Archive | Best Practices

Three Ways to Prepare for a Constructive Conversation

If you’ve been following my work, you know that I’m interested in making conversations on controversial topics more constructive and less contentious. I think I’m making progress, but, yesterday I had a contentious conversation with someone who I am in basic agreement with. The topic was how you persuade people. Ironic, I know.

After a little reflection, I realized that I had not prepared. It had not even occurred to me to prepare–I thought we were in basic agreement. But as a result, I didn’t have the mental resources I needed to have a constructive conversation.

The #1 resource you need is mental “crow” space. A conversation is a kind of performance. Your performance will degrade if you get mentally overloaded. You need to have the mental wherewithal to adapt and adjust as you go. If you are scrambling to keep your next point in mind, or to understand the other person, or to figure out a better argument, you don’t have enough capacity for really engaging with the other person.

So how do you prepare for a conversation? One way is to role play with another person in advance. This is very helpful if you predict that you are going to trigger specific objections or defensiveness. You can get someone to act like the other person, and try out ways to handle it.

But even before you role play, you need to do some mental preparation. Otherwise, the role play will go haywire, too. Here are three ways to prepare that will give you more crow space for actually having the conversation.

1.Identify your framework for reaching conclusions in this area

By your framework, I mean the basic assumptions, logical processes, and standards of value you use to decide what is true or false, right or wrong, important or unimportant in this area.

Incidentally, I got the idea of a framework for a conversation from Alex Epstein. If you’re remotely interested in this topic, I recommend checking out his Human Flourishing Project podcast. This is my understanding of the issue.

For example, in hindsight, to discuss how to have a conversation, I think my framework should have been something like this:


  • Both people are thinking beings, who control their own minds and need to do their own thinking
  • Rational agreement results when each person independently sees the truth

Logical Processes:

  • Concretize any abstract ideas using an example that both people can understand
  • Start by finding an area of agreement and then work toward understanding and/or resolving any disagreements
  • Get clear on the two contexts so that you can identify whether disagreements are due toa) lack of knowledge
    b) false beliefs
    c) imprecise ideas that need clarification


  • Alignment: both parties in a conversation need to have compatible goals or intentions in the conversation
  • Connection: to be a positive conversation, both parties need to get visibility–some recognition of their values
  • Communication: whoever is slowest at understanding needs to set the pace so that neither person gets overloaded

The reason for doing this preparation is to make it easy to spot key logical issues. By doing preparation, there is less thinking you need to do in the conversation, and therefore more crow space available for listening to the other person and addressing what he says.

2. Ground yourself emotionally so that you have sufficient patience

By grounding yourself emotionally, I mean that you preemptively process all of the emotions that you anticipate having in the conversation. You imagine a disaster, and give yourself empathy for that.

This is not just introspecting the emotions, but also understanding the real conflicts. You want harmony, and also self-expression. You want agreement, but this is not under your direct control. You might be concerned that you aren’t clear enough, and that therefore you could be manipulated. In each of these cases, you need to come to terms with the conflict, so you go into the conversation with your eyes wide open, not expecting harmony, alignment, and ease which you are unlikely to get.

There are many specific ways to do this. For example, I teach the “empathy bath” in Focused Choices and in the Thinking Lab.

The reason for grounding yourself is so that you can stay “present” in the conversation. By present, I mean that you have enough crow space to be able to process what the other person is saying, plus hear ideas coming up from your subconscious, plus monitor your emotions. If too many ideas or emotions are coming up from your subconscious, you will be overloaded, and will not be able to evaluate and address what the other person says. Pre-emptively grounding yourself emotionally increases your resilience and decreases your excitability. You are less likely to be surprised by what the person says–so you are less likely to be emotionally triggered by it, too.

Incidentally, I learned this from my colleague, Jeff Brown, who is a certified NVC trainer. He says he spends twice as much time preparing for a difficult conversation as he expects the conversation to last. That ensures he has enough emotional resilience to get through the conversation, even if the other person doesn’t give him an inch. His emotional reservoirs are full, so he can handle any emotional issues that come up for him during the conversation. The result? Tremendous patience, tremendous ability to listen, tremendous ability to come up with creative ways to bridge differences.

3. Identify the appropriate intention to hold in mind

By intention, I mean your goal for the conversation. This is the goal that you hold in mind, that sets the standard for choosing what you say and do.

You need a different intention in different conversations. Your intention needs to be consistent with the other person’s. Otherwise you create immediate conflict. The other person gets emotionally triggered and distracted from the conversation. Any attempt to reach some mutual conclusion is undercut.

For example, in a teacher-student conversation, the student’s intention is to understand the teacher, and the teacher’s intention is to support the student to understand. If you have a teacher’s intention, but the person you are talking to doesn’t want to be your student, the “student” will feel lectured at. You create immediate conflict that gets in the way of any communication.

