Picking Favorites

Some years ago, I attended a seminar on “The Art of Introspection.” The speaker (Psychologist Edwin Locke) encouraged the audience to consciously pick favorites. Wherever you are–in a hotel lobby, at work, watching a movie, reading an article–pick your favorite aspect. By taking the time to identify your preferences, you strengthen your own values and get extra enjoyment from them.

For example, I pick favorites when I go to museums. After I’ve looked around a room, I stop to choose my favorite painting. After I’ve been through all the rooms in a section, I choose my top favorite for that section.

This makes my museum trip more enjoyable and helps me identify my artistic preferences. In addition, picking favorites has two cognitive payoffs.

First, it counters museumitis–that glassy-eyed, mentally numb state which comes from looking at each item with equal intensity. The same strain happens when you try to proofread a table of numbers by simply checking one after another. It is difficult to concentrate afresh on each and every item when there are dozens. Trying to do so creates a mental strain that interferes with any degree of concentration. In no time you become bug-eyed and bored.

The solution is to add variety to the process. In proof-reading, you might get a partner switch off tasks, proofread backwards, proof only 20 numbers at a time, etc.

At the museum, picking favorites breaks up the monotony. You look more purposefully at the candidates for favorite (and pay less attention to the others), plus you get a little break for reflection when you come to the end of each room.

Second, picking favorites aids memory. When you identify something as a positive value and spend a little time thinking about it, you are more likely to remember it. My museum trips no longer blur together, thanks to this technique.

Like many of my tips, this is a small action with big payoffs. Next time you feel bored or you are just “hanging around,” make a point to pick favorites in the scene (or perhaps in some area of your life that warrants a few minutes of reflection). Thinking about what you like will perk you up and put your mind in a higher gear.

May 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Thinking on Your Feet

I often get asked, how do you apply “Thinking Tactics” to thinking on your feet? For example, suppose you are in a meeting, and your boss suddenly turns to you and asks for your opinion. How do you come up with a quick answer? You can’t stop to “think on paper” in that situation.

First, I want to point out that most of what we call “thinking on your feet” is actually “remembering on your feet.” Succinct, essentialized answers are rarely entirely spontaneous. If you know in advance that you will be asked questions (after a presentation, or at an interview, for example), it’s crucial to prepare for them in advance. Make a list of questions you might get and figure out your answers by sitting at your desk and thinking on paper. This gives you the time and quiet to think in depth. Then you can simply draw on that past thinking when you’re asked the question on the spot. And you look very sharp in the process!

That said, we all get into situations where we’re asked questions and don’t know the answers off the top of our heads. What do you do then? You can’t just will yourself to answer–that’s a prescription for going blank. Sometimes you can put off giving an answer, by promising to get back to the questioner with your thoughts.

But sometimes you need to say something right then. In this situation, I suggest you turn the conversation into “thinking aloud.” Do this deliberately. Say something like, “That’s a good question.  Let me think aloud here to see if I can work out an answer.”

When you give that preamble, you warn the other person that they shouldn’t expect a polished, succinct answer. You get tacit permission to ramble a bit as you follow your train of thought, which is what you need to do. You balance your need to do some thinking, with the listener’s need to hear your answer right now.

“Thinking aloud” has the same basic rule as “thinking on paper.” Use full sentences! That helps you think step by step. And since you have an audience, make each sentence as intelligible to the other person as possible. Your thinking aloud may turn into a discussion as they chime in with helpful information or answers to questions you pose in your thinking.

As soon as you have an answer, switch from “thinking aloud” to summing up: Deliberately bring the conversation back to the question and your answer. Say something like, “Okay, now I have an answer to your question….” Then state your answer as succinctly as possible.

Alternately, if you find that you are raising a lot of issues, and there isn’t going to be a quick answer, you could sum up with something like, “Well, you see that there are too many issues here, and I’m not going to get an answer off the top of my head. I think I need some time to look at the issues I’ve just raised so I can give you a responsible answer.”

By warning them that you are thinking aloud, then deliberately summing up your answer, you can maintain a professional demeanor, even when you’re put on the spot.

