Author Archive | Jean Moroney

Add a 15-Second Check to Your Decision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Remind Yourself It’s a Hump, Not a Hill

Much of the advice for curing yourself of procrastination comes down to “just get started” or “just take a little step.” Once you start on a task that you’ve been avoiding, you often find that the work develops its own momentum. If you can just get started, you can get over the initial hump of inertia, and move forward to completion.

Often. Not always.

Sometimes you are tempted to procrastinate on a project because there is a significant obstacle that you need to deal with. You face a hill, not a hump, and you need to bring your A-game to climb over it.

The problem is, you don’t necessarily know whether you face a hump or a hill before you start. At 10:00 p.m. the other night, I decided to clear a few emails before going to bed. I specifically wanted to answer some queries related to a Toastmasters event that I’m organizing. One of them, my friend Lenore’s, had been sitting in my inbox for about a week.

I was tired, but I thought that I had enough energy to zip through the responses. Unfortunately, when I got to the note from Lenore, I realized I needed to put on my thinking cap to make some decisions about how we would reach out to clubs in the area. Uh oh. At 10:20 p.m. on a Friday night after a busy week, I didn’t have the brainpower to figure out anything. Just identifying the problem used up my last reserves of energy for the day. No wonder this email had languished in my inbox.

So, what did I do?

You might think I felt badly, but I didn’t. I felt no guilt, no discouragement. I simply identified that I needed to schedule brain time earlier the next day to answer Lenore. I closed up the computer and started to read a novel.

This was a little failure. My expectations were wrong. My goal was not achieved. But I took it in stride, and adjusted my expectations.

If you think this genial response to such a failure is normal, I congratulate you.

For many people who tend to procrastinate, it isn’t. For years, when I was tempted to procrastinate, I held myself to an absolute standard of success. I would “take a small step” only because I believed it would manipulate myself to get the work done. If I completed the work, I had done well. If I didn’t complete it, I hadn’t. If my effort had fizzled the way this one did, I’d feel discouraged and become self-critical.

I don’t have that problem anymore, because I make the decision differently.

What I didn’t tell you is that when I first considered starting email at 10 p.m, I was tempted to procrastinate. After all, it was late, and I had only a modest amount of energy. But I didn’t think I needed much energy. I overcame the resistance I felt, not by saying “take a small step” but by telling myself, “it’s a hump, not a hill,” and then asking myself whether, given that, would I be willing to take that first step? I was and I did.

Making my assumption explicit made the difference in how I reacted when I discovered I was climbing a hill, not scooting over a hump. When my assumption proved wrong, I was free to change my mind–without guilt–and I also learned important new information about the task. I needed quality time to reply to Lenore.

These days, whenever I feel I “should” do something, but I “don’t feel like it,” I don’t just “get started.” I consider whether I think the obstacle is a hump or a hill. If I believe it’s a hump, I am willing to take that first step–because I expect to gain momentum. If it turns out that the momentum doesn’t materialize, I’ll get new information and a chance to change my mind.

The wider point is that this is the kind of decision that leads to success no matter what–because you are fully conscious of your reason and your expectations. You succeed as anticipated if your expectations are right. You succeed a different way if they’re wrong, because you learn crucial new information, directly relevant to your undertaking.

But the narrow point is “it’s a hump, not a hill” are words worth remembering for those times when you’re tempted to procrastinate.

As I read that novel that evening, I started to doze off. I thought “I should go to bed” but I felt resistance. Getting up to go to sleep was “too hard.” Fortunately, a few key words flitted through my mind: “It’s a hump, not a hill.” I rolled off the couch, staggered into the bedroom, and went to sleep.

January 8, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Turn Your Good Intentions into a Manifesto

Last week I gave a terrific class on how to troubleshoot “Rationally Connected Conversations.” I mentioned three mistakes to watch out for. Then yesterday in a conversation I made all three mistakes. Actually, I did catch mistake #1 at a certain point and remedy it. But it was only this morning that I realized I had also made mistakes #2 and #3.

Now, in fairness to me, in the class I had pointed out that one way you learn these skills is by making mistakes and taking a “do-over” after you figure that out. And I will, indeed, do a “do-over” of yesterday’s conversation.

But it remains that I had great intentions for how to handle a difficult conversation–and I forgot all about them in the actual situation.

This is not an isolated problem. It’s the essential problem of self-improvement. If you are trying to change ingrained habits, the most likely failure mode is that you will not notice the opportunity to act differently, or you will not remember any different action to take. Rather, your old, automatized responses will seem natural obvious.

Habits die hard.

A practice I use to help me with this problem is to write–and read every day–a manifesto. It’s a statement of my intentions–my self-improvement intentions–with reminders of the practices I am learning to make second nature.

Here’s a picture of my current manifesto sheet with a few pieces marked:

Manifesto

 

You can see it’s not long–about 500 words. It’s short enough I can read every day, which I do. You may notice it’s a little crumpled and marked up. That’s because it is a work in progress.

Let me go through the various items I’ve marked to give you an idea of what’s on it.

The first arrow points to my mission, which I’m happy to share:

My mission is to work out, for people who want to be rational egoists, the basic mental skills needed to live happily and productively, for oneself and with other people. Thinking skills–and the power of reason–are radically misunderstood and deeply needed. Emotional resilience is sorely lacking. To be meaningful, action needs to be integrated by a central purpose. Explaining these practices is my life’s calling.