As another example, in a leader-follower conversation, the leader’s intention is communicate something the follower needs to know to perform his part on the team. The follower’s intention is to reach a firsthand agreement with the leader–which may require challenging him respectfully.

If you don’t know have any pre-set roles in a conversation, the intention you can always hold, non-controversially, is to connect with the other person, i.e., to in some way identify shared values. You can do this either by giving him “empathy,” in which you guess the deep rational values behind what he’s saying, or you can express yourself in terms of deep rational values and see if he responds. More informally, you may tell a story to establish connection. If you keep your intention on connecting, even if you don’t succeed with your first attempt, you will get information from the other person that will help you adjust and connect on the second or third try.

For those who don’t recognize it, this is the method I learned from Marshall Rosenberg. “Connection” works as an all-purpose intention in social situations, because it is the fundamental value you get from associating with other people. When you make a connection, you are seeing that person as a rational valuer–an asset to your life in that respect.

The need to have consistent intentions means some intentions are ruled out, such as “get him to agree with me” or “make him do it.” I believe these are ruled out on the basis of respecting the other person’s thinking mind–you need to leave him free to do his own thinking, as my friend Catherine Dickerson says. It would be irrational of the other person to hold an intention compatible with your authoritarian one, such as “don’t make waves” or “just do what the boss says” or “don’t judge, just keep harmony.”

To be clear, I do not mean mean that you drop any desire to persuade someone of your point of view or to convince him to take an action. You may have as your longer-range goal to persuade people of your point of view or to find someone who could cooperate with you to achieve some goal. But you never need the cooperation of any specific person to achieve your long-range goals. (If you think you do, you have set the goal incorrectly.)

Unless you have a friend who genuinely likes arguing, and that is the agreed-upon terms of discussion, persuading the other person should not be your immediate focus. Your focus is on an objective step you can take toward your goals–given what the other person has communicated regarding his interests and intentions. For example, maybe you are trying to find out if he is someone who would be a good person to talk with or collaborate with.

If you short-circuit making sure there is some buy-in from the other person, you kill hope for the communication. You set yourself up as an antagonist.

If this all sounds like a lot of work, I agree. I thought that once I learned some real-time skills, all my conversations would be easy. But I am learning that the real-time skills are only part of the solution. They help with a range of problems. But the more difficult conversations are objectively more difficult. For those, you need to set yourself up for success by preparing yourself logically, emotionally, and mentally for the conversation–so that the real-time skills have a chance to work.


October 1, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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

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

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

Take the Laugh Test

In another article, I mentioned that whenever you give a reason for your conclusion, you should pause to make sure it passes the Laugh Test.

Yes, the “Laugh Test.”

Sometimes your reason will turn out to be a patent rationalization, and you won’t be able to repeat it without grimacing. A rationalization is a pseudo-reason that substitutes for the real reason because the real reason is unknown or unpalatable.

For example, imagine you are ready to start work on the most difficult, most important work of the day, when it occurs to you that you should check your email, “just in case there’s something important there.” That reason just doesn’t pass muster. There’s something important in front of you–and a hundred distractions in your email inbox. It’s a rationalization for avoiding the hard work you just sat down to do. When you realize how lame that reason is, you’ve got to laugh.

Or at least I hope you will. Responding to such mistakes with laughter, not self-condemnation, puts you in an excellent state to do the work you need to do. You need to figure out what your real motivation is without prejudice. You do not know how to evaluate the rationalization until you investigate further.

After all, rationalizations can occur to you innocently. They do not necessarily mean anything in particular, except that you haven’t yet identified a good reason for your decision.

For example, I remember an incident from when I was an undergraduate that shows how easy it is to make a decision without knowing the real reason. I was in the dorm dining hall, having just made myself a waffle and buttered it, when my friend Maria asked me if I wanted syrup. I said no, I used sugar, “fewer calories.” She looked at me skeptically and said, “I don’t think so–not with six pats of butter on your waffle.”

I remember being embarrassed and surprised. She was absolutely right. Those were the good old days when I was oblivious to how many calories I was eating. I wasn’t dieting. I wasn’t trying to diet. The best I can reconstruct it, I asked myself, “why do I use sugar?” and it occurred to me that I put less sugar on my waffles than most people put syrup, which results in fewer calories. So I blurted that out.

It was only when I started to write up this story that I asked myself more seriously, why do I use granulated sugar instead of syrup? I didn’t know offhand! I remember when I switched. I was at Girl Scout camp, which had only fake syrup, which I detested. So I switched to putting sugar on pancakes and the like. But ever since then, I’ve used sugar even when real maple syrup was available.

