How do you remember what you read?

A member of my Thinking Lab asked me how to remember better what he reads. He said:

“I read vast amounts of information (news, articles, books), which I need to think about and retain. I’ve not had the greatest success. For a long time, I have simply read things and hoped that some of it stuck, which is not very effective. Any better suggestions?”

Yes. Actively judge the material while you’re reading it to identify the important ideas. Then write those ideas down in some form. In other words, choose what ideas you want to stick around after you’re finished reading. Don’t leave that to chance.

The key to learning and retaining what you read is selective focus on what is important. If you try to remember everything indiscriminately, you will remember nothing in particular. As you read through a page, be on the lookout for that one point per page, two at most, that has the real value to you.

If you get to the bottom of a page without noticing anything of particular importance, it’s worth taking a few more seconds to glance back and ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the main point here? In other words, what is the point the author thinks is most important?
  • What do I think is important here? You may disagree with the author’s point, or you may find a side issue more relevant to you.
  • What is the most interesting to me? Give yourself a chance to look for connections to your existing interests. Who knows what new idea will occur to you?

I strongly recommend that you do this quickly. Unless a piece of writing is exceptionally well-written and/or on a topic that you are deeply interested in, it rarely pays to study it in depth.

A quick selection can be extremely valuable.  Simply choose the top point or two that seems worth remembering from the page, then write it down in a full sentence. Do this in the margin, if you’re reading paper, or in a notes file or an annotation tool, if you are reading electronically.

Why a full sentence? “A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought.” If you just write down a phrase, you capture only a vague topic. When you write down a grammatical sentence summing up the main point, you pinpoint the thought that is worth remembering.

Taking the time to identify the top takeaway makes the difference in whether you will remember it. Memory works by repetition and attention. If the author gives you the main point in a final set of bullet points, you are not particularly likely to remember it. But if you take the time to figure it out what those bullet points should be, you will.

The analysis you do to single out the ideas you deem important strengthens the logical connections and makes it easier to recall the ideas.

For many people, the biggest challenge is to limit yourself to only one or two important points per page. If you highlight half of the sentences in an article, you will have trouble choosing what’s most important.

Technically, if you have this problem, the logical skill you need to learn is “essentialization.” This skill gives you X-ray vision so you can analyze the logic of the article and see how the ideas add up to justify an overall conclusion–the one main point. This is a learnable skill, which is taught in various programs, including the Thinking Lab.

Once you learn to essentialize, you will find that you start organizing all of your knowledge. You analyze everything you read logically, and naturally start storing the content logically in your mind. Over time, new material fits in with old–and everything you read becomes easier to remember.

But what keeps this process going–whether you are good at essentializing or not–is pushing yourself to write down the top one or two points per page of everything you read. The more you push yourself to name the top points, the better you will get at analyzing what you read, and the easier it will be to remember it.


May 13, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling

Do you have the slightest desire to persuade another person to take an action that you believe is clearly in his or her best interest? If so, run out and buy a copy of Neil Rackham’s 1988 book, SPIN Selling.

Rackham presents the most rational approach to selling that I’ve ever seen. The approach is 100% manipulation-free and gimmick-free. It is fully consistent with the ideas of “Rationally Connected Conversations” that I’ve been sharing–indeed it has already informed my understanding of that method. Moreover, Rackham’s book is one of the most clear, compelling, objective explanation of any kind of method that I’ve ever read.

Most of the people reading this article aren’t interested in selling per se. But who isn’t interested in persuading loved ones to take actions that you see are in their best interests? The method that Neil Rackham explains could easily be adapted to personal persuasion situations.

Rackham’s method involves a special questioning technique. Stephen Covey famously recommends to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” That’s excellent advice as far as it goes. Rackham breaks down the steps needed to understand the other person’s context.

“SPIN” in the title stands for the four types of questions to ask: Situation questions (S), Problem questions (P), Implication questions (I), and Need-payoff questions (N). The first two types of questions are straightforward and commonly understood. By asking situation and problem questions, you find out the problem another person is having which you might be able to help solve.

Unfortunately, if you stop questioning there–if you immediately jump into asserting you have a solution–or in a personal situation, giving advice–Rackham explains that you will almost certainly get objections rather than agreement.

For example, I’ve been making the case that it’s important to reframe “have to’s” by embracing your power of choice. I am getting a lot of objections to this idea.

Let me give a bit of background in case you haven’t read my recent articles on this topic: I literally go through a decision process which involves identifying negatives and positives for not doing things I feel I “have to” do. Most of the time, this process results in my being motivated to take the critical action, without any need to force myself. Sometimes, I change my mind about whether I will take the action I felt I “had to” take. Consistently using this tactic makes my work incredibly more productive and enjoyable.

But I have been getting pushback, because it takes effort to go through the decision process. Although most people don’t like the pressure of “having” to do something, it doesn’t seem all that bad to them. It seems like it just takes a little effort to make themselves do it. The extra effort to identify values doesn’t seem necessary–especially if the selection will turn out to be the same. I might have intrigued them with the idea that reframing and embracing choice is a good thing, but they don’t see the urgent need for it. The “product” I’m selling seems to be too high cost for the benefit it provides.

My error is that I have been trying to offer a solution as soon as the problem is identified. Rackham’s method adds two more steps between identifying a problem and offering a solution.

First, Rackham recommends you draw out the negative implications of the problem using implication questions. These are very specific questions designed to find out if the problem is really big enough to put in time, money, or attention on to solve.

