Playing Two Thinking Roles Can Ignite Your Thinking

Here’s a surprisingly effective technique that can pry information loose from your brain and ignite your thinking when you’re stalled: The “Q&A Technique.” [1]

Here’s the technique:

Write down a question you are puzzling over. (“How” and “Why” questions are particularly suitable.) Blurt out an answer without censoring. Then blurt out an unself-conscious follow-up question. Then another answer. Keep writing out question and answer, without pausing or second-guessing, until you reach some closure.

Here’s an example:

Q: How am I going to get this report done soon?
A: That depends on what “soon” means.

Q: What constitutes “soon”?
A: Today?

Q: Is it realistic to get it done today?
A: No.

Q: What would be a realistic timeline?
A: Well, I think I can realistically expect to have it completely
edited and ready to go Thursday. Wednesday might be cutting it

Q: How are you going to get the report completely finished by
A: Draft today, get the sidebar blurbs drafted today and tomorrow,
Wednesday for editing and review. That leaves Thursday for any

You may feel this example to be a little subjective. Fortunately, the only person who needs to follow the Q&A is the person doing the thinking. But I hope you also see that the questioning process quickly uncovers vague issues (“what constitutes soon?”) and mistaken ideas (“today?”). It helps you zero in on what you really need to be thinking about.

The Q&A process can’t create information from thin air. It works when you start with a question you “should” be able to answer, but you feel stuck. That’s when having a conversation with yourself playing two separate roles–naive questioner and blunt answerer– helps you clarify the issues.

To make it work, play the roles to the hilt. As the answerer, take a frank, direct attitude, simply blurting out responses without
worrying how they might look. No censoring. As the questioner, ask simple curiosity questions, following up on a term or idea in the previous answer. Keep the questions friendly and open-ended. Don’t worry about asking obvious or “dumb” questions.

When you play the two roles this way, you eliminate the performance pressure that can freeze your thinking. Playing the role
of a naive, curious questioner, you give yourself permission to raise issues and to challenge yourself. Playing the role of blunt answerer, you give yourself emotional distance from the issues.

These are two mental sets–the curious and the blunt–that you need to be able to adopt at will and switch between during thinking. Playing the “roles” helps you make the switch to the appropriate mental set.

If you have trouble getting into the two mindsets, some people find it helpful to heighten the separation between the roles by physical means. You can use two colors of ink for questioner and answerer. Or you can set up two chairs, one for questioner and one for answerer, and then act out the two roles aloud–moving between the chairs as you change perspectives.

Is this a trick? Not really. When you are feeling stuck on a question that you “should” be able to figure out, you are almost certainly shutting down your subconscious databanks with censoring. What you need is some combination of frankness and curiosity to counter the blocks. It just so happens that ad-libbing two roles, the curious questioner and the blunt answerer, is an easy, familiar way to make that important mental adjustment.

[1] I learned this technique from Marcia Yudkin’s CD set: Become a More Productive Writer”



February 3, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Unfounded Assumption that Can Stop Logical Thinking in Its Tracks

Join me in the campaign to eliminate prejudice against messy thinking tactics.

Floating in the back of many people’s minds is the idea that “logical” means “neat.” People sometimes hesitate to make a list unless they can write down the items in their proper order. They sometimes shy away from brainstorming because silly ideas come up. But this is an illogical prejudice, and it can stop thinking in its tracks. It confuses the desired end (a neat solution) with the means (a logical process–which may be messy).

Now, of course, neat is better than messy. Therefore, if you can write down a list in the correct order on your first try, do so. But if you hesitate for more than two seconds over the order, it will be faster if you make a quick, messy, no-particular-order list. Then you easily can figure out the proper order on a second pass.

It is logical to use the 2-pass method, because it is more efficient. If you wait until you can put down the items in the right order from scratch, you may stare at the page for a long time.

Similarly, if you already have a great idea to pursue, you have no need to brainstorm. But if you are still looking for that great idea, the messy process of brainstorming can help stimulate a variety of ideas, from which you can cull one good idea to pursue on a second pass.

Messy isn’t better than neat, it’s a means to neat. Consider the process of organizing a closet. The first step is to take  everything out and spread everything out on the floor. Messy, very messy. But this temporary disorder gives you elbow room and a bird’s-eye view, so you can more easily decide what to keep, what to throw out, and where you will put everything back so that the end result is neat.

