Browsing the archives for the future tag.
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How Can Libraries Survive the Rise of eBooks?

eBooks and Publishing

In a previous post (“Are Libraries Doomed?“), I talked about the forces that I believe are likely to bring libraries as we currently know them to an end. In this post, I’ll talk about the one approach I know of that I hope might save some libraries.

It’s all about the community
One facet of libraries is unlikely to ever become entirely obsolete, and that’s being a center for community activities. Many libraries already offer events like readings, talks, meetings, and play space for children, and this function could be expanded to turn the library into a key event venue, a meeting space, a hangout, and a focal point of local culture. While electronic communication continues to cannibalize face-to-face interaction, some face-to-face interaction is essential to us as human beings, and we’ve lost many places we used to have for doing that. If libraries can expand on their existing roles to become a major force locally as teen center, community center, senior center, performance space, meeting space, event space, workout space, dance space, and more, they could come to mean even more to their local communities than they do today.

Swans becoming monkeys
Unfortunately, there are at least a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that social activity is not what people who run libraries have devoted their lives to. It’s easy to imagine a library as a cultural center, sure, with some social events–but the great strength of libraries and librarians has always been providing materials and resources to the community, not organizing Swing Dance Saturdays or boffer battles or remaking a room into an inviting teen center. Fortunately, a number of librarians have a lot of these skills–and yet sometimes the change in job would be like a swan becoming a monkey. The stereotype is that librarians are obsessed with quiet. Can the average librarian depart so far from that stereotype to embrace pretty much its exact opposite?

The other problem that comes to mind immediately for me is that as wonderful as such a center might be, we–at least we here in America–aren’t generally used to having a community center where we want to go regularly. We would have to be convinced and retrained to stop by just to see who’s around, to check the event schedule regularly, to think of new things to do there, and to go to the library instead of a coffee shop or bar–and instead of just going home to watch TV. Can we make that change?

My prediction: a few libraries will succeed at this brilliantly. Many will try and fail. Many more won’t try and will just fade away. And a few–a very few–will continue to be supported as a sort of quaint curiosity doing what they have always done: making physical media available to people in person.

Photo  by peaceman494

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Are Libraries Doomed?

eBooks and Publishing

Before I start here, I want to make one thing clear: I love libraries. They have been a haven and a treasure trove to me since I was young. Whatever I may say in this post about the future of libraries, please know that it’s not because I want anything bad to happen to them.

Primarily I love libraries because they’re places we’ve created as communities to share the written word. Few things in life, it seems to me, are cooperative, highly useful, and (in a limited sense) free.

If libraries were to end, I also would hate to think of communities losing that anchor of identity, of the waste of beautiful buildings, of paper volumes being shredded or dumped or moldering away, and of librarians (who in my experience are disproportionately great people) cast off into unemployment.

Yet my honest sense is that libraries, by and large, are doomed.

What changed?
Maybe “what’s changed?” is the wrong question: after all, we all know what changed–or to be more accurate, is in the process of changing right now. It’s eBooks. Since before the Sumerians started making marks in clay 5,000 years ago, the written word has been intimately bound with physical objects. As personal computers and later other devices started to become more common, certainly a lot of electronic words sprang into being, but most of us don’t want to use a computer to read: it’s just not physically comfortable, and sometimes it’s not practical. So while magazines and newspapers have been feeling the dark tendrils of obsolescence grope at them for a decade or more, until recently bookstores and libraries were largely unaffected.

In fact libraries expanded to embrace the availability of electronic media, adapting to offer computer terminals, free wi-fi, and online resources.

Now, though, eReaders have begun taking hold. This mundane-looking type of device with its limited features and lack of any sense of glitz has been quietly stealing away reader after reader from physical books (and some other printed media). I was stolen away about a year ago, when a friend bought me a Kindle. I thought I would really miss physical books. I was pretty much wrong.