Next time you are impressed by someone “thinking on their feet,” pay careful attention to whether they are doing new, fresh thinking aloud–or are cashing in on previous thinking they’ve done. Either way, you can learn something about how to capitalize on your own thinking prowess when you need to “think on your feet.”

 

 

April 2, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Use a Physical Process to Release Tension

I admit to being a fanatic who looks to thinking as a solution to all problems. I look for a psychological cause for everything that happens to me. And I look for a thinking process to help me deal with everything that happens to me.

If I cut my finger, yes, I put on a Bandaid. But I also reflect on what I was doing, and consider whether I need to be more mindful of my actions. If so, I spend a moment considering how that can be accomplished.

Due to this predilection, I used to be puzzled that quite a few of my friends go for a long run when they are upset. But eventually I understood: they exercise because the intense physical activity reduces body tension. If you reduce body tension, you can more easily deal with the emotions.

Here’s why: the tension intensifies the experience of some emotions (such as anger) and masks and/or interferes with the experience of other emotions (such as joy). A process that reduces the tension–literally physically relaxes the body–provides a timeout, so that some emotions will pass, and creates a neutral physical baseline, so that emotions are experienced normally, and you can more easily identify them and sort out their meaning.

Let me elaborate on this important point.

First, tension masks many emotions with pain. When you are extremely tense, you experience pain in your neck, in your shoulders, maybe in your back, sometimes in other joints. If the pain takes your attention, it will mask the subtle experiences of many emotions.

Emotions have signature physical experiences associated with them. There is the frission of surprise that runs from your belly up your spine. There is the clutching of your stomach at a moment of intense fear. There is the choking feeling in your throat when you feel hurt and invisible. All of these are difficult to distinguish when there is an overriding experience of pain. The pain gets the primary attention.

And of course, sometimes people simply block out the pain, in which case, they block off awareness of all bodily feelings.

Second, some emotions–such as pure joy–simply can’t be experienced when you are tense all over, because the somatic experience involves a freedom in your breathing that is incompatible with a highly tense state. Moreover, if you’ve ever experienced a bout of chronic pain, you know how pain undermines your access to positive emotions. For those who haven’t, simply note that people in chronic pain are usually grouchy. Most positive emotions involve a feeling of physical freedom and well-being, tension and pain prevent you from having that experience.

The effect of these factors is to make it difficult to introspect your feelings, when you are extremely tense. When you ask yourself “what do I feel?” the answer is, “pain,” “tension,” “aching.”

Another effect is that it is hard to concentrate. You don’t feel good. You tire more easily. You want a break from this bad physical feeling, and moving or resting seems like a good idea. You don’t have free access to emotional signals. Basic tactics like “thinking on paper” and “introspection 101” aren’t as effective when you’re in this state.

I finally understood this deeply a few years ago when I was stiff from having driven 300 miles, twice in a few days. I didn’t pay much attention to the tenstion. Instead, I noticed I had difficulty concentrating and was in a bad mood. I tried my usual tactics, and they weren’t all that effective. Out of desperation, I decided to tackle the physical symptoms of tension directly.

Okay, I said to myself. Exercise. Stretching. Breathing exercises. Alexander self-lessons. Massages. There are many physical processes that reduce physical tension.

I swam, I stretched, I had an Alexander lesson. And suddenly I could concentrate again. Suddenly I was in touch with my feelings again–which were subtle feelings about projects I needed to help me think about work, not intense feelings about some personal issue.

Now I notice whenever there is tension in my neck. I have suddenly become enamored of all the little physical de-tensing techniques that I’ve learned over the years: Stretching at breaks, breathing exercises, etc. I’m raring to go.

Lesson learned. If you feel physical tension, reduce it with a physical mechanism. It’s easy. It makes thinking easier. It is silly not to.

March 31, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Having a Point

There are some skills that people self-identify they need. And there are others that they don’t.

Many people who have a problem getting to the point don’t realize it. But when you talk with them, you see their problem reflected in your own frustration. They say something, you try to clarify. They neither agree nor disagree, but sheer off onto another topic. You ask them a question. The answer doesn’t address the question. The conversation rambles and digresses and circles around, and you can’t pin them down.

Now, sometimes this is deliberate evasiveness, but that is not usually the case. Usually the problem is that they don’t know how to get to the point.

