The One Thing Missing from the Advice You’ve Gotten from Me

If you’ve been reading my blog, or my website, you’ve read about a lot of processes and procedures you can use to help get your mental wheels turning when you’re feeling overloaded, or conflicted, or doubtful, or otherwise not sure what to do. They’re great ideas. Believe me, I have used every one of them, and seen others use every one of them.

There’s just one thing missing: you only get the value from using the tactics. If you don’t use them, they’re not helpful.

So here’s some meta-advice, to apply both to what you read from me and to what you read from others. If you discover an interesting technique that seems useful, test drive it. Take that one idea and be a fanatic about it for three days. Use it 3-4 times a day, for several days, to see how it works, and especially, how it works for you.

This is how I develop every tactic I teach. I read about it, or hear about it, or make it up, and then use it like a fanatic for several days until I have seen it be effective again and again, figured out why it worked, and decided to keep it in my toolkit for the future.

For example–I made up the AND List technique because I realized I was in conflict and I needed to “hold all the values with care.” It’s a cross between Improv (which teaches you to use “Yes, and” rather than “but”), and NVC (Nonviolent Communication), which teaches that you can be in conflict and still value both sides of the conflict.

The details of the instructions came out of experimenting with it many times over several days. For example, the first step is to write “I am ambivalent,” because that makes it easy to get started. Or another example, the “AND” is in capital letters because when you’re in conflict, it’s cathartic to shout virtually.

In the classes I give, I can stop the class, and ask everyone do an individual exercise to test drive the tactics. 98% of the people who attend will try it. Most of them will find it helpful. (Typically, I do the exercise at the same time, and I find it helpful!) If they don’t find it helpful, they can ask questions.

You’re reading about tactics, here and there. It’s up to you to try them out. Try it, you’ll like it.


February 12, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving

When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.

An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you’re going.

When you find one parallel, you can often find others–which is why analogies help with creativity.

For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.

But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:

a) uninstall the program and use a competitor

b) reinstall the program fresh

c) upgrade the program

d) check users’ groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem

To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:

a) fire the employee

b) ???

c) send the employee to training

d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem

Of these, “reinstall the program fresh” didn’t have an obvious counterpart–so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that “reinstall the program” could suggest for dealing with the employee:

  • From the word “reinstall”: Write up a description of model employee behavior, then have a private talk with your employee to see if he’ll start anew and commit to this behavior.
  • From the word “fresh”: Find a different position in the company which is a better fit for the employee.
  • From the fact that reinstalling the program removes corrupted files: Make a list of all the prejudices and negative generalizations you’ve made about this employee and do some soul-searching on whether you’ve been fair and whether you’ve contributed to the problem. Then talk with the employee about your findings.

None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don’t need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.


For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller’s book on “Metaphorically Selling.”



February 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Out of the “I Don’t Know” Trap

There are two kinds of “I don’t know.” One kind is accompanied by a sense of bafflement and annoyance. If you put the feeling into words, it would say, “why would you expect me to know that?” That’s how you feel when someone asks, “who’s the president of Kyrgzstan?”

The other kind of “I don’t know”–the more important and interesting kind--is accompanied by surprise and maybe chagrin, because you believe you should know the answer. For example, someone asks, “who was the US president in 1940?” and you go blank. Or a recruiter asks, “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” and no coherent thought comes to mind. When the answer “should” be “obvious,” it’s discomfiting that you have no answer.

In this situation, rookies make the mistake of repeating the question to themselves, loudly and insistently, hoping the answer will pop into mind. Occasionally it does. When it doesn’t, rookies give up. They fall into the trap of believing that they don’t know.

More likely, you do know enough to answer this question. When a direct question doesn’t trigger a direct answer, you need to switch to an indirect process.

The indirect process is thinking. You work out an answer, by thinking through what you do know, over several steps.

The first step is to ask yourself an easier question–one that you can answer. By answering an easier question, you bring to mind memories and ideas that are relevant. Just one or two easier questions usually triggers enough useful information for you to use to get an answer to your “I don’t know.”

One good way to generate an easier question is to make a specific question more general, or a general question more specific. For example, switch from “who was president?” (a specific question) to “what was going on in general in 1940?” Answer: World War II had recently started in Europe. That may well trigger that FDR was president of the US then.

