Three Steps to Following Through on Your Priority

Your top priority is not necessarily the most important task on your list, nor is it necessarily the most urgent one. It is the one you decide you should do first–prior to the others. Often, as soon as you identify your top priority by naming the reason it’s #1, you will be motivated to jump into action.

But sometimes you won’t be. Either you are unmotivated, or you feel pulled toward some secondary task, something you have already determined is not your priority now. A distraction.

What do you do? I don’t recommend you wait until you feel the motivation to get started. At a minimum, you’ll suffer costs of delay. In the worst case, you’ll never do the task that matters most.

But I also don’t recommend that you shut down your thoughts and force yourself into action, despite the lack of motivation. That is a prescription for killing creativity and hating the most important work you do.

So what do you do in that moment? How can you stay loyal to your values, without shutting down your mind? Here are three steps you can take to move into action:

1. Acknowledge the situation.

Acknowledge that you are not motivated to do what you have concluded you need to do. You are in conflict.  That means you are in for some unpleasantness, no matter what you do next. One thing you know for sure: you will not be brilliantly efficacious in the next five minutes.

Acknowledging the situation helps you manage your own expectations. We all prefer to be “in the flow” when we do work. That’s not going to happen here. The best you can do is to ensure that the next few minutes are only unpleasant, not painful. You can handle a little unpleasantness and not knowing what to do.

Steps 2 and 3 are designed to ensure you keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.

2. Turn your attention to the priority

Turn your attention to the priority without officially starting work on it. You may feel conflicted about doing the task, but thinking about it more is always doable.

How do you turn your attention to the priority without actually starting? Often I just make a list of 10 things I know about the task. Some of the items on the list might be subtasks. Some might be reasons the task is important. Some might be background information. The 10 things can be trivial or profound. They are just the first 10 things that occur to me.

This is a simple task that requires you to hold your goal–the priority–in mind for at least 3-5 minutes. Holding the goal in mind is the fundamental way that you control your mind. It changes the mental situation.

When you hold your goal in mind, three things happen:

a.) You activate knowledge relevant to the goal. Information from the subconscious is triggered in response to what is already in conscious awareness. Associated information gets triggered. This shifts the thoughts that occur to you. You hear fewer distracting thoughts, and more thoughts relevant to the task, including information about the value of the task.

b.) You quiet the impulse to do something else. When you put your attention on listing facts about the goal, you ignore the distraction instead of suppressing it or denying it. By the time you’re finished, the distraction will have faded away, without any particular effort on your part. You distract yourself from the distraction.

In contrast, if you deny or suppress the distracting impulse, it will come back as soon as you let up your guard. Your focus moves to what you are denying yourself, rather than on what matters.

c.) Focusing on the goal activates positive affect. Because you are thinking about the goal, you start seeing opportunities to act, which cause hope. You remember why you care, which causes desire. You reflect on past steps you’ve accomplished, which causes satisfaction.

Focusing on the goal means focusing on values rather than disvalues. This shifts your mood, outlook, and motivation.

To sum up, holding the goal in mind for a few minutes shifts the parade of thoughts going through your mind so that they are on topic, it dispels the distracting impulses, and it activates motivation for the priority.

This step takes some effort, and may feel uncomfortable, but it transforms your mindset.

3. Ensure the priority is doable now

Finally, now that you’ve warmed up what you know about your priority, you can check to make sure it is formulated such that it will motivate your action.

Your top priority is a specific kind of goal, with a specific standard. You may have heard that goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. That’s helpful, but it’s not enough to ensure your priority propels you into action. Goals on different timescales need different standards of doability, different degrees of certainty, and different depths of passion.

A priority is on the short end of the goal-setting spectrum. It needs to be what I call a “task”–i.e., a single step that takes less than 2 hours to complete. Something this short can be unpleasant, as long as it’s not painful, but it needs to be highly doable. You need to know what you’re going to do, and that you can complete it in a short amount of time.

Why less than two hours? Two hours is an objective upper limit–it’s about as long as most people can sustain work without a short break.

An open-ended task that goes on and on without a clear ending point is a slog. A slog is inherently unmotivating. In contrast, when a finish line–any finish line–is within sight, the desire for closure is strong, and you will feel motivated.

When you set a priority, you need to design your task so that you reach some kind of closure by the end of this expenditure of effort.

If your priority can’t be completed in an appropriately short time, it needs to be redesigned. There is always a way to spiral, layer, scale down, or otherwise carve up the task so that you can reach a stopping point in a defined amount of time.

For example, writing this article took longer than I had hoped. As I neared the end of my two hours on the task, I realized I was not going to finish.

At that time, I had a hard stop in 15 minutes for another appointment. This article was still my top priority, but since I couldn’t finish it in 15 minutes, I redesigned the task. I took the 15 minutes to summarize my notes so that it would be easier for me to pick up again after the appointment. In this way, I stayed on task with my top priority, and fueled my motivation to keep at it when I got the next window of time.

How to redesign tasks so you can get some kind of closure in a defined time is a big topic. But it is always possible. Psychologically, it is necessary so that you always have a legitimate sense of having acted to gain and/or keep your values, and all of the positive affect that comes with that.

These three steps: acknowledging the situation, turning your attention to the priority, and ensuring the priority is doable now, all take effort. But none of them are painful or hard. You can choose to take these steps, even when you are unmotivated. They take a little determination, but they don’t require shutting down your mind. On the contrary, they activate the knowledge and motivation you need to get that priority done.


