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How to Distract Yourself from Distractions

The other day I got a call at 9:00 a.m. about an event I’m planning for my Toastmasters club. I felt I needed to take it. Soon afterwards I noticed an email from a fellow volunteer in another organization. It concerned a problematic situation, and I was lured into a quick back and forth.

I was supposed to be working on my book.

Those of you who read my newsletter regularly will recall that the best way to ensure you can concentrate on your top task is to insulate yourself from interruptions and distractions early in the morning. Keep the rest of the world at bay until after you finish the concentrated work. Otherwise, these other issues will kill your ability to concentrate.

Sure enough, when I tried to settle down to work, I was wildly distracted by thoughts about these two situations. As I noticed my difficulty concentrating, I felt incredibly frustrated. I know better than to permit distractions–and I generally do better. But I have recently taken on two volunteer positions, and I see that I’m having some difficulty maintaining my boundaries when there are urgent issues that need attention.

I will eventually sort out my boundaries, but at the moment, I was in trouble. Irrational thoughts like “she shouldn’t call me at 9:00 a.m.” or “she shouldn’t reply to my email so quickly” ran through my head. I got a hold of myself, reminded myself I was responsible for my state, and faced the fear underlying these: that I might not be able to get into the concentrated state I needed to work on the book.

Actually, what I wrote in my journal was:

“I need to get all of that out of my head.”
“That ship has sailed. Let’s do my morning routine.”

But I couldn’t! I couldn’t even plan the day without being distracted by the Toastmasters and other business. The ship was not just sailing, it was accelerating.

In the past, I might have just had one of those days where I did all sorts of things, but not the concentrated work I had planned. Fortunately, I have gotten pretty good at confronting the situation when I need to take decisive action.

I didn’t know what to do, but I refused to accept my apparent fate. I did a little thinking on paper (literally 93 words), and here’s what I came up with:

  1. Get the distraction off my mind by writing down the issues in abstract, general terms.
  2. Get the book on my mind by looking at concrete, specific issues.

(In case the terms are not clear, “Concrete” means available to direct observation by the senses of seeing, hearing, touching. “Abstract” means grasped by multiple steps of comparing and contrasting using concepts, not just directly observable similarities and differences.)

This worked beautifully. Let me elaborate.

My temptation was to make a list of “to do’s” related to the distractions. The Toastmasters list would have looked something like this:

  • Distribute flyer to everyone
  • Get phone numbers for presidents
  • Ask Anne about printing flyer
  • Set call with Lenore to discuss food, club visits
  • Ask Anne about “budget”

That’s just the first five concrete, specific tasks for this project. As I write them, I’m thinking of more–which I will save you from reading.

This is what happens when you get concrete and specific. As you become clearer on one concrete, you trigger associated concretes–and emotions about them. If there are urgent issues, the items will come bearing a sense of urgency.

For example, the sixth item that occurred to me was that I needed to contact someone who has missed his self-imposed deadline for making a video about the event. I need to nudge him. It’s getting urgent. Indeed, as I write this, I’m feeling a little concerned, and I’m wondering if I should stop writing this article and email him…

I have written that task on a post-it so I don’t forget. Fortunately, I am well into the article writing context so that just writing it down got it off my mind.

But writing down concrete tasks didn’t work the other day when I had not yet activated a writing context. I could see that getting concrete and specific about the Toastmasters event was drawing me in–multiplying the distracting thoughts, not getting them off my mind.

So, I tried a switcheroo. Instead, I tried writing down an abstract statement:

“There are a lot of details and I know I will get to them.”

This statement is useless as a “to do” item. It’s hopelessly vague. But it had the virtue of acknowledging the distraction without increasing the number or intensity of distracting ideas. And it set a reasonable intention for the future.

I then did the reverse on the book project.

I had been thinking in general terms that I needed to work on chapter 4. This formulation is abstract and general. I needed to get concrete and specific.

So, I re-read my notes from the previous day. This reminded me of some tricky issues involving how to introduce the next major topic. I spent about 5 minutes simply identifying concrete, specific issues I needed to think about. By the end of that time, I had activated the book context, and the distractions had floated away.