For example, I might draw out a person’s problems with “have to” with the following implication questions:

In the past, when you have applied pressure like this to yourself, was there any downside? For example, do you find that you get irritable? Could that have any repercussions?

How do you react to delays, difficulties or mistakes when you work under this kind of “have to” pressure? How do these everyday challenges affect your energy when you are doing something because you “have to”? What about when you “want to”?

After you’ve made yourself do this task, will you feel pride in having finished, or just relief that you don’t have to do it any more? Will you be more or less motivated to do this kind of task next time? Have you noticed any decrease in motivation to do things you “have to” do over time? Does it get easier or harder?

I believe I know the answers to these questions. It was asking myself these questions that led me to the conclusion I should always reframe “no choice” using a decision process. But the other person needs to see the issues himself, in a concrete, personally-relevant form. By asking implication questions, I could help the other person see, in his own concrete, specific situation, just how big the problem is.

And then, Rackham suggests asking “Need-Payoff” questions: questions that will elicit–in his words, not yours–what the benefit would be from eliminating these problems.

For my example, a needs-payoff question might be: “So, what would be the long-term benefit of reducing your resistance?” or “If you could avoid that feeling of irritation and frustration, what would that mean to you?”

The effect of asking these questions is that the person you’re talking to names explicitly what would be “in it” for him. Out will come a clearly identified need that is indeed worth time, effort, or money to meet.

If not, well, there is no point in offering the product or the advice, because you have not established the value of it to him in his own mind.

A subtle but real effect of Rackham’s SPIN process is that you change the discussion from how to solve a problem (remove a negative) to how to gain an urgently desired positive. Instead of your offering something that the other person “should” want, he becomes curious about how to gain a value. That’s the ideal opening for you to share your solution.

I just finished reading the book, so it will take me awhile to internalize Rackham’s advice. But I am wildly excited at the prospect of being able to draw out people so that they see the need for what I’m offering before I start explaining what it is.

How am I going to proceed? Happily, the last chapter of the book has specific advice for how to turn theory into practical action. Even if you’re not interested in sales or persuasion at all, it may be worth buying the book to read this one chapter. He recommends four rules:

Rule 1: Practice Only One Behavior at a Time
Rule 2: Try the New Behavior at Least Three Times
Rule 3: Quantity Before Quality
Rule 4: Practice in a Safe Situation

Do these rules sound familiar to you? I’ve never seen such a simple, essentialized set of advice for learning skills before. These insightful rules are going to streamline my own personal development and my teaching from hereon in.

My standard for publicly recommending books is that they have my top recommendation: they are so good they are worth re-reading. Every other book I’ve recommended so far, I had already re-read. I haven’t re-read this one yet, but I am certain I am going to. I made myself slow down and take notes on every chapter as I went through it.

Neil Rackham is a firsthand thinker, who has written a clear, essentialized, compelling book on an important topic. If you are interested in understanding values and/or communicating values and/or developing values in any form, this book is worth reading.

April 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Don’t Motivate Yourself, Lead Yourself

There was a theme in the questions that members of the Thinking Lab asked me this week. They all involved some form of, “how do I motivate myself?”

I’ve had an epiphany. This is a mistaken way to conceptualize the problem. Motivation is an effect, not a cause. When you lack motivation, it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

For example, a client wrote to me that he wasn’t able to get in more than about 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work. He thought he needed to motivate himself differently.

I wrote back that 5-6 hours a day of deep intellectual work is the most that anyone I know can sustain on a regular basis. Intellectual work is exhausting.

Now, somehow his task is misconceived. There are three areas to look at:

1. Integration to a longer term goal

How does this task advance me to achieving a goal that I personally care deeply about achieving?

So often, people take on tasks because they think you have to do them, or the task meets some criteria that someone else has set. You feel you have to do the project because it’s required for a class, or your boss told you to do it, or it’s the only way you see to get the credential you need to take the next step in your career.

In these cases, I find that the thinking about the task stops just when it should start. Why is this task so important? How will this advance a goal that matters to you? Presumably, if someone else has figured out that this is the thing to do, it is of value.

If indeed, this is the logical next step, then it must also be a step that is in principle valuable to you. If you don’t experience motivation to do the task, you have clear evidence that you do not know how this fits with your values. And so why do you think it’s the logical next step? Why do you think it’s right?

Introspecting the conflicting motivation can help you clarify your values, establish the relationship of this task to your deeper goals, and as an effect of that clarity, leave you in a place where you are either motivated to do the work–or at least willing to do the work, because you are convinced your effort matters.

2. A delimited objective

Has this task been defined properly? A well-set objective is something that you are morally certain you can complete in less than 2 weeks, and if you complete it, you will see objective progress toward an important long-term goal.

Sometimes people don’t set objectives at all. They have no clear ending point in the relatively near future, Instead, they just say, “I’m going to put 8 hours a day on this every day until I’m finished with the goal.” This is the “Just do it” approach to work, and it fails sooner or later, especially when you have a particularly complex, long-range goal.

Other times, instead of setting an objective, they just make a list of tasks to do, without any strategy for making sure that the smaller tasks will add up to the longer-range goal.

In both cases, you eventually burn out because you never get any closure on the bigger goal.

In these cases, the solution is planned evolution–you need to figure out the scaled down version of the goal that you can complete soon. This has the effect of putting a finishing line within sight. Everyone gets a burst of energy when they can see that they can finish something that matters with just a little more effort. It’s finishing that gives you satisfaction. It’s repeated finishing that makes work a constant joy.