I’ve sometimes started with my top goals, but since I clarified my mission about six months ago, that has been the lead.

The second arrow points to a paragraph which starts: “The one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will become easier or unnecessary is…”  This I got from Gary Keller’s book, “The One Thing.” I had something like this in previous manifestos, but when I read Keller’s book last spring, I adopted his language to help me focus on the fundamental change I am trying to make.

This is an example of using my manifesto to learn a new practice. It turns out it’s difficult to figure out your “one thing.” I originally thought that my “one thing” was my book, but that is not quite right. After reading the statement every day for six months, I could see that attitude was distorting my perspective.

I moved my book to the section marked “top goal,” and added this sentence: “I choose to prioritize the book, while recognizing there are other values–teaching, sales, personal development–that warrant some of my time.

I’m still working out what my “one thing” is. In the current manifesto, I have it as “to stay present.” This is an excellent intention, but it is not clear enough to actually help me in the trenches of everyday life. For example, it didn’t help me avoid making the three mistakes I told you about earlier. So, I’m sure my “one thing” will evolve. I  will mull on it briefly every day, and eventually I will figure out some advice that would be more helpful to me.

On the second page, you see an arrow labeled “Laundry List.” This is a series of practices and conclusions that I have decided to make second nature–but I still need to review them to remember them.

For example, some time ago I wrote about the 4-second rule, which I got from Peter Bregman. I have found it’s extremely helpful to remind myself that once I have a decision, I have 4 seconds to start acting–and I need to keep the action going for at least 20 seconds–or else the decision may just float away. This was a new idea to me when I first added it to my sheet some years ago. Now it is almost second nature to me, and I bet it will be dropped from the sheet in another six months, to make way for some new practice.

Finally, you can see the last arrow points to something added back, which is handwritten in red: “One para of AR at the start of every break.”

You may recognize that this was the topic of last week’s tip.

People often ask me how to remember all of the tactics I develop. The answer is, sometimes I don’t. While reading one of my old blog posts recently, I saw a mention about my reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand at the beginning of the break. I used to do that. That practice used to be listed on my manifesto. But I dropped it from my manifesto a while ago–and forgot about it!

It seemed like timely advice, so, I resurrected the method, tried it out, and thought more about it. I also thought about why it didn’t stick the last time. My best explanation is that I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of why it worked. Happily, I got much clearer on that while writing the last newsletter. This is what will go on the next typed version of the manifesto:

Start a break with 1 paragraph of AR to wake me up. I’ll see if I need rest, stimulation, recreation, or reflection.

I hope you can see that my manifesto is a living document. My intention in reading it is to hold my top values in mind–but forming values is not a passive process. I read what I wrote critically every day–and often find something that isn’t quite right, or is not relevant or needs to be added. About once a quarter I get bored by what I’ve written–it sounds stale–so I take an hour and rewrite the whole thing, in as inspirational way I can–reflecting my current top priorities.

I have been writing and reading my own manifesto for at least 8 years. Over that time, I have automatized many best practices and learned much about what works and doesn’t work for me. A manifesto is a simple part of a daily routine that can pay off hugely over time.

 

December 26, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Have a Default Break Start

In one of the references to last week’s newsletter, I mentioned an idiosyncratic practice of mine: reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction at the start of a break during the workday.

This is an example of a highly tailored tactic to help with a problem that many people have: breaks take over the work day. Let me explain why this tactic works for me, and then how you could find a corresponding tactic that works for you.

I created this tactic because I wanted some way to be more intentional in my breaks. I was finding that my breaks were going on too long. I’d read a bit of the newspaper, and suddenly discover I’d spent 20 minutes reading–far longer than I intended.

I tried to make a highly self-aware decision about what to do at the beginning of the break–but that just didn’t work. At the start of a break, I would be a little tired, and so I couldn’t count on having the mental energy to make a good decision from scratch. I decided I needed a default activity–something that is a no-brainer for me–that could help guide me to use my time better.

Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand’s nonfiction turned out to be perfect for this purpose. It’s short and easy, but it demands attention. One of four things would happen:

  1. If the effort to concentrate on her words felt wrenching, I was too tired to read a paragraph. This meant that I needed rest–probably an actual nap–not the newspaper, not a fiction break, not food. When I am too tired to concentrate, I am at risk of wasting a lot of time. If I were to start any other kind of break, I would lack the energy to monitor it appropriately, and likely it would not revive me sufficiently to go back to work. The absolute best thing for me to do in such a situation is to lie down and close my eyes. Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was in that risky state.
  2. If the writing was absorbing, I would continue to read Ayn Rand for my break. I re-read the Ayn Rand corpus regularly. I always have a new insight. The challenge is to find a time when I have the mental energy to pay attention to her words. Reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was up to reading more.
  3. If after reading a paragraph, I was interested in doing something else, I would do that. Maybe it would be reading the newspaper, maybe reading a different nonfiction book, maybe taking a walk. Knowing I had passed the basic concentration test, I could be confident that the break wouldn’t get out of hand.
  4. If I was too distracted to read a paragraph, then there was something preying on my mind. I needed to journal about the issue. Any other kind of break could easily turn into an escape.