I know there’s debate over whether eBooks can replace physical books. People make good points like the physical experience of reading a book or the ability to hand a physical copy of a book to a friend. It’s certainly true that there are some nice things about physical books. Not the trees mowed down to produce them or the excruciating returns procedures the publishing industry is locked into or the storage space requirements, but certainly the satisfaction of having a physical object that represents a wonderful experience, the ability to leave books lying around for children to stumble upon, the ability to pass along stories ideas by handing something to someone.

Yet having looked at the issue in great detail, I have to conclude that eBooks are going to almost completely replace physical books within the decade. You may disagree with me, but if you care about libraries, you may want to pretend for the moment that you grant the point and explore with me what this might mean, since if I’m right, libraries may have to change now if they are going to have any chance of surviving.

As with physical books, so with libraries
Although libraries were created to store and share physical books, they’ve adapted beautifully to new media. First reel-to-reel audio and films, then cassette tapes and video tapes, then CDs and DVDs became staple items at libraries. Libraries often provide free access to the Web and have a library Web site where you can look up books. The old card catalogs have turned into searchable databases. Microfilm and microfiche have yielded to digital storage.

Yet libraries are still tied to a physical experience in a specific place. The entire reason municipal libraries are funded in the first place is to benefit local citizens. While it’s true that you can get digital media from libraries–as with some eBook borrowing programs–you can also get digital media from a lot of other sources, and you don’t have to go to the physical library to get these in most cases anyway. Vermont librarian Kata Welch recently commented, ” If people want e-books, libraries will find a way to supply them and meet their patrons’ needs.” I think she’s right that libraries are more than able to accomplish this–but I don’t think libraries can survive this way.

After all, what’s the use of a physical building when you’re sharing materials that can be easily shared with someone at any other location? And what’s the use of a small local library online if there are thousands of other small local libraries online? If libraries take this approach of still being a source for sharing written and other media, but in electronic rather than physical form, then first they’ll be forced out of buildings and onto the Web, then they’ll inevitably join forces with other libraries because the economies of scale are so significant, and eventually the services will be so widespread that any sense of locality will be utterly lost–if the approach even survives at all. Given all the free material (books, stories, blogs, and so on) that’s available for eReaders and how easy and sometimes inexpensive it is to buy eBooks, I’m not convinced that many people will continue to rely on borrowing books at all, regardless of form.

But libraries are more than books!
It’s true, libraries are more than books. The problem is that sharing media–books, films, audio recordings, magazines, etc.–is the essential, core service that libraries provide. If libraries are no longer mainly about providing that service, can municipalities continue to justify paying as much as they do for them? How many people would use them? Enough to justify the space and expense?

I think there’s one way many libraries might be able to survive, but it would take a lot of effort and change and still wouldn’t succeed everywhere. I’ll talk about that in my follow-up post in the next day or two.

Photo by aaron.michels

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Deferring and Sharing: The Well-Being of Others and Our Future Selves

The human mind

You don’t have to delay gratification or help other people to be human. Not delaying gratification can lead to a lot of suffering, and not helping others can lead to loneliness and insecurity, but they’re not strictly necessary.

To some extent, though, the better we are at delaying gratification and helping others out, the more we start experiencing benefits out of the blue. Being a dependable and altruistic member of a community creates a network of people who are willing to do things for us, look out for our interests, lend us assistance when we most need it, and support us when we’re recovering from a loss or setback. Handling our own desires intelligently has a similar effect: we continue to reap benefits from things we’ve done in the past.

Yet both helping others and delaying gratification pose a problem: we have to give things up now with a chance that we won’t be paid back. For instance, if I have a box of fudge and I hold off on eating some or all of it, I have to give up the experience of eating the fudge right now and run the risk of someone else eating the fudge, of losing it, of it going bad, etc. The surest way to get all of the “benefit” from eating the fudge is to consume all of it, right away.

The problem with that approach is that taking everything you can get the moment you have it often leads to a cornucopia of troubles. In the case of the fudge, eating a lot of it at once can make a person sick, contribute to unwanted weight gain, create an unpleasant sugar rush and crash, and cause the person to look like a pig to onlookers. To eat all of the fudge, I don’t have to give anything up, but in the end I bring on suffering and fail to experience the same kind of satisfaction I’d get from managing the fudge over time.