3. Effective use of resources

There is always a limit of time, energy, and money. Always. This is not a problem to bewail, this is a fact.

Most people recognize that they have limited money, and a lot of people recognize that they have limited time. But fewer people really grasp the limits of energy.

One exception is top athletes. LeBron James and Roger Federer are reported to sleep 12 hours a day. Why? To maximize the energy they have during a game.

They need that energy, not so much for their muscles as for their brains. Top athletes are not burning more calories with their muscles, they’re burning more calories with their concentration. Concentration takes physical energy.

It does so for thinkers, too. If you are tired, you cannot think straight.

Actually, the issue is wider than that. To think clearly, you need free mental “crow” space, you need energy, and you need access to the ideas being triggered from your subconscious. If you are overloaded, you can’t think straight. If you are tired, you can’t think straight. If you are tense, feeling pressured, or otherwise suppressing, you cut yourself off from critical information and you can’t think straight.

Most of what I teach helps you to manage mental resources. Some of the tactics I teach help you to conserve them. For example, interrupting strain and struggle–which will wear you out in no time–can help you be much more effective. Other tactics help you refill resources–such as the tactics to clear overload. And some help you figure out how to do more with less.

The bottom line–if you are not motivated to do the tasks that you believe are right to do, you need a strategic approach to doing your work that ensures you have tied it to your vision, delimited it so you can finish something soon, and are working within your resources.

In short, you need to lead yourself.

Great leaders inspire the team with a clear, achievable vision, they carve out well-defined tasks for team members to do, and they support their team members with the resources they need to do the tasks–and/or they help with the creative problem-solving to figure out how to complete the task with available resources.

It’s wonderful when you can work with a great leader who does this for you. But if you are responsible for your own work, these are skills you need for yourself. The effect of self-leadership is that you will be motivated. It is the cause. Motivation is the effect.

April 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

If you don’t have resources for self-awareness, you don’t have resources for anything

I had a call with a member of the Thinking Lab the other day. He was concerned that he was reverting to some old behavior. He had changed jobs, and as a result he was very busy ramping up his knowledge and activity in the new position.

He said it had occurred to him that he needed the self-awareness tools he had learned, which made a huge difference in his motivation, effectiveness, and clarity. But he felt like he didn’t have time to use them. He was scheduled without breaks from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

He noticed that old ways seemed to be taking over–he was functioning more on a secondhanded premise and a duty premise. He was feeling pressured to go along with other people rather than stick to his independent judgment. He was “having to” just do the work, no matter what. He was concerned about this–when would the old duty premises and secondhandedness go away?

Two points are needed to put this in perspective: First, this is a common problem, not idiosyncratic to him. Second, it is a sign of success in his changing his premises that he could be this self-aware of the meta-problem.

Having said that, there is a mistaken assumption here–the idea that eventually he will never be pulled to go by duty or to go along with what others think. These are default conditions–and they will always be default conditions. This is not because people are inherently bad, or there is something wrong with him, or it’s impossible to change your premises. This is because, it’s not the action that is a problem per se, it’s that you make the decision to take the action that is a problem.

When you go by duty, you do something because you feel you have to, without having addressed contrary motivation. For example, you clear your email because you can’t stand all of those unread messages piling up–you just feel you have to, even though maybe you’re worried this will mess up your creative work. You shut out that feeling and “just do it.”

If you hold the context and address the contrary motivation, you can then find a step to take that does not require shutting down your mind. Sometimes it is exactly the same step you would have taken. For example, although email is a creativity killer, so is total distraction. Sometimes I make a conscious decision to clear email before creative work, because it’s clear that I won’t be able to concentrate anyway. There is a world of difference in how events unfold when you take an action by conscious choice rather than you are driven to take the same action. The only difference is whether you took the time to actively assess the conflict, or you short-circuited the process and chose based on the strongest feeling.

Similarly, sometimes you go along with another person’s opinion, and sometimes you won’t. The error of secondhandedness is taking the other person’s opinions as the standard, rather than making an objective decision yourself. Going along with the other person is one of the options that you validly should consider when you are engaged in some cooperative activity. If you are passive, it is often the choice, because the other person has been working to persuade you–to activate all of the reasons for going along. If you have not taken the time to activate the full context, of course you will go along with him.

In other words, if you are not self-aware, you will wind up making choices based on duty or secondhandedness, just by the logic of the situation.

Which brings us back to the presenting problem: My client felt he was too busy to take the time to make the decisions in a self-aware way.

Actually, there are three legitimate reasons you might feel you can’t take the steps to be self-aware: you’re overloaded, you’re tired, or you’re tense.

Self-awareness uses specific mental resources.

First of all, it takes mental “crow” space. If you are so overloaded you can’t think straight, you simply do not have the mental capacity for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental capacity for whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to reduce the overload. Here, paper is your friend: make a list, do thinking on paper, organize your ideas. Do something to get the ideas out of your head and in front of you in writing so that you can get an overview and think about issues in crow-friendly bites.

Once you’ve cleared your crow, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Second, it takes energy to be self-aware. If you are tired, you will find the prospect of initiating self-awareness to be exhausting. You simply do not have the mental energy for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental energy for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to refuel. Music and mild exercise are your friends here: Making music, listening to music, taking a brisk walk–these can re-energize you. If these don’t do the trick, you may literally need sleep.

