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

Where to Look Before You Leap

A member of the Thinking Lab asked me for advice on how to decide whether to join a small startup or stay with his very successful, stable, lucrative job at a large company. Let’s call him Max. Max had done a lot of thinking about his choice, but he still had some nagging doubts. People had been saying he needed to make a “leap of faith” to join the startup, but he wanted a firmer basis for his decision. I would, too.

There is an objective problem in making such a high stakes decision. You simply do not know how the future will unfold–and it has significant implications. If the startup succeeds, Max could become extremely wealthy. If it fails, he could use up all of his savings and put his family’s security at risk.

Some people claim that the “rational” method for making difficult decisions is to assign probabilities for costs and payoffs of various outcomes, and then calculate which the overall expected value for each option. The option with the biggest expected value is supposed to be the one to choose.

I disagree that this is a rational approach to a decision that is inherently uncertain. First, the probabilities for the different outcomes are guesses. Second, the costs and payoffs for the different outcomes are guesses. Third, this method necessarily reflects your preconceptions of the risks and rewards. It amplifies any subjectivity in your decision-making process. It does nothing to help you expand the context of considerations so that you see as far as possible, you understand the risks and rewards as clearly as possible, and you make the decision as objectively as possible.

In contrast, a rational approach helps you be more objective. It helps you to activate and hold the full context for the decision. That context includes known facts, important values, and areas of risk. Once these are clear, you can make a judgment call based on all of that information.

The concrete method I teach for getting this clarity is called “Decision Cards,” Roughly speaking, you create a card for each option, putting positives on one side, negatives on the other. Then you systematically examine all of the negatives to translate them into equivalent positives for the other options. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the effect is that you reconceive the decision entirely in terms of values, and then you can choose your direction while “holding all of the values with care.”

For most decisions, you simply write down positives and negatives off the top of your head. However, in a high stakes case like deciding whether or not to join a startup, I recommend additional steps for due diligence. There are so many long-range implications of the choice that it’s difficult to come up with them all off the top of your head. You need some way to bring more of what you know to bear.

My method takes off from the “pre-mortem” developed by Gary Klein for planning. In his method, you imagine that your plan results in a total fiasco. Then you reflect on how that could have happened, and make contingency plans to try to avoid it. What I love about the “pre-mortem” is that it uses your imagination to visualize possible outcomes, which gives you concrete scenarios to explore. It gives you something useful to think about.

So here’s my adaptation for high stakes decisions: Do some “awfulizing” about what might happen, and then give yourself an “empathy bath” for all of those awful potentialities to get fully clear on the values at stake. Then you can continue with the usual decision-making process.

Let me just walk through how Max might come up with these awful scenarios and investigate them to help him make a solid decision.

First, he’d imagine that he went with the startup, but it was a disaster–it struggled or went bankrupt. Here are some of the awful consequences he might imagine:

  • This would radically reduce his savings at a critical point in his career that would make it hard for him to educate his children and live a comfortable retirement.
  • He might never again get as good a job as he has now.
  • The failure could result in ill-will between him and his partners, meaning he’d lose longtime friends.
  • The failure would create terrible strain on his marriage and family, because he would have been working insane hours to try to save the company. He might become estranged from his wife or children.

On the other hand, he’d also need to awfulize what might happen if he stayed at the big company and the startup succeeded. Here are some more awful consequences he might imagine:

  • He might feel lousy about having been afraid to try it.
  • He might feel bored and a little burned out with the same old job.
  • He might work just as hard to do well, with the same negative effect on his marriage and family, but with no offsetting personal meaning
  • He might see himself as a person who had even less of a “startup personality,” so he was even less ready to seize the next opportunity, thereby sabotaging a major life goal

Now, mind you, I just made these up knowing little about Max’s real concerns. But we’ve all had these kinds of negative thoughts. The negative thoughts that occur to you easily reflect your latent concerns. These are a hugely important source of information, worthy of further investigation.

This is a bit contrarian. You may believe you should eliminate your negative self-talk. Indeed, the cognitive therapy school of psychology specifically teaches people to catch and correct these kinds of exaggerated negative thoughts–that’s where I got the term “awfulizing” from. Let’s face it: these thoughts are exaggerated, overly negative, and totally depressing. If you believe them, you’d never do anything. You’d be totally paralyzed.

And yet, they are leads to deep rational values. Your deep rational values.

These are emotionally charged thoughts. Where there are emotionally charged thoughts, there are deep values at stake–values that you may not be aware of, but which are important enough to have triggered confusing, contradictory emotions that are strong enough to paralyze you.

So, although I agree that it’s important not to get lost in negative thoughts, it is also important not to fear them or feel you need to get rid of them. There are no unthinkable thoughts. Rather, I believe the best approach is to get very curious about them, and what underlying values they reflect.