September 17, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Want to be Happy? Set Objective Goals

I am often asked what’s wrong with setting a goal to “be happy” or “feel good.” The problem is that these “goals” are subjective–ultimately circular. Goals need to be objective.

To understand that goals need to be objective, first you need to understand what a goal is, and how it relates to emotions.

A goal is an intention you set to achieve a particular outcome. If you achieve the outcome, you succeed. If you don’t, you fail. It has a definite stopping place.

When you set a goal, you immediately change part of your psychology a little bit–you change your subconscious value hierarchy. The act of setting the intention gives your intended outcome a value significance to you. It is now identified as good and important to you. As a result, from that moment forward, you will feel emotions about the goal and your pursuit of it.

Absent other factors, if you see an opportunity to achieve the goal, you’ll feel desire. If you see a threat to achieving it, you’ll feel fear. If you sit around without doing anything about achieving it, you’ll feel guilt. If you take some steps to achieve it and fail, you will feel frustration.

In other words, an important function of your emotional system is to alert you to information which seems relevant to your achieving your goal. Both positive and negative emotions are useful in this regard. Emotions are an integral part of your value system.

Your value system is partly biological, partly chosen. A baby is born with a functioning value system, based on certain physical needs, such as food, water, and a comfortable body temperature. If the baby lacks one of these, he cries. From the time of birth, anything associated with fulfilling physical needs gets stored as a value in his value system.

As a child develops his mind, a new factor is involved in forming values: choice. The child learns that his choices affect his life. He learns the importance of gaining knowledge and initiating action to meet his needs and achieve his goals. This is why setting a goal infuses the goal with value significance.

But of course, he can make mistakes in figuring out what goals to set and how to achieve them. This is why as adults we all have philosophies–to help us figure out what’s true and what’s good.

If you’ve been reading my writing for long, you know that all of the ideas about psychology that I share are developed on the basis of my particular philosophy, Objectivism. Two key conclusions from Objectivism relevant to this discussion are:

1) The standard of good is what promotes man’s survival–man qua man the rational animal. The standard of good is that which is necessary for a living organism that survives by the use of its mind to flourish. On this standard, happiness is both possible and desirable.

2) Because this standard is based on actual facts about what a living, breathing, thinking human being can do and needs to do, there are no inherent conflicts within a person’s soul.

On this view, emotions are an important alert that there is a value at stake. When emotions conflict, they are alerting you to an internal contradiction in your goals and values that needs to be found and corrected, if you want to flourish.

But conflict is wearing. It is much better to avoid conflicts between your goals by using an objective test for them when you set them. Here are my three tests for a goal:

  1. Does it objectively achieve values needed for human life (deep rational values) in some way–is it pro-life?
  2. Is it achievable by you by your effort–i.e., is it possible to you?
  3. Is it worth the effort relative to the other goals you have set–is it a high enough priority?

A goal like “feel good” or “be happy” doesn’t meet the first two tests.

First, such a “goal” does not actually direct you to any specific values. Feeling good or being happy is a consequence of achieving life-supporting goals. So it’s circular.

But worse, when you set “feeling good” as a goal, every time you feel bad, you’ll feel doubly bad, because the implication is that you are doing something wrong, because you are failing at your goal of “feeling good.”

But bad feelings are not “bad” for you. They are alerts–important alerts about your values. You can’t flourish without them. If you try to eliminate bad feelings, you get yourself into trouble. You either become repressed (and can’t feel good feelings, either), or you turn to drugs or other mind-altering experiences in lieu of doing the work of achieving values. Without a willingness to experience “bad” feelings, you cannot flourish.

Second, how you feel is not under your direct control. Success doesn’t always bring joy, even if achieving the goal is objectively good for you. The joy you would normally feel can be covered up by emotions coming from “old baggage,” such as limiting beliefs like “I’m never good enough” and the like. Or the joy you would normally feel can be undercut by conflict, if the goal you achieved turns out to be incompatible with some other big value.

For these reasons, you are setting yourself up for failure if you set “feeling good” or “being happy” as your goal. If you aim at this outcome directly, you will fail.

That said, the desire to be happier is a great source of motivation for making life changes that can lead to happiness. It is certainly worth it to influence this outcome. In another newsletter I will discuss what practice you can embrace that over time will make you happier and happier.


August 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking About Affirmations

I’m reading my friend Alan Zimmerman’s book, The Payoff Principle, which explains the process he teaches for achieving “what you really, Really, REALLY want.” He is inspiring me on many levels, including convincing me to take a second look at some practices that have not worked for me in the past. One is affirmations.

Affirmations are positive, “can do” statements that you tell yourself. They are supposed to change your mindset, and some say that they help you to achieve your goals.

I have criticized “affirmations” in the past. In many cases, they are attempts to brainwash yourself. They are often justified by a vague “law of attraction” argument, which is that what you “put out into the universe” will come back to you. It’s easy to be skeptical of them. It’s no surprise that they’ve been satirized on sitcoms and late night TV.

I have used “affirmations” myself, but only as part of a very specific writing process I learned from Jerry Mundis. He recommended writing down the “can do” statement (“I can write easily and well”) followed by objections, then repeating that process in various ways 15 times. I found that Jerry’s exercise cleared out all of the negativity, doubts, and distractions that assailed me when I sat down to write, leaving me free to concentrate.

