How Do You Know You’ve Chosen a Good Next Step?

It’s a truism that you should break a complex or difficult project into small steps. The difficulty in applying that truism is in figuring out which of many possible steps to take next. You need to choose a good next step, quickly and effectively, without falling into analysis paralysis or perfectionism.

Let’s take a trivial example: I need to pack my suitcase and load my car after I finish writing this. There are a thousand ways I could step through that process. Some of them are long and inefficient. One of them is optimally efficient. Most are somewhere in between.

It would be a waste of my time to work out the most efficient method. Indeed, figuring out the best possible method would probably take longer than the packing.

Some people would say, you should just take a step–it doesn’t matter which.

However, if you take any step, it is possible to work yourself into a frenzy while packing a suitcase. You run from the bedroom to the bathroom to the closet and back again. If you weren’t in a frenzy before you started, you are frenzied by the time you finish.

If you’ve ever packed by the whirling dervish method, it is imprinted on your brain, and you will feel resistance to doing it again. As you pick up a shoe, it will occur to you that you can’t pack that shoe properly until you have packed something else, say the garment bag. Before you know it, everything you pick up will have an objection associated with it, and you’ll be paralyzed for a moment, not knowing where to start.

I assume nobody on this list needs help with how to pack a suitcase. The solution is to plan just a bit, so that you create some order. Then you can be reasonably efficient with very little effort. My usual method is to lay out everything to be packed on the bed. Then I select items to pack from the array spread before me. You may have a different method that works for you.

But my point is, even a straightforward task such as packing a suitcase cannot be accomplished effectively by either the “just take a step” approach or the “plan the optimal way” approach. You benefit tremendously from having a simple packing system.

So what do you do when you are taking a step into the unknown? How do you figure out the steps to take when you don’t have a system, or wide enough experience to make one easily?

This is a big question, which I could literally deliver two days of training to answer. But there is also a short answer: have a robust decision-making process, that either leads you decisively to a decent choice of next step, or immediately raises a red flag if there an urgent need to think a little more about the decision.

I’ve been sharing aspects of my decision-making process in recent posts. I believe you start where you are. You are an adult with decades of experience making choices. Most of your decisions are not a problem. Therefore, the first thing to do is to just try to make a decision about what step to take, off the top of your head.

If you can’t seem to make a decision, you need a thinking tactic to help you deal with the confusion or overload. But assuming you can make a tentative decision, then I recommend two more steps to vet it and make it stick.

First, give a reason for your next step which passes the “Laugh Test.” I wrote at length the on the value of these steps in two previous articles.

Second, ask yourself, would you be willing to take that step now?

Yes, instead of ordering yourself to take the step, ask yourself if you are willing to take it. One of three things will happen.

You may hear a “yes.” Even if the task is uncomfortable, you may be willing to do it. Wonderful: you have found a decent, doable next step. Take it. Accompanying that “yes” will be a small action impulse, that you can exploit to jump into action–if you start acting now.

You may hear a “no.” If so, it will be accompanied by a wave of resistance–and important new information to factor into your decision. You need to do a little more thinking.

Finally, you may hear a non sequitur, such as “I don’t feel like it” or “this might not be the best step.” Those answers are neither a yes nor a no.

In this case, I encourage you to push yourself to answer the question directly. Often, we do things we don’t feel like. You are not asking whether this next step is fun and wildly motivating–if it were, you’d already be taking it. You are not asking whether this is the perfect step. You know you don’t know.

You are asking whether or not you are willing to take this step.

It is crucial to get into action. When you take a step, you reinforce your values and you learn about the world and yourself. You don’t want transient feelings to get in the way of that. On the other hand, you do want to be alert to any indication that this step is going to create some significant problem for you.

Answering the question, “would I be willing to take this step?” is a great way to get a clear reading on whether you have in fact identified a good next step.

Now I face a new decision point. I could explain more or end here and get on with my packing. Would I be willing to leave it at this? Yes, I would. More another time.

February 19, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Take the Laugh Test

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

Yes, the “Laugh Test.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who knew? I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the payoff from taking the Laugh Test.

February 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Two Facts to Remember in Judging Honesty

The ideal relationship is open, honest, and equal. If you find that someone has lied to you or evaded, it puts the whole relationship in question.