When you can’t go straight to a neat solution in your own thinking, all it means is that you don’t have a prepackaged, worked-out answer to your question. But that doesn’t mean you can’t figure out an answer, if you give yourself permission to rummage a little through the information you do have.

So, if you ever feel stuck looking for a neat answer, don’t let an old prejudice get in your way. Give yourself the logical advice to generate a messy first answer, knowing that later you will clean it up and turn it into a neat, logical, final answer.




January 29, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Yes, It’s the Electronic Age, But Don’t Forget Paper-Age Lessons

Here’s some old-fashioned advice that may be just what you need to get out of a present-day thinking block: Spread out your notes all over your desk.

That’s right, your desk, not your computer screen. Yes, programs exist to move around words in many wonderful easy ways. But sometimes you need to have those words spread out over a space the size of a desk.

Take the case of outlining a presentation. In the past, the standard procedure was to write out the points on individual index cards, then sort them into stacks by similar topic, then rearrange the stacks into a logical progression. An outline was created by shuffling cards around on your desk.

Today, this procedure has been largely supplanted by programs like Powerpoint that let you rearrange points (or slides of points) with the click of a mouse. You save time because you never have to retype the points. As soon as you figure out the order, you have a clean version.

But here’s the issue: if you are bogging down trying to get a large number of points in order in Powerpoint, you probably need to go back to the low-tech alternative to get some mental leverage.

When you spread out the points all over your desk, you get two advantages.

First, you can move them with nearly zero effort. There’s no need to fuss to move the mouse to the exact location to click and drag a point. There’s no scrolling. You just grab a card and move it. It is noticeably faster.

Second, you can use perceptual cues to remember where stacks are. With a quick glance, you can find anything. You never have to stop to remember, “where in the file did I put together that stack of miscellaneous points I don’t know what to do with?” Nor do you have to interrupt your train of thought to do an electronic search.

These may seem like trivial advantages, but on a complex task, you need all the speed and brainpower you can get. The test of whether you need this advantage is, do you bog down? If you are bogging down, you need the extra mental leverage that spreading out notes on a large surface offers you.

Yes, doing things on the computer often saves retyping. But if your mental process bogs down due to the mechanics, you can easily lose all the time you might have saved.

So, monitor for your mental need for that wide, visual-spatial overview–and don’t hesitate to hit “print,” clear your desk, and pull out the scissors. The time you save will be your own.



January 27, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The One-Minute Rule for “Thinking on Paper”

If you’ve followed my work, you know I’m an advocate of “Thinking on Paper.” You can watch this 3-minute video explaining “thinking on paper, or read a short write-up on it here.

People often ask when they should use “thinking on paper” to speed up their thinking. Like physical leverage, mental leverage entails a tradeoff. When you “think on paper,” you slow down the steps you take; it’s only worth using the tactic if you speed up getting results. How can you be sure that it will pay off?

In the past, I’ve given a qualitative answer. “Think on paper” whenever the task seems hard, or you feel like you’re bogging down, or the topic is important and you want to do your best thinking. But on reflection, I’ve come up with a quantitative answer: the “OneMinute Rule” for “Thinking on Paper.”

If you have spent one minute in indecision, puzzlement, conflict, or any other thinking quandary, then “thinking on paper” is warranted. This means that even apparently trivial questions–like what should I work on first? Or should I stop for lunch now? Can warrant “thinking on paper.”

Why the oneminute rule? There is a cadence to thinking–each question/answer cycle is a few seconds. When thinking is going smoothly, you have an experience of constant forward progress accompanied by a rhythm of thoughts. If you’ve gone a minute and you’re not in a rhythm, you need a little leverage.

The very first step of “thinking on paper” is to write down your thinking goal–the question you are trying to answer. That simple act of clarification and commitment is often all you need to streamline your thoughts. It takes 10 seconds to write it out. If you’ve lost a minute, or can see yourself losing a minute, it is 10 seconds well spent.

And if writing down the thinking goal is not enough, you could lose much more than a minute. Because when you’re in a  quandary, you are at great risk of distraction. Most things are more pleasant than an experience of uncertainty and confusion. If you don’t focus your attention quickly, the next stray excuse is likely to tempt you off topic. But if you turn to “thinking on paper,” that process will draw you in, help you tune out distractions, and get you through the danger zone.

