Category: Performance

The Difference Between Losing and Being Beaten

Not every time you lose, are you beaten. And not every time you win, did you win. There is a difference between losing and being beaten, and it comes down to you.

“Life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live in the moments of your daily life deeply.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

From Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Larry Gelwix coached the Highland High School rugby team to 418 wins with only ten losses and twenty national championships over thirty-six years. He describes his success this way: “We always win.” With a record like Highland’s he has the right to make the statement. But he is actually referring to something more than his winning record. When he says, “win,” he’s also referring to a single question, with its apt acronym, that guides what he expects from his players: “What’s important now?”

By keeping his players fully present in the moment and fully focused on what is most important— not on next week’s match, or tomorrow’s practice, or the next play, but now— Gelwix helps make winning almost effortless. But how?

First, the players apply the question constantly throughout the game. Instead of getting caught up rehashing the last play that went wrong, or spending their mental energy worrying about whether they are going to lose the game, neither of which is helpful or constructive, Larry encourages them to focus only on the play they are in right now.

Second, the question “What’s important now?” helps them stay focused on how they are playing. Larry believes a huge part of winning is determined by whether the players are focused on their own game or on their opponent’s game. If the players start thinking about the other team they lose focus. Consciously or not, they start wanting to play the way the other team is playing. They get distracted and divided. By focusing on their game in the here and now, they can all unite around a single strategy. This level of unity makes execution of their game plan relatively frictionless.

What struck me about Larry was his approach to winning and losing. As he tells his players: “There is a difference between losing and being beaten. Being beaten means, they are better than you. They are faster, stronger, and more talented.” Losing, on the other hand, means that you lost focus on what was essential. In other words, you beat yourself. “It is all based on a simple but powerful idea: to operate at your highest level of contribution requires that you deliberately tune in to what is important in the here and now.”

 

66 Personal Development Habits For Smart People

Steve Pavlina’s book, Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth, offers an interesting look at self-improvement.

“Perception is the most basic aspect of truth,” Pavlina writes, “If you want to improve some part of your life, you have to look at it first.”

For example, if you want to know how your relationship is doing, you ask yourself “How do I feel about this relationship? What parts are working well? What parts need improvement?” Ask your partner the same questions and compare your answers. Figuring out where you stand will help you decide what changes you’d like to make. Perception is a key component of personal growth because we react to what we perceive to be true.

The first step “must be to recognize that your life as it stands right now isn’t how you want it to be.”

It’s easy to say you should face the cold, hard, truth but in practice it can be very difficult. However:

You can’t get from point A to point B if you refuse to acknowledge that you’re at point A!.

There are two powerful ways you can apply your mind’s predictive powers to accelerate your personal growth:

First, by embracing new experiences that are unlike anything you’ve previously encountered, you’ll literally become more intelligent.

New situations shift your mind into learning mode, which enables you to discover new patterns. The more patterns your mind learns, the better it gets at prediction, and the smarter you become.

Read a book on a topic that’s completely alien to you. Talk to people you’d normally avoid. Visit an unfamiliar city. Stretch beyond the patterns your mind has already learned. In order to grow, you must repeatedly tackle fresh challenges and consider new ideas to give your mind fresh input. If you merely repeat the same experiences, you’ll stagnate, and your mental capacity will atrophy.

If you want to become smarter, you must keep stirring things up.

The second way to apply your mind’s predictive powers is to make conscious, deliberate predictions and use those predictions to make better decisions. Think about where you’re headed and ask yourself, “How do I honestly expect my life to turn out?”

Imagine that a very logical impartial observer examines your situation in detail, and predicts what your life will look like in 20 years, based on your current behavior. What kind of future will this person predict for you? If you’re brave enough, ask several people who know you well to give you an honest assessment of where they see you in two decades. Their answers may surprise you.