But I’ve noticed that some people jump to the conclusion that another person is dishonest without establishing it logically. There are two key facts which are often ignored:

1. The fact that someone said something untrue does not mean per se that he lied.

Usually, people make false statements because they are mistaken, not because they are intending to deceive. To lie, a person needs to know the truth, and yet say something untrue with the intent to deceive another.

Here’s an example of saying something untrue without lying: A couple of times I’ve told someone that I had sent him an email, but later I was surprised to find the email in my drafts folder, fully written and unsent. I am, of course, apologetic about my goof when this happens. I suspect I get distracted before hitting send, or maybe sometimes there’s a technical problem. I remember that I had written the response, without realizing I hadn’t sent. There is no sense in which I lied. Misremembering is not lying. Making a mistake is not lying.

Lying is a serious issue. But to establish that someone lied, you need to know more than that he stated a falsehood. You need some evidence that he intended to deceive you.

2. The fact that someone ignores something that you believe is obvious does not mean per se that he evaded.

What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another person. There is such a thing as a blinder–a strong value or a mistaken premise that activates some information so strongly, that certain other facts or values don’t register clearly to you. Your attention is directed by the blinder, so you don’t notice all of the relevant facts.

Uncovering blinders is a large part of the work of logical thinking. Other people can help you identify your blinders, which is one reason many people like to use friends and colleagues as a sounding board.

I remember a surprising blinder I uncovered many years ago. I was participating in a 5-day workshop on personal growth at Farr Associates. On the last day, Friday, each person was scheduled to spend half an hour talking with Jerry, the presenter, about lessons learned and next steps.

On Thursday, other members of the class asked if we could change the schedule such that some of us would have our one-on-one sessions that afternoon, not the next day. I was concerned–I didn’t want to have mine that afternoon, because I hadn’t sat down and thought about what I wanted to talk about. When I voiced this concern, Jerry looked at me and said, “you could have yours tomorrow.”

I believe I laughed–a common reaction to seeing a problem dissolve before your eyes. And I remember being surprised that Jerry’s solution had not occurred to me. You may be wondering why it didn’t. The alternate solution seems obvious.

With the caveat that I am speculating many years later, here’s what I think happened: I think part of me wanted to be a “good” student who shows initiative. I usually volunteer early and often when I am in a class. Other things being equal, I would feel a strong urge to volunteer for one of the first slots. But in this particular case, I had already decided that I wanted to take an hour that evening to think deeply about my upcoming conversation with Jerry. I was in conflict and a little overloaded. Result: I had an emotional brain freeze, and I missed something obvious.  Duh. I could be one of the people the next day.

(Just FYI, catching and thawing emotional brain freezes during conversation is the main work of “Rationally Connected Conversations.”)

I doubt anyone in the class thought I was evading. But the same kind of thing can happen in trickier cases. It’s important not to assume that the person was being dishonest.

For example, I once had a long talk with a boyfriend about why he had not comforted me after a distressing incident which he had witnessed. He told me that he didn’t know that I was upset by it. I pointed out that I had been crying.

I’m happy to report that our conversation was constructive. As we discussed it, he gave me all of the comfort and support I could want.

But you might ask, given that I was crying, how could he have missed that I was upset? Wouldn’t that require evasion?

No. Not at all.

In our discussion, it came out that he didn’t think I should have been upset by the situation. Again, to speculate decades later in order to flesh out the example, he may have so disapproved of my crying, and been so ashamed by my behavior, that the fact that I was distressed didn’t even register. He was not lying when he said, “I didn’t know that you were upset.” He was just blinded by his own concerns and assumptions.

Which brings us back to the point that you can’t conclude that someone has evaded just because he is ignoring some fact which seems obvious to you. You need to know more about what is going on in his mind to reach that conclusion.

In the culture, there is a tremendous antipathy toward judging other people. But you need to judge other people if you want to surround yourself with fellow valuers. You need to judge other people if you want to find the best in the people you meet, so that you can connect with their best (and limit your exposure to their worst).

Unfortunately, people are horrible at judging other people fairly. They see a falsehood, and they assume the person lied. They see him make a false step, and they assume he evaded what seemed obvious. They jump to the conclusion that someone else is dishonest.

If that is your method of judgment, you might be better off in the short run by avoiding judging others. Perhaps that’s where some of the cultural antipathy to judging comes from.

But I do believe that in the long run, if you don’t judge the good and bad around you, you’ll become a victim of the worst that people have to offer.