As I say in the video, I’m on a mission to teach the whole world “thinking on paper.” It is the #1 general purpose thinking tactic to use. Use it at the first sign of trouble.  If you haven’t test driven this important tactic, check out the video, and try it yourself.

I’m also on a mission to encourage people to use it more often. The next time “I don’t know” occurs to you, try “thinking on paper.” You may know more than you think you know.

January 22, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Understanding Paralysis

Paralyzed. Stuck. Blocked. These describe a distressing mental state–made worse by mystery. When you are paralyzed, it seems like you know what you need to do–you need to write, plan, etc. But you feel like you can’t take a single step forward.

Knowing why you’re paralyzed helps. Here is the basic reason: at some level, you feel the task is impossible or self-destructive. To get moving forward, you need to find out why you feel that way and whether your feelings are right.

But finding out what’s behind paralysis is sometimes difficult. After all, if it were obvious to you that the task was impossible or destructive, you wouldn’t choose to do it. In principle, you need to introspect concerns which may be masked or censored.

I use a simple technique to help me with this challenge: “sentence stems.” A sentence stem is the first half of a sentence, a pre-specified start, which you then can complete. Two sentence stems which help paralysis are:

“This task is impossible because…”

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen…”

To use a stem, literally write it out word for word, then finish off the sentence with whatever occurs to you. Continue on if there’s more to say.

For example, suppose you were trying to dash off a memo in 15 minutes and got writer’s block. You might diagnose it by writing out this:

“This task is impossible because 15 minutes isn’t long enough. I am sending this to the boss and it needs to be right. 15 minutes doesn’t leave enough time to proof–much less edit carefully.”

Or suppose you were paralyzed while planning a demanding project. You might write:

“If I do this, the following terrible things will happen: I will be under extreme pressure for the entire 6-month duration of the project, I’ll have to work nights and weekends, and I’ll miss the deadline anyway and get fired.”

In these cases, the sentence stems help you expose the conflict. By writing out the first half of the thought, you prime your subconscious to express the second half, even if the thought is overly emotional.

The stems are deliberately exaggerated, to give you permission to express inflated doubts and fears lurking in the background. Even if these doubts and fears are illogical, they can kill your motivation. You need to get them out into the open to evaluate them–and separate truth from falsehood.

And that, of course, is the next step. Your feelings say the task is impossible or disastrous, but is it? Often when you face the feelings, you see you are being stopped by a phantom.

Even if you uncover a legitimate, difficult issue, you have made progress. You are no longer beset by a mysterious mental paralysis; you are simply facing a clear challenge. The logical next step is to think realistically about what can be done and what is good to do. That is doable.


January 20, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Tips for Using Small Time Blocks for an Open-Ended Thinking Task

When you have a big question to think about, don’t wait until you have 2 or 3 hours free to tackle it. There just aren’t enough big blocks of time available to make that a practical strategy. Instead, learn how to Velcro together smaller blocks of  time–say 25 minutes or so–so that together they give you the effectiveness of a longer block.

The key to meshing small time blocks is making good transitions. Start and end your work block with procedures that ensure each bit of work will follow seamlessly from the previous. Then, together, they will add up to the open-ended thinking time you need. Here are the basic tips for making that happen:

1) Keep your notes in one place.

When you return to the issue, you need to look over the work you did last. Where is it? Don’t make this a hard question. Don’t even make it a question at all. Make it trivially easy to find the last work you did, by always keeping “thinking” work in one place.

I follow this advice by keeping all my handwritten notes in one thinking notebook, which is always within reach. The notes were made chronologically, so it’s easy to find past work. I tape loose notes right into the notebook. Other people use a single computer file for their everyday thinking.

Your system may be different, but make sure it’s so simple and easy-to-use that you never have to pause to ask the question, “where are my notes?”

2) Give yourself permission to warm up during the first three minutes

It takes a few minutes to get back into the context. You can’t hurry that process. If you try, you’ll just strain. So, know that you need to take a few minutes to re-read last-time’s notes to activate your mental circuits on this topic.

