Archive | Following Through

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

3 Ways to Reveal Facts You Are Missing

In the last blog post, I pointed out that when you struggle there is a fact that needs to be accepted. In a post a month ago I explained that the way you accept facts is that you factor that fact into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

This leaves open an important question: if you are struggling, how do you identify a fact that you are missing? It is rarely obvious to you. I’ve found that answering three key questions is a great starting place:

  • What do I wish were true?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I never want to have happen again?

The answers to these questions help you to zero in on assumptions that may not be true, or truths that may need a little more attention.

For example, imagine you are having trouble settling down to work. You’re not actually getting anything done, and you’re getting frustrated.

Suppose you ask yourself, “What do I wish were true?” and the answer is, “I wish I didn’t have to do this report.” Two questions follow from that: do you really need to write the report? Why? And, if so, why don’t you want to do it?

Let’s stipulate that yes, you really need to do it, and that you don’t want to do it because you’d rather work on a more interesting project. Well, then it’s a fact that the report is in conflict with that other interesting work. It’s also a fact that you can only work on one thing at a time. One of these two tasks needs to be delayed, reduced, or dropped in order to resolve the conflict at the moment.

When you’re in conflict, half the battle is realizing that you need to choose. The content of your wishful thinking pointed you to an unpleasant fact–you have two incompatible goals. Until you start thinking in terms or either or, you’ll continue to struggle.

To change the example a bit, and move on to the second query to flush out missing information, suppose you asked, “What am I afraid of?” and the answer was “I’m afraid the report will be criticized.” This raises the questions, is it likely the report will be criticized, and if so, why?

The answer to “is it likely the report will be criticized” is “yes.” Every work product can be criticized in some respect, and most of them are criticized early and often.

This is a fact.

It is much easier to criticize a report than it is to write it. It is much easier to criticize an artwork than to create it. It is much easier to criticize a user interface than to design it. You, yourself, will be able to find areas to improve in the finished product, no matter how hard you work at it.

Indeed, this is a known hazard of creative work. If you try to make it impervious to criticism, you will never finish. Creative work can always be enhanced, added to, developed…improved.

If you catch yourself wanting to make something critic proof–an impossible goal–that is a red flag that you need to set a more realistic standard. The answer to the second question (why will it be criticized?) helps you decide the standard.

Are you concerned that your report be criticized because it omits crucial information? Because it buries it where it’s hard to find? Because it is unclear? These are concerns that go to the heart of the job–communicating crucial information effectively. Your fears have led you directly to important problems to solve, and now that you have them out in the open, you can solve them.

On the other hand, are you concerned that your report will be criticized because so-and-so always nitpicks, no matter what you do? This is a side issue. It’s an unpleasant fact–but one to accept and plan for. If you expect some nitpicking, and plan for how to handle it, you can sidestep this issue.

Turning now to the third question, suppose that when you asked yourself, “what do I never want to have happen again?” your answer was, “I never want to have to write this report under time pressure again.”

If this has happened before, all of the evidence indicates it will happen again. More to the point, when you set challenging goals, you often will need to push to get work done by a deadline. It’s probably worth getting your head around the fact that you will be faced with time pressure in the future.

Your goal is not to eliminate time pressure (which is inconsistent with having ambitious projects) but how to mitigate the difficulties you face under time pressure.

For example, keeping up on routine work when you’re not under pressure reduces the pressure when the deadline approaches. When you see this, you have stronger motivation to finish routine work in a timely way.

If you are struggling, frustrated, and/or hitting your head against the wall, you need to find a new way to look at your undertaking. Each of these questions, “What do I wish were true?” “What am I afraid of?” and “What do I never want to have happen again?” points you to a fruitful source of new information. In some cases, answering the questions will help you identify a problem to solve or a new goal to set. But often, it will reveal a fact that hadn’t occurred to you–a fact that you need to accept and factor into your plans if you want to be successful.

November 8, 2017 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

Tackle the “Blob” with a “Maybe” List

Imagine that every time you faced a daunting task, you could immediately hit on a way to make it easy and inviting to get started. I bet you can—if you make a “Maybe” list.

The problem you have is a blob of overload and uncertainty in your mind. You know too much about how hard the task is. You know you can’t just plunge in. But you don’t know enough to see clearly what would be a good first step. That’s why it’s daunting. It’s big and you don’t know how to tackle it.

In this situation, you can exploit what you know by making a “Maybe” list. Write down all the things that you “might” do that “maybe” will help with the daunting task. Try for 10-20.