January 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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

Add a 15-Second Check to Your Decision

As a general rule, it is proper to trust your mind. Your conscious conclusions are based on all of your past choices, your past experiences, and the cumulative expertise you’ve built up over the years.

However, when you make a decision based on limited information, you know that you may have lacked crucial knowledge. It doesn’t matter how experienced or diligent you are–it’s inherent in the situation. You need to keep your eyes open for information that would change your mind. You need a reliable way to spot evidence that you may have made a significant mistake.

That’s why, when you make a decision, I recommend a simple policy of “trust but verify.” Assume that you made good use of all of the information that was available, but take an extra 15 seconds to verify your decision with the following process:

  1. Give a one-sentence reason for your decision.
  2. Ensure your reason passes the “laugh test.”

This 15-second verification has many benefits. The first you’ll notice is that it gives you an efficient first check to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious in your decision-making. If you can’t give a one-sentence reason for your decision, or your reason doesn’t pass the “laugh test,” your decision needs further analysis.

When I say “give a reason,” I mean blurt out a one-sentence reason that sums up the process that you used to make the choice.  In certain circumstances you may need a special high-power decision process, but in general, I assume that you are an experienced thinker and decision-maker, reasonably satisfied with your existing method. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I simply suggest that you add on 15 seconds to the end of your decision process to help you verify it.

Give a reason for your conclusion. By a reason, I mean an objective, fact-based explanation for why you are going in this direction–not just a statement of your feelings. Why did you choose the way you did?

For example, suppose you decide to start work on a project before going through your email inbox. Why? Don’t settle for “it seemed like a good idea” or “I felt like it.” These are contentless. They are subjective–they simply report the state of your mind.

When you give an objective reason for your decision, you make your assumptions and your expectations explicit. For example, suppose your reason were “I want to do the project before my mind gets caught up in the other work and I can’t concentrate.”

This explanation includes some implicit predictions that you can test. It implies that if you do the other work, then came back to the project, you’d have trouble concentrating. If something happens so you don’t follow your plan, then you try to come back to project later, do you have trouble concentrating? That will validate your reason. If not, it will invalidate it.

To take another example, suppose you decide to tidy your desk first, because “Tidying the desk will take just a few minutes and make it easier for me to settle into work.” If tidying your desk starts dragging on, you will notice that your assumptions were off. In contrast, if your reason was “that’s the way I work” (a subjective explanation), nothing follows from that.

The difference between an objective reason and a subjective thought is: an objective reason includes an appeal to facts that can be validated. It could include a factual assumption, a factual prediction, a factual comparison–any factual information that has implications for the future. In contrast, a subjective thought refers only to one’s present inner state. It adds up to only “here-now-this seems good.” It has no implications for the future. It may be true, but it is useless for validating your decision. Your reason for your conclusion doesn’t need to be certain, it just needs to be fact-based.

Giving a fact-based reason for your conclusion is the first and most important step to ensuring you make the best decision possible–one that you won’t regret. You can do it in 15 seconds without changing any aspect of your decision process.

Of course, sometimes once you come up with your reason you’ll realize you can’t say it out loud with a straight face. It doesn’t pass the “laugh test.” Then you have some more work to do, but that’s another topic for another time.

January 16, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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

Turn Your Good Intentions into a Manifesto

Last week I gave a terrific class on how to troubleshoot “Rationally Connected Conversations.” I mentioned three mistakes to watch out for. Then yesterday in a conversation I made all three mistakes. Actually, I did catch mistake #1 at a certain point and remedy it. But it was only this morning that I realized I had also made mistakes #2 and #3.

Now, in fairness to me, in the class I had pointed out that one way you learn these skills is by making mistakes and taking a “do-over” after you figure that out. And I will, indeed, do a “do-over” of yesterday’s conversation.

But it remains that I had great intentions for how to handle a difficult conversation–and I forgot all about them in the actual situation.

This is not an isolated problem. It’s the essential problem of self-improvement. If you are trying to change ingrained habits, the most likely failure mode is that you will not notice the opportunity to act differently, or you will not remember any different action to take. Rather, your old, automatized responses will seem natural obvious.

Habits die hard.

A practice I use to help me with this problem is to write–and read every day–a manifesto. It’s a statement of my intentions–my self-improvement intentions–with reminders of the practices I am learning to make second nature.