There are many ways to warm up your mental circuits. Read. Make a list. Do some “thinking on paper.” Once the engine is warmed up, you can put your brain in gear and start doing new work.

3) Take 30 seconds at the end to make notes in full sentences on what’s next

The alarm sounds. The phone rings. A person arrives at your desk. You need to be prepared for these eventualities. Chances are, you will sometimes need to interrupt your thinking before you’re ready to stop.

And that’s wrenching. You’ve just spent 10 minutes–or an hour– warming up your mental circuits and digging into the heart of the issue. If you just stop now, you will have to redo much of that effort to get back to the same place.

Don’t throw that work away! Hold up your hand with a “just wait” sign and take 30 seconds to write some notes to yourself. Sum up. What were you doing? What were you going to do next? What last idea do you want to record to explore next time? Write the answers out in full sentences so you can understand exactly what you meant when you come back later.

The 30 seconds you spend now will save 10 minutes or more when you come back today or tomorrow, by making it much easier (and less painful) to recover the mental context you interrupted.

Are you wishing you had uninterrupted time you don’t have? Take better advantage of the time do you have–by using these three tips.



January 15, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Four Reasons Why Reviewing Written Goals Helps You Achieve Them

Here’s a piece of advice you may know: Write down your top goals and re-read them every day. Simply implementing this daily review can make a significant difference in whether you achieve the goals.

If this sounds like some kind of magical thinking, it’s not. Re-reading your goals helps you achieve them through an entirely
understandable process:

  1. When you write out the goal on paper and re-read it every day, you give yourself a chance to test it and refine it. All goal statements are not created equal. If you formulate your goal in a vague or unrealistic way, you can’t achieve it. Just the act of writing the goal down helps you notice and correct these problems. But even if you don’t catch a problem immediately, every time you re-read the goal, you have a chance to spot an issue and refine the goal accordingly.
  2. Every time you re-read your goal, you reinforce your desire for it. That motivates you to take action. You can see how this works when you plan a vacation. Every time you think about what you’d like to do, you get a little more excited about the vacation, and eager to plan the details to make that happen.
  3. When you re-read your goal every day, you keep the idea activated. It is easily triggered by outside circumstances, so you think of it at helpful times. For example, suppose your goal is to carve out time for exercise. If an appointment is canceled, you would like to realize “I could use this time for exercise.” If you reviewed your goal this morning, you are quite likely to make the connection. On the other hand, if you last thought about exercise a week ago, it’s off your radar, and probably won’t occur to you.
  4. When you re-read your goal every day, you automatically notice your progress (or lack thereof). Tracking progress is crucial to achieving goals, because it gives you the information you need to correct your course as you go. They say Apollo 11 was off course more than 90% of the trip to the moon–but they still got there, because they constantly corrected the course. So, just by re-reading the goal every day, you support making the changes you need to actually achieve it.

As you see, there are good reasons why writing down your top goals and re-reading them every day helps you to achieve them.

But it’s not magic. If you aren’t committed to the goal, then clarifying it, reminding yourself about it, and noticing your progress won’t help a bit. Ultimately, you will only achieve your goal if you choose to act toward it. Writing down the goal and
reviewing it every day simply helps you see the opportunities to act.

January 13, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

The Secret to Doing Better Next Time

Did something go badly? A “discussion” with a spouse or coworker that ended in acrimony? A proposal that flopped?

When something goes badly, you may be tempted to forget about it and just try to do better next time.  But the secret to doing better lies in thinking more about that failure now, even though it’s a little unpleasant.

Right now, in hindsight, you have a lot more information and a lot less pressure to figure out a better approach. It’s a golden
opportunity to learn something. Just ask yourself:

“What do I wish I had done differently?”


“Knowing what I know now, what could I do differently another time?”

Sometimes, you’ll see you missed something that you think you should have known. Maybe you realize that some technique you learned in a class would have helped.

If you have an acrimonious discussion, perhaps you would recall that techniques like “I language” or “active listening” are supposed to help. If you had a dud of a proposal, you might recall a technique for a “potential problem analysis” that could have helped. (These techniques exist–see references at the bottom.)

There’s no reason to kick yourself for forgetting theoretical material in the heat of the moment. At first, everyone has trouble applying new concepts they’ve learned from books and classes. To use those concepts, you need to reflect on how they apply to real, concrete situations in your life.