Once you’ve regained your energy, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Third, it takes access to your subconscious to be self-aware. If you are tense, or feeling pressured, you are suppressing feelings. Tensing your body is how you block awareness of feelings and other distractions. Saying “no, I can’t think about that” is the mental equivalent. If you are tensed up or feeling pressured, you simply do not have the free access to your subconscious databanks that you need for self-awareness. On the other hand, you don’t have the free access to your subconscious databanks for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to undo the tension. For this, I use the Alexander Technique and breathing techniques. Stretching and body relaxation techniques can also help. If these don’t do the trick, you may need a bath or a massage.

Once you’ve regained free access to your subconscious, you will instantly become overloaded. Nobody tenses up to keep distractions at bay unless there are a lot of distractions. Some of them are likely emotionally charged. Your best option is to do some kind of core dump of the issues on your mind. If they are emotional, you may need to do some introspection to turn the feelings into words in order to get back to a neutral state.

Once you are in a neutral state, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

The bottom line: there will be times that you don’t have the mental resources for self-awareness. Treat this as a huge warning bell. It means you don’t have the mental resources for any significant work. Your urgent need is to regain the mental resources.

This fact–that you have been overloaded, fatigued, or pressured by the task–then needs to be factored into your choice of next step. This means that you have been working at the limits of your capacity. That is a prescription for struggle. You probably need to adjust your plan so that you can put in a sustainable effort. The way to do that is to make a self-aware choice of what your priority is right now.

April 15, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

What’s the value of planning?

You have probably heard the saying, “no plan survives contact with reality.” There’s a lot of truth in this–so what’s the value of planning?

Planning pays off before you take action, while you are taking action, and after you have taken action.

The most obvious benefit of planning is that it helps you anticipate possible contingencies, so you can avoid avoidable problems and take advantage of advantageous opportunities. If you take the time to predict how your day or your project will unfold, you are much more likely to bring to bear all of the information you know that is relevant to getting your tasks done.

For example, toward the end of planning my day today, I noticed a package I needed to mail. I had scheduled a shopping trip for 7 p.m. If I scheduled it earlier, I could ship that package on the same trip. After noticing this fact, I looked to see if I could move the shopping trip to an earlier time slot. As I re-examined my plan, I realized that my objective for my 12 noon timeslot was unrealistic. I was unlikely to complete it today, because it required responses from others. I changed my objective for today to simply reach out to the other people–leaving time to go on the errands during that timeslot.

All of this planning took less than 10 minutes. But as a result, I have more realistic expectations for the day, and I will have fewer things on my mind at the end of today.

The simple act of planning helps you see risks and opportunities that you wouldn’t see otherwise. This change to my plan occurred because I happened to spot the package that was ready for shipping. Knowing I was scheduled to do errands after dinner, I immediately wondered if I could ship the package on the same trip. I saw an opportunity–and then thought it through.

You may be thinking, “Fine, but what happens when the plan falls apart in a few minutes or a few hours?” I confess that it’s only recently that I have seen the true value of the plan when you need to adjust your course.

And you often will need to adjust.

When you plan, you use information you already have to predict the future. But when you take steps toward your goals, the future unfolds in much more detail. You learn much more about the actual challenge–today, here now–than you could have possibly anticipated.

For example, yesterday I sat down to write an article on a different topic. The article fell apart when I tried to write it. My plan had been to draft the article in 1 hour. But halfway through the time, it was clear that I was not going to meet that objective.

So what was the use of my plan?

In such a situation, you may be tempted to ignore your plan and just choose your next action ad hoc. In the past, I probably would have just doubled down on the newsletter and put in a couple of more hours–maybe with success, maybe not. I would have forgotten about my plan and tried to “just do it.”

What I recommend in these situations is that you make a conscious decision about whether to follow your plan or not. Yesterday, I decided to put in the full hour to see if the topic was salvageable. When I saw no progress by that time, I decided to continue with my planned activities, and regroup today to write an article on a different topic. I consciously re-planned (in just a couple of minutes).

As a result of that trivial amount of re-planning, I had my eyes open for a better newsletter topic. When I discussed planning in a one-on-one consult last night, I realized it was a great topic. At the end of the consult, I outlined this newsletter in about 30 seconds, knowing I could draft it today.

In other words, I don’t recommend blindly following the plan, I recommend working the plan. As needed, make a conscious decision about how you are changing the plan.

Why? Because you put in your best thinking about what to do. If you are tempted to deviate from your plan, your best thinking deserves at least a hearing. Taking a couple of minutes to decide how to change your plan ensures that you don’t miss some obvious complication that you already thought of. Get the benefit of that forethought–don’t just throw it away.

There’s an emotional benefit, too. You will feel proud of the change, instead of vaguely guilty that you aren’t following your plan.

When things don’t work out the way you planned, treat it as a red flag signalling a need to do a little more thinking. Your expectations were mistaken. This is a huge learning opportunity–a great chance to discover mistaken premises. By taking the time to think through your change in plan, you address the issue head on, and learn what you need to learn.

For example, when I re-evaluated what I was doing yesterday, I realized that part of the problem was that I was distracted. I had started doing the family laundry the night before, and I was finishing it up that morning. Because of the laundry, I was having trouble concentrating fully on the writing. (This is one reason I decided to give the topic a full hour attempt–to make sure the problem was not just distraction.)

I’ve always thought of laundry as something that I can do on the side of almost any work. But yesterday, because I consciously thought about what was going wrong, I saw the truth. In the future, I’ll do my best to finish the laundry the night before, or start back on it after my writing time, which requires a high degree of concentration.

This leads me to the lasting value of planning and re-planning as needed. When you work the plan, you really learn what works and what doesn’t. You become self-aware of more of the obstacles to being productive. This can only help you be a better planner in the future.