Here’s a picture of my current manifesto sheet with a few pieces marked:



You can see it’s not long–about 500 words. It’s short enough I can read every day, which I do. You may notice it’s a little crumpled and marked up. That’s because it is a work in progress.

Let me go through the various items I’ve marked to give you an idea of what’s on it.

The first arrow points to my mission, which I’m happy to share:

My mission is to work out, for people who want to be rational egoists, the basic mental skills needed to live happily and productively, for oneself and with other people. Thinking skills–and the power of reason–are radically misunderstood and deeply needed. Emotional resilience is sorely lacking. To be meaningful, action needs to be integrated by a central purpose. Explaining these practices is my life’s calling.

I’ve sometimes started with my top goals, but since I clarified my mission about six months ago, that has been the lead.

The second arrow points to a paragraph which starts: “The one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will become easier or unnecessary is…”  This I got from Gary Keller’s book, “The One Thing.” I had something like this in previous manifestos, but when I read Keller’s book last spring, I adopted his language to help me focus on the fundamental change I am trying to make.

This is an example of using my manifesto to learn a new practice. It turns out it’s difficult to figure out your “one thing.” I originally thought that my “one thing” was my book, but that is not quite right. After reading the statement every day for six months, I could see that attitude was distorting my perspective.

I moved my book to the section marked “top goal,” and added this sentence: “I choose to prioritize the book, while recognizing there are other values–teaching, sales, personal development–that warrant some of my time.

I’m still working out what my “one thing” is. In the current manifesto, I have it as “to stay present.” This is an excellent intention, but it is not clear enough to actually help me in the trenches of everyday life. For example, it didn’t help me avoid making the three mistakes I told you about earlier. So, I’m sure my “one thing” will evolve. I  will mull on it briefly every day, and eventually I will figure out some advice that would be more helpful to me.

On the second page, you see an arrow labeled “Laundry List.” This is a series of practices and conclusions that I have decided to make second nature–but I still need to review them to remember them.

For example, some time ago I wrote about the 4-second rule, which I got from Peter Bregman. I have found it’s extremely helpful to remind myself that once I have a decision, I have 4 seconds to start acting–and I need to keep the action going for at least 20 seconds–or else the decision may just float away. This was a new idea to me when I first added it to my sheet some years ago. Now it is almost second nature to me, and I bet it will be dropped from the sheet in another six months, to make way for some new practice.

Finally, you can see the last arrow points to something added back, which is handwritten in red: “One para of AR at the start of every break.”

You may recognize that this was the topic of last week’s tip.

People often ask me how to remember all of the tactics I develop. The answer is, sometimes I don’t. While reading one of my old blog posts recently, I saw a mention about my reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand at the beginning of the break. I used to do that. That practice used to be listed on my manifesto. But I dropped it from my manifesto a while ago–and forgot about it!

It seemed like timely advice, so, I resurrected the method, tried it out, and thought more about it. I also thought about why it didn’t stick the last time. My best explanation is that I didn’t have a clear enough understanding of why it worked. Happily, I got much clearer on that while writing the last newsletter. This is what will go on the next typed version of the manifesto:

Start a break with 1 paragraph of AR to wake me up. I’ll see if I need rest, stimulation, recreation, or reflection.

I hope you can see that my manifesto is a living document. My intention in reading it is to hold my top values in mind–but forming values is not a passive process. I read what I wrote critically every day–and often find something that isn’t quite right, or is not relevant or needs to be added. About once a quarter I get bored by what I’ve written–it sounds stale–so I take an hour and rewrite the whole thing, in as inspirational way I can–reflecting my current top priorities.

I have been writing and reading my own manifesto for at least 8 years. Over that time, I have automatized many best practices and learned much about what works and doesn’t work for me. A manifesto is a simple part of a daily routine that can pay off hugely over time.


December 26, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Have a Default Break Start

In one of the references to last week’s newsletter, I mentioned an idiosyncratic practice of mine: reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction at the start of a break during the workday.

This is an example of a highly tailored tactic to help with a problem that many people have: breaks take over the work day. Let me explain why this tactic works for me, and then how you could find a corresponding tactic that works for you.

I created this tactic because I wanted some way to be more intentional in my breaks. I was finding that my breaks were going on too long. I’d read a bit of the newspaper, and suddenly discover I’d spent 20 minutes reading–far longer than I intended.