This is a skill that I had to learn consciously, so I am aware, both of how surprising it is to realize you are not, in fact, communicating well, and what is needed to communicate better. There are a number of best practices, but the crucial prerequisite is to have a point.

All three words are crucial.

First, you need to have a point. Many times people come into conversation without a clear purpose. They do not know what they want to say, or even why they are having the conversation. It is impossible to get to the point if you don’t know what it is–you can’t aim for a destination until it’s been identified.

This is why you need to spend at least a moment figuring out why you are having a conversation. If your purpose is to convince the other person of something, you need to know what you are trying to convince them of–you need to identify the point.

On the  other hand, if your purpose is to pass the time, or to explore issues, there may not be a point to communicate–and then you need to make sure you don’t give them reason to believe there is. If you are just exploring and playing devil’s advocate, but you’re acting as if you are trying to convince them of something, they may both confused and frustrated.

Second, in order to get to the point, you need to have one point. One point. If you have multiple points, you need to make them one at a time–and wait until you’ve gotten one across before going on to the next. If you try to make several points at once, the other person will likely not be able to follow you.

Third, the point needs to be a point. A point is a single thought–one complete sentence–which is the conclusion you are trying to get them to reach. You may give examples to concretize the point, you may make an argument to prove the point, you may give contrasting cases to differentiate the point. But whatever you do, whatever you say, it needs to be logically connected to validating the point. You may address their concerns by clarifying the points. You may say a lot of things, but if you want to get to the point, everything you say needs to add up logically to the one point–the conclusion that you are trying to get across.

When everything adds up, a pyramid becomes a great metaphor for the conversation. You build a layers of evidence on a base, narrowing to the point.

But if you include the kitchen sink and anything else that occurs to you along with logical material, you get a pile, not a point.

March 26, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Evening Review

To keep on track with a workload, you need to review your progress daily. I generally recommend taking 15 minutes in the morning to see what you got done, and what you need to do. However, there is a good case to be made to spend a little more time to review in the evening. I was inspired to do this after reading The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.

The evening is the perfect time to reflect on how the day went. Did you do what I intended to do? If so, what made that possible? If not, why not? How would I plan differently another day?

5-10 minutes of “thinking on paper” on these topics is very valuable, because it helps you figure out how to tinker with your schedule. It’s not always obvious how much time certain work will take. Nor is it obvious how much pleasure some recreational activity will bring. To arrange your days to run happily and productively, your need to review what works and what doesn’t.

This works better at night, when you can focus on looking back. In the morning, that can bog you down, just as you are trying to get geared up for the day. At night, it’s satisfying to take a few minutes to reflect. But there’s little risk of bogging down in reflection when you’re tired and ready to go to sleep!

As an added bonus, you get to sleep on it. So when you get to planning the next day, you have already percolated on any issues from the previous day, and a few ideas will probably have come up for what to do differently today. The bottom line: if you take a few minutes for an evening review, it takes less time the next day to get started, and less total time reviewing and planning. Who’da thunk it?

 

 

February 24, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Freewriting

Every tactic is useful only in a context. That includes my favorite general-purpose workhorse, “thinking on paper.” Sometimes it is more efficient to think in your head. Sometimes it is more efficient to discuss an issue with someone else. And sometimes it is more efficient to “freewrite.”

Freewriting is like thinking on paper: you record your thoughts in full sentences as you think them. It’s different because…you have no thinking goal. You record a stream of consciousness, without worrying whether it will go anywhere or not.

When I first heard about freewriting, I was skeptical, and maybe you are, too. But I have found it valuable for creative thinking tasks.

Sometimes when I am trying to come up with a new idea (e.g., newsletter topics or marketing angles), my thinking on paper becomes strained. Systematic questions that usually bring up good ideas stop working. In this situation, I need some way to stay on task, keep ideas percolating, and remove the strain.

Freewriting works perfectly for this. I still have the larger goal of generating a new idea. But my immediate focus is to simply record what’s going on in my mind, some of which is complaints, and some of which is banal. Within about five minutes of starting, some new ideas occur to me spontaneously.

Freewriting helps for several reasons. First, it completely eliminates criticism which can stop new ideas from bubbling up.