Alan has convinced me to try his unique approach to affirmations, which he claims helps you achieve your goals. He first has you identify 50 goals for life, across very specific categories. Then you turn the goals into statements that “affirm achievement.” These you repeat to yourself three times a day. You continue affirming the achievements until each goal is reached, which sometimes takes years.

If you’re interested in trying this process, I recommend you buy Alan’s book and learn it from him. It’s in Chapter 11.

What I want to share is why I’ve decided to try it. One factor is that Alan has tremendous credibility with me. He’s a person who walks his talk. He shared personal and customer testimonials showing people succeeding using his method. He pointed out specific failings of some of the other methods of affirmation that were clarifying. He thinks it’s a crucial piece of the overall success. Alan’s credibility got me to seriously consider it.

But his argument was not enough for me to try it. I never take advice like this unless I see for myself why I believe it should work. What is the causal factor here? After all, if I’m going to put in say 20 minutes a day doing these, that’s over 100 hours a year. That’s a serious commitment of time and energy. I need to be convinced it can work.

What was really unusual about Alan’s approach is that he argued you need 50 different affirmations, specifically designed to cover all areas of life. This stunned me when I read it. I’ve never seen anyone advocate having more than a handful of affirmations–or perhaps one in each major life area. In general, 50 goals seems totally overwhelming. My head explodes at the thought of tracking 50 goals. It would be impossible.

On the other hand, he is not arguing that you track 50 goals, just that you remind yourself of them 3 times a day.

And on the other, other hand, it is certainly true that I have 50 or so goals floating around my head. I’ve never found an effective way to prioritize that many goals, so the lesser goals are all achieved “catch as catch can.” I have always felt a bit of loss as I’ve accepted that a particular goal doesn’t fit on one of my prioritized lists.

Rather than pretending I have even more hands, I’ll just say and…

And, I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for a “top of mind” standard for decision making. In order to make a decision quickly, you need to be satisfied with the decision you can make based on a short (3-minute) warmup of top of mind issues. (Three minutes is a rule of thumb I use–it’s enough time to get the obvious issues into awareness.)

And, here Alan is giving me a method for making sure that all 50 of my top goals stay top of mind. This ensures that they will be factored into any decision I make.

And, one of the benefits I’ve seen from affirmations is that they give you “the words you need for the time when you will need them.” They help you hold the context when self-critical thoughts go through your mind.

The bottom line? I have decided to test drive Alan’s method of “affirming achievement” for three solid months, because I think this may be a way to keep all of my goals top of mind, without feeling overwhelmed by trying to track them all. At that time, I will make a conscious decision for whether to continue for a full year. By then, I believe I’ll know whether this is a practice for the rest of my life. My only concern going in is: will these goals use up critical crow space and make it harder to do concentrated work? I’ll find out.

My reason for sharing this is not to convince you to try affirmations, but to show you the kind of reasoning process I use to consider advice from other people with whom I respectfully disagree.

Though Alan and I share critically important values, we have very different philosophies. He’s religious, I’m not. I’m an egoist. I believe he would say he is an altruist. In his book, he makes quite a few statements that I disagree with. But rather than dismissing his comments, or jumping into an argument with him, I take the time to identify the facts he is looking at. What is he seeing? What is a plausible explanation for his conclusion? Is there a context in which it make sense to me?

Then, and only then, do I ask myself to form my own conclusion about those same facts. Using this method, I’ve learned a lot from Alan, and from a lot of other  people with a diverse range of views. You can, too.


August 5, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Best Practices make “Best” Decisions Possible

Often people judge a decision by its results. When they don’t like the way the decision turned out, they conclude they must have made a bad decision. But that doesn’t follow.

When you make a decision, you make it in a very specific context. You choose between competing priorities, on the basis of incomplete knowledge, in limited time. The “best possible decision” is the best decision that could have been made, given those constraints.

To take a simple example, when I made my “to do” list Saturday, I did not include “buy a cat door.” John, our handyman, was coming in to fix a few things, plus install the door in my study. I thought he was bringing the fixture. He didn’t. “Buy a cat door” rocketed to the top of my “to do” list, leaping over 6 carefully chosen tasks.

Had I made a “bad” decision earlier when I set my top priority? It was based on a mistaken assumption. Does that make it bad? Not in my view.

My decision was mistaken but not bad, because I used best practices to make it. That means I made a good faith effort to review relevant facts, to consider value implications of the options, and to integrate the decision with my long-range goals–all within an appropriate amount of time.

This particular decision was made as part of a routine planning process that takes about 15 minutes each day plus an extra 45 minutes once a week. My rule of thumb is that planning should take less than 5% of the time available. Planning is intended to help you get more done. If it cannibalizes too much work time, it kills your productivity. This is why I recommend an “agile” approach to planning. You want “just in time” planning–just enough planning to keep you productive.

Making a meta-choice about how much time to spend on a decision is part of the best practices I teach. More significant decisions require more due diligence. There is a bigger cost if you make a mistake, so they are worth more time. For example, if you are considering changing your career, I suggest you take six months to deliberate about your new direction.

However, that doesn’t mean you wait six months to make a choice. The best practice that applies to major decisions is that you figure out the short-term decision you need to face now. Making that choice will help you take a small step toward making the bigger decision later.

The purpose of a decision is to move you into action. When you take a step, you change the world a little bit. You see a little bit farther into the future. You observe the actual consequences of your action. Those observations supersede any predictions you made, and help you make a better informed decision next time.

There are “bad” decisions. They’re the product of wishful thinking, jumping to conclusions, and other forms of dropping context–such as ignoring the very real negatives of dragging out your decision process.

