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Will a Good Habit Stop a Bad Habit?

Strategies and goals

Since I started getting serious about fitness, there have been two kinds of health habits I’ve been trying to change and improve, and they’re the same two that we hear all the time when people talk about weight loss: eating and exercise. I can tell you from experience that eating well and exercising regularly work, if they’re done the right way. What I haven’t understood until now is why picking up the exercise habit was so much easier than changing my eating habits.

In both cases, I’m trying to strengthen good habits (getting regular exercises, choosing healthy foods to eat), but only in the case of eating am I also trying to quash bad habits (eating the wrong foods or too much of the right foods).

When I started exercising, I got into good habits within a few months, habits that have improved slowly over time ever since. Eating, however, has been another story. In terms of good eating habits, I’ve been building those much like my exercise habits. Some of the lunches I’ve been eating are so filling yet light and nutritious, they’d make you weep. Well, maybe not you, but certainly someone with a sentimental streak for healthy lunches.

My bad eating habits, though, haven’t been going away at the same rate as my good eating habits have been coming in. Sure, they’ve been diminishing over time, but if the good habits had had anything to say about it, the bad habits would have been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp years ago. So what’s going on here?

Research to the rescue: A study by psychologists Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes gives evidence that forming a good habit to reach a goal doesn’t necessarily do anything to get rid of bad habits that might get in the way of that same goal. Verplanken and Faes make sense of this with the idea of “implementation intentions”–plans to do something specific in a specific kind of situation. This research seems to show that implementation intentions (like “prepare a healthy lunch in the morning and bring it in to work instead of buying something”) are much more useful for forming habits than general goals (like “eat a healthy lunch”). When you think about it, this makes sense: building habits is about doing something over and over again. If a person hasn’t decided exactly what to do exactly when, there’s a lot more in the way of the behavior that person is trying to repeat.

Implementation intentions, though, only cover specific circumstances and specific behaviors. So my nifty ideas for lunch can certainly help me choose a healthy lunch over an unhealthy lunch–but those same ideas will have little or no effect on whether I decide to buy some kind of high-calorie food to munch on an hour later.

The upshot seems to be that good habits can help destroy bad habits only if there’s no way for both habits to happen together. Bad habits can be overcome, and there are many tools on this site that offer ways to overcome them, but to make the best progress on that front, it becomes important for us to separate out the specific habits we’re trying to change or acquire, good and bad, so that we know which bad habits need to be tackled directly and which we can depend on good habits to crush.

Photo by Helico

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Why Task Lists Sometimes Fail

Strategies and goals

Task lists can help you get a ton of things done and give you peace of mind–but usually don’t. The average task list feels less like a train flying down the tracks of productivity and more like a train you missed, a train that’s going somewhere you don’t want to be, or a train wreck. Why? Here are the five main reasons.

1. The list isn’t really easy to get to and use
If you can’t pull up your task list in less than 30 seconds and easily update it, you’ll probably be too busy actually doing things to keep messing around with it. For a task list to be truly useful, it has to be easily accessible everywhere you might want to use it, and it has to be very easy to find, add, change, and check off items. Otherwise it’s a constant burden and an interruption, and it takes enormous effort to keep up with a habit like that.

Find a tool for tasks you love that’s available where you need it. Since I’m almost always near a computer, I like the free service called Todoist.

2. Not everything is on it
If you keep some of your tasks in your task list but others in other places–like sticky notes on your computer, scribbles on pieces of paper, or even physical reminders like leaving out something you need to fix instead of putting it on your list–then you can’t trust your list to tell you what you should be doing at all times, which is its job. An effective task list needs to have everything you need to do on it. This requires getting in the habit of immediately going to your task list to add a task whenever you promise to do something, think of something you need to attend to, receive something in the mail you have to respond to, etc.–or make sure all of your tasks get written down and use the paper management approach I talk about in this post about how to handle incoming paper and this post about organizing and filing.

3. It doesn’t get reviewed regularly
If you put things on your task list and then avoid looking at it again, then it won’t be up to date or useful. If you’re not looking at your task list regularly, it’s probably because your task list is stressing you out (see #s 4 and 5, below) or because it’s too much of a pain in the neck to use (see #1, above)–or both.

4. It lists wishes instead of tasks
Many task lists contain items like “Take care of leaky faucet.” This is not a task unless you already know how to fix a leaky faucet and have all the tools and supplies you need. A task is something that you immediately know how to do and can act on without having to figure out anything new; anything vaguer than that is just a wish, and when we look at wishes on task lists our first reaction is likely to be “Ack, I’ve got to take care of that … uh, but why don’t I [fill in your choice of procrastination here] first?” On the other hand, if the item is “Go to hardware store and buy 3/8 inch washer,” then you may think “Hey, I’m driving past there anyway … I’ll pick that up.” (Of course, once you check that off you need to immediately add the next step.)