A list of habits that can boost personal effectiveness (hacked and lightly edited):

  1. Daily goals. Set targets for each day in advance. Decide what you’ll do, then do it. Without a clear focus, it’s too easy to succumb to distractions.
  2. Worst first. To defeat procrastination, learn to tackle your most unpleasant task first thing in the morning, instead of delaying it until later. The small victory will set the tone for a very productive day.
  3. Peak times. Identify your peak cycles of productivity, and schedule your most important tasks for those times. Work on minor tasks during your non-peak times.
  4. No-comm zones. Allocate uninterruptible blocks of time for solo work where you must concentrate. Schedule light, interruptible tasks for your open-communication periods and more challenging projects for your blackout periods.
  5. Mini-milestones. When you begin a task, identify the target you must reach before you can stop working. For example when writing a book, you could decide not to get up until you’ve written at least 1000 words. Hit your target no matter what.
  6. Timeboxing. Give yourself a fixed time period – 30 minutes for example – to make a dent in a task. Don’t worry about how far you get. Just put in the time.
  7. Batching. Batch similar tasks such as phone calls or errands together, and knock them out in a single session.
  8. Early bird. Get up at 5am and go straight to work on your most important task. You can get more done before 8am than most people do in a full day.
  9. Pyramid. Spend 15-30 minutes doing easy tasks to warm up, then tackle your most difficult project for several hours. Finally end with another 15-30 minutes of easy tasks to transition out of work mode.
  10. Tempo. Deliberately pick up the pace, and try to move a little faster than usual. Speak faster. Walk faster. Type faster. Read faster. Go home sooner.
  11. Relaxify. Reduce stress by cultivating a relaxing, clutter-free workspace.
  12. Agendas. Provide clear written agendas to meeting participants in advance. This greatly improves meeting focus and efficiency. You can use it for phone calls too.
  13. Pareto. The Pareto principle is the 80-20 rule, which states that 80% of the value of a task comes from 20% of the effort. Focus your energy on that critical 20%, and don’t overengineer the non-critical 80%.
  14. Ready-fire-aim. Bust procrastination by taking action immediately after setting a goal, even if the action isn’t perfectly planned. You can always adjust course along the way.
  15. Minuteman. Once you have the information you need to make a decision, start a timer and give yourself just 60 seconds to make the actual decision. Take a whole minute to vacillate and second-guess yourself all you want, but come out the other end with a clear choice. Once your decision is made, take some kind of action to set it in motion.
  16. Deadline. Set a deadline for task completion, and use it as a focal point to stay on track.
  17. Promise. Tell others of your commitments, since they’ll help hold you accountable
  18. Punctuality. Whatever it takes, show up on time. Arrive early.
  19. Gap reading. Use reading to fill in those odd periods like waiting for an appointment, standing in line, or while the coffee is brewing. If you’re a male, you can even read an article while shaving (preferably with an electric razor). That’s 365 articles a year.
  20. Resonance. Visualize your goal as already accomplished. Put yourself into a state of actually being there. Make it real in your mind, and you’ll soon see it in your reality.
  21. Glittering prizes. Give yourself frequent rewards for achievement. See a movie, book a professional massage, or spend a day at an amusement park.
  22. Priority. Separate the truly important tasks from the merely urgent. Allocate blocks of time to work on the critical Quadrant 2 tasks, those which are important but rarely urgent, such as physical exercise, writing a book, and finding a relationship partner.
  23. Continuum. At the end of your workday, identify the first task you’ll work on the next day, and set out the materials in advance. The next day begin working on that task immediately.
  24. Slice and dice. Break complex projects into smaller, well-defined tasks. Focus on completing just one of those tasks.
  25. Single-handling. Once you begin a task, stick with it until it’s 100% complete. Don’t switch tasks in the middle. When distractions come up, jot them down to be dealt with later.
  26. Randomize. Pick a totally random piece of a larger project, and complete it. Pay one random bill. Make one phone call. Write page 42 of your book.
  27. Insanely bad. Defeat perfectionism by completing your task in an intentionally terrible fashion, knowing you need never share the results with anyone. Write a blog post about the taste of salt, design a hideously dysfunctional web site, or create a business plan that guarantees a first-year bankruptcy. With a truly horrendous first draft, there’s nowhere to go but up.
  28. Delegate. Convince someone else to do it for you.
  29. Cross-pollination. Sign up for martial arts, start a blog, or join an improv group. You’ll often encounter ideas in one field that can boost your performance in another.
  30. Intuition. Go with your gut instinct. It’s probably right.