For example, if you realize you have too much to do in a day, don’t just let your stomach sink. Make a list of things you “might” do that “maybe” will help you stay on top of things.

Or if you are supposed to get a project done by a certain deadline, and it seems hopeless, make a list of things you “might” do that “maybe” will help you get it finished that early.

It is crucial that you ask yourself what you “might” do that “maybe” will help, because those are answerable questions. Don’t ask yourself what you “should” do or “need” to do or even “can” do. You don’t know how to handle this task (it’s daunting), so those questions are too hard.

On the one hand, you do know a lot about the daunting task. And based on what you do know, you will probably find that you can make up a list of “maybe’s”—things that might help you get it done. After you have the list, you can then look through it and see which ones would in fact be worth doing to help you get started.

This process is amazingly helpful. I find that when I make the “Maybe” list, I immediately relax. I see that there are a couple of things I can do to deal with the “blob,” and that gives me confidence to get moving. And then, of course, once I start taking action on the task, I learn what I need to know to figure out the next steps. (And if not, I can make another “Maybe” list.)

 

October 22, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Avoid the Plague of Vague

“Somebody ought to do something about that.”

We’ve all heard that vague statement offered as a “solution” to a problem. But vague ideas can’t solve anything. You can’t grasp the implications of a vague statement—they are as woozy or woozier than what you started with. That means there will be no action plan until the vagueness is pinned down to be more concrete.

For example, if the “somebody” and “something” and “that” were filled in as: “hey, you should spend a few hours solving this problem we just identified,”  you would have an immediate concrete reaction. Either–“Yes, that’s important! Where am I going to find the time?” Or more likely, “Hey, that’s not my priority.”

When you translate a vague thought into something concrete and specific, you can make connections. If-then sequences will be triggered from your subconscious, and you’ll see how events might play out. You’ll start imagining consequences and catching contradictions.

So, here’s the tip of the day: if you find you’re uttering vague generalities, stop! Get concrete and specific so you know what you’re talking about.

An easy way to do this is to generate some concrete questions to pin down the issues. Use questions starting with who, what, when, where, how, and why to get more focused on what you mean. (These are sometimes called the journalists’ questions.)

For example, with the “somebody ought to do something about that” statement, you might come up with:

  • Who can do something?
  • What needs to be done?
  • Where is the problem?
  • When does something need to be done?
  • How can this situation be improved?
  • Why do we really need to do something about this?

Once you start pinning down the who, what, when, where, how, and why, you will find that your ideas are actionable by real people at real times in real places.

 

June 23, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Understanding Paralysis

Paralyzed. Stuck. Blocked. These describe a distressing mental state–made worse by mystery. When you are paralyzed, it seems like you know what you need to do–you need to write, plan, etc. But you feel like you can’t take a single step forward.

Knowing why you’re paralyzed helps. Here is the basic reason: at some level, you feel the task is impossible or self-destructive. To get moving forward, you need to find out why you feel that way and whether your feelings are right.

But finding out what’s behind paralysis is sometimes difficult. After all, if it were obvious to you that the task was impossible or destructive, you wouldn’t choose to do it. In principle, you need to introspect concerns which may be masked or censored.

I use a simple technique to help me with this challenge: “sentence stems.” A sentence stem is the first half of a sentence, a pre-specified start, which you then can complete. Two sentence stems which help paralysis are:

“This task is impossible because…”

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen…”

To use a stem, literally write it out word for word, then finish off the sentence with whatever occurs to you. Continue on if there’s more to say.

For example, suppose you were trying to dash off a memo in 15 minutes and got writer’s block. You might diagnose it by writing out this:

“This task is impossible because 15 minutes isn’t long enough. I am sending this to the boss and it needs to be right. 15 minutes doesn’t leave enough time to proof–much less edit carefully.”

Or suppose you were paralyzed while planning a demanding project. You might write:

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen: I will be under extreme pressure for the entire 6-month duration of the project, I’ll have to work nights and weekends, and I’ll miss the deadline anyway and get fired.”

In these cases, the sentence stems help you expose the conflict. By writing out the first half of the thought, you prime your subconscious to express the second half, even if the thought is overly emotional.

The stems are deliberately exaggerated, to give you permission to express inflated doubts and fears lurking in the background. Even if these doubts and fears are illogical, they can kill your motivation. You need to get them out into the open to evaluate them–and separate truth from falsehood.

And that, of course, is the next step. Your feelings say the task is impossible or disastrous, but is it? Often when you face the feelings, you see you are being stopped by a phantom.