Another way to generate an easier question is to be a contrarian. Instead of looking for the good, look for the bad, and vice versa. For example, if you switch from “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” to “what would make someone a bad candidate?” you will likely think of a host of weaknesses: laziness, incompetence, ignorance. You can then contrast these negatives with your own productive, talented self to answer the recruiter’s question.

It takes skill to think up a useful easier question at the moment you are surprised by “I don’t know.” People who think well “on their feet” have the skill and the presence of mind to ask an easier question and to remain poised, despite feeling stumped.

If you want to develop this skill, practice at your desk. Ask yourself the hard questions you expect from a recruiter or a boss or a listener. If you don’t know an answer, take a few minutes to think through some easier questions until you can answer that hard question. Over time, you will become adept at answering questions, despite an initial “I don’t know.”

February 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Playing Two Thinking Roles Can Ignite Your Thinking

Here’s a surprisingly effective technique that can pry information loose from your brain and ignite your thinking when you’re stalled: The “Q&A Technique.” [1]

Here’s the technique:

Write down a question you are puzzling over. (“How” and “Why” questions are particularly suitable.) Blurt out an answer without censoring. Then blurt out an unself-conscious follow-up question. Then another answer. Keep writing out question and answer, without pausing or second-guessing, until you reach some closure.

Here’s an example:

Q: How am I going to get this report done soon?
A: That depends on what “soon” means.

Q: What constitutes “soon”?
A: Today?

Q: Is it realistic to get it done today?
A: No.

Q: What would be a realistic timeline?
A: Well, I think I can realistically expect to have it completely
edited and ready to go Thursday. Wednesday might be cutting it

Q: How are you going to get the report completely finished by
A: Draft today, get the sidebar blurbs drafted today and tomorrow,
Wednesday for editing and review. That leaves Thursday for any

You may feel this example to be a little subjective. Fortunately, the only person who needs to follow the Q&A is the person doing the thinking. But I hope you also see that the questioning process quickly uncovers vague issues (“what constitutes soon?”) and mistaken ideas (“today?”). It helps you zero in on what you really need to be thinking about.

The Q&A process can’t create information from thin air. It works when you start with a question you “should” be able to answer, but you feel stuck. That’s when having a conversation with yourself playing two separate roles–naive questioner and blunt answerer– helps you clarify the issues.

To make it work, play the roles to the hilt. As the answerer, take a frank, direct attitude, simply blurting out responses without
worrying how they might look. No censoring. As the questioner, ask simple curiosity questions, following up on a term or idea in the previous answer. Keep the questions friendly and open-ended. Don’t worry about asking obvious or “dumb” questions.

When you play the two roles this way, you eliminate the performance pressure that can freeze your thinking. Playing the role
of a naive, curious questioner, you give yourself permission to raise issues and to challenge yourself. Playing the role of blunt answerer, you give yourself emotional distance from the issues.

These are two mental sets–the curious and the blunt–that you need to be able to adopt at will and switch between during thinking. Playing the “roles” helps you make the switch to the appropriate mental set.

If you have trouble getting into the two mindsets, some people find it helpful to heighten the separation between the roles by physical means. You can use two colors of ink for questioner and answerer. Or you can set up two chairs, one for questioner and one for answerer, and then act out the two roles aloud–moving between the chairs as you change perspectives.

Is this a trick? Not really. When you are feeling stuck on a question that you “should” be able to figure out, you are almost certainly shutting down your subconscious databanks with censoring. What you need is some combination of frankness and curiosity to counter the blocks. It just so happens that ad-libbing two roles, the curious questioner and the blunt answerer, is an easy, familiar way to make that important mental adjustment.

[1] I learned this technique from Marcia Yudkin’s CD set: Become a More Productive Writer”



February 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Unfounded Assumption that Can Stop Logical Thinking in Its Tracks

Join me in the campaign to eliminate prejudice against messy thinking tactics.

Floating in the back of many people’s minds is the idea that “logical” means “neat.” People sometimes hesitate to make a list unless they can write down the items in their proper order. They sometimes shy away from brainstorming because silly ideas come up. But this is an illogical prejudice, and it can stop thinking in its tracks. It confuses the desired end (a neat solution) with the means (a logical process–which may be messy).