I’m sure some people reading this will draw only a narrow piece of advice: if you’re distracted, take five minutes to refresh your recollection of the work you need to do. This is helpful, as far as it goes.

But there is a deeper message here regarding how to distract yourself from distractions. Distractions get their power from their concreteness. Go abstract and you deprive them of their force. And that gives you some mental space to take a small step in the direction you want to concentrate.

January 21, 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

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

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

Not in the Mood? Make a Mental Transition

An important part of execution is managing transitions. That’s where the time gets wasted and the distractions rule. If you’re not “in the mood” to transition to the top priority item on your list, you can waste a lot of time getting down to work.

To get out of the wrong mood, first you need to know, what mood or mental set do you want to transition to? If you’re upset, maybe you want to calm down. If your brain is feeling sluggish, maybe you want to rev it up for thinking. If you are feeling distracted, maybe you want to zero in on your purpose.

Just noticing, “I’m not in the mood” won’t help you get into a better state. You need to identify where you want to go. If in doubt—aim to go to a neutral state. It’s hard to go from upset to happy. But upset to neutral is not so difficult.

Once you know your goal, you can start taking baby steps in that direction. Little steps are important, because when you’re unmotivated, big steps are a deal-breaker. But with a few little steps, you move yourself in the direction that is good for you, and it becomes easier to take the next ones.

For example, sometimes I feel bored and restless in the evening. I want to do something “fun,” but in that mood, nothing sounds all that fun, even though I know, for example, that singing songs is enjoyable. So, now I have a procedure to transition out of the blahs with three small steps:

1) I move the guitar to the couch.
2) I pull out my songbook.
3) I tune the guitar.

I take these three steps without the slightest commitment to singing, but sure enough, by the time I’ve tuned the guitar, I figure, “why not sing a couple of songs?” After a couple of songs, I’m no longer feeling bored and restless. I might keep singing, or I might switch to some other recreational activity–but in any case, I’ve beat the blahs.

 

 

October 20, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Build Confidence in Your Mental Databanks with Mental Hygiene

There is misinformation in your mental databanks. I guarantee it. Sometime in your personal history, you’ve overgeneralized or dropped context or missed something. Yet you rely on information from your mental databanks in all your thinking! How can you be sure you’re not working with bad data?

It’s conceptually simple: you need to systematically root out conflicting information during your thinking process. You need to “clean up” as you go, by testing assumptions and doublechecking your conclusions. A top signal that you need to clean up is the feeling of “cognitive dissonance.”

“Cognitive dissonance” is that uncomfortable experience you have in your head when the thing you’re saying or thinking now doesn’t compute with what you said or thought the other day. It can be a mild discomfort,  or discomfort accompanied with intense guilt if the issue is important.

Every time you re-read your thinking on paper, you probably get a few subtle nudges of cognitive dissonance. It happens anywhere you overstated or exaggerated the situation or left something out. The step of re-reading and asking “is this literally true?” helps amplify these signals so you can zero in on where you need to test your assumptions.

“Cognitive dissonance” can be particularly strong when you think you should do something that you’re not doing (or vice versa). For example, if you told yourself that your priority for today is to get something particular finished (your taxes? a report? you name it), and you aren’t doing it, you’ll feel some conflict.

This is a great time to do up to three minutes of thinking on paper to investigate what’s going on in your databanks. Often you will resolve the issue in three minutes. If you don’t, you finish with an open question: e.g., what should be my priorities? Or what is the truth about that issue? You’ll eventually answer the question (maybe not now), and you’ll have cleaned up that little area of your database.

This is mental hygiene. There is no way to systematically scrub the data in your mental databanks. But if you treat any signal of “cognitive dissonance” as a prompt for cleanup in a particular area, you keep the whole database in good working order.

To change the metaphor slightly, to organize your house, you don’t have to go through the entire thing from one end to the rest. You can start with one extra messy area and reorganize that. If you keep tackling one messy area at a time, you eventually get a very orderly house.

