create a physical reminder. It could be a note. Or maybe you pack your gym bag and leave it at the foot of your bed the night before, so you remember your intention when you wake up the next morning.

Don’t assume you’ll remember to follow through. If you don’t take proactive steps to remember the new activity, you will forget. The routine run as usual.

4) Plan for contingencies.

Things will go wrong. They always do. The key to following through is to adapt the commitment rather than drop it. And it is much easier to adapt if you’ve thought through various scenarios in advance.

For example, suppose you are running late, and do not have an hour to go to the gym as planned. You have only half an hour. There are a dozen ways to adjust. You could exercise at  home with a video instead. You could cut back the workout at the gym. You could reschedule work so you have the full hour at the gym. The key to creating a new routine is to do something not nothing. Any form of exercise will help reinforce your intention to go to the gym.

Problems are inevitable when you are breaking routines. If you think ahead for what you’ll change, when you’ll change it, how you’ll remember, and what to do when things go wrong, you have a much better chance of success.


June 25, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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