As I said, this tactic is highly idiosyncratic. Unless you are a devoted student of Ayn Rand, it would not be appropriate. But you could find your own default activity for the beginning of a break. Here are the requirements:

  1. It needs to be extremely short–less than 2 minutes.
  2. It needs to be something you are almost always interested in doing.
  3. It needs to be something mentally stimulating without being addictive–so you would not be tempted to spend the rest of the day on it.

Here are some ideas (other than reading): doing a specific stretch, exercise, or meditation, doing a 2-minute emotional check-in.

What I don’t recommend are: checking email, neatening your desk, or any other activity that can draw you in and kill your break!

This is a great tactic for me, that helps me stay on top of my breaks much better. Ironically, I had dropped it somewhere along the way and forgotten about it. In next week’s newsletter I’ll share how I reinstated it, using another tactic which helps me keep top issues top of mind: the manifesto.

December 21, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Developing a Daily Planning Sheet

In the Thinking Lab, I offer a self-study course called, “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure.” The goal of the course is to help you get a basic system in place to keep you productive. The basic system consists of only three things:

1. A daily planning session (15 minutes per day)
2. A weekly planning session (20-30 minutes once per week)
3. A way to keep track of time

Implicit in the system is a fourth element:

4. A set of benchmarks and other metrics for measuring success

The reason to develop a system is to help you automatize new policies and practices for your own productivity. You can’t change habits with just an intention. You need a system in place to remind you of your goals, values, and intentions, to help you track progress, and to help you troubleshoot problems.

In the course, I give an example of a daily planning sheet that I use to implement my system in a very simple, efficient way. My daily planning sheet is just a piece of paper that I print each week. It has designated areas to track goals, benchmarks, and work. Here’s what the two sides of this week’s sheet looks like today (Friday morning):

Daily Planning Sheet

Most of the time, my planning sheet is folded up, so that I am just looking at the goals and today’s tracking notes. There is also a little piece of paper with my self-care list, which is normally slipped inside the fold. Here’s what it looks like today:

Goals and Tracking Notes

I’m not expecting you to read my sheet. Actually, I’d rather you didn’t, since one of the goals I’m tracking is my weight. 🙂 I’m sharing my sheet, because a Thinking Lab member asked me to talk more about how my particular sheet evolved, so that he could figure out what to put on his.

So, you need to understand that my complex sheet evolved gradually over 15 years, starting when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002 and first attempted to develop a productivity system.

My top takeaway from my 15 years of experimentation is twofold: the system has to be dead easy to use, and you need to be convinced that every second you spend using it pays off. That’s why I recommend starting with a very simple system (just listing goals and tracking time).

My sheet is jam packed with items, but each little bit came online at a different time. Looking it over, there is way too much to discuss in detail, so I’ll just explain the 7 functional areas:

1. Page One Benchmarks: I track all kinds of productivity items like how much time I worked on my book and how many emails were left in my inbox at the end of the day. I fill out the benchmarks every day as part of my daily 15 minutes of planning.

These are all on the front page (top left in the first picture). 15 years ago I kept track of only 4-8 items, which I would write in at the bottom of my weekly calendar. The current list reflects my current projects and priorities.

Most people, when they think about being productive, have a list of things they’d like to do daily or most days. Tracking the most important ones as benchmarks helps you do them more consistently.

Two pieces of advice: First, it’s important to limit the number of things you track. I’m maxed out. In fact, I use this paper to stop me from adding items. I have to take something off if I put something on. If in doubt, track less.

Second, notice your reactions to the items you track. If you feel bored or indifferent to them, why are you tracking this item? If you feel guilty about not doing something, that’s a warning bell to rethink how it relates to your priorities. I adjust my benchmarks incrementally during the year as I shift goals, automatize habits, or take on new campaigns for self-improvement.

2. Little bitty sheet of self-care: This is the extra sheet that shows up in the 2nd picture with today’s sheet open to tracking the day. Maybe 5 years ago, I decided I needed one number to include information on a lot of topics that added up to whether I have a good day or not. The little piece of paper has 15 items on it–everything from playing my flute to exercising to staying on top of admin fits in here–and each day I just go through and check off which ones I did the previous day. I record the number on the front page with other benchmarks.

This list changes every year or so. Usually I upgrade the items. When “house made nice” became easy, I upgraded that item to be “house and office made nice.” Sometimes I take something off the list, because I don’t need to track it. For example, I used to track whether I got 7 hours of sleep a night, but I always stay in bed for 7 hours these days. Exceptions are so rare that it’s not an issue I need to track anymore.

I tote up my self-care number every day as part of my daily planning. I’ve observed that whenever I’ve had a “good” day, I score 10 points or more. These day I try to score 10–sometimes doing a couple of more things on my list to help turn a mediocre day into a good one.

3. Page One & Two Lead/Lag Indicators: There are two yellow boxes with “leading indicators” and “lagging indicators.” I have been developing this section in the last two years based on what I learned from the book The Twelve Week Year.

This is an advanced technique involving weekly benchmarks tied to my quarterly goals (which you might notice at the top of the front page). I calculate my indicators at the end of the week during my weekly planning session, which is why these boxes are all empty. In the end, I get an overall percentage success for activities under my control, and a percentage of results achieved.

This is an example of having read about an interesting productivity technique, and then having taken steps to implement it into my life. When I read the book, I didn’t change everything I was doing. But I did modify my sheet to try out this particular technique. This particular area of the sheet is still a work in progress for me. I’m still figuring out the right lead and lag indicators.