I tried to make a highly self-aware decision about what to do at the beginning of the break–but that just didn’t work. At the start of a break, I would be a little tired, and so I couldn’t count on having the mental energy to make a good decision from scratch. I decided I needed a default activity–something that is a no-brainer for me–that could help guide me to use my time better.

Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand’s nonfiction turned out to be perfect for this purpose. It’s short and easy, but it demands attention. One of four things would happen:

  1. If the effort to concentrate on her words felt wrenching, I was too tired to read a paragraph. This meant that I needed rest–probably an actual nap–not the newspaper, not a fiction break, not food. When I am too tired to concentrate, I am at risk of wasting a lot of time. If I were to start any other kind of break, I would lack the energy to monitor it appropriately, and likely it would not revive me sufficiently to go back to work. The absolute best thing for me to do in such a situation is to lie down and close my eyes. Reading a paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was in that risky state.
  2. If the writing was absorbing, I would continue to read Ayn Rand for my break. I re-read the Ayn Rand corpus regularly. I always have a new insight. The challenge is to find a time when I have the mental energy to pay attention to her words. Reading one paragraph of Ayn Rand turned out to be a good test of whether I was up to reading more.
  3. If after reading a paragraph, I was interested in doing something else, I would do that. Maybe it would be reading the newspaper, maybe reading a different nonfiction book, maybe taking a walk. Knowing I had passed the basic concentration test, I could be confident that the break wouldn’t get out of hand.
  4. If I was too distracted to read a paragraph, then there was something preying on my mind. I needed to journal about the issue. Any other kind of break could easily turn into an escape.

As I said, this tactic is highly idiosyncratic. Unless you are a devoted student of Ayn Rand, it would not be appropriate. But you could find your own default activity for the beginning of a break. Here are the requirements:

  1. It needs to be extremely short–less than 2 minutes.
  2. It needs to be something you are almost always interested in doing.
  3. It needs to be something mentally stimulating without being addictive–so you would not be tempted to spend the rest of the day on it.

Here are some ideas (other than reading): doing a specific stretch, exercise, or meditation, doing a 2-minute emotional check-in.

What I don’t recommend are: checking email, neatening your desk, or any other activity that can draw you in and kill your break!

This is a great tactic for me, that helps me stay on top of my breaks much better. Ironically, I had dropped it somewhere along the way and forgotten about it. In next week’s newsletter I’ll share how I reinstated it, using another tactic which helps me keep top issues top of mind: the manifesto.

December 21, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Developing a Daily Planning Sheet

In the Thinking Lab, I offer a self-study course called, “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure.” The goal of the course is to help you get a basic system in place to keep you productive. The basic system consists of only three things:

1. A daily planning session (15 minutes per day)
2. A weekly planning session (20-30 minutes once per week)
3. A way to keep track of time

Implicit in the system is a fourth element:

4. A set of benchmarks and other metrics for measuring success

The reason to develop a system is to help you automatize new policies and practices for your own productivity. You can’t change habits with just an intention. You need a system in place to remind you of your goals, values, and intentions, to help you track progress, and to help you troubleshoot problems.

In the course, I give an example of a daily planning sheet that I use to implement my system in a very simple, efficient way. My daily planning sheet is just a piece of paper that I print each week. It has designated areas to track goals, benchmarks, and work. Here’s what the two sides of this week’s sheet looks like today (Friday morning):

Daily Planning Sheet

Most of the time, my planning sheet is folded up, so that I am just looking at the goals and today’s tracking notes. There is also a little piece of paper with my self-care list, which is normally slipped inside the fold. Here’s what it looks like today:

Goals and Tracking Notes

I’m not expecting you to read my sheet. Actually, I’d rather you didn’t, since one of the goals I’m tracking is my weight. 🙂 I’m sharing my sheet, because a Thinking Lab member asked me to talk more about how my particular sheet evolved, so that he could figure out what to put on his.

So, you need to understand that my complex sheet evolved gradually over 15 years, starting when I read David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002 and first attempted to develop a productivity system.

My top takeaway from my 15 years of experimentation is twofold: the system has to be dead easy to use, and you need to be convinced that every second you spend using it pays off. That’s why I recommend starting with a very simple system (just listing goals and tracking time).