The path from experiencing negative, destructive thoughts to identifying deep rational values goes through introspection. In particular, I recommend the method I call the “empathy bath.” When you give yourself an “empathy bath,” you systematically explore 8 families of emotions–both positive and negative versions, for 16 emotions total. For each emotion, you ask yourself why you might be feeling it in relation to the decision.

For example, one of the families is despair/hope. Based on the awfulizing I imagined above, Max might feel despair, because it seems like no matter what he does, his family life could suffer. On the other hand, he might feel hope, that knowing that’s a risk will help him plan to avoid it.

Awfulizing triggers a lot of emotions; the empathy bath clarifies them.

The last step of the empathy bath is particularly important when you are making long-range decisions: identify the deep rational values that underlie every affect-laden or evaluative statement in the preceding work. The shortlist of deep rational values is available in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

For example, Max’s concern about the family reveals a need for connection with them, and perhaps balance. His concern about boredom reveals a need for intellectual stimulation. His concerns about money reveals a desire to cherish and support his family.

The final step is particularly important, because naming the deep rational values clarifies the full context for the decision. Whenever you have an ambitious goal, you will face conflict at times. Pursuing one value will necessarily mean that other values get less time and attention. The constructive way to deal with conflict is to get crystal clear on all of the values at stake, and then choose the top value–the priority. The priority is not the only thing you do–it’s the most important. The priority is the one that gets the first call on your time and attention–but not all of your time and attention. When you know your priority, you can use that clarity to help allocate your energy to your other values.

When you make a decision based on top values, you can’t go wrong. Either it all works out, and you succeed. Or, you discover that the path you thought was the path to your top value was mistaken in some way–and you can correct your course. In either case, you stay focused on positives, not fears or regrets.

This is a short essay on a huge topic. I include references to the specific tactics I mention for further reading.

The bottom line: If you face a high stakes decision, take some time to get clear on all of the deep rational values at stake. Once you are clear on them, you will be able to choose a direction with confidence that you are pursuing what matters most to you.

December 2, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Dividing Up the Mind

How do you understand something? The most basic way is to break it up into its component parts, and then see how they fit or work together to form the whole. Those are the logical processes of analysis and synthesis.

In the case of the human mind, it is not obvious how to break the whole into parts. There have been several schools of thought. In my view, getting this analysis correct is the key to be able to improve your own mind. Let me give a very simplified review to show what I mean:

Freud divided the mind into the id, ego, and superego. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it: ‘According to this model, the uncoordinated instinctual trends are the “id”; the organized realistic part of the psyche is the “ego,” and the critical and moralizing function the “super-ego.”‘,_ego,_and_super-ego

In the Wikipedia article, the authors say this division helped categorize mental illness. But the reality is that he saw all three of these as deterministic aspects at war with each other. You are stuck with inner conflict. There is no way to improve the situation. As a result, Freudians are not known to help their patients. (They’re known for keeping them as patients for decades.)

More recently, many pop-psychologists have divided up mental functioning into “right brain” and “left brain” functioning. The right brain is supposed to be the holistic, intuitive, creative, emotional side. The left brain is supposed to be the logical, analytical, verbal side.

This division was inspired by interesting research with “split brain” patients, which showed that the left hemisphere specializes in language and analysis, and the right hemisphere in less verbal activity. But serious scientists concur that pop psychologists distort the findings of neuroscience. There is no absolute localization on the two sides, and in many cases, one side can develop needed connections if the other side is damaged. (See )

The popular division is a metaphor for reason vs. emotion. It has become popular because most people who promote “right brain/left brain” say that you need to use both sides of your brain, i.e., both reason and emotion. I agree with this advice as far as it goes. You cannot be a successful thinker by ignoring your emotions, and you cannot be a successful creator by ignoring logic. However, I don’t think the advice is very powerful, because it doesn’t help you make the parts of your mind work together.

In contrast to these, I subscribe to the division I learned from Ayn Rand: conscious vs. subconscious. Your conscious mind is your present frame of awareness–your sense of self–and you have volitional control over it, in the sense that you can turn your attention to different things in the perceptual field or different ideas that have popped up from the subconscious.

Your subconscious is your mental database of past observations and conclusions. On the tabula rasa view, your subconscious starts out empty. Everything in there was grasped first in conscious awareness, then stored. This means that all thoughts and feelings are coming from the same mental database. The differences between them are only in how closely related they are to your values, and therefore how strong a feeling they generate, and in whether the connections were made by a verbal analysis or by an association.

This division is very fruitful. It leads to all kinds of advice to reduce the mental load on your conscious mind. And all kinds of advice to pursue leads coming up from the subconscious, whether they are thoughts or feelings. And it leads to the recommendation that you test every conclusion you reach, because your mental databanks are only as good as your present checking process.