In contrast, best practices help you activate the relevant information you have, make the best predictions you can, and reach closure in a timely way. They help you make a logical, emotionally-satisfying decision now. Then, even if you decide it was mistaken later, you will see that your decision now has helped you to move toward your goals faster than if you had made it any other way.


July 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments


Burnout is a common problem. When you “burn out,” you lose the motivation to do productive work that you have done in the past–and used to enjoy doing.

There are three common sources of motivation: a personally meaningful (selfish) purpose, an inspiring person, or an urgent priority.

The first of these is fundamental. If you don’t have selfish purpose in your life to set a direction and prioritize your commitments, other people and urgent priorities become a drain on your energy.

However, it is not enough to have a selfish purpose. I am wildly, first-handedly passionate about understanding how you grow your own mind. That hasn’t stopped me from burning out. From time to time, I notice that I have gone on strike. I have total resistance to doing work that in principle I want to do.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to have a selfish goal: you need to learn to act selfishly in the moment, holding the full context. That means you need to learn how to choose in the moment based on values, not rules or feelings or any predetermined expectation of what the right thing to do is.

Your old thinking–that rule, automatized evaluation, or expectation–may be correct. But if you are feeling conflict, there is some value at stake that is not completely clear to you.

This has led to an important practice: whenever I feel I “have to” do something, I check my premises. I recognize I am trying to force myself to act on a past prediction of what is best for me right now. What I need is my best thinking on what is in fact best for me.

The truth is that the idea that I “have to” is wrong. You always have a choice–a metaphysically given choice. You may not like the choice, but you do have it.

The conflict means that there are values that need to be brought out to the light of day and factored into the decision. Logic requires that you hold the full context–of knowledge and values–before making the decision. You need to do a little due diligence to identify what is the value at stake.

Clarifying the values can be tricky when the resistance or temptation appears to be illogical. If the immediate explanation for why you don’t want to do something is irrational, like “I don’t wanna,” you might be tempted to dismiss it. In these cases it’s important to show respect for yourself. Take the time to identify the deeper rational value that is really at stake here–don’t settle for the superficial irrationality.

For example, a client I had once needed to write a grant proposal. She said she was procrastinating, and thought she should just jump in and start writing. But when she listened to her resistance to writing, she realized that she needed data to show that the earlier project was a success. She needed to send out a survey to past participants–urgently–so that she could get data to incorporate into the proposal. This had not been on her radar, until she examined the reasons for her resistance.

Going by “have to” is wrong. Just as it’s wrong to force another person, it is wrong to force yourself. If you use your willpower to force yourself to act against strong resistance, you will deny an important source of information about your work (the resistance), associate pain and suffering with the work, and eventually start hating it. That will cause burnout, no matter what the end.

Some people have have a rationalistic view of selfishness. They think that if they know that the overall goal is good, then any step toward it is madatory. But that is not the case. Both the end and the means need to be in your self-interest.

To be clear, I am not saying, “take the path of least resistance.” If you only take action that you “feel like” doing, you’ll never achieve your goals. The truth is, you need to exert your willpower effectively–on the small step that gives you leverage for gaining the big values over time. If you’re feeling resistance, you may be trying to take too big a step. You need to find a smaller step–maybe an uncomfortable or unpleasant step–that you are willing to take.

Another way to look at this–if you have a first-handed goal, and you are unmotivated, lack of motivation is not the problem. Unclarity is the problem.

Motivation is an effect, not a cause. If you are unmotivated to take an action you believe is in your best interest, your challenge is to get true clarity on the values at stake in this moment. That means–get clarity on your emotions.

Every emotion you feel is triggered by some value on your horizon. If your value is threatened, you will feel some kind of fear. If it is possible to gain a value of yours, you will feel some kind of desire.

When the thoughts seem irrational, they are a distorted attempt to achieve something rational. For example, an obsession with what other people think could be a distorted attempt to make a personal connection with others. Or it could be a distorted attempt to validate one’s own behavior. Similarly, apparent laziness could be motivated by a concern with health. Or it could be a way to avoid putting oneself to the test out of fear of failure. When the superficial reason for an emotion is irrational, you don’t really know what the motivation is until you introspect. The superficial explanation is just a rationalization.

You need to know. You need to know the deep value at stake before you can decide what is in your rational interest.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In general, if you can’t resolve a conflict in three minutes, I recommend finding a step you’re willing to take despite the conflict, one that will help you resolve the conflict.

Just as you don’t make demands of other people-don’t make demands of yourself. Ask yourself, “am I willing” to take this step? If yes, it will take a little willpower to start. That’s an act of will.

If no, use your willpower to find the step you are willing and able to take.

To stop burning out, I needed to take seriously the idea that you cannot force a mind–not even your own. And that means forcing your action is never the answer. If you feel you need to force yourself, step back, understand the full value context, and choose a step toward your goals you can take willingly.


July 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t mistake your questions for your choices

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make in decision-making is to confuse your questions about the future with your choices. For example, I was asked, suppose you love music, and like medicine, but you are concerned about pursuing a career in music because it is so difficult. How do you decide between a career in music or medicine?

My immediate response to that question is: you don’t face that choice directly.

The choice of career is an example of a complex decision that is made over a period of months or even years. You have too many questions about the future to make a decision per se. If you just try to ask yourself “which should I do?” you could easily find yourself stymied by the answer “I don’t know.”