My sheet is jam packed with items, but each little bit came online at a different time. Looking it over, there is way too much to discuss in detail, so I’ll just explain the 7 functional areas:

1. Page One Benchmarks: I track all kinds of productivity items like how much time I worked on my book and how many emails were left in my inbox at the end of the day. I fill out the benchmarks every day as part of my daily 15 minutes of planning.

These are all on the front page (top left in the first picture). 15 years ago I kept track of only 4-8 items, which I would write in at the bottom of my weekly calendar. The current list reflects my current projects and priorities.

Most people, when they think about being productive, have a list of things they’d like to do daily or most days. Tracking the most important ones as benchmarks helps you do them more consistently.

Two pieces of advice: First, it’s important to limit the number of things you track. I’m maxed out. In fact, I use this paper to stop me from adding items. I have to take something off if I put something on. If in doubt, track less.

Second, notice your reactions to the items you track. If you feel bored or indifferent to them, why are you tracking this item? If you feel guilty about not doing something, that’s a warning bell to rethink how it relates to your priorities. I adjust my benchmarks incrementally during the year as I shift goals, automatize habits, or take on new campaigns for self-improvement.

2. Little bitty sheet of self-care: This is the extra sheet that shows up in the 2nd picture with today’s sheet open to tracking the day. Maybe 5 years ago, I decided I needed one number to include information on a lot of topics that added up to whether I have a good day or not. The little piece of paper has 15 items on it–everything from playing my flute to exercising to staying on top of admin fits in here–and each day I just go through and check off which ones I did the previous day. I record the number on the front page with other benchmarks.

This list changes every year or so. Usually I upgrade the items. When “house made nice” became easy, I upgraded that item to be “house and office made nice.” Sometimes I take something off the list, because I don’t need to track it. For example, I used to track whether I got 7 hours of sleep a night, but I always stay in bed for 7 hours these days. Exceptions are so rare that it’s not an issue I need to track anymore.

I tote up my self-care number every day as part of my daily planning. I’ve observed that whenever I’ve had a “good” day, I score 10 points or more. These day I try to score 10–sometimes doing a couple of more things on my list to help turn a mediocre day into a good one.

3. Page One & Two Lead/Lag Indicators: There are two yellow boxes with “leading indicators” and “lagging indicators.” I have been developing this section in the last two years based on what I learned from the book The Twelve Week Year.

This is an advanced technique involving weekly benchmarks tied to my quarterly goals (which you might notice at the top of the front page). I calculate my indicators at the end of the week during my weekly planning session, which is why these boxes are all empty. In the end, I get an overall percentage success for activities under my control, and a percentage of results achieved.

This is an example of having read about an interesting productivity technique, and then having taken steps to implement it into my life. When I read the book, I didn’t change everything I was doing. But I did modify my sheet to try out this particular technique. This particular area of the sheet is still a work in progress for me. I’m still figuring out the right lead and lag indicators.

4. Page Two Weekly Goals: On the second page (top right), I list my goals for the week, so I can look at them every day. I fill this out as part of my weekly planning session. As you can see from the picture, I check off items and I add items during the week.

Long ago, I just had lists of big goals and projects, and plans for the day. I didn’t set goals for the week. But about 10 years ago I wanted to see more progress, so I started specifically listing goals for the week. About 5 years ago I started using the Noun Verb Date format, which I got from my coach, David Newman.

In setting goals for the week, I take advantage of the small amount of space. If I can’t fit the week’s goals into the space available, I know that I have too many goals for the week.

5. Inside: Completions & Incompletions: On the inside of the sheet, I use the folds to divide the paper into four columns. The first column is devoted to recording completions at the end of each day. Reviewing what you’ve accomplished is a good way to keep focused on positives.

The top of the second column is for recording incompletions at the end of the week. An incompletion is anything that I had intended to get done but didn’t complete by the end of the week. Recording incompletions is important: it helps you confront the undone, and accept it as a fact needing consideration.

I got the idea of recording completions and incompletions from a book called Attracting Perfect Customers, which I read about 9 years ago. The book also recommended that you date and sign your list–which is something I have done regularly ever since.

Going back, the earliest daily planning sheet I can find quickly is from the week of September 19-25, 2009, and on the inside is the list of completions and incompletions, signed by me.


(I notice it has only 4 daily benchmarks–a good place to start!)

This is an example of a practice that has stayed unchanged since I adopted it all those years ago. The ritual of listing completions and incompletions, and then signing off on the week, helps me to celebrate victories and mourn failures, and then start with a fresh slate for the new week.