In a similar way, if I have a pound of fudge and some people I could share it with, the surest way to get all of the “benefit” of the pleasure of eating the fudge is to eat it myself, whether I do that now or later. Yet sharing the fudge with others makes others more likely to share with me, and over time is likely to yield a variety of benefits that a pound of fudge alone could not confer—especially if I don’t want to eat a whole pound of fudge.

Evolving as individuals, becoming more enlightened and compassionate, and learning how to handle ourselves better therefore means a lot of saying “I’m going to give up on this pleasure I could get right at the moment” and “I’m going to give up on this surer thing for this more uncertain thing.” It’s counterintuitive, and to a large extent we’re not built for it, and yet our lives become much happier the more we learn to defer and share. We can’t experience the pleasure our future selves will experience when we set things by for them now, or directly experience the pleasure others feel when we do things on their behalf. Fortunately, we can experience the immediate goodwill we call forth when we do things for other people and the satisfaction we get from making good choices. While these things don’t give us the immediate animal response we’d get from eating a pound of fudge, they also tend to make us feel healthier, happier, and in better harmony with our lives and environments–rather than making us sick.

If you’re interested in this topic, you may enjoy reading my article “The Difference Between Pleasure and Happiness.”

Photo by Xiangdian

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When Not to “Be Here Now”

I'm just sayin'

The mainstay New Age advice “Be here now,” is great sometimes. It’s essential for things like meditation, children’s birthday parties, May in Vermont, not letting your relatives freak you out, and dying well.

In other cases, “here and now” is overrated. Here are some suggested situations in which it’s best not to be here now:

* Figuring out where you left your keys
* Writing a novel
* Anything involving dentistry or proctology
* Using credit cards (which are more safely used while imagining your future financial state in vivid detail)
* Playing chess
* Working on your dissertation on a gorgeous Spring day when the birds are singing and [fill in outdoor activity of your choice] is calling
* Crossing the street (it’s best to think ten or fifteen seconds ahead for this)
* When now is depressing and thinking about what you can achieve in the future is inspiring
* Walking through any place where you have happy memories
* Cleaning the cat box

I’m just sayin’.

Photo by cogdogblog

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Finding Comfort in Uncomfortable Situations

Handling negative emotions

The other day I was in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There was drilling, grinding, polishing, glueing, grafting, washing, suctioning, and so on, and it became clear to me pretty early on that either I would find a way to relax or I’d be very uncomfortable for quite some time.

Fortunately, I realized that I had several tools from my research that could be helpful to me, and using them, I found I was able to be very comfortable the whole time. Some of the thanks goes to my dentist and dental assistant for their professionalism, but all the professionalism in the world doesn’t make it comfortable to have a needle pushed into the roof of your mouth–whereas other strategies can make this a bearable experience.

So here are the tools I used. These strategies are useful whenever it’s necessary to just wait through something that may be uncomfortable–not just appointments with the dentist–for instance plane takeoffs if you aren’t comfortable flying, or an overcrowded commute on a bus or subway.

1. Directing thoughts
Realistically, we don’t have many choices by the time we get to the dentist’s chair. Sure, if something seems to be going wrong that we think the dentist might be missing (an unusual situation), there might be a reason to raise one hand and make noises of distress, but that happens almost automatically, and other than that, we generally need to just sit still and open wide. Some uncomfortable situations require us to think and react, and those are not the kinds of situations I’m addressing in today’s article.

Knowing that there are no choices to be made, it becomes clear that “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” or “I can’t stand that drilling noise in my skull!” or any other negative idea is not going to be helpful, because negative thoughts are only helpful as indicators to help us change our behavior.

So it helps us to redirect our thoughts, in a way similar to how we might redirect a child who’s getting worked up about something that isn’t really causing problems. The basic technique amounts to “OK, but look at that over there!” We don’t have to squelch our negative thoughts, but we can acknowledge them without letting them drag us in. “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” can be followed up with “Yes, but then again, I seem to have survived everything that’s ever hurt in the past” and then focusing on something more interesting and pleasant, like plans for the weekend, a favorite book or movie, or whatever kind of thing keeps you interested.