  31. Optimization. Identify the processes you use most often, and write them down step-by-step. Refactor them on paper for greater efficiency. Then implement and test your improved processes. Sometimes we just can’t see what’s right in front of us until we examine it under a microscope.
  32. Super Slow. Commit yourself to working on a particularly hideous project for just one session a week, 15-30 minutes total. Declutter one small shelf. Purge 10 clothing items you don’t need. Write a few paragraphs. Then stop.
  33. Dailies. Schedule a specific time each day for working on a particular task or habit. One hour a day could leave you with a finished book, or a profitable Internet business a year later.
  34. Add-ons. Tack a task you want to habitualize onto one of your existing habits. Water the plants after you eat lunch. Send thank-you notes after you check email.
  35. Plug-ins. Inject one task into the middle of another. Read while eating lunch. Return phone calls while commuting. Listen to podcasts while grocery shopping.
  36. Gratitude. When someone does you a good turn, send a thank-you card. That’s a real card, not an e-card. This is rare and memorable, and the people you thank will be eager to bring you more opportunities.
  37. Training. Train up your skill in various productivity habits. Get your typing speed to at least 60wpm, if not 90.
  38. Denial. Just say no to non-critical requests for your time.
  39. Recapture. Reclaim other people’s poor time usage for yourself. Visualize your goals during dull speeches. Write out your grocery list during pointless meetings.
  40. Mastermind. Run your problem past someone else, preferably a group of people. Invite all the advice, feedback, and constructive criticism you can handle.
  41. Write down 20 creative ideas for improving your effectiveness.
  42. Challenger. Deliberately make the task harder. Challenging tasks are more engaging than boring ones. Compose an original poem for your next blog post. Create a Power Point presentation that doesn’t use words.
  43. Asylum. Complete an otherwise tedious task in an unusual or crazy manner to keep it fun or interesting.
  44. Music. Experiment with how music can boost your effectiveness.
  45. Scotty. Estimate how long a task will take to complete. Then start a timer, and push yourself to complete it in half that time.
  46. Pay it forward. When an undesirable task is delegated to you, re-delegate it to someone else.
  47. Bouncer. When a seemingly pointless task is delegated to you, bounce it back to the person who assigned it to you, and challenge them to justify its operational necessity.
  48. Opt-out. Quit clubs, projects, and subscriptions that consume more of your time than they’re worth.
  49. Decaffeinate. Say no to drugs, suffer through the withdrawal period, and let your natural creative self re-emerge.
  50. Conscious procrastination. Delay non-critical tasks as long as you possibly can. Many of them will die on you and won’t need to be done at all.
  51. TV-free. Turn off the TV, especially the news, and recapture many usable hours.
  52. Timer. Time all your tasks for an entire day, preferably a week. Even the act of measuring itself can boost your productivity, not to mention what you learn about your real time usage.
  53. Valor. Pick the one item on your task list that scares you the most. Muster all the courage you can, and tackle it immediately.
  54. Nonconformist. Run errands at unpopular times to avoid crowds. Shop just before stores close or shortly after they open. Take advantage of 24-hour outlets if you’re a vampire.
  55. Agoraphobia. Shop online whenever possible. Get the best selection, consult reviews, and purchase items within minutes.
  56. Reminder. Add birthday and holiday reminders to your calendar a month or two ahead of their actual dates. Buy gifts then instead of at the last minute.
  57. Do it now! Recite this phrase over and over until you’re so sick of it that you cave in and get to work.
  58. Coach. Hire a personal coach to keep yourself motivated, focused, and accountable. After several months of pep talks, you’ll be qualified to start your own coaching practice.
  59. Inspiration. Read inspiring books and articles, listen to audio programs, and attend seminars to keep absorbing inspiring new ideas (as well as to refresh yourself on the old ones).
  60. Gym rat. Exercise daily. Boost metabolism, concentration, and mental clarity in 30 minutes a day.
  61. Troll hunt. Banish the negative trolls from your life, and associate only with positive, happy, and successful people. Mindsets are contagious. Show loyalty to your potential, not to your pity posse.
  62. Anakin. Would your problems be easier to solve if you turned evil? The dark side beckons…
  63. Politician. Outsource your problems. How many can be solved more easily if you define them in financial terms? …
  64. Modeling. Find people who are already getting the results you want, interview them, and adopt their attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
  65. Proactivity. Even if others disagree with you, take action anyway, and deal with the consequences later. It’s easier to request forgiveness than permission.
  66. Real life. Give online life a rest, and reinvest that time into your real offline life, which, if you’re a gamer, is probably suffocating beneath a pile of dead smelly orcas.