4. Page Two Weekly Goals: On the second page (top right), I list my goals for the week, so I can look at them every day. I fill this out as part of my weekly planning session. As you can see from the picture, I check off items and I add items during the week.

Long ago, I just had lists of big goals and projects, and plans for the day. I didn’t set goals for the week. But about 10 years ago I wanted to see more progress, so I started specifically listing goals for the week. About 5 years ago I started using the Noun Verb Date format, which I got from my coach, David Newman.

In setting goals for the week, I take advantage of the small amount of space. If I can’t fit the week’s goals into the space available, I know that I have too many goals for the week.

5. Inside: Completions & Incompletions: On the inside of the sheet, I use the folds to divide the paper into four columns. The first column is devoted to recording completions at the end of each day. Reviewing what you’ve accomplished is a good way to keep focused on positives.

The top of the second column is for recording incompletions at the end of the week. An incompletion is anything that I had intended to get done but didn’t complete by the end of the week. Recording incompletions is important: it helps you confront the undone, and accept it as a fact needing consideration.

I got the idea of recording completions and incompletions from a book called Attracting Perfect Customers, which I read about 9 years ago. The book also recommended that you date and sign your list–which is something I have done regularly ever since.

Going back, the earliest daily planning sheet I can find quickly is from the week of September 19-25, 2009, and on the inside is the list of completions and incompletions, signed by me.

Completions

(I notice it has only 4 daily benchmarks–a good place to start!)

This is an example of a practice that has stayed unchanged since I adopted it all those years ago. The ritual of listing completions and incompletions, and then signing off on the week, helps me to celebrate victories and mourn failures, and then start with a fresh slate for the new week.

6. Lessons Learned: The third column on the inside is “Lessons Learned.” I am always thinking about my experiences and reaching new conclusions. Once a day I add one-sentence “lessons learned” to the third column of the sheet. Writing down lessons learned helps me remember them and commit to action on them.

This is an example of an innovation–something I added to my process to solve a problem. I got frustrated with having great insights and then forgetting them. It seemed like I had to relearn lessons that I had learned. So, to help myself remember them, I started writing them down.

When I first decided to do this, I wrote detailed comments every day in a weekly engagement calendar. I did this religiously for a year, and then concluded it was just too much work to keep up. So I simplified it. I added a column to my daily planning sheet for capturing just top lessons learned.

7. Time tracking: The rightmost column of both sides of the paper are for time tracking. I use the Pomodoro Technique, a fairly simple way to keep track of time on tasks. Each 25-minute increment of concentrated time is one Pomodoro. I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique since late 2009, when my friend, Rohit Gupta, sent me a link to it and asked me what I thought of it. I tried it out and thought it was terrific.

If you look closely, you can see that on the September, 2009 daily planning sheet I had been making “to do” lists for the day and checking off boxes. When I read about the Pomodoro Technique, just a month or after this, I reallocated that space on my sheet for keeping track of Pomodoros, as you see on today’s sheet.

* * *

The moral of this story is not to go make yourself a complicated daily planning sheet with 18 gazillion things to track. The moral is: find your own simple way to keep track of your work and self-improvement goals, in a way that makes sense to you and doesn’t take a lot of time. As you learn new methods, you can add to it. Start simple, grow into complexity.

The purpose of a sheet like this is to support you as you change habits, learn new processes, and grow your skills. I love my little sheet, because it helps me keep my values and goals top of mind every day, it helps me see what I can do each day to move forward in my life, and it helps me see clearly where I might want to make changes. I hope my story inspires you to develop a sheet or a system that works for you as well as this one works for me.

* * *

Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:

  • “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure” is a class available in the Thinking Lab.
  • Getting Things Done was recommended by me here.
  • The Twelve Week Year was discussed by me here.
  • Attracting Perfect Customers is by Stacey Hall and Jan Brogniez. Note: I found the exercises in this book to be very valuable, but I disagree with the theory.
  •  The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo was recommended by me here.

 

December 18, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

You always have a choice

Whenever I hear myself or someone else saying, “I have no choice,” I challenge that idea. You always have a choice–and owning your power of choice has huge benefits.

When you think you have no choice, that just means you’ve ruled out the other options that you see. Here are some examples of how this comes up:

  • The boss insists you work late, and you have no choice unless you quit, which you’re not going to do.
  • You hate your nose, but you don’t have money for plastic surgery, so you conclude you have no choice but to live with it.
  • You’ve finished eating your meal at a restaurant, and since leaving without paying would be stealing, you have no choice but to pay for it.

In each of these cases, you do face a choice, but you believe there is nothing to think about. You believe the right answer is obvious.

Sometimes the best choice is obvious and there isn’t anything else to think about. For example, suppose your boss wants you to stay late to prepare another point for a 9:00 a.m. meeting. You also want to do that work tonight, because you see that this will help to ensure your most meaningful project gets funded next year. Your plans are flexible, so you make a few calls and stay late. No problem. It’s a no brainer.

There is a world of difference between saying “this choice is a no brainer” and “I have no choice.”

My observation is that people only say the words “I have no choice” when they mean, “this is a difficult, potentially painful choice with high stakes and I don’t like it but I already know what I have to do so I have to just suck it up and do it.”