Second, it clears out the complaints and banality, just as thinking on paper does. Third, it keeps you at the ready to notice new connections when they get made. And they will. Connections to additional ideas are constantly being triggered from your subconscious. Even your stream of consciousness can provide stimulus for triggering those new connections.

So, if you are feeling stuck while thinking on paper, give yourself permission to freewrite for a few minutes, and see if that frees the logjam.

 

 

 

February 19, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Reminder Cards

I advocate a lot of simple tools. Here’s one for remembering good advice: Make a pack of reminder cards. By reminder cards, I literally mean 3″x5″ index cards with handwriting on them.

So, for example, over the years, I developed a pack of about 30 blue index cards with writing advice. Several cards consisted of editing checklists. Others listed questions to ask before or during writing. Several listed steps to take in the writing process. I read probably 50 books on writing over a 10 year period, and whenever found a great new idea, I summarized it on a card. For years, whenever I had problems writing, I shuffled through that card deck to find a critical tip. (Eventually, I organized this into my Nonfiction Writing Handbook.)

Similarly, I developed a pack of about 15 purple index cards with exercises. Some are stretching sequences, some are breathing or Alexander Technique exercises, some are physical therapy exercises. I would use a card regularly for a while, then it would stay in the pack. If I needed a refresher, I’d go back and find the appropriate purple card.

I also have stacks of cards for motivational quotes (which can give a little boost of encouragement), warmup questions for thinking, procedures for planning, and a few other miscellaneous categories.

I keep them all together in a little bin on my desk, and I add to them whenever I see a gem I want to remember. Sorting through the physical cards is a pleasurable experience. As I read each one, I remember why I thought the advice was so good, and how that idea could help me at present.

Some of you may think this is old fashioned. Why not use a notes program instead of cards? I say, if a file works for you, great. Cards are better for me. I can spread them out and look at them all at once. Plus, the need to write out the advice on a physical card helps me be selective about what I include. If I just had to cut and paste into a file, I would be indiscriminate. Soon I’d have an unwieldy mess–too much information to be helpful.

My little pack of cards keeps useful ideas at my finger tips. If you are finding some of the tips I send out helpful, why not start your pack of cards with some of them now?

 

February 17, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The One Thing Missing from the Advice You’ve Gotten from Me

If you’ve been reading my blog, or my website, you’ve read about a lot of processes and procedures you can use to help get your mental wheels turning when you’re feeling overloaded, or conflicted, or doubtful, or otherwise not sure what to do. They’re great ideas. Believe me, I have used every one of them, and seen others use every one of them.

There’s just one thing missing: you only get the value from using the tactics. If you don’t use them, they’re not helpful.

So here’s some meta-advice, to apply both to what you read from me and to what you read from others. If you discover an interesting technique that seems useful, test drive it. Take that one idea and be a fanatic about it for three days. Use it 3-4 times a day, for several days, to see how it works, and especially, how it works for you.

This is how I develop every tactic I teach. I read about it, or hear about it, or make it up, and then use it like a fanatic for several days until I have seen it be effective again and again, figured out why it worked, and decided to keep it in my toolkit for the future.

For example–I made up the AND List technique because I realized I was in conflict and I needed to “hold all the values with care.” It’s a cross between Improv (which teaches you to use “Yes, and” rather than “but”), and NVC (Nonviolent Communication), which teaches that you can be in conflict and still value both sides of the conflict.

The details of the instructions came out of experimenting with it many times over several days. For example, the first step is to write “I am ambivalent,” because that makes it easy to get started. Or another example, the “AND” is in capital letters because when you’re in conflict, it’s cathartic to shout virtually.

In the classes I give, I can stop the class, and ask everyone do an individual exercise to test drive the tactics. 98% of the people who attend will try it. Most of them will find it helpful. (Typically, I do the exercise at the same time, and I find it helpful!) If they don’t find it helpful, they can ask questions.

You’re reading about tactics, here and there. It’s up to you to try them out. Try it, you’ll like it.

 

February 12, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Using Analogies for Creative Problem Solving

When you are stuck on a problem and need some new ideas, you can get creative ideas by making analogies to some other field.

An analogy is an abstract parallel between two quite different things. For example, you might analogize driving to project management. In both cases it helps to have a map (i.e., a plan) for where you’re going.

