Author Archive | Jean Moroney

The Real Value of Small Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The importance of taking small steps is well known. It’s the most likely advice you’ll get if you’re bogging down on something. “Try taking a small step.”

And yet, I have often found this advice unhelpful. I’m sure that is partly because I break down tasks into smaller steps all the time–almost automatically–so I don’t normally need to be reminded about this.

But when I have bogged down or gotten stuck–and did need some advice–smaller steps themselves rarely seemed to help.

For example, in the past I’ve tried to take a “smaller step” in writing and had it backfire. I recall one time I was having trouble getting my head around a chapter, so I decided to review some notes from previous days. Though this seemed like a very small step, somehow it was not a good next step, and my head was spinning after 15 minutes. I needed to take a nap to recover normal mental functioning after that allegedly “small step.”

Moreover, I’ve often found that small steps didn’t help me when the task was not motivating. When you resist doing some unpleasant task you think you “should” be doing, a small step is supposed to get you “over the hump” so you’ll do the unpleasant task. But I would see this as manipulative–which made me resist taking the small step!

In these kinds of cases, even if you carve out small steps, you wind up slogging forward, forcing yourself to pick up one foot after another. That is the kind of struggle and strain that I am opposed to on principle.

But on the other hand, there is something very important about taking small steps, and I think I finally understand the true reason why small steps can help you when work is bogging down–and why it didn’t help in those cases.

Small steps reinforce your freedom of choice–if you are only committing to the small step. Once you’ve taken it, you get to choose freely again whether you will continue or not. No harm, no foul if you don’t.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. A male friend of mine doesn’t like to shave. But every day, when he confronts the choice to shave, and doesn’t want to, he asks himself if he’d be willing to just do a quick electric shave for 20 seconds so he doesn’t look unkempt. More than 99% of the time, he is willing to do that. Usually, at 20 seconds, he wants to spend a little more time finishing off his shave. But he knows he is free to stop, and perhaps 3% of the time, he does stop. In this way, he has a good shave almost every day, without ever forcing himself to do something he doesn’t want to do. Even though he doesn’t like shaving.

Here’s a more complicated example. I mentioned I had had some problems with writer’s block recently. I had deep resistance to writing newsletters. I dealt with it by giving myself total freedom of choice.

I realized that I couldn’t diagnose the problem unless I tried to write an article. I had 10 possible article topics, all of which I felt blocked on. I decided to pick one and start working on it, to help me understand the obstacle.

But because I was afraid I would force myself to write the article, I had to promise myself that I was only doing the work to figure out what the conflict was. I did not actually have to write the article.

Over two days, I spent 4 1/2 hours of concentrated time working on that article. Every time I felt strain, I switched from my writing notebook to my journal. And after figuring out the immediate problem, I didn’t want to go back to writing. So, I promised myself, again, that I was just doing this to understand the block. I did not have to finish the article.

With this method, I was able to work steadily, willingly, on something I was willing to do (figure out the source of the block) without doing what I was not willing to do (write the article). I did figure out the source of the block, and the next day I wrote an article on a completely different topic using what I’d learned. (I never did finish that test article, and probably never will.)

This advice complements the microresolution literature. (See Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold.) For example, I have recently made a microresolution that I will turn on an exercise DVD every morning. I am not making a commitment to exercise every morning, just turn on an exercise DVD, knowing that I can then choose freely to exercise or not. Likely, I will.

Small steps like these are the means of helping you retain your sense of ownership and control of the task when it is not going well. They permit you to choose freely to challenge conflict as you go, rather than force yourself through the conflict.

As a result, you can use small steps to do unpleasant tasks without feeling like you’re making yourself do them–and without manipulating yourself.

A small, small step in a good direction–with no commitment beyond it–can help you out of inertia. A small step loaded with good intentions for the future will not.

This is a deep change in perspective for me. For years, I have been looking for some method that will guarantee I follow through in the future on an intention I set now. But that is on a mistaken premise. That is taking habit as the model for action.