 

 

September 8, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Eye Movement Technique

There’s much we don’t know yet about the subconscious. Here’s an example of a strange phenomenon that is sure to lead to interesting future discoveries–eventually:

If you find you are obsessing on a thought, you can stop it with a simple rapid eye-movement technique. Here are the instructions, from The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (by Davis, Eschelman & McKay) p. 132:

[When you are stressed by the thought,] keep your head still and rapidly move your eyes back and forth between two predetermined points. [Repeat] twenty to twenty-five times. You can rapidly move your eyes between two corners of a room or window, between one hand resting on each of your knees, or between two sides of a table. As soon as you start moving your eyes, stop concentrating on the stressful event, and let your mind go.

This bizarre technique actually works. I use it when I am obsessing about “things to do tomorrow” when I should be unwinding for the night or enjoying a swim.

Why does it work? Well, here’s what I observe, introspectively. I simply can’t do both things at once. I can’t both move my eyes rapidly and think about everything I have to do. When I take a few seconds to make the rapid eye movements, it feels like I have “flushed my buffers.” I break the vicious cycle of the thought feeding on itself. Once I break the cycle, the thought that was obsessing me is gone.

It turns out that there is whole school of therapy that uses this technique (in conjunction with specially targeted questioning processes) to help people process emotional trauma. Exactly how and why it helps is yet to be explained. There is some speculation that eye movement is connected to how we store memories or how we do high-level processing.

So, how should you deal with strange information such as this? I hope you won’t ignore it just because we don’t understand it fully. We know the phenomenon exists. Don’t take my word for it–you can try it yourself. Sometime when you are obsessing about something and know you should stop (but can’t seem to), try this rapid eye movement technique. There is no risk to trying it–and I have no doubt you will get the same introspective proof that it works that I did.

Until psychology advances much further, “try it and see for yourself” will be a necessary part of learning about the field. Your own introspective observation is a crucial source of evidence.

May 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Secret to Doing Better Next Time

Did something go badly? A “discussion” with a spouse or coworker that ended in acrimony? A proposal that flopped?

When something goes badly, you may be tempted to forget about it and just try to do better next time.  But the secret to doing better lies in thinking more about that failure now, even though it’s a little unpleasant.

Right now, in hindsight, you have a lot more information and a lot less pressure to figure out a better approach. It’s a golden
opportunity to learn something. Just ask yourself:

“What do I wish I had done differently?”

and

“Knowing what I know now, what could I do differently another time?”

Sometimes, you’ll see you missed something that you think you should have known. Maybe you realize that some technique you learned in a class would have helped.

If you have an acrimonious discussion, perhaps you would recall that techniques like “I language” or “active listening” are supposed to help. If you had a dud of a proposal, you might recall a technique for a “potential problem analysis” that could have helped. (These techniques exist–see references at the bottom.)

There’s no reason to kick yourself for forgetting theoretical material in the heat of the moment. At first, everyone has trouble applying new concepts they’ve learned from books and classes. To use those concepts, you need to reflect on how they apply to real, concrete situations in your life.

Your failure offers a perfect opportunity to do that. By looking back at how to apply that book-learning now, you can turn it into practical knowledge that you can call on the next time. When you review theory using a personally important example, the theory becomes practical.

Other times, you will realize that you don’t know anything you could have done differently. That can be instructive in a different way.

Suppose you conclude that you don’t know how to avoid “pushing the buttons” of the other person, or you don’t know how to
establish the value of your services in a proposal. Having articulated what you don’t know, you can now look for those who do know how to do that . . . and you can learn from them.

This sets you up for success. You learn much more from an expert’s books or classes when you come with ready-made personal examples you can relate the ideas to. A burning urgency to apply the skill to your life right now is the best motivation to learn.

One way or another, thinking about how you’d redo a failure is guaranteed to help you learn how to do better next time. And that sure beats the alternative: Fail, fail again, in exactly the same way as before.

Notes: You can learn more about “I language” and “Active Listening” from Thomas Gordon’s Book, “Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T..”  You can learn more about a “potential problem analysis” from Kepner and Tregoe’s, “The New Rational Manager: An Updated Edition for a New World.” My recommendation for Kepner and Tregoe’s book is here.

 

 

January 8, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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