Because let’s face it–having things go according to plan is much more satisfying than the alternative. When the plan falls apart, your stress goes up. When life goes according to plan, you feel calm and in control. By planning–and working the plan–you get better at planning, and you reap both the intellectual and emotional rewards of that.

I finished drafting this article just as my timer sounded the end of my planned hour for it. Hurrah! My satisfaction is that much more positive, because I finished as planned.

April 8, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting More Emotional Impact from Good Things that Happen in Life

Some years ago I recommended the daily practice of identifying three good things that happen each day. This idea, which I got from Martin Seligman, helps you develop a more optimistic mindset. The original tip is still up on the Thinking Directions site.

In addition to making you more optimistic, identifying “three good things” also helps you understand your values. Over the years, I have used this simple exercise as a starting place for clarifying my own value hierarchy and deepening my appreciation for the values in my life.

Here are two more steps you can take to extract more value from the “good things” that happen to you.

1. Ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?”

I’ve often suggested asking “what does this mean to me?” to dig deeper into a negative emotion. It’s a question that can send you into tears when you’re feeling vulnerable. But it’s equally powerful for fleshing out why a “good thing” is good.

I figured this out one day, quite a while ago, when I was discouraged about the political situation. I had written my list of “good things,” but I still felt down. So I decided to try this extra step, and I was able to turn around my mood.

It wasn’t hard. One of the items on my “good things” list was that I had edited a piece of writing and sent it out. Its meaning for me was that I had fulfilled my commitment, and that I take pride in fulfilling my commitments. Another item on the list was that I completed an apparently trivial chore (bringing a necklace to be repaired). When I thought about the meaning to me of that chore, it had some personal symbolic significance.

None of these “good things” generated much positive emotion–until I thought about their meaning. In fact, I was amazed at how inspired I got from this extra step. I noticed that instead of feeling discouraged, I was energized.

2. Identify the deep rational values at stake

It’s not always easy to discover meaning yourself. An aid to this is to look specifically for “deep rational values.”

In Ayn Rand’s words, “a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” A rational value is a value that is in fact good for you. A deep rational value is a fundamental one, a value that is closely related to meeting basic needs of human existence. You can see my list of deep rational values in my OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

Every action you take is motivated in some way by your deepest values. This list can help you find that link.

For example, here are three good things that happened to me yesterday:

  • I caught up on sending out recordings to clients.
  • I played tennis with a “real” person.
  • My mother arrived for a visit.

I didn’t see sending out the recordings as deeply meaningful at first. It helped me clear my task list. But when I looked at the list of deep rational values, I saw that it helped me gain two mental values: “crow” space and closure. In addition, it was a contribution to the learning of the clients who got the recordings. It was also fulfilling a responsibility, and, an instance of productiveness–actually creating a material value.

On the other hand, playing tennis with a “real” person had obvious meaning to me. As background, you need to know that last October I decided to learn to play tennis, not knowing the rules of the game, nor how to throw a ball, hit a ball, or run. (That is a slight exaggeration, but only slight.) I have been taking lessons 4-5 times a month ever since. However, I had been playing only in lessons, because I wasn’t good enough to play with a “real” person, or at least not the real people I know. We would not have been able to maintain any kind of volley.

Well, I have now reached a minimum level of competence–so I and my opponent could both have some fun hitting the ball back and forth. It was meaningful to me that I have reached an objective level of mastery. This sport is turning into a bona fide source of playtime for me. I now have more freedom to play at will, instead of just in paid lessons.

Mastery, play, freedom: these are all deep rational values. Looking at my list, I realized another value was at stake here: celebration. There is value in pausing to mark important events. This is a value I hadn’t even thought about until checking the list–but I feel deeply satisfied to celebrate the occasion right now.

As for the meaning of my mother’s arrival–the value is mutual visibility. Having her visit means I can see how she is, hear how she’s doing. And in turn, I will be seen and heard.

Taking the time to identify deep rational values helps you develop the language of values. Soon you see deep values everywhere. This practice helps you maintain a benevolent world view.

I have used these extra steps when I am feeling sluggish and unmotivated to turn around my attitude. I just write down three good things that have happened, and what each one means to me, and what deep rational values are at stake. Each time I am a bit more inspired, and more eager to take action.

It’s a keeper: it’s easy and inviting to do, and there’s an immediate payoff.

April 1, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Alternative to a “No Choice” Rule

I am halfway through The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person. Judith Beck’s exercises, combined with MyFitnessPal, are helping me adhere to a lose-a-pound-a-week diet. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but I give it a qualified recommendation.

My biggest reservation concerns Beck’s advice to tell yourself you have “no choice.” To help avoid overeating, she recommends you make a written food plan the day before (which is good). But if you are tempted to eat something which isn’t on the plan, she says:

Tell yourself that you don’t have a choice. You made a plan, and you’ll follow that plan–no ifs, ands or buts.

Firmly saying, NO CHOICE, decreases both the struggle and the discomfort.” [Emphasis in the original.]

I disagree deeply. Telling yourself you have “no choice” may sometimes give the illusion of reducing struggle in the short term, but in the long term, it sets up a vicious cycle of suffering and increasing struggle. Think: lose weight, then gain it back plus a little extra, repeated ad nauseam.

Telling yourself you have “no choice” is wrong for many reasons. The primary reason is that it’s not true. A decision made today does not constrain your behavior tomorrow. You still face a choice. Telling yourself that you have “no choice” doesn’t change that fact. Rather, it’s an attempt to manipulate yourself into pretending there is nothing more to think about.