Difficult, potentially painful choices with high stakes need more thinking, not less. But as soon as you say, “I have no choice” or “I have to,” your mind shuts down, your creative faculty goes into hibernation, and you respond emotionally like an animal being driven by a whip. This is the persona of the victim of external circumstances, who has no control over his destiny, rather than the ambitious person who consistently identifies the best possible way to move his life forward.

Rather than being a victim, the alternative is to reclaim your sovereignty by examining your options–and then making a choice based on which you prefer, based on the full context. Which of these options offers the bigger value to you, taking into account both the short and long term?

Looking at the options that you discarded out of hand helps you become clear on more of the relevant facts and more of the values at stake. You get clearer on the whole context for the decision.

For instance, let’s go back to the situation in which the boss wants you to work late, and you feel forced into it. The first thing to do is to look seriously at what happens if you don’t work late.

There are negatives–such as he could start a proceeding that would in fact get you fired within a short time, or you might feel guilty saying “no,” or an important project might get delayed or canceled, or a customer might be angry.

Presumably there would also be positives, such as you could engage in the evening activities you had scheduled, you’d get more sleep, and you wouldn’t feel resentful. And, maybe, if you’re lucky, the boss might learn that you have a life, which you take seriously, so that he needs to negotiate for overtime, not demand it.

I’m just speculating here, to concretize the kind of information that comes up.

I guarantee that one or more of the factors will trigger intense emotions. Perhaps you’re terrified of losing your job, because you are just barely feeding your family. Perhaps you feel despair that you will never learn to say “no,” because you feel like you’ve been a pushover. Perhaps you’re horrified at the thought of failing the customer, who you care about deeply.

The intense emotions are the reason that you feel you have “no choice.” The awfulness of that option is emotionally real to you, so it seems crazy to consider it.

But emotions just reflect past evaluations that may or may not be valid. Before acting, you need to understand the values at stake on both sides of the choice, and make a decision based on pursuing the biggest values, not avoiding the scariest feelings.

You may make the same choice.

Sometimes when you get at the deep values, the “no choice” becomes a “no brainer.”

Perhaps your staying at work tonight will help your customer break through on a critical problem–and that is deeply meaningful to you. Once you realize that’s the real issue, you choose to stay late, because that is truly what is most important to you.

Or you may realize that there is just some old baggage stopping you from making the forbidden choice.

Perhaps you’ve been actively learning how to “say no” better, and you realize that it’s only an old fear that is stopping you in this case. You decide to use your new skills and stand up to the boss.

Or maybe you realize there is a third way, a creative solution in which everyone gets what he wants. A virtual assistant in India can get the slide ready for the boss’s 9:00 a.m. meeting, so there’s no need for you to stay late.

When you examine the forbidden choice to see the values at stake, you re-conceive the issue as a “no brainer,” “old baggage,” or a false alternative. All of these free you to make a consciously life-promoting choice.

For example, in the case of “no money” for the plastic surgery, the decision might be a no-brainer. Maybe you don’t care about your nose that much, and you’d strongly prefer to save money for a vacation. Or maybe it’s old baggage–you were so embarrassed about your nose, that you repressed the pain, and really, really want the nose job. It’s worth saving for. Or maybe there’s a creative alternative–you could learn fashion and makeup and turn your nose into a part of your style.

Or in the case of “having to pay” for the dinner, the decision may very well become a no-brainer. If you value honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence, and justice, in most cases it would be clear that not paying would put you at war with the waiter and the whole establishment, besides turning you into a mooch. Paying your way is in your self-interest.

On the other hand, it could be that old baggage is getting in the way of seeing your options. Maybe the dinner was inedible, the service rude, and the table dirty. You don’t want to pay because you don’t believe you got the value that was promised, but you also are terrified of making a scene (that’s the old baggage) if you complain to the management and request that the bill be reduced or waived. Well, you do face a choice. You can hold your nose and pay, avoiding a scene. You can confront the manager even though it will be scary. Or conceivably you could leave without paying and accept all of the negative consequences of stiffing the restaurant–which might include your not being welcome at this restaurant, and possibly their taking you to small claims court. Dealing directly with old baggage is never fun, but it sure beats being driven by it.

Finally, you might realize there is a creative alternative. Suppose that you don’t want to pay because you don’t have enough cash. Your date walked out on you, and you only have enough money in your pocket either to pay the bill or to get home safely. Well, it won’t be the first time that management has heard a sob story and accepted someone’s promise to come back and pay later.

You probably noticed that in each of these cases, I painted a different scenario with radically different values at stake. I don’t know the real choices behind your “no choice”–and neither do you until you look.

I am not saying that you ought to choose differently in cases where you think you have “no choice.” Your “no choice” may actually be a “no brainer” when you look at it more carefully.

I am saying that it matters for your long-term happiness and sense of efficacy that when you think you have “no choice” you consider the option you’ve rejected out of hand, and make a conscious, considered decision based on all of the values at stake. Because you really do have a choice, and it matters for you that you know it.

December 13, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Observations About Accepting Facts

Recently, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it means to accept facts. I see this as a topic for psychology, which presupposes a particular philosophical point of view.

Realists point out that if you want to live in the world that exists, you need to accept facts. Idealists point out that you can change the world that exists–if you take the appropriate action. These two perspectives needn’t conflict. They can be integrated if you agree that you need to accept the facts now, in order to identify effective action to take now, which will change the situation in the future to more resemble your ideal. That is my view (which I got from Ayn Rand).

