Archive | Following Through

How to Warm Up Your Mental Circuits on Demand

A friend of mine once told me that she hated doing housecleaning. Rather than make herself clean on a schedule, she would clean only when she felt disgusted by something dirty. That would give her the motivation to clean up that area.

This method worked for her for housecleaning, but it doesn’t work as a general approach for getting things done. For example, if you work on a team, sometimes you need to do work even if you simply don’t feel like doing it at the moment. Indeed, one of the challenges of sticking to a plan for the day is that it’s impossible to ensure that you will be revved up at 3:00 p.m. to do the task you scheduled for that 3:00 p.m. time slot.

This can be a problem, even if nothing else interferes, and even if you’re not particularly motivated to do something else. It can be a problem, even if you are, in principle, willing to do the task.

For example, I often feel zero interest in writing a newsletter at the appointed time, even if I have a “great idea” already identified to write about.

This “great idea” probably struck at a time when it was inconvenient to write. When that happens, I make a few notes and schedule the writing for another time. Unfortunately, when it comes to the appointed time, I sometimes have trouble rekindling my interest in the topic.

What you need to know is that it is impossible to write an interesting article when you feel uninterested in the topic. I may have willingly sat down to write. I may want desperately to finish the article on schedule. I may remember that I was previously excited about the topic. But if I have no emotional interest in the topic at the moment, I’ll be paralyzed.

If I want to write the article in that time slot, I need to activate the value context. But since I am completely uninterested, I have no values to grab onto. Fortunately, there is a way out: Warm up the factual context

Warming up the factual context is easy and under your control. Once you have your knowledge activated, you automatically start to see the values at stake, and you will become more interested.

There are many ways to warm up a factual context. If you previously did some thinking on paper on the topic, you can read that. If you did a “Mental Cleanup,” you can read that. Or maybe there is something else you can read. Reading is one of the easiest ways to warm up a context.

But sometimes, you are starting from zero. There is nothing to read, or it doesn’t do the job. Then, I simply brainstorm a list of 10 things I know about the topic. I say “brainstorm,” because it’s important to accept every idea that occurs to you, even if it seems lame or barely relevant.

For example, to warm up my mental circuits to write this article, I listed the following 10 things I know about warming up (edited slightly for clarity):

  1. It has to be easy.
  2. It doesn’t matter what concretes you use.
  3. A list is easy.
  4. Word association can be used.
  5. Anything related will work–particularly key concepts.
  6. Some key concepts are “context,” “values,” “subconscious.”
  7. The goal is to activate relevant knowledge so it starts occurring to you.
  8. Re-reading notes works.
  9. Telling someone about the issue works.
  10. “Complaining” can work, if you keep it on topic.
  11. Reading your mental cleanup works great.

This is a hodge-podge of suggestions, abstract points, and commentary. That doesn’t matter. Some of my points will be confusing to you. That doesn’t matter. The goal is to activate related information, not to win a clarity contest. Clarity can come later.

What matters is that making the list is easy peasy, I brainstormed this list in less than 5 minutes, which then got me thinking about some of the issues I needed to include in this article.

As a side effect, those ideas also activated my interest in the article. They reminded me that warming up is easy and effective–it’s an important tool for my readers to have in their mental toolkit. It implicitly raised some interesting content questions. Was I going to discuss values? (Yes) Or the subconscious? (No)

My teaching premises were soon activated, and ta da, I was able to start serious work on the article, with just a few minutes of transition time.

This tactic works because it is easy. It really doesn’t matter what goes on your list, as long as it has something to do with the topic you are warming up.

For example, suppose my friend decided to try to warm up the context to clean the house at a specific time because her sister was coming to stay. Here are some things she might list:

  1. It’s nice to see the house clean.
  2. I hate getting chemicals on my hands.
  3. I wouldn’t be doing this if my sister weren’t coming.
  4. There’s a lot of dog hair that needs vacuuming.
  5. I need to pick up before I can vacuum.
  6. I want to clean up in the easiest way possible.
  7. I want to clean up in the shortest time possible.
  8. I don’t care if there is a little dust around the edges.
  9. The carpet could be beaten. That’s kinda fun.
  10. Maybe my husband would help me clean. Maybe my sister would help me clean.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts she might have that would be irrelevant, and wouldn’t make the list of 10:

  • This feels like an artificial exercise.
  • We need more dog food.
  • Time is an interesting concept.
  • Tonight we have theater tickets.

There is nothing wrong with having these other thoughts. However, they are not related to cleaning, so they will not help you warm up your knowledge and interest in cleaning. Since that is the goal, they don’t go on the list. Only thoughts related to cleaning go on the list.