November 17, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

3 Ways to Reveal Facts You Are Missing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a fact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 8, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments


Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in life is to treat struggle as an alarm that warrants your immediate, full attention. By “struggle,” I mean “to proceed with great difficulty and effort.” [Merriam-Webster] You struggle because the task is difficult enough that you don’t know how to do it. You try and fail. Failure saps your motivation (whereas success would have fed it). Keeping at the task takes more and more effort, as you drain your energy reserves.

Struggle indicates a problem that needs solving, urgently. Persevering with struggle is self-destructive.

This view is a total about face from my previous thinking. I used to view struggle almost as a badge of honor. I sought out problems to tackle that were extremely difficult. Hard problems were interesting, important problems. I considered struggle to be the price I paid for doing something worthwhile. When I started to struggle, I would just gird my loins and try harder. If I eventually broke through by sheer brute force effort, I felt validated. If I didn’t, I figured I hadn’t tried hard enough.

There is a sliver of truth in my old perspective. You struggle because you have come up against your own limits of knowledge, motivation, and energy.

If you never struggle, you will never identify your own limits. On the other hand, if you set ambitious goals, you will struggle at times. If you then give up when you start to struggle, you will learn to fear your limits. You need to persevere in the face of struggle in some way if you are to grow your skill, expand your capabilities, and achieve your wildly ambitious goals.

The question is, how should you persevere? If you simply accept the struggle and try harder, you create a vicious cycle. That’s because struggle is painful and demoralizing. If you persevere, you associate the pain and suffering with pursuing your most ambitious goals. You program conflict into your value system. The goals that should motivate you to jump out of bed in the morning become burdened with fear and resistance.

It took me a bout with Epstein-Barr about 10 years ago to figure out that trying harder despite struggle is disastrous. I saw that my attempts to keep working despite the illness were contributing to the illness. Since then, I have monitored carefully for struggle, but it’s sometimes been quite puzzling to figure out another way forward that isn’t just “try harder” with more of the same effort. I’ve finally found the general approach to take, and I am delighted to shave some time off of your learning curve by sharing it with you:

If you are struggling, you have misconceptualized your choices. You are acting like something is under your control that isn’t. Look for some fact you need to accept that will then change the decision calculus, and show you what your real choices are.

For example, the omnipresent fact that is worth reminding yourself to accept on a daily basis is: there is not enough time in the day for you to do everything you might want to do. If you fight this fact, you will rarely be productive. You’ll identify what you want to do, assume you can do it all, pick one task to begin with, and plunge in. Somewhere along the line, time will run out or a crisis will occur, and it’s likely that something important will slip through the cracks.

This fact–that there is more that you might want to do than you could possibly do–is a fact about the world. The world is filled with values of all kinds. At work, everywhere you turn there is a way to make the product or service better, a way to help the team work together more effectively, or an idea for how to expand what you’re doing to reach new customers or to create new products. In your personal life, everywhere you turn, there is something interesting to learn, another terrific person to meet, or a new way to enjoy your free time.

When you deeply accept the fact that you can’t do everything you’d like to do, you also see another fact clearly: there is time to do what you consider most important, if you take total ownership of that to do what’s most important first.

Accepting that you can’t do everything, but you can do the most important thing first will change the way you identify your choices. Not only will you think more about what’s most important, you will get better at factoring in time. Instead of feeling like a victim of circumstances, you see you are in charge of your life.

This same focus on facts can change how you deal with interpersonal issues, too. For example, a client was struggling with a family issue. His sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she didn’t want to talk about it with him. He was both hurt and upset about her diagnosis, but he didn’t see that he could address his emotional turmoil without talking with her.

Now, there is a grain of truth in this, in that it would probably be faster and easier to work through this in conversation with her. But of course, it is possible to work through any emotional issue oneself.

However, because he believed his only reasonable choice was to wait until she was ready to talk. The issue festered for him for a month, sapping his motivation and making him miserable.

The crucial fact he needed to accept was: he could not control his sister. His sister may never be ready to talk about the issue. He had no evidence that she would change her mind about talking with him any time soon. The choice he was actually facing was: Wait for his sister and maybe never address the emotional issues, or work on them himself, despite the fact that will take considerable time and effort. These were the two choices under his direct control. “Talk with sister” was not one of the choices he actually faced.

Framed this way, the choice became easy. He had already used considerable time and effort in the waiting game. Devoting that time and effort to working the issue out himself could only make things better and reduce his overall distress. That was a way forward, where success was under his control, instead of out of his control.

Accepting the facts helps you see what choices you really face. It helps you see what is in fact under your volitional control. This helps you then determine a step that actually moves you forward to success–instead of leaving you struggling fighting to try to change an unpleasant fact of reality.

November 1, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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