When you find one parallel, you can often find others–which is why analogies help with creativity.

For example, suppose you were a manager with an employee who was causing problems, and you were looking for ways of dealing with him. You might get some ideas by comparison to other human relationships. You might use strategies that parents use to manage children, if they were appropriate. Or you might adapt military management techniques for civilian use.

But if you are looking for something new, it pays to go farther afield. Suppose you were to compare the problem employee with a problem program on your computer. Here are four things you might do to deal with the problem program:

a) uninstall the program and use a competitor

b) reinstall the program fresh

c) upgrade the program

d) check users’ groups on the web for plugins or settings to get help with the problem

To complete the analogy, translate these back into suggestions for dealing with the employee:

a) fire the employee

b) ???

c) send the employee to training

d) ask around on discussion groups for suggestions for dealing with this particular problem

Of these, “reinstall the program fresh” didn’t have an obvious counterpart–so that case warrants more thinking. Here are three things that “reinstall the program” could suggest for dealing with the employee:

  • From the word “reinstall”: Write up a description of model employee behavior, then have a private talk with your employee to see if he’ll start anew and commit to this behavior.
  • From the word “fresh”: Find a different position in the company which is a better fit for the employee.
  • From the fact that reinstalling the program removes corrupted files: Make a list of all the prejudices and negative generalizations you’ve made about this employee and do some soul-searching on whether you’ve been fair and whether you’ve contributed to the problem. Then talk with the employee about your findings.

None of these are point-for-point analogies to reinstalling a program. But when you are using analogies to generate ideas, you don’t need to be that exact. The test is not whether the analogy passes a strict test, but whether you got a helpful idea.

Notes:

For more ideas on how to use analogies in thinking and communicating, see Anne Miller’s book on “Metaphorically Selling.”

 

 

February 10, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting Out of the “I Don’t Know” Trap

There are two kinds of “I don’t know.” One kind is accompanied by a sense of bafflement and annoyance. If you put the feeling into words, it would say, “why would you expect me to know that?” That’s how you feel when someone asks, “who’s the president of Kyrgzstan?”

The other kind of “I don’t know”–the more important and interesting kind--is accompanied by surprise and maybe chagrin, because you believe you should know the answer. For example, someone asks, “who was the US president in 1940?” and you go blank. Or a recruiter asks, “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” and no coherent thought comes to mind. When the answer “should” be “obvious,” it’s discomfiting that you have no answer.

In this situation, rookies make the mistake of repeating the question to themselves, loudly and insistently, hoping the answer will pop into mind. Occasionally it does. When it doesn’t, rookies give up. They fall into the trap of believing that they don’t know.

More likely, you do know enough to answer this question. When a direct question doesn’t trigger a direct answer, you need to switch to an indirect process.

The indirect process is thinking. You work out an answer, by thinking through what you do know, over several steps.

The first step is to ask yourself an easier question–one that you can answer. By answering an easier question, you bring to mind memories and ideas that are relevant. Just one or two easier questions usually triggers enough useful information for you to use to get an answer to your “I don’t know.”

One good way to generate an easier question is to make a specific question more general, or a general question more specific. For example, switch from “who was president?” (a specific question) to “what was going on in general in 1940?” Answer: World War II had recently started in Europe. That may well trigger that FDR was president of the US then.

Another way to generate an easier question is to be a contrarian. Instead of looking for the good, look for the bad, and vice versa. For example, if you switch from “what makes you a good candidate for this job?” to “what would make someone a bad candidate?” you will likely think of a host of weaknesses: laziness, incompetence, ignorance. You can then contrast these negatives with your own productive, talented self to answer the recruiter’s question.

It takes skill to think up a useful easier question at the moment you are surprised by “I don’t know.” People who think well “on their feet” have the skill and the presence of mind to ask an easier question and to remain poised, despite feeling stumped.

If you want to develop this skill, practice at your desk. Ask yourself the hard questions you expect from a recruiter or a boss or a listener. If you don’t know an answer, take a few minutes to think through some easier questions until you can answer that hard question. Over time, you will become adept at answering questions, despite an initial “I don’t know.”

February 5, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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