6. Lessons Learned: The third column on the inside is “Lessons Learned.” I am always thinking about my experiences and reaching new conclusions. Once a day I add one-sentence “lessons learned” to the third column of the sheet. Writing down lessons learned helps me remember them and commit to action on them.

This is an example of an innovation–something I added to my process to solve a problem. I got frustrated with having great insights and then forgetting them. It seemed like I had to relearn lessons that I had learned. So, to help myself remember them, I started writing them down.

When I first decided to do this, I wrote detailed comments every day in a weekly engagement calendar. I did this religiously for a year, and then concluded it was just too much work to keep up. So I simplified it. I added a column to my daily planning sheet for capturing just top lessons learned.

7. Time tracking: The rightmost column of both sides of the paper are for time tracking. I use the Pomodoro Technique, a fairly simple way to keep track of time on tasks. Each 25-minute increment of concentrated time is one Pomodoro. I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique since late 2009, when my friend, Rohit Gupta, sent me a link to it and asked me what I thought of it. I tried it out and thought it was terrific.

If you look closely, you can see that on the September, 2009 daily planning sheet I had been making “to do” lists for the day and checking off boxes. When I read about the Pomodoro Technique, just a month or after this, I reallocated that space on my sheet for keeping track of Pomodoros, as you see on today’s sheet.

* * *

The moral of this story is not to go make yourself a complicated daily planning sheet with 18 gazillion things to track. The moral is: find your own simple way to keep track of your work and self-improvement goals, in a way that makes sense to you and doesn’t take a lot of time. As you learn new methods, you can add to it. Start simple, grow into complexity.

The purpose of a sheet like this is to support you as you change habits, learn new processes, and grow your skills. I love my little sheet, because it helps me keep my values and goals top of mind every day, it helps me see what I can do each day to move forward in my life, and it helps me see clearly where I might want to make changes. I hope my story inspires you to develop a sheet or a system that works for you as well as this one works for me.

* * *

Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:

  • “Evolving a Scheduling Infrastructure” is a class available in the Thinking Lab.
  • Getting Things Done was recommended by me here.
  • The Twelve Week Year was discussed by me here.
  • Attracting Perfect Customers is by Stacey Hall and Jan Brogniez. Note: I found the exercises in this book to be very valuable, but I disagree with the theory.
  •  The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo was recommended by me here.


December 18, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

You always have a choice

Whenever I hear myself or someone else saying, “I have no choice,” I challenge that idea. You always have a choice–and owning your power of choice has huge benefits.

When you think you have no choice, that just means you’ve ruled out the other options that you see. Here are some examples of how this comes up:

  • The boss insists you work late, and you have no choice unless you quit, which you’re not going to do.
  • You hate your nose, but you don’t have money for plastic surgery, so you conclude you have no choice but to live with it.
  • You’ve finished eating your meal at a restaurant, and since leaving without paying would be stealing, you have no choice but to pay for it.

In each of these cases, you do face a choice, but you believe there is nothing to think about. You believe the right answer is obvious.

Sometimes the best choice is obvious and there isn’t anything else to think about. For example, suppose your boss wants you to stay late to prepare another point for a 9:00 a.m. meeting. You also want to do that work tonight, because you see that this will help to ensure your most meaningful project gets funded next year. Your plans are flexible, so you make a few calls and stay late. No problem. It’s a no brainer.

There is a world of difference between saying “this choice is a no brainer” and “I have no choice.”

My observation is that people only say the words “I have no choice” when they mean, “this is a difficult, potentially painful choice with high stakes and I don’t like it but I already know what I have to do so I have to just suck it up and do it.”

Difficult, potentially painful choices with high stakes need more thinking, not less. But as soon as you say, “I have no choice” or “I have to,” your mind shuts down, your creative faculty goes into hibernation, and you respond emotionally like an animal being driven by a whip. This is the persona of the victim of external circumstances, who has no control over his destiny, rather than the ambitious person who consistently identifies the best possible way to move his life forward.

Rather than being a victim, the alternative is to reclaim your sovereignty by examining your options–and then making a choice based on which you prefer, based on the full context. Which of these options offers the bigger value to you, taking into account both the short and long term?

Looking at the options that you discarded out of hand helps you become clear on more of the relevant facts and more of the values at stake. You get clearer on the whole context for the decision.