Peak Listening — A Simple Trick You Can Apply Today

I thought this excerpt from The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success was worth thinking about.

If you try to improve your listening skills, you’ll notice a lot of discussion about “listening with intent.” That phrase means different things to different people, but here’s how we will use it. Most people listen with intent to do something – usually to defend themselves, or to solve a problem. Nearly everyone listens with the intent of having something ready to say as soon as the speaker is finished. Have you ever wondered how crazy that is? Shouldn’t there be a pause once in a while, as one of the speakers actually thinks about what to say, or even better, thinks about what has been said? Here’s a phenomenon you’ll observe repeatedly if you look for it: Two speakers, appearing to be carrying on a conversation, but really just giving two monologues, split up by each other, one each waiting simply for time on whatever stage he or she imagines to be on. Call it “talking past each other,” if you like, it’s clearly a cultural cancer that’s been learned from the endless chatter on talk radio and cable TV, where you will never hear the following phrase from a talking head: “That’s a good point; let me think about that for a moment.” There is no “thinking for a moment,” on television; in fact, every pause is penalized.

Of course, if the speaker is saying something that might be hard to hear – “I hate your product,” or “Why are you so selfish?” all this goes double. Listeners usually can’t wait to leap to their own defense, and spend their time thinking like an attorney who’s planning a closing argument rather than hearing what’s being said. You can imagine how ineffective this is.

We’d like to see you try something very different: Listening with intent to agree. That’s right: Before you offer an explanation or defense, just imagine that whatever the other person is saying must be true. That’s radical. But it sure is the fastest way to get new ideas into your brain. That’s peak listening. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to divide the world into two categories: sociopaths, who lie without guilt and who really have nothing but their own selfish gains in mind; and everyone else. If you are in the presence of a true sociopath, then all bets are off. The advice we give here is useless. But after you’ve determined that your spouse, friend, co-worker, or customer isn’t a sociopathic liar, here’s a thought that will short-circuit almost every fight you ever have.

The person you are listening to is right. Always. You wife, your husband, your employee, your customers. They’re right.

They may not be 100 percent right. But even if he or she is hysterical and speaking in terribly ineffective language, perhaps even accusing you of things that on the surface are demonstrably false, THERE IS TRUTH IN WHAT THEY ARE SAYING. And rather than defend yourself by finding error in some details, challenge yourself to find the deeper truth of what’s being said. Often, that will require you to dig deep into that 93 percent of non-verbal communication. It will definitely require you to drop all your defenses, and in some cases, it will feel like you are being forced to believe that black is white and the sky is orange.

Here’s a simple trick you can apply today to take a step in the right direction. Anyone who has ever taken a class in improvisation has learned the “yes, and…” technique. Ever wonder what keeps a great improv troupe from falling silent? It’s simple. No one is allowed to say no. Whatever is said, the other actors are forced to accept it and build upon it. This conversational style pays immediate dividends. Instead of creating blocks, or, “stops” to the chatter, it allows group discussions to build on each other. Talking takes on a spirit that floats higher and higher, as opposed to the use of what some called “conversation stoppers” thrown in by negative nellies. These sound like, “I don’t believe that,” or, “what’s your proof for that?” or, often, simply, “No.” Those stuck in a deconstructivist frame of mind often can’t help but bring down conversations. You know them because they often leave people feeling like a balloon has just been popped and its remnants have crashed to the floor. Popping other people’s balloons is a sure-fire way to discourage them from telling you how they really feel; and a terrible way to break out of plateaus caused by becoming stuck in a feedback-proof cocoon.