2. Simple meditation
It’s easy to tense up in uncomfortable situations, but often a simple breath meditation can offer relief. To do this, don’t change your breathing itself, but instead focus your awareness lightly on breathing in, that moment of change when you go from inhaling to exhaling, breathing out, and the other moment of change when you go back to inhaling. It’s difficult to keep this up for a long time–though practice helps–but even with multiple interruptions or distractions can make the rest of the world recede while we become wrapped up in this serene activity.

3. Pay more attention, not less
As strange as it seems, often much of our suffering when we experience pain is fear of the very pain we’re experiencing, or of its consequences. After all, pain itself, like negative emotions, is just a signal that something might be going wrong. Pain is something that has developed because it’s useful to our survival: it helps us get clear of things before they cause too much damage. Unfortunately, sometimes we experience pain when things are actually fine, and at that point the more primitive parts of our brain panic. The more we try not to feel pain, the scarier it becomes.

So one useful approach when feeling pain is to really pay attention to it rather than mentally running away. What does it actually feel like? The process becomes a kind of meditation focused on the pain itself. This doesn’t make the pain go away, but surprisingly, it can relieve a lot of the suffering associated with it.

4. Keep the end in mind
It sometimes helps, when going through something difficult, to remember why you’re doing it. This is only useful if there’s something good waiting for you as a result, but this is often the case. Focusing on the relief a medical procedure will provide, on the friends or family waiting at the other end of a turbulent plane ride, or on the house you’ll eventually get to live in once you’ve filled out the unending paperwork for the loan can make an uncomfortable situation much more liveable by taking you out and placing you in a happier future.

The photo (which is not of me) is by The Doctr

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Willpower as Caring About Lasting Happiness

States of mind

Another way to look at willpower is to think of it as focusing on lasting happiness over short-term pleasure. It’s tempting to think of pleasure and happiness as the same thing, but happiness, which comes from living in a way that satisfies our real needs, is not the same thing as gratifying a momentary urge (for more on this, see “The difference between pleasure and happiness“).

So for instance, willpower to clean up a junk room at home means caring more about how we’ll feel once that room is reclaimed–or even how we’ll feel once we’ve gotten over the initial hump and are making exciting progress–than about the potential discomfort or annoyance of getting started. Willpower to stop smoking means caring more about having good health than about quelling a momentary urge or giving in to a craving to smoke. Willpower to work harder on schoolwork or at a job means caring more about the satisfaction of getting the most out of our daily efforts than about the great number of whims and distractions we’re presented with from moment to moment that sometimes seem more appealing than working.

Looking at willpower in this way doesn’t mean postponing the benefits for months or years: lasting happiness can start surprisingly soon. For instance, with the junk room example, within ten minutes we can start to experience pride and elation at finally making progress on a long-postponed job. The nagging concern about getting that work done also lifts, providing almost immediate relief.

It’s strange that things like a doughnut, which will be gone and maybe regretted in just five minutes, or avoiding a task, which skips the trouble of getting involved in the work but often ignores the fact that the work can be interesting and satisfying once we’re in the groove, can tempt us. After all, temptations and indulgences offer an obvious but very limited kind of enjoyment not at the time that we think of them, but a short time in the future, typically, while focusing on longer-term happiness often offers a less flamboyant but still meaningful kind enjoyment in only a slightly longer period of time. Why do we sometimes fall for satisfying the imbalanced needs of ourselves a few minutes in the future instead of taking care of the versions of ourselves that will exist only a few minutes after that? Why do we so often go for pleasure in five minutes when it’s going to lead to regret in ten?

Regardless, thinking about willpower in this way gives us a simple practice we can use to improve our self-motivation: when faced with a short-term choice that we know we’d like to make a certain way, whether it’s a temptation we want to avoid or a task we want to face, focusing our attention on lasting happiness and how we’ll feel about a good choice will make us more likely to choose the option we really want, while focusing on short-term pleasure will make us more likely to follow paths we won’t be glad we took.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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What’s Drawing You Forward?