It is true that when an activity becomes highly automatized (habitual), you need only initiate the first step, and the later steps follow unthinkingly. This is how you can shower and dress in 11 minutes flat, or deal cards while carrying on a conversation, or mow the grass with the same route every time.

But most productive activities (such as writing) require significant volitional control. You cannot succeed on autopilot.

And volition only controls this moment. You can choose only now, so you can choose only your next step.

And when you acknowledge that–when you allow that you can stop shaving, or stop writing, or stop exercising should you so choose–you eliminate all of the artificial conflict created by “duties” and “shoulds” and “musts.” You replace them with a sense of freedom and control over your own actions.

That–the reaffirmation of your own agency–is the motivational value of small steps.

 

July 4, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

FAQ – What is a Thinking Day?

Power Forward with a Thinking Day

A “Thinking Day” is a day you concentrate entirely to one project. You might devote it to a creative project that needs uninterrupted time–like outlining a book. You might devote it to goal-setting or planning a major project. You might devote it to something that you’re procrastinating on–and you want to turn all of your attention to it, both to get it done and to figure out what’s been stopping you. You might devote the day to listening to a course you bought but never went through. Or you might devote it to getting as much done on your “to do” list as you can, just to clear the decks.

It’s your choice. “Thinking Day” is  inspired by a “Do It Day” that I participated in some years ago. My mentor, David Newman, declared the date, and everyone in his group cleared the day to work on our businesses. Every hour, on the hour from 9-4, we called into his bridge to report what we had intended to do in the last hour, what we actually did, and what we were planning to do in the next hour. In between, he was available on Facebook to answer questions and send links to resources.

I found this format to be highly productive. Blocking out a day helps you to focus on one project and keep at it for the whole day. Having some way to “check in” and ask questions helps overcome roadblocks. I continue to run my own personal “do it days” from time to time with a friend.

I have added “Thinking Days” to the Thinking Lab schedule to help Thinking Lab members take advantage of the program, and make myself available to answer questions. (I open up one of those Q&A sessions to the public–see below.)

Often Thinking Lab members will choose to work through one of the 11 self-study courses available in the passworded area of the  Thinking Lab site. These include “Tap Your Own Brilliance,” “Just-in-Time Planning,” “Non-Fiction Writing,” and “Smarter Execution,” plus all the courses on essentialization that I developed from 1998-2002. Any member of the Lab can work through them at his or her own pace at any time. However, I recognize it takes time and discipline to work through them. It can help to have me on hand to answer questions.

Everyone who participates in Thinking Day gets to decide how to use it best for him or herself. To aid in that, I am on the phone bridge to answer questions, point out resources, and offer coaching and encouragement at the beginning, middle, and end of the day for Thinking Lab members, and once in the middle for anyone on my email list.

The schedule is:

10:00 – 11:15 a.m. Eastern: Thinking Lab Members Only: Opening Circle plus Q&A

12:00 – 1:00 p.m. Eastern: Open Q&A–Dial-in information sent to everyone on my email list and to members of my husband’s membership program, The Harry Binswanger Letter

2:00 – 3:00 p.m. Eastern: Thinking Lab Members Only: Open Q&A

4:00 – 5:00 p.m. Eastern: Thinking Lab Members Only: Open Q&A, Closing Circle starts at 4:45

In between, I am available to Thinking Lab members by email to answer questions. I  encourage members to check-in periodically by email, even if they don’t join us by phone.