Steven Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, argues there are Five levels of listening: (1) Ignoring; (2) Pretending to listen; (3) Selective listening; (4) Active listening; and (5) Empathetic listening.

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one won’t work for another.

However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting, “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

Exercise.
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn’t the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of his routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.

The 8 Causes of Plateaus

Have you ever found yourself trying really hard on something you care about?

Maybe you’re learning how to play the piano. But the more effort you put in, the less you seem to get out of it. You’ve plateaued, according to Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson.

“Trying harder,” they write in The Plateau Effect: Getting from Stuck to Success, “is a failed, frustrating strategy.” … “We’re here to tell you that every day, the universe is conspiring against people who think that more is the answer.”

If doubling down on hard work isn’t the solution what is?

Thompson and Sullivan argue there are 8 reasons we plateau, and they, of course, offer tips to overcome them all.

Here is the cheat sheet.

When you were (supposed to be) reading the Classics in high school, Cliff Notes were bad. In fact, Bob recently met an employee of a company that makes animated version of CliffNotes – which apparently aren’t Cliff-y enough for today’s students.

But when you’re trying to improve your life and move past those plateaus that hold you back, CliffNotes are great. They are efficient; they give you more results for less work – two of our main goals for teaching people about the Plateau Effect. So, here we give you our version of CliffNotes. If you’re stuck, one of these devils is probably to blame. Remember, what helps you break out of your plateau today will one day stop working – and you’ll have to try another method. Breaking through plateaus, as you’ve seen, is a constant recalibration – it takes a little of this and a bit of that. In the list below, we show you what “this” and “that” really are for you, today, and into the future. These solvents produce solutions.

Element 1: Immunity

People, relationships, businesses and even physical processes become immune to the same techniques, the same approaches, the same solutions. Immunity is perhaps the most basic force of the Plateau Effect. Everybody has experienced what it’s like to become immune to something: maybe it’s the complements of your spouse, the smell of garlic at an Italian restaurant, or the effects of your second beer. Immunity can be frustrating – what worked so well yesterday just won’t work today.

Solvent: Diversity

Immunity’s Kryptonite is diversity. You’ve got to shake things up and be radical. Trying different approaches, techniques or procedures can shake you out of an immunity plateau.

Element 2: Greedy Algorithm

The greedy algorithm is a concept borrowed from the field of mathematics. Here’s how it works: you always pick the best short-term solution and ignore the long-term outcome. As it is in mathematics – and in life – the best short-term solution hardly ever leads to the best long-term outcome. The greedy algorithm always finds the locally optimal solution but ignores the globally optimal solution.

Solution: Extend your gratification horizon

Short-term greed is bad but long-term greed is actually good. To get beyond the greedy algorithm, you need to think about solutions on a bigger timescale. Someone following the greedy algorithm (driven by short-term greed) would never go to medical school – the student is building debt with no income year after year. Someone who’s thinking about a 10-year horizon instead of a 1-2 year horizon sees the six-figure checks that will eventually start coming in.

Element 3: Bad Timing

If you’re working hard but you’re stuck in a plateau, maybe it’s as simple as taking a break. When you do something – and more precisely, when you don’t do something – is critical. The key is to take control of when you apply effort, not just how much effort you apply.

Solution: Wait

If bad timing has you stuck in a plateau, remember, the periods of rest and inactivity are just as important as the periods of great effort, just as silence between the notes is part of the music. If you use time as a tool, you can literally wait your way out of a plateau.

Element 4: Flow Issues

Whenever things seem to be sailing along, sometimes the engine just breaks down. Specifically, you can run into one of four dysfunctions:

Erosion: Sometimes we deplete the resources that we need to be successful. Maybe we run out of capital, or time, or skilled workers. When you hit an erosion plateau, progress tends to degrade slowly as some critical resource is gobbled up over time.