Now, of course, neat is better than messy. Therefore, if you can write down a list in the correct order on your first try, do so. But if you hesitate for more than two seconds over the order, it will be faster if you make a quick, messy, no-particular-order list. Then you easily can figure out the proper order on a second pass.

It is logical to use the 2-pass method, because it is more efficient. If you wait until you can put down the items in the right order from scratch, you may stare at the page for a long time.

Similarly, if you already have a great idea to pursue, you have no need to brainstorm. But if you are still looking for that great idea, the messy process of brainstorming can help stimulate a variety of ideas, from which you can cull one good idea to pursue on a second pass.

Messy isn’t better than neat, it’s a means to neat. Consider the process of organizing a closet. The first step is to take  everything out and spread everything out on the floor. Messy, very messy. But this temporary disorder gives you elbow room and a bird’s-eye view, so you can more easily decide what to keep, what to throw out, and where you will put everything back so that the end result is neat.

When you can’t go straight to a neat solution in your own thinking, all it means is that you don’t have a prepackaged, worked-out answer to your question. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out an answer, if you give yourself permission to rummage a little through the information you do have.

So, if you ever feel stuck looking for a neat answer, don’t let an old prejudice get in your way. Give yourself the logical advice to generate a messy first answer, knowing that later you will clean it up and turn it into a neat, logical, final answer.




January 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Yes, It’s the Electronic Age, But Don’t Forget Paper-Age Lessons

Here’s some old-fashioned advice that may be just what you need to get out of a present-day thinking block: Spread out your notes all over your desk.

That’s right, your desk, not your computer screen. Yes, programs exist to move around words in many wonderful easy ways. But sometimes you need to have those words spread out over a space the size of a desk.

Take the case of outlining a presentation. In the past, the standard procedure was to write out the points on individual index cards, then sort them into stacks by similar topic, then rearrange the stacks into a logical progression. An outline was created by shuffling cards around on your desk.

Today, this procedure has been largely supplanted by programs like Powerpoint that let you rearrange points (or slides of points) with the click of a mouse. You save time because you never have to retype the points. As soon as you figure out the order, you have a clean version.

But here’s the issue: if you are bogging down trying to get a large number of points in order in Powerpoint, you probably need to go back to the low-tech alternative to get some mental leverage.

When you spread out the points all over your desk, you get two advantages.

First, you can move them with nearly zero effort. There’s no need to fuss to move the mouse to the exact location to click and drag a point. There’s no scrolling. You just grab a card and move it. It is noticeably faster.

Second, you can use perceptual cues to remember where stacks are. With a quick glance, you can find anything. You never have to stop to remember, “where in the file did I put together that stack of miscellaneous points I don’t know what to do with?” Nor do you have to interrupt your train of thought to do an electronic search.

These may seem like trivial advantages, but on a complex task, you need all the speed and brainpower you can get. The test of whether you need this advantage is, do you bog down? If you are bogging down, you need the extra mental leverage that spreading out notes on a large surface offers you.

Yes, doing things on the computer often saves retyping. But if your mental process bogs down due to the mechanics, you can easily lose all the time you might have saved.

So, monitor for your mental need for that wide, visual-spatial overview–and don’t hesitate to hit “print,” clear your desk, and pull out the scissors. The time you save will be your own.



January 27, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The One-Minute Rule for “Thinking on Paper”

If you’ve followed my work, you know I’m an advocate of “Thinking on Paper.” You can watch this 3-minute video explaining “thinking on paper, or read a short write-up on it here.

People often ask when they should use “thinking on paper” to speed up their thinking. Like physical leverage, mental leverage entails a tradeoff. When you “think on paper,” you slow down the steps you take; it’s only worth using the tactic if you speed up getting results. How can you be sure that it will pay off?

In the past, I’ve given a qualitative answer. “Think on paper” whenever the task seems hard, or you feel like you’re bogging down, or the topic is important and you want to do your best thinking. But on reflection, I’ve come up with a quantitative answer: the “OneMinute Rule” for “Thinking on Paper.”