Indeed, the first step of my Eyes-Wide-Open decision process is to identify the choice you actually face. The choice you actually face is a choice between 2-3 options that you know enough about that you can act on now, as opposed to some vague desires regarding the future with many unknowns.

You may think of your decision in terms of a complex choice involving the future. But this decision needs to be made over time by reducing it to a series of simple binary choices–judgment calls–that you can answer with confidence right now.

A judgment call is the answer to a yes-or-no question, such as, “Should I go to this college?” or “Is this a better option than that?” Any simple judgment of whether something is true/false, good/bad, right/wrong, or important/unimportant is a judgment call. You could rewrite any such judgment call in the form of a “yes or no” question.

When you have a lot of gaps in your knowledge, instead of a “yes” or “no” answer from your subconscious, you will hear “I don’t know.” You also might hear “I don’t know” if you haven’t warmed up your own knowledge of the facts and values relevant to the question. Worse, if you haven’t warmed up that information, you have no idea whether your judgment call is correct. It will be based on ideas you’re presently aware of, not those that have been forgotten.

(This psychological fact gives rise to the #1 rule of logic: Hold context. If you have made a good faith effort to become aware of all relevant information, you are justified in assuming your judgment call is valid.)

The art of decision making includes figuring out which judgment call you can make now. You will need to reduce complex decisions into simple judgment calls because you simply can’t hold all of the complex issues in mind at once, and/or you don’t know enough to make a final decision.

In these cases, you need to step back and think at the “meta-level.” You need to think about the situation you are in, what choice you can make now, and how your choice will help you make the complex decision in the future.

The choice you face now is specific to your circumstances.

Suppose the person who loves music first, then medicine strongly, is 18 years old. The decision he faces is his decision of where to go to college and what to study. What he decides to do depends in part on where he is accepted. If he is accepted to top notch music programs, he faces a very different choice than if he is rejected by all the top music schools. His rejection by those schools is extremely important information about his prospects for making a living as a musician.

Suppose he gets into a good university with a top-notch music program, and decides to keep his options open by studying music and taking all of the necessary pre-med courses. He will have a different decision to make when it comes time to apply to medical school.

If he gets into medical school, he will have yet a different choice. If he is not accepted into medical school and he is not outstanding as a musician, he faces yet a different choice.

For any of these decisions, he will make a choice which incorporates what he sees as his prospects in both areas, including such values how much he wants to be a world-class musician, how much work it would take to be a doctor or a musician, whether he enjoys that kind of work, whether he believes he can keep both options open, and how much material comfort matters to him. That’s why he needs a decision process that helps him hold the full context.

None of these is a decision just between medicine and music. Each one is a decision, at a given time, to take a specific action, which has consequences for his entire life. In fact, all choices have consequences for one’s entire life, but it is clearest in major choices such as the choice of career.

The choice you face is between options you can act on now. If you are not accepted to medical school, you do not face a choice of whether to go or not.

When the future unfolds in a surprising way, you may need to do some high level exploration just to see what new choices you face. You might be able to name a dozen possible actions after you get that rejection slip. You could take additional classes so you can re-apply next year to different schools, enroll in nursing school, change your focus to podiatry or optometry or some other specialty that doesn’t require medical school, etc.

Before you could choose between so many disparate options, you might need to make simpler judgment calls, such as, should I…

  • attempt to get into medical school next year?
  • change to some other medical specialty for now and revisit medical school later?
  • drop the goal of getting into medical school?
  • leave medicine altogether?

The test of whether you have sufficiently simplified a complex decision is that your questions are answerable and your choices are actionable. You know what to do now, given the judgment call you just made.

Action is crucial to decision-making. As you take steps in the present to pursue music and/or medicine, you develop specific interests, you discover what work is involved, you find out what the risks and opportunities are for you, personally, given your intelligence, aptitude, and work ethic.

Complex decisions such as choice of career are made over time, by identifying the choice you actually face at each moment, and choosing the next steps based on everything you’ve learned plus everything you can predict. They are choices between real-life options in the present, not floating questions about the future.



June 17, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How do you remember what you read?

A member of my Thinking Lab asked me how to remember better what he reads. He said:

“I read vast amounts of information (news, articles, books), which I need to think about and retain. I’ve not had the greatest success. For a long time, I have simply read things and hoped that some of it stuck, which is not very effective. Any better suggestions?”

Yes. Actively judge the material while you’re reading it to identify the important ideas. Then write those ideas down in some form. In other words, choose what ideas you want to stick around after you’re finished reading. Don’t leave that to chance.

The key to learning and retaining what you read is selective focus on what is important. If you try to remember everything indiscriminately, you will remember nothing in particular. As you read through a page, be on the lookout for that one point per page, two at most, that has the real value to you.

If you get to the bottom of a page without noticing anything of particular importance, it’s worth taking a few more seconds to glance back and ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the main point here? In other words, what is the point the author thinks is most important?
  • What do I think is important here? You may disagree with the author’s point, or you may find a side issue more relevant to you.
  • What is the most interesting to me? Give yourself a chance to look for connections to your existing interests. Who knows what new idea will occur to you?

I strongly recommend that you do this quickly. Unless a piece of writing is exceptionally well-written and/or on a topic that you are deeply interested in, it rarely pays to study it in depth.

A quick selection can be extremely valuable.  Simply choose the top point or two that seems worth remembering from the page, then write it down in a full sentence. Do this in the margin, if you’re reading paper, or in a notes file or an annotation tool, if you are reading electronically.