States of mind

Being motivated generally means being drawn toward something. Even running away from a ravenous smilodon is motivated in a way by a desperate desire to keep on living (though when we get down to the reptile brain like that–eating, sleeping, procreating–the rules are a little different, and a little more fundamental, than when we’re trying to motivate ourselves to complete a term paper or clean out the garage).

The question is, what are you being drawn toward? You don’t necessarily need an end goal, and in fact most kinds of personal improvement have to do with acquiring habits you’ll want to keep for the future, habits you’ll want to keep for a lifetime rather than just use to get to a finish line. The best way to complete one novel is to become the kind of person who writes a lot; the best way to lose weight and stay fit is to become the kind of person who eats well and loves to exercise; and so on.

So we’re not looking for some kind of end state or finish line: instead, we’re looking for a vision of the future, some point along the line when you’ve accomplished some of the things you would most like to accomplish. What does that vision look like?

The reason this vision for the future is important is because we tend to align ourselves with imagined situations, an effect called “mood congruity.” If I vividly imagine a cold, drizzly, depressing day, I’ll tend to feel more depressed. If I vividly imagine a ravenous smilodon, I’ll tend to feel afraid. And if I picture myself in a house that is perfectly organized, I’ll tend to get excited about organizing my house. Our mental imagery affects our current mood and even our desires. That’s why thinking about playing video games instead of studying is a bad way to prevent yourself from playing video games instead of studying: the more we picture something, the more we tend to make choices that are affected by the image.

One last note about drawing ourselves forward: while visions of a good future can help make us enthusiastic about making good choices in the present, the future in question doesn’t have to be a distant one. For instance, if I want to clean the garage, it can be very effective to imagine myself just a couple of hours in the future with a small part of the garage completely taken care of, even if the garage as a whole is going to take me weeks to sort out. Or I might imagine what it will be like to show my spouse that newly-clean corner of the garage, or to think about what I’ll do in a couple of weeks with the money I make selling unneeded things I dig out of the garage on Craigslist. In fact, sometimes the little, short-term payoffs are the most motivating.

So short-term or long, what’s drawing you forward?

Photo by rogiro

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The Problem of Living One Minute in the Future

States of mind

I recently noticed that I have the habit, sometimes, of living approximately one minute in the future. This is a problem. I’ll explain:

Of all the focus and motivation-related skills I could be developing, the one that helps me the most when I practice it and causes the most harm when it’s missing is mindfulness. When I take time to be aware of what’s going on around me, what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about what I’m doing, what’s really important to me, and from all that what choices suit me the best, I make some terrific choices. When I lose track of too many of these things for too long … not so much.

The question of how well mindfulness works has a lot to do with how much effort and attention go into it, so the problems come for me mainly when I let my attention be taken up too much by other things.

Recently I was doing my best to apply mindfulness to how I eat. This probably sounds like a relatively unimportant, navel-gazing exercise, but since eating is one of the things that in the past I’ve done least mindfully, for me it’s something that I benefit from working on regularly.

What I noticed about myself was that while I was eating something I enjoyed, I wasn’t paying the most attention to the bite I was actually eating. I wasn’t even paying attention to the next bite: no, the bite I was focusing on was the one two bites ahead. Somewhere deep down I seem to still have a concern that the food will all just run out all of a sudden. And who knows? Someday I may live in a time and place where there’s a famine and there isn’t enough food. For an adequately employed American in 2010, though, that attitude is ridiculous.

And yet, I began to notice that whenever I was on my next-to-last bite, I stopped enjoying what I was eating and felt as though I had no food left. This is while I’m still chewing and have another bite to go, mind you. I was living two bites in the future, and even when there was still food two bites away, it wasn’t food I was eating–all I was enjoying then was the fact that there was still food available.