Solvent: Find a counterbalance, something that replaces the resource you consume. If you can’t find a counterbalance, you might not be in a plateau at all. You may have reached a terminal point.

Step Function: Sometimes you want to add just a little more of something, but that thing is only available in bundles. The result is a jump in cost, effort, or benefit. We call these things “step functions.” If you aren’t aware that something you need follows a step function, you can hit a plateau because incremental investment won’t lead to incremental improvement.

Solvent: Try to smooth out your step function. Sometimes this can be done by identifying some other person or business that has complementary peaks to your own. If you can pool your resources, you can share the cost of the step and make it look more like a comfortable ramp.

Choke points: A choke point is the part of the system that breaks first and slows everything else down. Failing to identify a chokepoint can bring a gushing flow to an unexpected trickle.

Solvent: The trick is to find out where the choke point is and creatively route your way around it.

Mystery ingredients: The defining characteristic of a mystery ingredient is that even the chef doesn’t know what it is. The mystery ingredient could be changing market conditions, interpersonal issues between co-workers, or just a team member with a can-do attitude. It’s the elusive catalyst that makes things work.

Solvent: Mystery ingredients can often be hard to find, but seem obvious in retrospect . Often, it’s just important to recognize that a mystery ingredient might exist; that what you see isn’t the whole story.

Element 5: Distorted Data
We often react based on distorted data. It’s like walking through a hall of mirrors, and basing a major decision on the crazy fat (or skinny) image you see. Sometimes we measure the wrong things or inappropriately assess risk. In other cases, we fall victim to common psychological errors with data, such as overweighing the most recent piece of information we’ve received, we get hung up on sunk costs, or we conform to what we think the data is telling us.

Solvent: Recalibrate

The Enlightenment brought us the scientific method because smart people realized that they couldn’t trust their own eyes. The key is to boil out the impurities of data and recognize that you are looking through a lens that might be deceptive. Each type of distortion has its own remedy, but the tie that binds them is to look for a ground truth of data amidst the chaos.

Element 6: Distraction

It’s easy to fall victim to the illusion of multitasking and become distracted. Distraction is the enemy of adaptation and can lead you straight towards a plateau. How do we know when and what we need to change to live in a world of unrelenting distraction?

Solvent: Radical Listening

If you take a page from improv comedy – where you look for the truth in what others are saying and build on it through the “yes….and” strategy – you get to a skill we call radical listening. It’s a mode of active engagement, where you are attuned to your surroundings, listening, and adapting.

Element 7: Failing Slowly

Failing slow is natural because it’s difficult to tell that a situation is incrementally getting worse. Often the incremental worsening of a situation happens slower than what psychophysicists call the just noticeable difference. The just noticeable difference helps explain why we continue forging ahead when we’re in the throes of a plateau – we just don’t realize how much less we’re getting for our efforts.

Solution: Fail fast

Once you understand the just noticeable difference you can counteract its effects. By setting clear markers, you can objectively see how you’re progressing, figure out what’s working and what’s failing, correct it and move on. It’s important to realize if your efforts will eventually fail by accelerating failure. This ability to fail fast is key, especially when the problems are changing quickly.

Element 8: Perfectionism

Perfect is the enemy of good. The desire for perfection kills beginnings – it’s never the right time to start, and even if you do, a task is never complete because it is held up to an impossible standard. A plateau of perfection is similar to a plateau of inaction.

Solution: First Steps, etc.

Accept that perfection isn’t achievable. Focus on taking the first step, and then the next step. There are some tricks that can help, such as structured procrastination and setting hard (but liberating) deadlines.

The Tyranny of Email — 10 Tips to Save You

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my habits recently and how they affect me. One thing I’ve placed an increasingly watchful eye on is email.

Email seems pervasive in our lives. We check email on the bus, we check it in the bath. We check it first thing in the morning. We even check it midconversation, with the belief that no one will notice.

John Freeman argues in The Tyranny of Email that the average office worker “sends and receives two hundred emails a day.”

Email makes us reactive, as we race to keep up with the never-ending onslaught.