Why a full sentence? “A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought.” If you just write down a phrase, you capture only a vague topic. When you write down a grammatical sentence summing up the main point, you pinpoint the thought that is worth remembering.

Taking the time to identify the top takeaway makes the difference in whether you will remember it. Memory works by repetition and attention. If the author gives you the main point in a final set of bullet points, you are not particularly likely to remember it. But if you take the time to figure it out what those bullet points should be, you will.

The analysis you do to single out the ideas you deem important strengthens the logical connections and makes it easier to recall the ideas.

For many people, the biggest challenge is to limit yourself to only one or two important points per page. If you highlight half of the sentences in an article, you will have trouble choosing what’s most important.

Technically, if you have this problem, the logical skill you need to learn is “essentialization.” This skill gives you X-ray vision so you can analyze the logic of the article and see how the ideas add up to justify an overall conclusion–the one main point. This is a learnable skill, which is taught in various programs, including the Thinking Lab.

Once you learn to essentialize, you will find that you start organizing all of your knowledge. You analyze everything you read logically, and naturally start storing the content logically in your mind. Over time, new material fits in with old–and everything you read becomes easier to remember.

But what keeps this process going–whether you are good at essentializing or not–is pushing yourself to write down the top one or two points per page of everything you read. The more you push yourself to name the top points, the better you will get at analyzing what you read, and the easier it will be to remember it.


May 13, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling

Do you have the slightest desire to persuade another person to take an action that you believe is clearly in his or her best interest? If so, run out and buy a copy of Neil Rackham’s 1988 book, SPIN Selling.

Rackham presents the most rational approach to selling that I’ve ever seen. The approach is 100% manipulation-free and gimmick-free. It is fully consistent with the ideas of “Rationally Connected Conversations” that I’ve been sharing–indeed it has already informed my understanding of that method. Moreover, Rackham’s book is one of the most clear, compelling, objective explanation of any kind of method that I’ve ever read.

Most of the people reading this article aren’t interested in selling per se. But who isn’t interested in persuading loved ones to take actions that you see are in their best interests? The method that Neil Rackham explains could easily be adapted to personal persuasion situations.

Rackham’s method involves a special questioning technique. Stephen Covey famously recommends to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That’s excellent advice as far as it goes. Rackham breaks down the steps needed to understand the other person’s context.

“SPIN” in the title stands for the four types of questions to ask: Situation questions (S), Problem questions (P), Implication questions (I), and Need-payoff questions (N). The first two types of questions are straightforward and commonly understood. By asking situation and problem questions, you find out the problem another person is having which you might be able to help solve.

Unfortunately, if you stop questioning there–if you immediately jump into asserting you have a solution–or in a personal situation, giving advice–Rackham explains that you will almost certainly get objections rather than agreement.

For example, I’ve been making the case that it’s important to reframe “have to’s” by embracing your power of choice. I am getting a lot of objections to this idea.

Let me give a bit of background in case you haven’t read my recent articles on this topic: I literally go through a decision process which involves identifying negatives and positives for not doing things I feel I “have to” do. Most of the time, this process results in my being motivated to take the critical action, without any need to force myself. Sometimes, I change my mind about whether I will take the action I felt I “had to” take. Consistently using this tactic makes my work incredibly more productive and enjoyable.

But I have been getting pushback, because it takes effort to go through the decision process. Although most people don’t like the pressure of “having” to do something, it doesn’t seem all that bad to them. It seems like it just takes a little effort to make themselves do it. The extra effort to identify values doesn’t seem necessary–especially if the selection will turn out to be the same. I might have intrigued them with the idea that reframing and embracing choice is a good thing, but they don’t see the urgent need for it. The “product” I’m selling seems to be too high cost for the benefit it provides.

My error is that I have been trying to offer a solution as soon as the problem is identified. Rackham’s method adds two more steps between identifying a problem and offering a solution.

First, Rackham recommends you draw out the negative implications of the problem using implication questions. These are very specific questions designed to find out if the problem is really big enough to put in time, money, or attention on to solve.

For example, I might draw out a person’s problems with “have to” with the following implication questions:

In the past, when you have applied pressure like this to yourself, was there any downside? For example, do you find that you get irritable? Could that have any repercussions?

How do you react to delays, difficulties or mistakes when you work under this kind of “have to” pressure? How do these everyday challenges affect your energy when you are doing something because you “have to”? What about when you “want to”?

After you’ve made yourself do this task, will you feel pride in having finished, or just relief that you don’t have to do it any more? Will you be more or less motivated to do this kind of task next time? Have you noticed any decrease in motivation to do things you “have to” do over time? Does it get easier or harder?

I believe I know the answers to these questions. It was asking myself these questions that led me to the conclusion I should always reframe “no choice” using a decision process. But the other person needs to see the issues himself, in a concrete, personally-relevant form. By asking implication questions, I could help the other person see, in his own concrete, specific situation, just how big the problem is.

And then, Rackham suggests asking “Need-Payoff” questions: questions that will elicit–in his words, not yours–what the benefit would be from eliminating these problems.

For my example, a needs-payoff question might be: “So, what would be the long-term benefit of reducing your resistance?” or “If you could avoid that feeling of irritation and frustration, what would that mean to you?”

The effect of asking these questions is that the person you’re talking to names explicitly what would be “in it” for him. Out will come a clearly identified need that is indeed worth time, effort, or money to meet.