I don’t believe in telling “white lies,” and I don’t believe in trying to fool yourself into pretending that things are other than they are. In this case, it’s particularly destructive. You are trying to get yourself to do something that at some time in the past you predicted would be the right course of action in this present moment, because by some convoluted reasoning you think that manipulating yourself to do it would be easier and more comfortable than just making a fully conscious rational choice now.

Look at the psychological ramifications of such an approach:

This method works by moral pressure. When you feel the temptation or resistance, you shout it down with “NO CHOICE.” What backs up “no choice”? It’s unspoken but it’s understood: if you give in, you are no good. This is motivation by guilt and fear.

Notice the mechanism by which motivation by fear functions: by shutting down thinking. You are not to think for one second about this decision. You are to go by faith that what you concluded yesterday is still correct today. You are not allowed to question that.

And notice the implicit premise in this approach: it doesn’t matter how you feel right now. Your feelings are irrelevant to your choices. Feelings should not be given credence. You can suffer those contrary feelings or suppress them, but don’t take them seriously.

This is the exact opposite of what I teach. The best policy, in dieting as in life, is full awareness. That means thinking more actively when you face a problem, so that you can get to the bottom of it. That means introspecting feelings more deeply when you’re in a conflict, so that you can understand the values at stake in the moment. That then permits you to make choices based on pursuing values rather than avoiding threats, which serves to integrate your value hierarchy, reducing conflict over the long term.

There’s a lot I could say about how the “no choice” method sets up a vicious cycle, but I expect the most urgent question on everyone’s mind is, what do you do instead?

The appeal of the “no choice” method is that it’s fast and simple, and when you use it, you get instant results. It is rewarded with a shot of pride–or to be more exact, a shot of relief. You’ve passed the test for the moment. You’re a good person.

The alternative I have developed is pretty much the opposite in every respect. It starts with the premise that you’re a good person. That is not in question. Nor is it a test: you sometimes (though not so often) will decide to eat the forbidden food as a result of examining your feelings, but you will be morally satisfied with your decision. When you are first introduced to my method, it does not seem particularly fast or simple. But once you have practiced the method, it becomes fast enough and simple enough and gratifying enough that you will be willing to use it any time you are conflicted about doing something that you believe you should do.

Here is how the method works:

When you feel you have “no choice” but to eat what you planned, you first remind yourself of what that means: it means that yesterday, you concluded that the best way for you to reach your health goal was to eat this and not something else. My assumption is, if that is true, then when you look at the issues fully, the decision to follow your plan will become a no-brainer. The next steps help to look at the issue fully.

To do that, you remind yourself that your conflict or resistance or temptation is a feeling, and that all feelings are caused by the idea that some value of yours is threatened by your intention to stick to your meal plan in this moment.

This means that there is a contradiction between yesterday’s conclusion and some idea (you don’t know what yet) that underlies the feeling. Right now, all you know is that one of them must be mistaken. It cannot both be better for you to eat the food right now, and better for you not to eat the food right now. Two contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time.

The “no choice” method assumes you were right yesterday. But that is just an act of faith. You have some evidence that there is an issue you hadn’t considered. The full awareness method says, let’s look at it.

You want to figure out what is best for you in this moment. To do that, you need to activate the full value context. The method I use for this is something called “Decision Cards,” which I learned from P. J. Eby. In short, you start by listing all of the negatives of each option. You examine them carefully, identifying “intolerable” negatives and adjusting your options (and sometimes your attitude) until you see you face two tolerable options (though they might be unpleasant).

Once you have established that the two options are tolerable, you reconceive all of the motivation in terms of pursuit of values. Motivation by fear is an attempt to protect a value. It can be translated into motivation by values by identifying that value. So, for example, a negative of sticking to your plan might be that you will be distracted by the craving for a candy bar. This means that a positive of eating the candy bar is short-term concentration and reduction of distractions.

Once you have translated all of the pros and cons into positives for each option, it is a simple judgment call to decide which is the best. You then give a one-sentence reason for your conclusion. Why is this the better choice? With the choice and the reason, you will feel motivation to follow through at that instant.

Most of the time, this analysis turns your choice into a no-brainer, and you act on it. You get the same jolt of pride that the “no choice” method gives, but without the need to suppress or suffer emotional conflict. And you get an added bonus: that contradictory idea has been disintegrated. It has a little less hold on you. It will be a little easier to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Some of the time, you will decide to have one cookie, perhaps to celebrate the completion of a task. You’ll enjoy the cookie thoroughly and go back to work. Then you might choose to spend an 5 extra minutes on the Stairmaster that night, so that you can make your weight-loss goal, despite eating a cookie that was not on your plan. You end the day satisfied that you have many options for losing weight, glad that you can fit in the occasional little treat. You are more willing to stick to your meal plan tomorrow.

Finally, some of the time, you will realize later that you were mistaken.  Suppose you decided, “I am going to eat one cookie now, because it will satisfy my craving and let me concentrate.” But then you see in hindsight that you ate 3 cookies, and promptly dozed off. So you couldn’t concentrate anyway. And then, one hour and fifty-eight minutes later, you were craving more sugar.

You have now given yourself evidence that sugary snacks undermine concentration–something you obviously didn’t know, or you wouldn’t have thought you’d be able to concentrate. You can feel satisfied that you have learned a real lesson, from firsthand experience, which will make it more compelling for you avoid sugary snacks in the future. You will see more clearly the risks of not sticking to the meal plan.