I don’t eat like this all the time, or even necessarily most of the time. But when I’m not paying attention and letting my least useful long-term eating habits get the best of me, there’s a disconnect between me and my food–which may explain why until the last couple of years, while I ate healthy food, I didn’t have a good sense of how much I should eat or when. That’s changed with effort and practice, fortunately, but some of the attitudes that gave rise to the problem in the first place are still present, even though they’re diminished.

The problem of living a little bit in the future can crop up anywhere: watching the clock during the work day and not being willing to be happy until it’s time to leave; working on a project and not allowing a sense of any accomplishment until the project is done (if then); and so on. If you find you’re having trouble enjoying something, it can be useful to pay attention for a moment to where your focus is: is it on what’s going on now, or is it on some imagined payoff, deadline, beginning, or end?

That’s not to say we should always live in the moment: always doing that is neither wise nor practical, and I talk about the reasons this is true in this article. But living slightly out of kilter with the moment often isn’t a good strategy either, and sometimes all it takes to be happier and reduce stress is to set the clock back a minute or so.

Photo by rockmixer

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Good “should” and bad “should”

Handling negative emotions

party

The word “should” is has surprising powers to sabotage mood and good intentions, but it can also be one of the pillars of a well-lived life. The issue is that there are two ways of using the word that seem very similar but that lead us in entirely different directions. One tends to create obstacles to getting things done and generates stress; the other use can help organize priorities.

By the way, in this article I’m talking about “should” in terms of obligation. There are different uses of the word, as Robin Dickinson has pointed out, and this article is about the two key meanings the word has for self-motivation.

“Should” as shorthand
The constructive version of should is shorthand for “if I want this benefit, then I’ll need to take this course of action.” With this version, there’s always a condition involved, and always an alternative. For instance, saying “I should plant my tomatoes next week” with the idea that doing so will give me the best possible crop of tomatoes is pretty constructive. I’m setting a goal for myself, and on some level I’m aware of what I want to accomplish. I could also choose not to plant my tomatoes next week, and probably not get as good a crop.

Invasive “should”
The harmful version either doesn’t have a condition, or it has a condition that’s isn’t based on our own priorities. For instance, saying “I should lose weight” can be actively harmful if the idea is that you’re a bad person if you don’t do it. So can “I should go this party” if the only reason for going to the party is that someone else thinks you should get out more (and you don’t agree), or if you feel a social obligation but have no real reason to want to participate.

This is not to say that there’s no such thing as a meaningful social obligation, only that doing things entirely for other people’s reasons is usually a recipe for trouble. We can (carefully!) take on other people’s goals as our own, for instance helping a spouse to train for a new job, spending time commiserating with a friend who’s lost a parent, or contributing to some wider social good through political action, volunteering, or just participating in our communities, and this can be positive as long as we’re doing it with full understanding of why we’re doing it. In fact, in some ways the ability to empathize with others and take on responsibility in a larger group is the a large part of being a mature adult. It’s just best to be sure we’re accepting responsibilities instead of feeling forced into them.

Good and bad “should” in the past
The use of “should” for things that have already happened is, if anything, even more likely to be a problem in the past than the present, because when we say things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that hamburger” or “I should have gone to class yesterday,” we’re much more likely to be beating ourselves up than to be planning different behavior for the future. It’s certainly possible to say “I should have gone to class yesterday” and mean “I can see that not going to class yesterday makes keeping up with the material harder, and so for the future I’ll make a special priority of getting to class every time,” but since reflections on the past rarely translate into plans for the future unless we go out of our way to make that happen, it’s much more effective to say (or think) that long, clumsy second version than to try to make the first one stand in for it.

“Should” for other people
The word “should” is just as messy when used on other people as it is when we use it on ourselves. Saying things like “he should watch where he’s going when he changes lanes!” or “my company should have paid for that” tends to put the focus on other people changing their behavior rather than on what we can do ourselves to respond constructively. Since we can’t control other drivers, it’s much more constructive to say “I guess I’ll watch out for unpredictable drivers like that guy” than to say “he should watch where he’s going,” or “In future, I’ll keep in mind that my company may not cover all the expenses I would expect them to” (or “I’ll go talk to my boss about this expense statement”) instead of “my company should have paid for that.”