If not, well, there is no point in offering the product or the advice, because you have not established the value of it to him in his own mind.

A subtle but real effect of Rackham’s SPIN process is that you change the discussion from how to solve a problem (remove a negative) to how to gain an urgently desired positive. Instead of your offering something that the other person “should” want, he becomes curious about how to gain a value. That’s the ideal opening for you to share your solution.

I just finished reading the book, so it will take me awhile to internalize Rackham’s advice. But I am wildly excited at the prospect of being able to draw out people so that they see the need for what I’m offering before I start explaining what it is.

How am I going to proceed? Happily, the last chapter of the book has specific advice for how to turn theory into practical action. Even if you’re not interested in sales or persuasion at all, it may be worth buying the book to read this one chapter. He recommends four rules:

Rule 1: Practice Only One Behavior at a Time
Rule 2: Try the New Behavior at Least Three Times
Rule 3: Quantity Before Quality
Rule 4: Practice in a Safe Situation

Do these rules sound familiar to you? I’ve never seen such a simple, essentialized set of advice for learning skills before. These insightful rules are going to streamline my own personal development and my teaching from hereon in.

My standard for publicly recommending books is that they have my top recommendation: they are so good they are worth re-reading. Every other book I’ve recommended so far, I had already re-read. I haven’t re-read this one yet, but I am certain I am going to. I made myself slow down and take notes on every chapter as I went through it.

Neil Rackham is a firsthand thinker, who has written a clear, essentialized, compelling book on an important topic. If you are interested in understanding values and/or communicating values and/or developing values in any form, this book is worth reading.

April 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t Motivate Yourself, Lead Yourself

There was a theme in the questions that members of the Thinking Lab asked me this week. They all involved some form of, “how do I motivate myself?”

I’ve had an epiphany. This is a mistaken way to conceptualize the problem. Motivation is an effect, not a cause. When you lack motivation, it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

For example, a client wrote to me that he wasn’t able to get in more than about 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work. He thought he needed to motivate himself differently.

I wrote back that 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work is the most that anyone I know can sustain on a regular basis. Intellectual work is exhausting.

Now, somehow his task is misconceived. There are three areas to look at:

1. Integration to a longer term goal

How does this task advance me to achieving a goal that I personally care deeply about achieving?

So often, people take on tasks because they think you have to do them, or the task meets some criteria that someone else has set. You feel you have to do the project because it’s required for a class, or your boss told you to do it, or it’s the only way you see to get the credential you need to take the next step in your career.

In these cases, I find that the thinking about the task stops just when it should start. Why is this task so important? How will this advance a goal that matters to you? Presumably, if someone else has figured out that this is the thing to do, it is of value.

If indeed, this is the logical next step, then it must also be a step that is in principle valuable to you. If you don’t experience motivation to do the task, you have clear evidence that you do not know how this fits with your values. And so why do you think it’s the logical next step? Why do you think it’s right?

Introspecting the conflicting motivation can help you clarify your values, establish the relationship of this task to your deeper goals, and as an effect of that clarity, leave you in a place where you are either motivated to do the work–or at least willing to do the work, because you are convinced your effort matters.

2. A delimited objective

Has this task been defined properly? A well-set objective is something that you are morally certain you can complete in less than 2 weeks, and if you complete it, you will see objective progress toward an important long-term goal.

Sometimes people don’t set objectives at all. They have no clear ending point in the relatively near future, Instead, they just say, “I’m going to put 8 hours a day on this every day until I’m finished with the goal.” This is the “Just do it” approach to work, and it fails sooner or later, especially when you have a particularly complex, long-range goal.

Other times, instead of setting an objective, they just make a list of tasks to do, without any strategy for making sure that the smaller tasks will add up to the longer-range goal.

In both cases, you eventually burn out because you never get any closure on the bigger goal.

In these cases, the solution is planned evolution–you need to figure out the scaled down version of the goal that you can complete soon. This has the effect of putting a finishing line within sight. Everyone gets a burst of energy when they can see that they can finish something that matters with just a little more effort. It’s finishing that gives you satisfaction. It’s repeated finishing that makes work a constant joy.

3. Effective use of resources

There is always a limit of time, energy, and money. Always. This is not a problem to bewail, this is a fact.

Most people recognize that they have limited money, and a lot of people recognize that they have limited time. But fewer people really grasp the limits of energy.

One exception is top athletes. LeBron James and Roger Federer are reported to sleep 12 hours a day. Why? To maximize the energy they have during a game.

They need that energy, not so much for their muscles as for their brains. Top athletes are not burning more calories with their muscles, they’re burning more calories with their concentration. Concentration takes physical energy.

It does so for thinkers, too. If you are tired, you cannot think straight.

Actually, the issue is wider than that. To think clearly, you need free mental “crow” space, you need energy, and you need access to the ideas being triggered from your subconscious. If you are overloaded, you can’t think straight. If you are tired, you can’t think straight. If you are tense, feeling pressured, or otherwise suppressing, you cut yourself off from critical information and you can’t think straight.

Most of what I teach helps you to manage mental resources. Some of the tactics I teach help you to conserve them. For example, interrupting strain and struggle–which will wear you out in no time–can help you be much more effective. Other tactics help you refill resources–such as the tactics to clear overload. And some help you figure out how to do more with less.

The bottom line–if you are not motivated to do the tasks that you believe are right to do, you need a strategic approach to doing your work that ensures you have tied it to your vision, delimited it so you can finish something soon, and are working within your resources.