On the surface, it had always seemed obvious to me that you should accept facts–until I saw some situations in which it seemed I wasn’t doing so. For example, I would repeat a failed approach to persuading someone of my view, expecting a different result next time. Or I would acknowledge a specific lack of skill, without changing my approach to achieving goals in that area. Or I would find myself stewing over a fact that I wished weren’t true.

I now see all of these as examples of not accepting facts. I have a lot more thinking to do about this subject, but I thought I’d share three observations.

1. What does it mean to accept a fact?

Short answer: It means that you factor that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

For example, I have accepted the fact that I get sick more easily than most people, and that as a result, I need to maintain certain regimens of self-care involving diet, exercise, and sleep.

Let’s take sleep: I often need 8 hours of sleep, and my bare minimum is 7 hours in bed. If I get less than 7 hours in bed, or I get only 7 hours for several days in a row, I get sick with alarming predictability. The form of illness varies. I might catch a cold. I might be felled by a migraine. Or I might just be pinned in bed with vertigo. But the correlation between a short night of rest and lost work due to illness approaches 100%.

I’ve accepted this fact. I plan my life to ensure I get enough sleep. If I wake up too early, I stay lying flat in bed for at least 7 hours, even though I am awake, to guarantee I get 7 hours of bed rest. With this policy, I have radically improved my overall health.

If I had written this newsletter a month ago, I would say that this policy is an absolute, and I never make exceptions. But an exception happened last month.

With Hurricane Irma approaching, we had not expected to evacuate our home in Naples, Florida. But as the forecast got worse, and certain facts about staying became clearer, we concluded we should leave. This meant loading up the cats in the car and driving out the driveway at 9:15 p.m. to drive to Atlanta. Time was too tight. We could not wait until the next morning to leave.

It was clear I would not get my needed sleep that night, I knew I would sleep only for an hour or two at a time, taking breaks in driving. However, I went into the trip with my eyes open. I thought it likely that I would be sick for a couple of days afterwards and be unable to work. That was the price I would pay. It was more important to get to a safe place.

When I got to Atlanta, sleep was my priority. (I believe I slept for 15 hours.) I also took it easy for a couple of days, without expecting to work, because I knew I had reduced my reserves. I was pleasantly surprised that I did not get sick. But that was because I fully accepted the facts about how easily I get sick–I factored that information into my expectations and planning, and I was able to mitigate that risk.

2. What does it mean to refuse to accept a fact?

On the surface, it seems odd to think of not accepting a fact. What would that even mean? Facts are facts, independent of you. They are true, no matter what you do or say. They are facts, whether you “accept” them or not.

Here’s what failure to accept a fact looks like: You obsess about how you wish the fact weren’t true. You don’t want it to be true, and therefore you think about how bad it is, or how you wish something would change. You do this instead of factoring that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

This often happens in response to undesirable facts about other people. For example, there is more than one person in my life who is an advice-giver. Let’s make a composite and call him Sam–the paradigm advice-giver. He assumes that if I am unhappy or confused about something, I want advice. That is his go-to response to me, regardless of my intent. Indeed, sometimes he gets angry or frustrated, because he assumes I want him to solve my problems (which I don’t).

In fact, often I want only a sounding board–someone to ask me a few questions to help draw out my own thoughts. I might be unsure what the real problem was, or why I was feeling what I was feeling. In these situations, questions from a different point of view can be helpful. But this alternate purpose for the conversation just doesn’t occur to Sam. Ever.

I used to get frustrated and angry by Sam’s untimely advice, and even stew over how little visibility I got from him. I wanted him to be different. This is, of course, completely counterproductive. Other people are not under your control.

I finally accepted the fact that each of my “Sam’s” automatized response is to give advice, and I now factor that into my expectations and choices. Now when I want something other than advice, I make an explicit request. When I explain to a “Sam” that I’m not asking him to solve my problems, I’d just like to use him as a sounding board, he is quite willing to take on that role. As a result, what used to become an unhelpful, mutually frustrating conversation now becomes now mutually friendly–and very helpful.

Given that life is so much better when you accept facts about other people, what stops you from accepting them in the first place? I think that when you stew over an unpleasant fact about someone else, wishing it were different–though it is obviously out of your control–you are avoiding experiencing grief.

I would prefer to have confidentes who could anticipate my emotional needs all of the time. It would be a wonderful support to me, especially when I’m tired or stressed out. That’s when the extra energy needed to make my intentions clear can feel like a burden. I wish my “Sam’s” were more observant and sensitive in these situations. Having imagined what it would be like if Sam were different, I feel sad that I don’t have that support in those particular situations. I mourn the absence of that value.

Mourning the lack or the loss of a value can be quite painful. But it clarifies what matters to you, it resets you emotionally, and it leaves you free to find a different way to gain or keep that value that matters to you. That’s what accepting facts about other people helps you with.

3. What does it mean to accept yourself? Is self-acceptance a value?

This is a hard one–because although you can’t change other people, you can change yourself. I think “self-acceptance” means accepting your own mental state–which doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind in the future.