If you have spent one minute in indecision, puzzlement, conflict, or any other thinking quandary, then “thinking on paper” is warranted. This means that even apparently trivial questions–like what should I work on first? Or should I stop for lunch now? Can warrant “thinking on paper.”

Why the oneminute rule? There is a cadence to thinking–each question/answer cycle is a few seconds. When thinking is going smoothly, you have an experience of constant forward progress accompanied by a rhythm of thoughts. If you’ve gone a minute and you’re not in a rhythm, you need a little leverage.

The very first step of “thinking on paper” is to write down your thinking goal–the question you are trying to answer. That simple act of clarification and commitment is often all you need to streamline your thoughts. It takes 10 seconds to write it out. If you’ve lost a minute, or can see yourself losing a minute, it is 10 seconds well spent.

And if writing down the thinking goal is not enough, you could lose much more than a minute. Because when you’re in a  quandary, you are at great risk of distraction. Most things are more pleasant than an experience of uncertainty and confusion. If you don’t focus your attention quickly, the next stray excuse is likely to tempt you off topic. But if you turn to “thinking on paper,” that process will draw you in, help you tune out distractions, and get you through the danger zone.

As I say in the video, I’m on a mission to teach the whole world “thinking on paper.” It is the #1 general purpose thinking tactic to use. Use it at the first sign of trouble.  If you haven’t test driven this important tactic, check out the video, and try it yourself.

I’m also on a mission to encourage people to use it more often. The next time “I don’t know” occurs to you, try “thinking on paper.” You may know more than you think you know.

January 22, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Understanding Paralysis

Paralyzed. Stuck. Blocked. These describe a distressing mental state–made worse by mystery. When you are paralyzed, it seems like you know what you need to do–you need to write, plan, etc. But you feel like you can’t take a single step forward.

Knowing why you’re paralyzed helps. Here is the basic reason: at some level, you feel the task is impossible or self-destructive. To get moving forward, you need to find out why you feel that way and whether your feelings are right.

But finding out what’s behind paralysis is sometimes difficult. After all, if it were obvious to you that the task was impossible or destructive, you wouldn’t choose to do it. In principle, you need to introspect concerns which may be masked or censored.

I use a simple technique to help me with this challenge: “sentence stems.” A sentence stem is the first half of a sentence, a pre-specified start, which you then can complete. Two sentence stems which help paralysis are:

“This task is impossible because…”

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen…”

To use a stem, literally write it out word for word, then finish off the sentence with whatever occurs to you. Continue on if there’s more to say.

For example, suppose you were trying to dash off a memo in 15 minutes and got writer’s block. You might diagnose it by writing out this:

“This task is impossible because 15 minutes isn’t long enough. I am sending this to the boss and it needs to be right. 15 minutes doesn’t leave enough time to proof–much less edit carefully.”

Or suppose you were paralyzed while planning a demanding project. You might write:

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen: I will be under extreme pressure for the entire 6-month duration of the project, I’ll have to work nights and weekends, and I’ll miss the deadline anyway and get fired.”

In these cases, the sentence stems help you expose the conflict. By writing out the first half of the thought, you prime your subconscious to express the second half, even if the thought is overly emotional.

The stems are deliberately exaggerated, to give you permission to express inflated doubts and fears lurking in the background. Even if these doubts and fears are illogical, they can kill your motivation. You need to get them out into the open to evaluate them–and separate truth from falsehood.

And that, of course, is the next step. Your feelings say the task is impossible or disastrous, but is it? Often when you face the feelings, you see you are being stopped by a phantom.

Even if you uncover a legitimate, difficult issue, you have made progress. You are no longer beset by a mysterious mental paralysis; you are simply facing a clear challenge. The logical next step is to think realistically about what can be done and what is good to do. That is doable.


January 20, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Tips for Using Small Time Blocks for an Open-Ended Thinking Task

When you have a big question to think about, don’t wait until you have 2 or 3 hours free to tackle it. There just aren’t enough big blocks of time available to make that a practical strategy. Instead, learn how to Velcro together smaller blocks of  time–say 25 minutes or so–so that together they give you the effectiveness of a longer block.