In short, you need to lead yourself.

Great leaders inspire the team with a clear, achievable vision, they carve out well-defined tasks for team members to do, and they support their team members with the resources they need to do the tasks–and/or they help with the creative problem-solving to figure out how to complete the task with available resources.

It’s wonderful when you can work with a great leader who does this for you. But if you are responsible for your own work, these are skills you need for yourself. The effect of self-leadership is that you will be motivated. It is the cause. Motivation is the effect.

April 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

If you don’t have resources for self-awareness, you don’t have resources for anything

I had a call with a member of the Thinking Lab the other day. He was concerned that he was reverting to some old behavior. He had changed jobs, and as a result he was very busy ramping up his knowledge and activity in the new position.

He said it had occurred to him that he needed the self-awareness tools he had learned, which made a huge difference in his motivation, effectiveness, and clarity. But he felt like he didn’t have time to use them. He was scheduled without breaks from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

He noticed that old ways seemed to be taking over–he was functioning more on a secondhanded premise and a duty premise. He was feeling pressured to go along with other people rather than stick to his independent judgment. He was “having to” just do the work, no matter what. He was concerned about this–when would the old duty premises and secondhandedness go away?

Two points are needed to put this in perspective: First, this is a common problem, not idiosyncratic to him. Second, it is a sign of success in his changing his premises that he could be this self-aware of the meta-problem.

Having said that, there is a mistaken assumption here–the idea that eventually he will never be pulled to go by duty or to go along with what others think. These are default conditions–and they will always be default conditions. This is not because people are inherently bad, or there is something wrong with him, or it’s impossible to change your premises. This is because, it’s not the action that is a problem per se, it’s that you make the decision to take the action that is a problem.

When you go by duty, you do something because you feel you have to, without having addressed contrary motivation. For example, you clear your email because you can’t stand all of those unread messages piling up–you just feel you have to, even though maybe you’re worried this will mess up your creative work. You shut out that feeling and “just do it.”

If you hold the context and address the contrary motivation, you can then find a step to take that does not require shutting down your mind. Sometimes it is exactly the same step you would have taken. For example, although email is a creativity killer, so is total distraction. Sometimes I make a conscious decision to clear email before creative work, because it’s clear that I won’t be able to concentrate anyway. There is a world of difference in how events unfold when you take an action by conscious choice rather than you are driven to take the same action. The only difference is whether you took the time to actively assess the conflict, or you short-circuited the process and chose based on the strongest feeling.

Similarly, sometimes you go along with another person’s opinion, and sometimes you won’t. The error of secondhandedness is taking the other person’s opinions as the standard, rather than making an objective decision yourself. Going along with the other person is one of the options that you validly should consider when you are engaged in some cooperative activity. If you are passive, it is often the choice, because the other person has been working to persuade you–to activate all of the reasons for going along. If you have not taken the time to activate the full context, of course you will go along with him.

In other words, if you are not self-aware, you will wind up making choices based on duty or secondhandedness, just by the logic of the situation.

Which brings us back to the presenting problem: My client felt he was too busy to take the time to make the decisions in a self-aware way.

Actually, there are three legitimate reasons you might feel you can’t take the steps to be self-aware: you’re overloaded, you’re tired, or you’re tense.

Self-awareness uses specific mental resources.

First of all, it takes mental “crow” space. If you are so overloaded you can’t think straight, you simply do not have the mental capacity for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental capacity for whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to reduce the overload. Here, paper is your friend: make a list, do thinking on paper, organize your ideas. Do something to get the ideas out of your head and in front of you in writing so that you can get an overview and think about issues in crow-friendly bites.

Once you’ve cleared your crow, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Second, it takes energy to be self-aware. If you are tired, you will find the prospect of initiating self-awareness to be exhausting. You simply do not have the mental energy for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental energy for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to refuel. Music and mild exercise are your friends here: Making music, listening to music, taking a brisk walk–these can re-energize you. If these don’t do the trick, you may literally need sleep.

Once you’ve regained your energy, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Third, it takes access to your subconscious to be self-aware. If you are tense, or feeling pressured, you are suppressing feelings. Tensing your body is how you block awareness of feelings and other distractions. Saying “no, I can’t think about that” is the mental equivalent. If you are tensed up or feeling pressured, you simply do not have the free access to your subconscious databanks that you need for self-awareness. On the other hand, you don’t have the free access to your subconscious databanks for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to undo the tension. For this, I use the Alexander Technique and breathing techniques. Stretching and body relaxation techniques can also help. If these don’t do the trick, you may need a bath or a massage.

Once you’ve regained free access to your subconscious, you will instantly become overloaded. Nobody tenses up to keep distractions at bay unless there are a lot of distractions. Some of them are likely emotionally charged. Your best option is to do some kind of core dump of the issues on your mind. If they are emotional, you may need to do some introspection to turn the feelings into words in order to get back to a neutral state.

Once you are in a neutral state, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

The bottom line: there will be times that you don’t have the mental resources for self-awareness. Treat this as a huge warning bell. It means you don’t have the mental resources for any significant work. Your urgent need is to regain the mental resources.

This fact–that you have been overloaded, fatigued, or pressured by the task–then needs to be factored into your choice of next step. This means that you have been working at the limits of your capacity. That is a prescription for struggle. You probably need to adjust your plan so that you can put in a sustainable effort. The way to do that is to make a self-aware choice of what your priority is right now.

April 15, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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