Your failure offers a perfect opportunity to do that. By looking back at how to apply that book-learning now, you can turn it into practical knowledge that you can call on the next time. When you review theory using a personally important example, the theory becomes practical.

Other times, you will realize that you don’t know anything you could have done differently. That can be instructive in a different way.

Suppose you conclude that you don’t know how to avoid “pushing the buttons” of the other person, or you don’t know how to
establish the value of your services in a proposal. Having articulated what you don’t know, you can now look for those who do know how to do that . . . and you can learn from them.

This sets you up for success. You learn much more from an expert’s books or classes when you come with ready-made personal examples you can relate the ideas to. A burning urgency to apply the skill to your life right now is the best motivation to learn.

One way or another, thinking about how you’d redo a failure is guaranteed to help you learn how to do better next time. And that sure beats the alternative: Fail, fail again, in exactly the same way as before.

Notes: You can learn more about “I language” and “Active Listening” from Thomas Gordon’s Book, “Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T..”  You can learn more about a “potential problem analysis” from Kepner and Tregoe’s, “The New Rational Manager: An Updated Edition for a New World.” My recommendation for Kepner and Tregoe’s book is here.



January 8, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

A Good Time to Take Stock

The new year is a time of rebirth. To begin on an inspiring note, I suggest you spend a little time taking stock of your achievements from the year that is ending. Make a record of your accomplishments–everything you did or said or bought or made happen that you’re proud of. This is not a journalistic account of the ups and downs of the year; it includes only the successes. They’re what matter most in the long run; they’re worth pausing to reflect on to give you fuel for the coming year.

This is similar to advice I relayed some time ago to record three good things at the end of each day. It is not a mindless  exercise in feel-good, rah rah positive thinking. Reviewing your actual achievements is much more profound than that. It reaffirms emotionally that these successes are good and important, and keeps that context activated.

There is an added benefit to reviewing the whole year. You get to see the brightest achievements all in one list–a list as long as you can make it. To make sure you remember the highlights, I recommend you review your calendar or some other record of your activities; it’s surprisingly easy to forget important achievements from months ago.

If it was a difficult year, you can see clearly all you accomplished in the face of adversity. If it was an unusually good year, you get to count up the amazing total of successes. When you see the year as a whole, you add to the sense of yourself as one who achieves something over time. As you do this over many years, you can reflect on long-term improvements that you see from year to year.

I think you will also find that reflecting on the successes of the previous year puts you in a good frame of mind to look to the
future. As you review, you will find some unfinished business. Seen in the context of all you did accomplish, it’s natural to treat these items as next year’s successes, rather than last year’s failures. I always find the process leaves me inspired to achieve more in the future, because I am building on the success of the past.

This reflection takes a little time, but the time has a payoff. Reviewing your achievements across the year gives you a sense of yourself, and helps you keep your life in perspective.

A productive and happy new year to you.



January 6, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

To Resolve or Not to Resolve

Do not make any New Year’s Resolutions this year.

At least, not unless you’re mentally ready for the commitment. How can you tell? Here are three tests:

Test 1:
Is your goal concrete and specific? A goal to do “more” with friends is vague. It would be better to plan to have two get-togethers a month.

Make sure you know exactly what success means, or you’ll likely drift into failure.

Test 2:
Have you worked out the steps you’ll take?  For example, if you are resolving to exercise three times a week, you need to know what time of day you’ll do it and what kind of exercise you’ll do. It often takes some experimenting to find out what is doable for you.

Make sure you have figured out doable steps to achieve your goal, so you can hit the ground running.

Test 3:
What will this new activity replace? Next year, you will still be allotted only 24 hours a day. To start a new activity you have to cut out an old one. What will be supplanted? TV time? Housecleaning? Sleep? Lunch with friends? Work?

Make sure your new activity edges out something less important, or you’ll decide to quit.

In short, make sure your resolution is clear, doable, and important before you commit to it.

If you’re not mentally ready to make your resolution on January 1,  I suggest starting a New Year’s Campaign to learn how to achieve that important goal: what concrete, specific form it will take, what doable steps will lead you to it, and what less important activity it will replace. You can always set a mid-year resolution once you know your goal is clear, doable, and important.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2015 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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