What makes or breaks this event for anyone is their choice of issue to work on.  I encourage Thinking Lab members to pick a project or skill to work on before the day. They can email me in advance, so I can then suggest one of the self-study courses that would be most appropriate to help guide the work. Here’s the rough correspondence:

  • Plan a complex project: Go through Just in Time Planning
  • Stop procrastinating on a project: Go through Smarter Execution
  • Write something: Go through the Non-Fiction Writing Course
  • Solidify your general skills: Go through Tap Your Own Brilliance or Making Thinking Tactics Second Nature
  • Improve your time management: Go through Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure
  • Improve your precision: Condensation

Thinking Lab members can read detailed descriptions of the courses at: http://www.yourthinkinglab.com

Would you like to join me on the next Thinking Day? Read more about all of the benefits of the Thinking Lab here:
http://www.thinkingdirections.com/ThinkingLab.htm

 

December 5, 2016 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Achieve Your Lifetime Goals by Thinking About Them Every Year

“Change your smoke detector batteries when you change the clocks to or from Daylight Savings Time. Otherwise you’ll forget.”

This little trick suggests a way to help you achieve some of the most important goals you’ll ever set: your lifetime goals.

Your lifetime goals are the things you’d like to do, either in the next 3-5 years or just “sometime.” Write a book? Visit Hong Kong? Be on a TV show? The list may be long, as it includes both the fun things and the serious things you want to accomplish.

Perhaps you haven’t called these “lifetime goals,” and perhaps you’ve never tried to write them down. But you have them–everybody has them. They are the goals you daydream about in your spare time, and, if you never pursue them, they are the omissions you regret the most at the end of your life.

To make sure you accomplish them while you’re still on the planet, I recommend you follow a practice like the smoke alarm rule. Choose an annual event as a time to review your lifetime goals to see how you might achieve some of them in the upcoming 12 months.

The annual review solves two cognitive problems.

First, you need to bring your lifetime goals nearer to the top of your mind so that you can spot opportunities for achieving them. You need to make a new list, and review last year’s.

Over the course of a year, lifetime goals fade into the background where they rarely occur to you. So go through your list asking, “can I plan this into the upcoming year?” Even goals you can’t pursue this year will start percolating, and you will be much more likely to notice a new opportunity, if it arises later in the year.

Second, you may need to challenge old assumptions about how and when you can accomplish the goal. Those old assumptions may be subtly preventing you from seeing new possibilities.

The context changes. Old decisions go out of date. New opportunities arise.

Maybe you were waiting until you completed a training program (or your kids did) before starting a business. Did you (or they) finish? Maybe you were concerned about the political situation in Hong Kong or Egypt and were waiting for a better time to visit. Has the situation changed? Yearly is a good frequency to check.

If you don’t revisit your goals, you’ll be stuck operating on old “can’ts” and “won’ts” that are out of date. The things you wanted to do in your lifetime will be buried in forgetfulness.

So, pick a yearly event that works for you. Maybe your birthday is the ideal day. Perhaps the first day of school is the day you get down to the business of planning the year. Or maybe your summer getaway offers the reflection time you need.

Then, think about your goals every year at that time. Because you don’t want to forget to achieve your lifetime goals.

Note: There is a simple procedure for identifying lifetime goals in chapter 5 of Alan Lakein’s  book, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life .” See my recommendation: http://thinkingdirections.com/articles6Lakein.htm

 

December 31, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Making Sure Constructive Criticism Sticks

Mark Murphy has a great short article titled “Don’t Make Constructive Criticism so Soft That People Miss Your Message.”

In it, he criticizes the feedback sandwich, which I learned long ago in Toastmasters. It’s simple: when you are giving feedback, first tell something positive, then something to improve, then end with something else positive.

This method is very effective in a Toastmasters setting, where the #1 priority is to keep everyone motivated and enjoying the experience.  In Toastmasters, you are not responsible for anyone else’s improvement. You give suggestions for improvement because everyone in the room is there to improve, and suggestions are part of the program.

But I can see that it would not be particularly effective in a managerial setting, where you are responsible for your team members performance. In those cases, you need to be more direct.

What interested me most is that he linked the method to the serial effect: you remember the first and last things you hear the best. In Toastmasters, that needs to be positive. In business, the need for improvement may be the thing you need to remember!

Again, the article is here.