Even if you uncover a legitimate, difficult issue, you have made progress. You are no longer beset by a mysterious mental paralysis; you are simply facing a clear challenge. The logical next step is to think realistically about what can be done and what is good to do. That is doable.

 

January 20, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Tips for Using Small Time Blocks for an Open-Ended Thinking Task

When you have a big question to think about, don’t wait until you have 2 or 3 hours free to tackle it. There just aren’t enough big blocks of time available to make that a practical strategy. Instead, learn how to Velcro together smaller blocks of  time–say 25 minutes or so–so that together they give you the effectiveness of a longer block.

The key to meshing small time blocks is making good transitions. Start and end your work block with procedures that ensure each bit of work will follow seamlessly from the previous. Then, together, they will add up to the open-ended thinking time you need. Here are the basic tips for making that happen:

1) Keep your notes in one place.

When you return to the issue, you need to look over the work you did last. Where is it? Don’t make this a hard question. Don’t even make it a question at all. Make it trivially easy to find the last work you did, by always keeping “thinking” work in one place.

I follow this advice by keeping all my handwritten notes in one thinking notebook, which is always within reach. The notes were made chronologically, so it’s easy to find past work. I tape loose notes right into the notebook. Other people use a single computer file for their everyday thinking.

Your system may be different, but make sure it’s so simple and easy-to-use that you never have to pause to ask the question, “where are my notes?”

2) Give yourself permission to warm up during the first three minutes

It takes a few minutes to get back into the context. You can’t hurry that process. If you try, you’ll just strain. So, know that you need to take a few minutes to re-read last-time’s notes to activate your mental circuits on this topic.

There are many ways to warm up your mental circuits. Read. Make a list. Do some “thinking on paper.” Once the engine is warmed up, you can put your brain in gear and start doing new work.

3) Take 30 seconds at the end to make notes in full sentences on what’s next

The alarm sounds. The phone rings. A person arrives at your desk. You need to be prepared for these eventualities. Chances are, you will sometimes need to interrupt your thinking before you’re ready to stop.

And that’s wrenching. You’ve just spent 10 minutes–or an hour– warming up your mental circuits and digging into the heart of the issue. If you just stop now, you will have to redo much of that effort to get back to the same place.

Don’t throw that work away! Hold up your hand with a “just wait” sign and take 30 seconds to write some notes to yourself. Sum up. What were you doing? What were you going to do next? What last idea do you want to record to explore next time? Write the answers out in full sentences so you can understand exactly what you meant when you come back later.

The 30 seconds you spend now will save 10 minutes or more when you come back today or tomorrow, by making it much easier (and less painful) to recover the mental context you interrupted.

Are you wishing you had uninterrupted time you don’t have? Take better advantage of the time do you have–by using these three tips.

 

 

January 15, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The “AND List”

The “AND” list is a basic tactic for addressing resistance and temptation in the moment. You can use it when you aren’t instantly motivated to do what you “should” be doing. This tactic helps you acknowledge your own mixed motivation so that you can act consciously and decisively in the face of it.

I’ve decided the “AND List” is important enough that I’m including it in my book, and probably in future all-day workshops.

Here’s how you do it, in short: Write, “I am ambivalent” at the top of the page. Then list every evaluation related to what you can, should, might, or want to do–or can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, or don’t want to do. Start every evaluation with the word AND. When you have no more such thoughts to express, pause to re-read. Then make a judgement about what you will do.

Here are the detailed instructions:

1) Write down “I am ambivalent” at the top of a page.

It is important to acknowledge your motivational state in a neutral way.

2) Make an “AND list”

You will list of all your evaluations related to the action(s) you should, could, or want to do right now. For example:

I am ambivalent

AND I should make that phone call.

AND I don’t feel like it.

AND it’s really tricky.

AND I wish it were over.

AND I would rather get outside while it’s light.

AND I need to figure out what to say in the call.

AND I need to get to the store before it closes.

AND I would like to take a break.

(etc.)

Notice that each statement following “I am ambivalent” begins with the word, “AND.” In capitals. This little word is how you acknowledge that your motivation is contradictory and ambivalent.

There are three rules for the AND statements:

First, include thoughts that relate to a specific action that you could, should, or want to do now. This is an tactic to untangle your current motivation. Focus only on actions you are considering doing right now.

Second, every thought should express some kind of evaluation or intention regarding the potential action. Do not just make a list of options. This is a list of motivations, not of choices. You may have several different motivations for the same choice.