The key to meshing small time blocks is making good transitions. Start and end your work block with procedures that ensure each bit of work will follow seamlessly from the previous. Then, together, they will add up to the open-ended thinking time you need. Here are the basic tips for making that happen:

1) Keep your notes in one place.

When you return to the issue, you need to look over the work you did last. Where is it? Don’t make this a hard question. Don’t even make it a question at all. Make it trivially easy to find the last work you did, by always keeping “thinking” work in one place.

I follow this advice by keeping all my handwritten notes in one thinking notebook, which is always within reach. The notes were made chronologically, so it’s easy to find past work. I tape loose notes right into the notebook. Other people use a single computer file for their everyday thinking.

Your system may be different, but make sure it’s so simple and easy-to-use that you never have to pause to ask the question, “where are my notes?”

2) Give yourself permission to warm up during the first three minutes

It takes a few minutes to get back into the context. You can’t hurry that process. If you try, you’ll just strain. So, know that you need to take a few minutes to re-read last-time’s notes to activate your mental circuits on this topic.

There are many ways to warm up your mental circuits. Read. Make a list. Do some “thinking on paper.” Once the engine is warmed up, you can put your brain in gear and start doing new work.

3) Take 30 seconds at the end to make notes in full sentences on what’s next

The alarm sounds. The phone rings. A person arrives at your desk. You need to be prepared for these eventualities. Chances are, you will sometimes need to interrupt your thinking before you’re ready to stop.

And that’s wrenching. You’ve just spent 10 minutes–or an hour– warming up your mental circuits and digging into the heart of the issue. If you just stop now, you will have to redo much of that effort to get back to the same place.

Don’t throw that work away! Hold up your hand with a “just wait” sign and take 30 seconds to write some notes to yourself. Sum up. What were you doing? What were you going to do next? What last idea do you want to record to explore next time? Write the answers out in full sentences so you can understand exactly what you meant when you come back later.

The 30 seconds you spend now will save 10 minutes or more when you come back today or tomorrow, by making it much easier (and less painful) to recover the mental context you interrupted.

Are you wishing you had uninterrupted time you don’t have? Take better advantage of the time do you have–by using these three tips.



January 15, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Four Reasons Why Reviewing Written Goals Helps You Achieve Them

Here’s a piece of advice you may know: Write down your top goals and re-read them every day. Simply implementing this daily review can make a significant difference in whether you achieve the goals.

If this sounds like some kind of magical thinking, it’s not. Re-reading your goals helps you achieve them through an entirely
understandable process:

  1. When you write out the goal on paper and re-read it every day, you give yourself a chance to test it and refine it. All goal statements are not created equal. If you formulate your goal in a vague or unrealistic way, you can’t achieve it. Just the act of writing the goal down helps you notice and correct these problems. But even if you don’t catch a problem immediately, every time you re-read the goal, you have a chance to spot an issue and refine the goal accordingly.
  2. Every time you re-read your goal, you reinforce your desire for it. That motivates you to take action. You can see how this works when you plan a vacation. Every time you think about what you’d like to do, you get a little more excited about the vacation, and eager to plan the details to make that happen.
  3. When you re-read your goal every day, you keep the idea activated. It is easily triggered by outside circumstances, so you think of it at helpful times. For example, suppose your goal is to carve out time for exercise. If an appointment is canceled, you would like to realize “I could use this time for exercise.” If you reviewed your goal this morning, you are quite likely to make the connection. On the other hand, if you last thought about exercise a week ago, it’s off your radar, and probably won’t occur to you.
  4. When you re-read your goal every day, you automatically notice your progress (or lack thereof). Tracking progress is crucial to achieving goals, because it gives you the information you need to correct your course as you go. They say Apollo 11 was off course more than 90% of the trip to the moon–but they still got there, because they constantly corrected the course. So, just by re-reading the goal every day, you support making the changes you need to actually achieve it.

As you see, there are good reasons why writing down your top goals and re-reading them every day helps you to achieve them.

But it’s not magic. If you aren’t committed to the goal, then clarifying it, reminding yourself about it, and noticing your progress won’t help a bit. Ultimately, you will only achieve your goal if you choose to act toward it. Writing down the goal and
reviewing it every day simply helps you see the opportunities to act.

January 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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