 

 

December 17, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Dishes Won’t Wash Themselves

It is not enough to know that washing dishes is a good thing, that it helps you keep a clean kitchen. The dishes won’t wash themselves.

The same is true of every mental tool. No matter how long you have used a tool and no matter how convinced you are that it works, you still need to make a conscious decision to use it. You don’t get the benefits if you don’t take the action. This comes up often with people who have learned “thinking on paper” from me. They know it’s a good tool, but they don’t use it when they need it. They don’t take the extra step.

The same thing happens with introspective techniques. They help you calm down when you’re upset, but you have to remind yourself to try them. This is true of every tool. I’ve taken Alexander Technique lessons for 15 years, but I still find that I have to remind myself to use the technique when I notice tension in my neck and shoulders.

There is a general principle to be drawn here: having a problem and wanting it to go away is not enough. You need to notice that you’re having the problem, and choose to enact the steps that will solve it.

The tools don’t magically solve your problems. The #1 thing that solves your problems is noticing that you have them, and deciding to try to do something about them.

That’s when the tools come in. The benefit of learning tools—“thinking on paper,” introspection, the Alexander Technique, and others, is that if you notice there’s a problem, you know ready-made steps to help you solve it.

If you don’t know exactly how to solve a problem, “thinking on paper” is often a good general first step!

 

 

November 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t Settle for “Etcetera”

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve been introduced to “thinking on paper.” If not, you can read about it and get instruction on it with my Smarter Starter Kit.

With that as the context, a client sent me this note about “thinking on paper” which he said I could share:

Just was doing some “thinking on paper” and came up with something that may be obvious but was helpful for me to realize explicitly.  Your “thinking on paper” should ban the word, “etc.” This is probably implied by the rule to write in full sentences, but I realized it was a way for context to leak off of the paper and disappear into the ether.

One of the great benefits of “thinking on paper” for me is being able to recapture my context.  And I realized when I write, “etc.” I am going too fast and may be throwing away valuable information….

I am so anxious to get on  the path I have chosen and that I am throwing away information I judge as non-essential at the time of the writing.  As such, I may have lost other critical thoughts when I read back through and say, “I wonder what ‘etc.’ stands for here.”  I may have other clues from the rest of the context I have recaptured, but it occurred to me that this was just sloppy, and probably to be avoided.

This is an excellent observation, one that I hadn’t made myself. But it fits with everything I know about “thinking on paper.”

The moral of the story: when the word “etc.” occurs to you, your subconscious is indicating as loudly as possible that you need to make a list!

I have only one quibble with this note and this client.  Please don’t give yourself a hard time when you find a small area to improve! No need to call yourself “sloppy” when you notice something you’d like to do better. Why not call yourself “observant,” instead?

I recommend that you always focus on the positive reason for making the change. In this case, the positive reason is: “If I write out the ideas behind the etc., I’ll have them on paper  where I can see them. Then I can tell whether I’ve got lots of great ideas or I need to do some more thinking.” Giving yourself positive encouragement to do something good is a deeper, more effective form of motivation than giving yourself warnings to avoid doing something “bad.”

 

 

November 19, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Turning Stress into Excitement

In a recent newsletter  I talked about transitioning to “neutral” when I was feeling resistance to doing chores. You can’t get yourself excited to do the chores, but if you can get to neutral, you’ll probably be willing to do it.

Then I read a blog post by my friend Sonia Satra, in which she talks about how she transformed physical tension into excitement. It’s so much easier to make that transition than it is to calm down. You can read her blog post here.

It looks like there’s a principle here, which had not occurred to me. Consciously choose the transition you’re trying to make. It’s important that it be a small transition, not a large one.

Offhand, you can go from:

  • tired to relaxed
  • tense to excited
  • resistant to neutral
  • tempted to neutral

What other transitions can you make?

 

November 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use Your Listening Skills to Help You Think

When something’s on your mind, talking over the issue with a friend is a real value. A good listener can gently encourage you to untangle your thoughts, without taking over the conversation and/or enforcing his own agenda. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a good listener on call every time you had something you needed to think through?