For example, one morning last week while in NYC, I found myself on the verge of tears for several hours, off and on. Clearly I was experiencing grief. The teariness was a loud warning bell that I had lost some value. I tried various emergency introspection techniques. These quick techniques often help to clarify the situation and bring me back to emotional center. In this case, they didn’t. I came up with a dozen or so hypotheses for why I was distressed, but none of them seemed to be “the reason” that brings clarity and closure in these situations.

Had I been at home, I would have dropped everything and worked through one of my in-depth introspection exercises to get to the bottom of the issue. These exercises are amazingly effective–they always lead to a significant insight. However, they take about 3 hours to complete. I was attending a workshop at the time, so I had neither the time nor the privacy to work through the steps. I kept trying the quick techniques, but I was getting nowhere.

Instead, I got increasingly upset that I was upset. I did not want to be on the verge of tears during the workshop–I was embarrassed to be so emotional. I knew that being upset with how I was feeling was a totally counterproductive vicious cycle.

At a break, I went outside so I could be alone to try to compose myself. It was while I was outside, wishing desperately that I could sort out my emotions, that it occured to me that I needed to accept my mental state.

Whatever was going on, it was not something that I could resolve during the time that I had available. I concluded that I must be facing a bigger and deeper issue than it seemed on the surface. It would need more time.

With this clarity, I immediately relaxed. I had a choice: I could leave the workshop and work it out, or I could put the issue aside, and come back to understand it at some time in the future. If I took this second option, I would need to recognize that I was emotionally vulnerable in the meantime, and be appropriately gentle with myself.

I chose the second option. By accepting my emotional state, I stopped trying to “calm down” and started noticing all of the little things that were triggering me. I didn’t take them too seriously, because I knew I was in an emotionally vulnerable state. I assumed that they were disproportionate responses. So, all I did was file them away mentally for future reference.

I still haven’t had a chance to sort out the deeper issue, but I have a mental file folder filled with relevant data. Sometime a similar issue will come up, and what I observed in this case will help me untangle both incidents at once.

In this case, accepting that I couldn’t change my emotional state at the moment helped me stop trying to do the  undoable. I could focus my attention on what I could do–and that cleared my mind and made me more effective.

The bottom line from these three observations: In each of these cases, the facts that I accepted were facts about consciousness–mine or another person’s. It’s not so hard to accept a fact like “the store closes at 11.” It’s hard to accept facts when it seems like they involve your power of choice–and you could change them to meet your needs. But we often overestimate what is in our power at a given moment.  But that is another topic for another time…

October 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting emotions you are feeling, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally triggered, and need a quick way to get emotionally centered.

How: For each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence.

Why: The 8 families of emotions cover all of the basic value-judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative versions of each family, you naturally balance disproportionate emotional responses.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently? What regrets do I have?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a true positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?

3) After you have finished naming all of the feelings, you may be grounded. If so, sum up your situation in a sentence.

If you are still feeling somewhat overloaded, I recommend you clarify the deep rational values at stake. To do this, first you may need to challenge first thoughts if any of your statements are false or exaggerated. In addition, go through each statement and identify any deep rational values at stake.  These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

Tips

  • Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it, even if you don’t think you do.

Example

Situation: Someone just cut me off making a turn.

Anger: He should look where he’s going.
Gratitude: I’m glad the guy behind me saw me brake.

Fear: I almost had an accident.
Relief: Thank goodness I was able to react in time.

Despair: These lousy drivers should be taken off the road.
Hope: Maybe defensive driving courses can help.

Guilt: I was a little bit distracted.
Pride: I’m glad I don’t text while driving!

Frustration: My heart is still pounding and I can’t seem to calm down.
Confidence: I’m glad that I have good reflexes.

Desire: I really need a little peace and quiet.
Aversion: I don’t want to discuss this with anyone.

Joy: I guess I feel good to be alive.
Grief: This reminds me of my friend who died in a car accident.

Love: I loved my friend.
Indifference: I don’t care what the other drivers think.

Summing Up: I need a little time to catch my breath and just appreciate that I’m okay.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process–it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.

 

References for Members of the Thinking Lab

  • For steps to challenge first thoughts, see the Three Pass Review
  • For steps to clarify your motivation, see   the Goal-Clarification process
  • You can give someone else an empathy bath, but then I recommend that you identify not just their feelings and the idea that seems to be behind it, but the deep rational value at stake. (See this discussion of  deep rational values aka universal values.) Otherwise you risk reinforcing their old baggage.

July 31, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using “Small Moves” as Leading Indicators

In recent years, I’ve incorporated ideas from The Twelve Week Year (by Brian Moran) into my routines, and found them very  helpful.

My top takeaway from this book is the idea of setting quarterly goals rather than annual or monthly goals. When you set goals you intend to accomplish in 12 weeks, every week matters. It’s easier to stay focused on them and get them done. The 13th week of the quarter is used for reflection and planning.

The second crucial takeaway from this book is the idea of setting “leading” indicators.

When you set a goal, you also need to set metrics to tell whether you are on track for completing it. For example, I’m writing a book, and a standard metric would be pages written in a day, or chapters written in a month.

The problem with most metrics is that they are “lagging” indicators. They are backward looking. They tell you what happened in the past. If you don’t get the number of pages written in the time allotted, you know you failed. The poor performance on the metric just makes that explicit.

What is needed to keep on track is leading indicators. These are metrics that predict whether or not you will succeed.