In writing this story, I finally really put some thought into it. Here’s why I use sugar: I prefer the texture of butter and sugar to the gloppiness of syrup. Even now, probably 25 years after my last waffle smothered in butter and sugar, I salivate when I remember that crunchy greasy combination. Yum. And I recoil slightly when I think of how syrup would make everything soggy and sticky in my mouth.

Who knew? I didn’t.

It was not obvious to me why I used sugar instead of syrup. My subconscious threw up “fewer calories” as a hypothesis. I grabbed that idea unthinkingly, when a few minutes of thought could have given me an accurate reason.

This particular incident was embarrassing in hindsight–and may have given Maria a poor opinion of me–but it had no particular import. It was caught and corrected in my mind. The real problem comes when a rationalization is motivated, and is neither caught nor corrected.

A rationalization is “motivated” when the truth is known but unpleasant. For example, it’s common to blame being late on last-minute emergencies (something outside of your control), instead of a failure to plan enough buffer time to accommodate any last-minute difficulties at all (something in your control, for which you are responsible). In these cases, when the plausible, more pleasant idea occurs to you, it is appealing, in part because it diverts attention away from the guilt-producing alternative.

Nothing is ever gained by ignoring unpleasant truths, but rationalizations can occur to you with such speed and plausibility that you may not realize what’s happening. That’s why it’s helpful and important to take the Laugh Test to catch obvious rationalizations.

Let’s stipulate that no one reading this article would be consciously dishonest. No one would deliberately try to deceive himself about the truth behind his decision. The great risk for the honest person is that the rationalization could be automatized. The real reason could be tied to “old baggage”–painful issues that have been repressed, and are not easily accessible.

Usually when you have “old baggage” in the background, your subconscious will offer up a plausible alternative explanation. The first time a plausible rationalization occurs to you, you may be fooled by it. But if you keep testing to see if your reasons pass the laugh test, you’ll eventually see there is something fishy.

For example, suppose you stay up past your bedtime “just to get one more thing done-one night with less sleep won’t matter.” The first time this idea occurs to you, it might be plausible. If every night you struggle to get to bed on time, and every night you want to stay up “just to get one more thing done,” over time your track record will show that the desire to “just get one more thing done” is part of the reason that you don’t get enough sleep. When that same reasoning leads to failure again and again, you realize it is bogus. There is some deeper, less palatable reason that you are not going to bed on time.

It’s quite unpleasant to catch your own rationalizations. It’s embarrassing to see that you were taken in by a fake explanation. It’s shocking to realize you’ve been avoiding the real reason. But these negatives pale in comparison to the havoc created by not knowing the real reason that underlies your motivation.

If you catch a hint of rationalization in your thinking, it is a huge warning bell indicating you have a lead to significant new information that needs to be factored into your decision. You need to stop and think a little more deeply, so you can know the truth.

That’s the payoff from taking the Laugh Test.

February 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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

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:



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

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.


(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

The Key to Concentration

I had a long talk with a Thinking Lab member the other day. He was concerned about his power of concentration, which wasn’t all he wanted. He often got distracted and tired when he worked for a couple of hours. So I gave him my spiel on concentration, and thought I would write it up for you.

The key to concentrated thinking is to take your mental and physical needs seriously–plan your work to meet those needs so you can concentrate for the duration.

The process is similar to planning a 2-hour drive. If you wanted to make the best time possible, you would do two things: minimize stops, and minimize wrong turns. You would gas up the car and put air in the tires beforehand. You would bring the address, directions, and/or a GPS and your favorite traffic app so you could get there easily. You would ensure that your body was fed and watered and not needing any other maintenance before you started. With this preparation, and all your mental and physical needs met, you’d zip to your destination effectively.

When you’re performing a difficult mental task requiring concentration–perhaps writing, coding, or planning–the needs are less obvious and more complex. But once you identify your needs, the planning is just as straightforward.

There are two things you can do to help yourself to concentrate better: reduce distractions and increase the depth of activated information on topic. You probably think you know all you need to know about reducing distractions, so I’ll explain the issue of “depth of activated information” first, which concerns where thoughts come from.

At any given time, new and old thoughts are occurring to you. The thoughts are a product of two sources of information: what you’re paying attention to right now, and any background information that is currently activated.

Every time you pay attention to something, related information is triggered. So, for example, when I look at my calendar in the morning I see a few notes, perhaps “TLab 8pm.” This reminds me that I am giving a Thinking Lab class at 8:00 p.m., that I need to make sure the email reminders went out, and that I need to schedule some time during the day to review my notes.

The need for an email reminder and the need to review my notes triggered because I’ve given hundreds of teleclasses, and my procedures are well-learned.