You can be that person for yourself–if you train yourself to listen to your own subconscious.

Listening to your own subconscious is similar to the kind of “active listening” you use when listening to others. You need to slow yourself down, stop multi-tasking, pay attention, and actually take in the thoughts you’re hearing internally. In active listening, the listeners repeat back what they’re hearing to make sure they get it. In listening to the subconscious, you are the listener and you write down what you’re hearing from your subconscious. In both cases, having the thoughts reflected back helps you get objectivity on them.

It’s particularly important to “listen to the subconscious” using “thinking on paper,” because listening to your own mind takes extra concentration. You don’t have another person there, keeping you on track. You don’t see body language and other cues that keep you connected to the conversation. So you need “thinking on paper” to help you focused on what’s happening.

Your subconscious is a storehouse of knowledge, values, and associations. If you are feeling frustrated, there is likely some very helpful information in there that could help you out of the bind. By taking a few minutes to listen to your subconscious, you can get the most relevant, most obvious information out of storage and into consideration where it can help you.

So, next time you need an ear to listen to your problems, and no one’s handy, lend an inner ear. You can be your own best listener.

 

 

November 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Deja Vu All Over Again

“How did I wind up here again?” We’ve all had the experience: a bad situation keeps repeating itself. Maybe it’s a confrontation with a particular person that keeps coming up and going badly. Maybe it’s the feeling of being overloaded by the administrivia again–even though you cleared it out last week. Maybe it’s seeing a project fizzle to a stop again. You keep gearing up on it, taking a step, and it never gets any momentum.

When you are feeling “deja vu all over again,” chances are you are “flailing” on the task. Flailing means trying the same approach again and again, without getting a different result. When this happens, you always need to step back, and change something farther back in the process. The mistake is always a few steps back, not right before you get in the mess. Here are a few ways you can take some steps back:

  1. Ask the experts–they often know a better way to approach problems. For example, there are great books on how deal with confrontation–and they all involve doing preparation before the confrontation occurs. (One I like is Difficult Conversations by Stone et. all.)
  2. Use a creativity process. Brainstorming and other creative processes are designed to help you generate alternatives. Brainstorming comes in many forms. A good book on it is: The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking by Paul Sloane.
  3. Sometimes you can just experiment. Write down how you always do the task. Then systematically change the process piece by piece to see what makes a difference.

The bottom line is: when you are flailing (doing the same thing, again and again, and expecting a different result), you need to stop what you’re doing and make a radical change.

Unless you like having deja vu all over again.

 

October 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Catching What Triggers You

Here’s another blog post from Peter Bregman: Quash Your Bad Habits by Knowing What Triggers Them. He’s a terrific thinker on productivity and execution issues. What I like particularly about this article is that he documents the physical warning signs that Jeff was about to explode:

Minute 1: Nick steps to the front of the room (I knew Jeff had an issue with Nick’s lack of accountability so, as soon Nick stood to facilitate, I knew Jeff was at risk of losing his temper).

Minute 3: Jeff starts tapping his foot.

Minute 4: Jeff starts tapping his pen on his pad.

Minute 6: Jeff’s breathing changes. He is taking deeper, exasperated, audible breaths. Like sighing.

Minute 8: Jeff is shifting in his chair. He can’t sit still. He is physically uncomfortable with what’s going on.

Minute 9: Jeff stops breathing. He is literally holding his breath.

Minute 10: BOOM!

Noticing your own body and your own actions takes a little extra self-awareness. But the physical evidence is there if you look. Once you know what to look for, you can set a standing order to do something different, e.g., “If I start tapping my foot, take a quick timeout to do a breathing exercise and remind myself of the context.”

Again, here’s a link to Peter Bregman’s article: Quash Your Bad Habits by Knowing What Triggers Them

And to mine on setting standing orders: Setting Standing Orders

 

October 27, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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