In contrast, if you had just eaten the cookies without this kind of thought, you would properly feel guilty about it, and that guilt would overshadow and confuse any evidence you might get about the effect of the sugary snack on your energy level. You would not associate any loss of energy with the sugary snack. Rather, you would attribute it to guilt. You wouldn’t learn anything from your mistake–but you would reinforce the idea that you really are no good. You would be discouraged, and less interested in even looking at your meal plan for the next day.

The principle is: trust full awareness. If your preconceived notion is clearly the best course for you, then examining any conflict about it will turn your choice into a no-brainer. And if it isn’t, choosing based on the full value context will help you untangle the value issues at stake, helping you see all issues more clearly. Over the long term, that makes sticking to a diet–or creating any other life-affirming habit–that much easier.

March 18, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Magic Words to Counter Social Pressure

I have just finished reading a short book on sales explaining the “magic words” to use to persuade people to do what you want. I have had a conniption fit several times while reading it. The purpose of the book is to teach the reader to become a “professional mind-maker-upper.”

Making up your mind is not a job to outsource.

To help you, the targets of these strategies, I have worked out some “magic words” to counter these manipulative tactics.

Don’t get me wrong–a persuasive sales presentation and compelling marketing copy are a value to every potential customer. A sales person who understands the issues and is good at drawing out your concerns can help you articulate your challenge and see more clearly the choice you face.

For example, one valid sales technique is to draw out the ramifications of buying versus delaying. Delaying an important decision is often a disaster–the same bad situation gradually decays, nothing changes, the misery grows. But these negatives are often ignored. Delay is the easy, passive choice. A good salesperson can help you see the penalty of delay. This is a benefit to you.

But no matter how good and honest the salesperson is, he does not have your full context. And a manipulative salesperson will attempt to lead you to drop the full context, and make a decision impetuously.

My standard operating procedure, and my recommendation to you, is to decide tomorrow. I try not to make any decision that requires the commitment of more than an hour of time, or more than $200, when in conversation with another person. There is too much risk of being caught up in the current context and ignoring what I already know. Indeed, I have a resolution to use the focused choices decision process for these decisions–especially the time commitments–so that I don’t overschedule myself. As a shorthand to hold this resolution, I “decide tomorrow.”

I put such decisions on the agenda for my morning planning time, or for a conversation with my husband, or for a particular time. I make the decision consciously, after having mulled over it and used my decision process.

In contrast, the “magic words” in the book I was reading were designed to short-circuit the decision process and pressure you into a “yes.” Here are some magic words you can use in response to break the spell:

Scenario 1: You say, “I need some time to think about it.” He says, “What is it you want to think about?” This is a ploy to try to get you to run out of arguments at the moment, so you feel you have no reason to say no. But the reason you need to think about it, is that you don’t necessarily think up all of the negatives on your feet, in a social situation. So, here’s what I say:

“I need some time to think about it.”
“What is it you want to think about?”
“I always make decisions the next day, so I have a chance to reflect on how the decision fits with my other priorities.”

Scenario 2: You demur in some way. He says, “Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”This is a ploy to make you feel like saying “no” would make you “close minded.” No one likes to view himself as close-minded. But as Ayn Rand said,

[There is a] dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term–as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices–and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

She concludes that what you need is not an “open mind,” but an active one. Here’s how I would answer the “open minded” ploy:

“Would you be open-minded about giving this a chance?”
“On the contrary, I prefer to be active-minded, recognizing that ‘giving this a chance’ is a commitment of time, energy and resources. I don’t fall into decisions, I make them consciously. That is why I will spend time tomorrow thinking about how this fits with my priorities.”

Scenario 3: You say you don’t have time to discuss this. He says, “When would be a good time?” This is a ploy that assumes facts not in evidence: that this is high enough priority for you to devote time to even talking about it. As it says in the book, which I am not naming, because I don’t want to give it publicity, this question “prompts the other person to assume that there will be a good time and that no is not an option.”

This question is an example of the logical fallacy, “complex question.” The classic example of that is: “When did you stop beating your wife?” The response to a complex question is to name the false assumption. Here’s how I would handle the “when would be a good time” ploy:

“When would be a good time?”
“That assumes that this is high enough priority for me to make time. I don’t see that. You are welcome to send me written materials, and if I see from them that this would be worth more of my time, I’ll set up a call with you. But right now, my priorities lie elsewhere.”

As I said, I had a conniption fit when I read this book. I picked it up, because I was hoping for advice on how to explain the value of my services. But manipulation is antithetical to my morality–and of course to my brand. I kept reading the book, because it concretized a wide range of the thinking problems that I am trying to help people conquer.

My mission is to help everyone be his own mind-maker-upper.

One way to become a better mind-maker-upper yourself is to choose to make your decisions tomorrow–safely apart from the pressure of a “professional” mind-maker-upper attempting to influence you.

March 11, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How to say “That’s BS” in RCC

Each month in the Thinking Lab, I run sessions on “Rationally Connected Conversations” (RCC) an adaptation of Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC). In January, I hosted a session with Jeff Brown, a Certified Trainer in NVC, to discuss “How to say ‘That’s BS’ in RCC.”

I learned a lot–and thought I would work through one crucial lesson by concretizing it thoroughly.