For instance, let’s go back to the situation in which the boss wants you to work late, and you feel forced into it. The first thing to do is to look seriously at what happens if you don’t work late.

There are negatives–such as he could start a proceeding that would in fact get you fired within a short time, or you might feel guilty saying “no,” or an important project might get delayed or canceled, or a customer might be angry.

Presumably there would also be positives, such as you could engage in the evening activities you had scheduled, you’d get more sleep, and you wouldn’t feel resentful. And, maybe, if you’re lucky, the boss might learn that you have a life, which you take seriously, so that he needs to negotiate for overtime, not demand it.

I’m just speculating here, to concretize the kind of information that comes up.

I guarantee that one or more of the factors will trigger intense emotions. Perhaps you’re terrified of losing your job, because you are just barely feeding your family. Perhaps you feel despair that you will never learn to say “no,” because you feel like you’ve been a pushover. Perhaps you’re horrified at the thought of failing the customer, who you care about deeply.

The intense emotions are the reason that you feel you have “no choice.” The awfulness of that option is emotionally real to you, so it seems crazy to consider it.

But emotions just reflect past evaluations that may or may not be valid. Before acting, you need to understand the values at stake on both sides of the choice, and make a decision based on pursuing the biggest values, not avoiding the scariest feelings.

You may make the same choice.

Sometimes when you get at the deep values, the “no choice” becomes a “no brainer.”

Perhaps your staying at work tonight will help your customer break through on a critical problem–and that is deeply meaningful to you. Once you realize that’s the real issue, you choose to stay late, because that is truly what is most important to you.

Or you may realize that there is just some old baggage stopping you from making the forbidden choice.

Perhaps you’ve been actively learning how to “say no” better, and you realize that it’s only an old fear that is stopping you in this case. You decide to use your new skills and stand up to the boss.

Or maybe you realize there is a third way, a creative solution in which everyone gets what he wants. A virtual assistant in India can get the slide ready for the boss’s 9:00 a.m. meeting, so there’s no need for you to stay late.

When you examine the forbidden choice to see the values at stake, you re-conceive the issue as a “no brainer,” “old baggage,” or a false alternative. All of these free you to make a consciously life-promoting choice.

For example, in the case of “no money” for the plastic surgery, the decision might be a no-brainer. Maybe you don’t care about your nose that much, and you’d strongly prefer to save money for a vacation. Or maybe it’s old baggage–you were so embarrassed about your nose, that you repressed the pain, and really, really want the nose job. It’s worth saving for. Or maybe there’s a creative alternative–you could learn fashion and makeup and turn your nose into a part of your style.

Or in the case of “having to pay” for the dinner, the decision may very well become a no-brainer. If you value honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence, and justice, in most cases it would be clear that not paying would put you at war with the waiter and the whole establishment, besides turning you into a mooch. Paying your way is in your self-interest.

On the other hand, it could be that old baggage is getting in the way of seeing your options. Maybe the dinner was inedible, the service rude, and the table dirty. You don’t want to pay because you don’t believe you got the value that was promised, but you also are terrified of making a scene (that’s the old baggage) if you complain to the management and request that the bill be reduced or waived. Well, you do face a choice. You can hold your nose and pay, avoiding a scene. You can confront the manager even though it will be scary. Or conceivably you could leave without paying and accept all of the negative consequences of stiffing the restaurant–which might include your not being welcome at this restaurant, and possibly their taking you to small claims court. Dealing directly with old baggage is never fun, but it sure beats being driven by it.

Finally, you might realize there is a creative alternative. Suppose that you don’t want to pay because you don’t have enough cash. Your date walked out on you, and you only have enough money in your pocket either to pay the bill or to get home safely. Well, it won’t be the first time that management has heard a sob story and accepted someone’s promise to come back and pay later.

You probably noticed that in each of these cases, I painted a different scenario with radically different values at stake. I don’t know the real choices behind your “no choice”–and neither do you until you look.

I am not saying that you ought to choose differently in cases where you think you have “no choice.” Your “no choice” may actually be a “no brainer” when you look at it more carefully.

I am saying that it matters for your long-term happiness and sense of efficacy that when you think you have “no choice” you consider the option you’ve rejected out of hand, and make a conscious, considered decision based on all of the values at stake. Because you really do have a choice, and it matters for you that you know it.

December 13, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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