So, for example, for working on the book, that might be hours spent during the week writing. If all that is needed to finish the book is to put in sufficient hours, then hours will predict your eventual success on the book.

If you get low scores on leading indicators, you know you haven’t been putting in the effort where it needs to go.

On the other hand, if you get high scores on your leading indicators, but you don’t actually accomplish the goals on schedule, it turns out that you don’t actually know what exactly is needed to achieve the goal.

For example, I learned that I need about twice as much time writing during the week to make the kind of progress on the book that I want to make (About 20 hours a week rather than 12.)

The trick is to figure out the leading indicators that in fact predict success. After having used the “12-week year” method for about six months, I can tell you that it’s not so easy. Time on task is not always a good leading indicator!

What’s helped me to set “leading indicators” better is the ideas from Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold. Her book is on habit change. Her thesis is that you should change habits by finding the small action to focus on that will make it easy to change a whole pattern. So, for example, to get more organized, she set up a routine of always putting the keys in exactly one place. That anchored many other small actions, making her whole day smoother. By focusing on crucial small actions, she was able to make significant changes in her routines.

I applied this idea to my productivity. My “lagging” indicator for productivity is the number of “pomodoros” (concentrated 25-minute segments) that I work each week.

Sometimes I do well, sometimes not so much. Looking it over, I decided that the biggest problem was that when I was tired or having trouble, my breaks would drag on too long. I would slip  down a slope of reading “one more page” in the newspaper, or watching “one more show” on TV, or reading “one more chapter” in a novel.

Since I am also trying to root out the duty premise, forcing myself to go back to work was not an option. At these moments, I was not willing to end the break. But I needed some way to change the dynamic of the break.

I came up with a simple change. Before I read any page of the newspaper, or watch any show, or read any chapter in a novel, I first read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Then when I get to the end of the page or chapter or program, I need to read another paragraph of Ayn Rand to continue.

Reading Ayn Rand is also a break–but a more intellectually stimulating one.

If I’m tired, one paragraph is about all I’m good for, and I usually realize I need a nap, not a pleasure break. That’s a much more effective use of time.

Usually I read a lot more than one paragraph of Ayn Rand. Sometimes that becomes my entire break, and I go back to work. Sometimes I take the pleasure break when I finish, but it has a different quality. I’m more energized for it, and it’s always shorter. I never get into the vicious cycle of “not feeling like” getting back to work.

Now, my leading indicator for productivity is: do I read at least one paragraph of Ayn Rand before any of these three “break” activities? This turns out to be an excellent predictor of my actual work.

This particular intervention works for me, but it is idiosyncratic. It’s just an example a small concrete action I took to take to change a pattern.

The moral of the story is: if you are not achieving a goal on the time scale you have set, trace back to find the pattern of failure. See if you can find some small action to break that pattern. Then turn that new action into a metric–a leading indicator of whether you will achieve your goal on schedule.

 

July 11, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Admit You Have No Plan

In a one-on-one coaching call a few months ago, Roger (not his real name) reported that he was being pulled off course into doing unimportant work. I asked him if he was taking a few minutes to plan the day in the morning.

We had previously discussed how to plan the day in 10 minutes. First you identify the top 3 things you need to finish today. Then you look at your calendar and see how to fit them in. If they don’t fit in, you need to change your expectations or change your plan.

For example, this morning I realized I was tight on time for some urgent work, so I arranged to walk during a phone appointment to squeeze my exercise in, and I postponed a routine check-in with an assistant to a less busy day. I also gave up on getting a particular item done today.

When I asked Roger whether he was planning the day, he became thoughtful. He said he’d found planning the day very useful, but he hadn’t been doing it recently. Why not? Probably because his top priorities were not so clear. Likely, this made planning the day a little off-putting, so he was tempted to jump into clearing email or the like. Once distracted, he never got around to prioritizing and planning.

This is a great example of a difficulty holding context. As soon as we discussed the situation, Roger was convinced that planning the day would solve his problem. He was sure he could figure out his priorities if he tried. He just needed some way to make sure he remembered how important it was to do it. He needed to keep that value context activated.

Here’s a great way to do that: Mark off a part of the whiteboard near your desk for the plan for the day. Put the date at the top, and the plan below. On any day, as soon as you notice that the information is out of date, erase it, write the new date, and “No Plan.” Like this:

No Plan

Alan Lakein says, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” If you know how helpful daily planning is, seeing “No Plan” on that whiteboard puts you in instant conflict. It reminds  you that  you haven’t identified how to achieve your top priorities today.

Roger and I both implemented this idea. Here’s how my plan evolved Monday:

Monday - No Plan

Monday - No Plan

Notice I didn’t plan the day first thing. I prepared a Thinking Lab class instead. I know that when the muse is with me, it’s better to do concentrated thinking. If I look at my to-do list too early, I destroy the creative process.

Jumping into creative work sometimes led me to forget to plan my day. Now that my whiteboard says “No Plan,” it doesn’t.

As an aside, notice that on this day, my initial beliefs about my priorities were all wrong. When I took 10 minutes to plan the day, I figured out what they really were.

If you don’t plan the day as often as you wish, I highly recommend this strategy. You can buy a little 8×10″ whiteboard to prop up on your desk. It will give you a visual reminder of how important it is to plan your day.

The key that makes the whole thing work? When first you see it’s out of date, erase yesterday’s material, write today’s date, and admit you have no plan.

July 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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