In the past, only a few professions—doctors, plumbers perhaps, emergency service technicians, prime ministers—required this kind of state of being constantly on call. Now, almost all of us live this way. Everything must be attended to—and if it isn’t, chances are another email will appear in a few hours asking if indeed the first message was received at all.

Working At The Speed of Email

Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest—there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels–via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message–and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox.

Part of us likes all of the attention email gives us. It has been shown that email is addictive in many of the same ways slot machines are addictive — variable reinforcement.

Tom Stafford, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, explains:

“This means that rather than reward an action every time it is performed, you reward it sometimes, but not in a predictable way. So with email, usually when I check it there is nothing interesting, but every so often there’s something wonderful —an invite out, or maybe some juicy gossip—and I get a reward.”

There are chemical reasons this happens that go well beyond our love of gossip. If we’re doing something that pays out randomly, our brain releases dopamine when we get something good and our body learns that we need to keep going if we want a reward.

Connections

“Ironically,” Freeman writes, “tools meant to connect us are enabling us to spend even more time apart.” The consequences are disastrous.

Spending our days communicating through this medium, which by virtue of its sheer volume forces us to talk in short bursts, we are slowly eroding our ability to explain — in a careful, complex way — why it is so wrong for us and to complain, resist, or redesign our workdays so that they are manageable.

Life On The Email Treadmill

“If the medium is the message, what does that say about new survey results that found nearly 60% of respondents check their email when they’re answering the call of nature.” — Michelle Masterson

When you arrive at work and there are twenty emails in your inbox, the weight of that queue is clear: everyone is waiting for you.

So you clear and clear and clear, only to learn that the faster you reply, the faster the replies come boomeranging back to you—thanks, follow-ups, additional requests, and that one-line sinker, “How are you doing these days?” It shouldn’t be such a burden to be asked your state of mind. In the workplace, however, where the sheer volume of correspondence can feel as if it has been designed on the high to enforce a kind of task-oriented tunnel vision, such a question is either a trapdoor or an escape hatch.

At the workplace it used to be hard to share things without a lot of friction. Now sharing is frictionless and free. CC’ing and forwarding to keep people “in the loop” has become a mixed blessing. Now everything is collaborative and if people are left off emails they literally feel left out.

Working in a Climate of Interruption

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. — Herb Simon

We live in a culture in which doing everything all at once is admired and encouraged—have our spreadsheet open while we check email, chin on the phone into our shoulder, and accept notes from a passing office messenger. Our desk is Grand Central and we are the conductor, and it feels good. Why? If we’re this busy, clearly we’re needed; we have a purpose. We are essential. The Internet and email have certainly created a “desire to be in the know, to not be left out, that ends up taking up a lot of our time”—at the expense of getting things done, said Mark Ellwood, the president of Pace Productivity, which studies how employees spend their time.

Of course we can’t multitask the way technology leads us to believe we can. “Multitasking,” Walter Kirn wrote in an essay called “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” messes with the brain in several ways:”

At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

What does this mean in practice? Consider a recent experiment at UCLA, where researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds. The subjects’ brains coped with the additional task by shifting responsibility from the hippocampus—which stores and recalls information—to the striatum, which takes care of rote, repetitive activities. Thanks to this switch, the subjects managed to sort the cards just as well with the musical distraction— but they had a much harder time remembering what, exactly, they’d been sorting once the experiment was over.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

“In other words,” writes Freeman in The Tyranny of Email, “a work climate that revolves around multitasking, and constant interruptions has narrowed our cognitive window down to a care, basic facility: rote, mechanical tasks.”

We like to think we are in control of our environment, that we act upon it and shape it to our needs. It works both ways, though; changes we make to the world can have unseen ramifications that impact our ability to live in it.

Attention means being present. Being present helps mindfullness.

Thanks to an environment of constant stimulation the biggest challenge these days is maintaining focus.

“Immersing myself in a book or lengthy article used to be easy,” wrote Nicolas Carr in an essay entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?

My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr wrote an excellent book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. If you don’t have the time, or attention span, to read the book, you can watch the video.