Third, it’s important to get competing actions onto the list. To help trigger your thoughts about the competing action(s) (the ones that are not the one you “should” be doing), consult this list of intention words:

Should       Shouldn’t
Can            Can’t
Will             Won’t
Might          Might not
Must           Mustn’t
Have to      Don’t Have to
Want to      Don’t Want to
Wish to       Don’t Wish to

What are those other actions that are on your mind, that you shouldn’t be doing, or wish you were doing?

When you have listed all the actions you can, should, might, or want to do–or can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, or don’t want to do, and have expressed your evaluations about them in an AND statement, you are done with this step. 10-20 items is common.

3) Review, Judge, and Act

Re-read your AND list. Cross out ones you reject. Circle important truths. When you are finished, ask yourself, “which of these actions am I going to take right now?”

Pause and listen for an answer.

That is your considered judgment. Then act on your considered judgment.

* * *

This is a simple tactic, very useful, which applies a communication idea to your personal thinking. The inspiration for the “AND List” is the “Yes, And…” mental set you use in improv (where you never say “no” to what the other person does) and the advice to replace “But” with “And” in difficult conversations. Try it, you’ll like it.

March 26, 2014 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Reset Your Counter

Here’s an excellent piece of advice I got from small-business coach Mark LeBlanc: Whatever you are tracking–time spent during the day, exercise periods during the week, or sales during the month, make sure you reset your counter mentally at the end of the tracking period. Don’t let there be a mental carryover to the next period. That carryover has only one effect: to demotivate you.

If you did well, the carryover effect can demotivate you, because you feel like you can slack off. For example, after they have a great week in sales, salespeople often have a low week for sales. Ditto, if you put in 20,000 steps on your pedometer one day, you feel like you don’t need to worry about getting to 10,000 that day. It will average out.

What happens? You lose your momentum, and it’s harder to get going the next day!

That’s because, after a low, the carryover effect can demotivate you, too. You aren’t experiencing success.

Moreover, sometimes, you feel like you have to make up for the low. If you made no sales, you’ll feel like you need to make twice as many sales this week. But if you couldn’t do those in sales last week, how could you do twice as many this week? It can seem like an insurmountable obstacle.

When you set a target for a day, week, or month, you set a stretch goal, one that you think you can do, and will be proud to accomplish. A goal set at the right level of difficulty motivates you to do your best work. If you change that goal because the last period was high or low, you guarantee you will get worse overall results, because you will not be motivated to do your best.

So, how do you “reset the counter”? I do it with journaling. First, I look at what I did get done–high, low, or on target–and acknowledge it. Part of acknowledging it is recognizing that the time period is over. You can never increase the number of steps you took yesterday or the number of sales you made last month. If you missed your target, you will feel some grief. On the other hand–if you met or exceeded your goal, take a moment to celebrate. Experience that satisfaction.

It takes just a sentence or two to acknowledge what happened. And then one more sentence to shift to looking at the future. Today starts the counter anew. You can look toward achieving your stretch goal today, this week, or this month.

January 30, 2014 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Questions for Reflection

As those of you who have taken my freebie “Jump Start Your Thinking” class know, I like to collect questions. Questions are the spur to thinking. The right question at the right time can trigger important learning.

Here is a set of questions I collected from Glenna Salsbury, a well-known speaker. She asked her children these questions every night when she tucked them into bed:

  • What’s the best thing that happened today?
  • How do you feel about you today?
  • What shall we pray about together?

She offered them as a way to build communication with your children, and make sure you have deep values conversations with them.

Now, I don’t believe in prayer, and I don’t have any children, but I see the value in these three questions. They spur serious reflection on what is truly important.

“What’s the best thing that happened today?” focuses your attention on success. Reminding yourself of what has gone well helps you maintain a benevolent view of life and be resilient. Choosing the best of what is good takes a little more effort–and reinforces your values.

“How do you feel about you today?” brings out self-esteem issues–positive or negative. Either is worthy of attention. When you notice earned pride in yourself, you can recognize what you did to earn it and reinforce that action. When you notice what you don’t like about yourself, you take the first step to change it.

“What shall we pray about together?” isn’t appropriate for me, but I recognized the intent. It takes a special attention to notice your deep desires, and this question helps you do it. I rewrote it as, “What are you wanting, deep in your soul?”

To transform them for journaling, you can just edit them a little more:

  • What’s the best thing that happened today?
  • How do I feel about me today?
  • What am I wanting, deep in my soul?

That makes a series of questions suitable for a daily journaling or an occasional reflection, that can help you pause for a moment and see what’s important right now.

***

The Jump Start class mentioned in this article is a freebie held every other month or so. For information on the next one, or to get a recording, visit the Jump Start page.

December 20, 2013 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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