The limited but real value of guilt and shame
The bad “should” actually does have a useful purpose in a limited way, in the same way that guilt and shame do: they bring our attention to a potential problem. If someone has done something that they know to be morally wrong and reflects “I shouldn’t have done that,” or feels guilt or shame, that’s positive to the point where it brings them to change their behavior and perhaps try to make reparations. Anything a “bad should” accomplishes beyond that role of pointing and reminding, however, is damaging.

Telling good “should” from bad “should”
Distinguishing between these two versions of “should” is tricky, because it comes down not to what we’re considering doing but to why we’re considering it. A “should statement” (the harmful version, the one without a meaningful condition) is one of the basic “broken ideas” (or “cognitive distortions”), and repairing this kind of idea means recasting it with a condition. A statement like “I should get my papers organized because I’m a slob,” (a should statement plus labeling: two broken ideas in one!) can be transformed into “If I like things around me to be in order, I’ll want to get my papers organized” or “If I want to boost how professional I look, I’ll organize my papers.” The original version of the statement tends to direct a person’s thoughts into their shortcomings and failures, which is a lousy way to get organized and not much fun, either. The transformed versions focus on the specific benefit or benefits you want to accomplish, and silently carries the other side of the condition, “And if I don’t, I just won’t get that benefit–which is not the end of the world.”

The benefit of getting a handle on shoulds
One potentially helpful approach, then, is to try to strike the word “should” out of our thinking completely. It’s harder to use bad “should” without using the actual word (though it can be done: “Politeness demands I go to the party tonight”), while good “should” statements are pretty easy to rephrase (“If I go to the party tonight, it will probably make my friends happy.”) But it’s not necessary to make this vocabulary change, since greater awareness can do the job just about as well.

The way we can apply this understanding of good and bad “shoulds” in our lives is to use it to notice bad “shoulds” as they come up in our mind, and then to think about applying conditions to them or examining them more closely. By doing things for reasons we recognize and agree with, we take greater control of and responsibility of our own lives rather than giving up power to circumstances or to outside forces. In this way we become a little more like the people we strive to be.

Photo by Brandon Cirillo

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Living in the Now, Visualizing the Future, and Learning from the Past

States of mind

pastpresentfuture

Here’s a funny problem with motivation: in order to understand ourselves well enough to manage our emotions and ideas, we need to be mindful, which is to say, to live in the present, to pay attention to what is really going on inside and around us right now. But we also need to visualize where we’re going, to gain inspiration and energy from seeing what we could become and to anticipate both obstacles and rewards. And despite present and future, we also need to look back at what we have done regularly, to understand how things we’ve tried in the past have worked out so that we can repeat or change them, depending. We can’t do all of these things at the same time. Which is really more important?

Of course, that’s a trick question. Mindfulness is essential to changing ourselves, and visualization is an important step in motivating ourselves, and reflecting on the past to change the present (that is, creating a feedback loop) is an essential part of getting and keeping on track. The trick is to know when to do what. If anyone tells you to always live in the moment, ask them whether or not they look both ways when they cross the street.

The past (reflection or feedback) is important when we’re already working steadily toward a goal and are not conflicted in what we want to do. Reflection helps us correct our course and repeat successes.

The present (mindfulness) is where we need to put our minds when we are feeling conflicted or unhappy or distracted, or just want to be able to focus better. Mindfulness practices (especially mindfulness meditation) help us become serene and attentive.

The future (visualization) is where we need to place our thoughts when we’re not sure what we want to accomplish, or else when we want to build up enthusiasm for moving forward. If we’re feeling bad and unready to face the future, that’s a good sign that we need to concentrate on the present for a while instead, but if we’re calm and want to make decisions or get ourselves moving, visualizing the results of good choices now can be a tremendous help.

It will certainly be worth going into more depth on each of these subjects–feedback loops, mindfulness, and visualization–but even without that kind of detail, we’re ahead of the game just by knowing where in time to put our attention so as to best help our own motivation.

Photo by azharc

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