Flow

Reading and other meditative tasks are best performed in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “state-of-flow,” in which “our focus narrows, the world seems to drop away, and we become less conscious of ourselves and more deeply immersed in ideas and language and complex thoughts,” Freeman writes.

Communication tools, however, seem to be working against this state.

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi writes:

In today’s world we have come to neglect the habit of writing because so many other media of communication have taken its place. Telephones and tape recorders, computers and fax machines are more efficient in conveying news. If the only point to writing were to transmit information, then it would deserve to become obsolete. But the point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along. In the past, educated persons used journals and personal correspondence to put their experiences into words, which allowed them to reflect on what had happened during the day. The prodigiously detailed letters so many Victorians wrote are an example of how people created patterns of order out of the mainly random events impinging on their consciousness. The kind of material we write in diaries and letters does not exist before it is written down.

It is the slow, organically growing process of thought involved in writing that lets the ideas emerge in the first place

In The Tyranny of Email, Freeman sums up the multitasking argument:

Multitasking may not be perfect, but it can push the brain to add new capacity; the problem, however, remains that the small gains in capacity are continuously, rapidly, outstripped by the speeding up and growing volume of incoming demand on our attention.

Why is it so Hard to Read These Days?

In his essay on Google Carr writes:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Some of this is due to changes in the medium itself. Newspaper articles are shorter and catchier. Text has become bigger. We’re becoming a powerpoint culture. We need bullet points, short sentences, and fancy graphics. We skim rather than read. Online readers are “selfish, lazy, and ruthless,” said Jakob Nielson, a usability engineer. If we don’t get what we want, as soon as we want it, we move to the next site.

But all of this has a cost.

What We Are Losing

“What we are losing in this country, and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Dana Gioia, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”

“If the research on multitasking is any guide,” Freeman writes in the Tyranny of Email, “and if several centuries of liberal arts education have proven anything, the ability to think clearly and critically and develop an argument comes from reading in a focused manner.”

These skills are important because they enable employees to step back from an atmosphere of frenzy and make sense in a busy, nearly chaotic environment. If all companies want, though, is worker bees who will simply type till they drop and badger one another into a state of overload, a new generation of inveterate multitaskaholics might be just what they get. If that’s the case, workplace productivity isn’t the only thing that will suffer.

Freeman concludes his book by offering several tips you can do to take back control of your life and the mental space email is consuming.

1. Don’t Send.

The most important thing you can do to improve the state of your inbox, free up your attention span, and break free of the tyranny of email is not to send an email. As most people now know, email only creates more email, so by stepping away from the messaging treadmill, even if for a moment every day, you instantly dial down the speed of the email messagopolis.

2.Don’t Check it First Thing in The Morning Or Late at Night

… Not checking your email first thing will also reinforce a boundary between your work and your private life, which is essential if you want to be fully present in either place. If you check your email before getting to work, you will probably begin to worry about work matters before you actually get there. Checking your e-mail first thing at home doesn’t give you a jump on the workday; it just extends it. Sending email before and after office hours has a compounded effect, since it creates an environment in which workers are tacitly expected to check their email at the same time and squeeze more work out of their tired bodies.

3. Check it Twice a Day

… Checking your email twice a day will … allow you to set the agenda for your day, which is essential if you want to stay on task and get things done in a climate of constant communication.

4. Keep a Written To-do List and Incorporate email into It.

5. Give Good Email

6. Read the Entire Incoming email before Replying

This seems like a pretty basic rule, but a great deal of email is generated by people replying without having properly read initial messages.

7. Do Not Debate Complex or Sensitive Matters by email

8. If You Have to Work as a Group by email, Meet Your Correspondents Face-to-Face

9. Set Up Your Desktop to Do Something Else besides email

As much as you can, take control over your office space by setting aside part of your desk for work that isn’t done on the computer. Imagine it as your thinking area, where you can read or take notes or doodle as you work out a problem.

10. Schedule Media-free Time.

Still Curious? Read The Single Most Important Change You Can Make In Your Working Habits next.