But first I had to establish the logical and emotional foundation for the method. That’s what I’ve been doing in some recent newsletters. The three conclusions were:

  1. It takes quite a bit of evidence to conclude that someone is dishonest. The fact that someone stated a falsehood or ignored something obvious is not enough to establish dishonesty.
  2. Honesty is such a fundamental necessity in relationships, that any hint of dishonesty has the power to trigger strong emotions. If you suspect someone else is being dishonest, you are likely to become triggered emotionally by the apparent betrayal. If he suspects that you think he is being dishonest, he will become triggered emotionally, too. If he’s innocent, he’ll be angry at the apparent injustice. If he’s guilty, he’ll be fearful of consequences of his action.
  3. Given all of this, if you are tempted to confront someone about his apparent untruths, you need to proactively deal with your own emotions. You need to become emotionally grounded so you can make a fair assessment about the evidence and the values at stake. What actually matters most to you in this situation?

As I see it, this last is the key to figuring out what to say. You need to have completed the internal work so that you are emotionally grounded and you know your purpose. Then, to quote Jeff Brown, you can “express your needs by taking full responsibility for your thoughts, interpretations, and conclusions.”

Only if you believe there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation does it make sense to engage. If you believe that is true, you can and should treat the person respectfully. Otherwise, you will unnecessarily alienate him. (If you are rationally convinced the person is dishonest, there is no reason to engage at all.)

You would engage differently, depending on your purpose. Let’s work this through, using the following real situation as a jumping off point:

A while ago, I submitted an application for a volunteer position that required computer skills. I got an email back from someone, call her Mary, telling me the application I had submitted online had come through blank, and asking if I could send her a copy by email.

I checked my copy of the application and discovered it was blank, too. After some sleuthing, I saw what happened. I had filled out the editable PDF online and then saved. Apparently that doesn’t work. You need to save a copy of the form, then fill it out locally in a PDF editor, then save using the PDF editor. I redid the application, doublechecked that it included my data, resubmitted it, and sent Mary a copy by email for good measure. Problem solved.

But suppose I hadn’t figured out what caused the problem? Suppose I had repeated the same failed process and sent her a blank copy? Supposed I was so sure that the save “should” work that I didn’t check the file before sending to her? Suppose I did this twice more?

Let’s make up someone–call him Bob–and say that’s what he did. Three times he wrote to Mary, saying “here’s my application.” And three times, what Mary got was blank.

Mary might have gotten miffed or worse with Bob. Adopt your most suspicious mindset, and imagine the worst interpretation possible: Was Bob too slipshod to be suitable for the role? Was Bob evading the need to check the file before sending it? Was Bob lying to try to get an extension on the deadline without asking for it?

When you suspect dishonesty, you need to get in touch with your own emotions and values, so you can decide whether there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation and/or some positive foundation for connecting. That is necessary if you are going to engage. Here, there is a pretty clear possibility that Bob had a technical problem.

Let’s just speculate that there are many possible reasons Mary might want to engage with Bob, despite his submitting three blank applications. Here’s how she might engage using RCC in these three cases. (The letters O, F, N, & R stand for Observation, Feeling, Need, Request–the OFNR four step process that is used in several ways in both RCC and NVC.)

  1. Suppose Mary were frustrated and concerned about what this meant for their working relationship. Assume for this case that the application was a formality–she would be working with Bob. She wants to be able to trust what he says. She wants an open, frank conversation that could lead to their working together effectively. She might say:

O: When I heard you say you had checked the application before emailing it, I was hopeful. When I opened it, I saw it was blank like the other ones.

F: I’m concerned that there is something else going on here.

N: It’s important to me to have openness and trust in my working relationships so we can succeed together.

R: Is there any truth to my suspicion that there is something else going on here? If so, would you be willing to tell me what that is?

This is an example of leading in a relationship. She wants mutual openness, so she is being open. She wants mutual trust, so she is being trusting. She is taking the first step to a closer, better relationship.

  1. Suppose Mary had seen this problem before, and was genuinely curious about how it was happening. She wanted understanding so that the problem could be avoided in the future. She might say:

O: I’ve received three blank applications.

F: I’m genuinely curious and concerned about whether I or my organization is contributing to this problem

N: and wanting understanding of what is causing this problem.

R: Would you be willing to tell me what you see is happening?

This would likely start a conversation about the nitty gritty details, which could reveal that the website doesn’t save the data. It would get to problem-solving mode–completely sidestepping any question of “BS.”

  1. Suppose Mary had decided that Bob was unsuitable for the job, even if there were extenuating circumstances. She wanted to disengage. But since it was a volunteer organization, it was important to handle the situation respectfully. Then it might look like this:

O: I’ve gotten three applications from you, all blank.

F: I’m disappointed,

N: and am really needing support from someone who can figure out technical problems autonomously.

O: I thought about it and

F: I’m sad to say

N: I need freedom to look for another candidate.

R: Would you mind telling me how you feel about what I’m saying?

This language, in which Mary clearly owns the responsibility for meeting her own needs, is less likely to trigger defensiveness in Bob. By asking for his reaction, she can neutralize any negative reaction.

These openings do not guarantee an ideal conversation. For an ideal conversation, you need to be able to respond to anything the other person says–even if he gets very upset. But they do minimize the chance of triggering defenses in the other person.

They do this because you have taken ownership of meeting your own needs. You have taken responsibility for having the emotions you do, and making a conscious decision about what is most important to you in this moment. By doing so, you have become emotionally independent of him–you are not passively reacting to him, you are proactively requesting cooperation to help achieve your top value at the moment. This–your own emotional independence–is what lets you challenge another person’s “BS” without insulting an innocent person–and leaving open that this confrontation will actually strengthen the relationship rather than break it.

February 24, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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

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