On the other hand, the specific topic of the class may not be triggered by reading the calendar notation. If I’ve been busy with other projects, this particular class may be off my mind. If, when I check my calendar, I don’t remember the topic. I need to re-read the announcement to refresh my recollection. Only then, after I remember the topic, can I figure out how much time I need for the final preparation that day.

At any given time, only a small fraction of the information stored in your brain is activated and ready to provide answers to questions and make new connections. That’s why it’s common to get an “I don’t know,” from your subconscious, even for something that you “really do know.” It’s just not accessible at the moment. But if you pay attention to something related, it will eventually get triggered.

Information is triggered into awareness by association. What you’re paying attention to triggers associated ideas.

Here’s the kicker: these ideas then stay activated for a while, gradually reducing their activation level until you go to sleep. When you’re asleep, it seems the memory buffers are cleared.

There are some qualifications: more important ideas are triggered more strongly, and last longer. Ideas that are triggered repeatedly will last longer. One very important topic can stay activated through the sleep cycle, so you wake up thinking about it the next morning. And if you are immersed in a context for days, it stays activated.

But as a rule, when you wake up, nothing much is on your mind. Then, from that time forward, any information that is activated accumulates. More and more issues get “on” your mind. The particular thoughts that occur to you are primarily the result of what you’ve been paying attention to in the last few minutes, secondarily the result of what you paid attention to in the last hour or so, and to some extent the result of what you’ve paid attention to since you woke up.

If you spend your early morning time reading email and surfing the internet, a thousand different pieces of information will be activated, with no particular relationship to one another. If you then try to do concentrated work, you will be building on quicksand. Only the thin top layer of activated information will be relevant to your writing or coding or strategizing.

If, on the other hand, you spend your early morning time focused on that one key project, perhaps re-reading notes from the previous day, thinking about it, and working on it continuously for a couple of hours–all of the information you activate will be related to that project in some way. When you get distracted by your own thoughts, those thoughts will be “on topic” (and likely creative).

This is what I mean by depth of activation. You determine whether you will be distractible later in the day by how you aim your attention in the morning. If you systematically choose to focus on the task that needs concentration, you activate relevant information and set up a virtuous cycle, in which every thought that comes to you is related to the topic at hand. Tactics such as “thinking on paper” can help, by letting you dig deeper and deeper into the topic.

If, on the other hand, you put off any work that needs deep concentration until after you have read your email and attended two meetings, you are doomed. Doomed. The chances are, something in that inbox or meeting will be important enough that it will distract you for the rest of your workday.

This gets us back to the issue of distractions. Everybody knows that they should minimize distractions. But I think most people don’t realize why they need to minimize them. It is not just that you lose time. It is not just that you might never get back to the important task. It is that you are sabotaging the rest of the day.

Distractions activate additional distracting information–which will continue to distract you until your next nap or bedtime. They set up a vicious cycle. Even if you go back to work, you will not have that same deep activation on topic. You will have multiple internal distractions plaguing you.

This is why I recommend that if you need to concentrate, you strategically plan your day to meet your mental needs. If you need to do highly concentrated work, schedule it for a block in the morning, and protect it from all types of distractions–external and internal. Don’t even dream of checking email before you start that concentrated work block.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to concentrate later in the day. Often, you can concentrate for a short time, say 25 minutes, if you can eliminate external distractions and use “thinking on paper.” For example, I spent a solid 25 minutes on this newsletter yesterday in the late afternoon. I mulled over what I wanted to say and why it was important. This warmed up the context, put the issue “on my mind” when I woke up this morning, and gave me something to read to get the writing going.

But concentrating for more than 25 minutes in the afternoon is difficult, unless everything happens to go your way. If you plan to concentrate in the afternoon, you need to plan significant buffer time to get your head into the right state for concentration. You may need a half an hour or more to clear out what’s already on your mind plus deliberately warm up the topic to concentrate on. This takes significant willpower. Since you’re usually tired later in the day, it’s often a losing proposition. It’s much more time-effective and energy-effective to plan your concentrated thinking time for when it’s easiest to do it.

To sum up, this tip can be taken on three levels.

At the simplest level, I am saying: Give your highest quality time to your most challenging mental work. That means: first thing in the morning.

At another level, I am saying: Deal with distractions using a strategic approach to prevent them, not willpower to put them aside. If you want to concentrate, make war on distractions.

At the highest level: Your mind functions by understandable cause and effect sequences. When it is not functioning “right,” such as you “can’t concentrate,” no magical wish will make it start functioning differently. You can’t wish yourself to your destination–you need to drive the car, and if it’s a 2-hour trip, you need to prepare for it properly. If you need to concentrate for a couple of hours, you need to take your mental needs seriously, and plan the trip accordingly.

August 29, 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.


  • 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.


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

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