Warming up your mental circuits often gets you “over the hump” and motivated to do what you need to do. It’s a great technique to have in your back pocket when for some reason you need to start a task, but are not mentally ready for it. By activating what you know about the task, you will also activate why you care about it. That’s the simplest way to transition to action.


December 30, 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


Burnout is a common problem. When you “burn out,” you lose the motivation to do productive work that you have done in the past–and used to enjoy doing.

There are three common sources of motivation: a personally meaningful (selfish) purpose, an inspiring person, or an urgent priority.

The first of these is fundamental. If you don’t have selfish purpose in your life to set a direction and prioritize your commitments, other people and urgent priorities become a drain on your energy.

However, it is not enough to have a selfish purpose. I am wildly, first-handedly passionate about understanding how you grow your own mind. That hasn’t stopped me from burning out. From time to time, I notice that I have gone on strike. I have total resistance to doing work that in principle I want to do.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to have a selfish goal: you need to learn to act selfishly in the moment, holding the full context. That means you need to learn how to choose in the moment based on values, not rules or feelings or any predetermined expectation of what the right thing to do is.

Your old thinking–that rule, automatized evaluation, or expectation–may be correct. But if you are feeling conflict, there is some value at stake that is not completely clear to you.

This has led to an important practice: whenever I feel I “have to” do something, I check my premises. I recognize I am trying to force myself to act on a past prediction of what is best for me right now. What I need is my best thinking on what is in fact best for me.

The truth is that the idea that I “have to” is wrong. You always have a choice–a metaphysically given choice. You may not like the choice, but you do have it.

The conflict means that there are values that need to be brought out to the light of day and factored into the decision. Logic requires that you hold the full context–of knowledge and values–before making the decision. You need to do a little due diligence to identify what is the value at stake.

Clarifying the values can be tricky when the resistance or temptation appears to be illogical. If the immediate explanation for why you don’t want to do something is irrational, like “I don’t wanna,” you might be tempted to dismiss it. In these cases it’s important to show respect for yourself. Take the time to identify the deeper rational value that is really at stake here–don’t settle for the superficial irrationality.

For example, a client I had once needed to write a grant proposal. She said she was procrastinating, and thought she should just jump in and start writing. But when she listened to her resistance to writing, she realized that she needed data to show that the earlier project was a success. She needed to send out a survey to past participants–urgently–so that she could get data to incorporate into the proposal. This had not been on her radar, until she examined the reasons for her resistance.

Going by “have to” is wrong. Just as it’s wrong to force another person, it is wrong to force yourself. If you use your willpower to force yourself to act against strong resistance, you will deny an important source of information about your work (the resistance), associate pain and suffering with the work, and eventually start hating it. That will cause burnout, no matter what the end.

Some people have have a rationalistic view of selfishness. They think that if they know that the overall goal is good, then any step toward it is madatory. But that is not the case. Both the end and the means need to be in your self-interest.

To be clear, I am not saying, “take the path of least resistance.” If you only take action that you “feel like” doing, you’ll never achieve your goals. The truth is, you need to exert your willpower effectively–on the small step that gives you leverage for gaining the big values over time. If you’re feeling resistance, you may be trying to take too big a step. You need to find a smaller step–maybe an uncomfortable or unpleasant step–that you are willing to take.

Another way to look at this–if you have a first-handed goal, and you are unmotivated, lack of motivation is not the problem. Unclarity is the problem.

Motivation is an effect, not a cause. If you are unmotivated to take an action you believe is in your best interest, your challenge is to get true clarity on the values at stake in this moment. That means–get clarity on your emotions.

Every emotion you feel is triggered by some value on your horizon. If your value is threatened, you will feel some kind of fear. If it is possible to gain a value of yours, you will feel some kind of desire.

When the thoughts seem irrational, they are a distorted attempt to achieve something rational. For example, an obsession with what other people think could be a distorted attempt to make a personal connection with others. Or it could be a distorted attempt to validate one’s own behavior. Similarly, apparent laziness could be motivated by a concern with health. Or it could be a way to avoid putting oneself to the test out of fear of failure. When the superficial reason for an emotion is irrational, you don’t really know what the motivation is until you introspect. The superficial explanation is just a rationalization.

You need to know. You need to know the deep value at stake before you can decide what is in your rational interest.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In general, if you can’t resolve a conflict in three minutes, I recommend finding a step you’re willing to take despite the conflict, one that will help you resolve the conflict.

Just as you don’t make demands of other people-don’t make demands of yourself. Ask yourself, “am I willing” to take this step? If yes, it will take a little willpower to start. That’s an act of will.

If no, use your willpower to find the step you are willing and able to take.

To stop burning out, I needed to take seriously the idea that you cannot force a mind–not even your own. And that means forcing your action is never the answer. If you feel you need to force yourself, step back, understand the full value context, and choose a step toward your goals you can take willingly.


July 22, 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

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

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