If you have to figure out a task in order to do it, the task is figuring out what to do, for instance “Write down a plan for taking care of the leaky faucet.” Thinking things through is a perfectly good task, the first step in a sequence of steps that will eventually lead to a completed project.

5. No prioritization
If your task list is just a big mass of things that need doing, you’ll have to review and reconsider the whole thing every time you go back over it unless you take the “pot shot” approach. The “pot shot” approach can work–you just look for the first task you can do right now and tackle it–but it means you may spend all your time doing unimportant stuff.

So don’t let your task list stay a big mass. Break your tasks down into categories by the situation you’ll be in (at computer, at home, errands, etc.) and migrate more important tasks to the top. Then when you’re ready to consult your task list, just consult the right list for your situation and look at the top few items to see which one seems to be most pressing.

It may help to keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of knowing how to use a task list, buy also of being willing to adopt new task-related habits. Just knowing how to do it isn’t enough.

There’s a lot more a person could know about task lists, but the most important pieces are all in those five items. If you want more detail, I highly recommend Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done, from which several of the ideas in this post were extracted.

Photo by GTD enthusiast MrMole


Are Creative People More Likely to Procrastinate?

Strategies and goals


A good imagination may not be strictly necessary for procrastination, but it can help.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the nature of procrastination: picturing something in the future and imagining how hard it will be or what can go wrong. He goes on to point out that the more easily a person can imagine problems, the more incentive they have to procrastinate “… because their sensitivity gives them the capability of producing in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project and all the negative consequences that might occur if it weren’t done perfectly.”

How do people successfully combat procrastination? They take control and move things forward–that is, they figure out what the next physical action is.

Allen is big on the next physical action, and close examination of the idea helps explain why: figuring out the next action changes the focus from broad dangers to easy, short-term wins. For example, if you’re daunted at the prospect of doing your taxes, you may find yourself distracted by thoughts of a big balance due, mistakes, or audits. Figuring out your next task (“Sort through receipts in receipt box” or “Call tax preparer to make an appointment” or “Download an update to the tax softare”), by contrast, puts things on a much more comfortable level. Almost anyone can sort receipts, make a telephone call, or click a button on a Web site, and doing so moves the tax process forward. Reducing large tasks to a series of next actions–only one of which needs to be figured out at any given time–can create enthusiasm or energy around getting things done instead of wrapping the task in anxiety.

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4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done

Strategies and goals

Have you ever broken a promise–even to yourself–without meaning to? Maybe you offered to do something and didn’t get around to it, or made a resolution and didn’t follow through, or it you wanted to be involved in something but forgot to show up because there were other things going on.

If you haven’t had this experience–if you never neglect to do anything significant you intend to do–then you don’t need this article. For the rest of us, I have four simple points that help ensure things get done.

1. Get it down in writing somewhere you’ll see it. Our brains can only hold a few priorities at once, and those priorities shift from hour to hour, or even moment to moment. If you have a task system that you already actively use, that’s an ideal place to put the task. Or you could put a temporary note somewhere in your way. For instance, whenever I have to remember to bring anything with me in the morning, I put a post-it note on the front door, where it will always present itself to me before I go out. Another option is to put a note in a calendar system you use, or to have it pop up as a reminder in your e-mail program, phone, or PDA (if you use something that offers a reminder feature). Whatever you do, it needs to be in writing so that you don’t have to depend on having the information in short-term memory, and it needs to be somewhere you’ll naturally see it again so that you don’t have to keep an item in short-term memory just to review it.

2. Figure out the next explicit action you need to take. An action is a specific behavior that you already know how to do. For instance, “clean the garage out” isn’t an action, because where do you start? And are you supposed to clean it all in one marathon session? etc. Instead, think about what you would do if you were going to start on the task right away, and how you would describe it if you were going to have someone else do it for you. If the thing you want to get done is cleaning the garage, your next action might be “sit down with calendar to find a four-hour block of time to start working on garage” or “Call dump to find out hours” or “E-mail Jerry to find out if he wants the old couch.” Explicit actions free you from worrying about the whole big project, whatever it is, and allow you to focus on doing one specific thing that you know how to do. If you don’t know what to do, or do but don’t know how to do it, then your next task is to get the information you need. It could be “Talk with Marcia to find out what she wants moved out of the garage” or “Find blog posts by people who have successfully cleaned out their garages” or “Sit down at computer and brainstorm things I’ll need to do to get the garage cleaned out.”

Once you’ve completed that action, figure out what the next action is and write that down (or do it immediately and follow up with the next action after that).

3. Be prepared to say yes. It won’t help to know that you need to do something and know what it is if you aren’t going to do it when the chance arises. At some point there has to be a decision that “OK, I’ll do that now.” Fortunately, this is much easier if you know that you have do do something and have a specific, doable action in mind.

4. Fix conflicts and obstacles. Some tasks won’t need this step. Depositing a check, reading an article on the Web, or making pancakes for the kids may not present any serious difficulties. However, if your next action is “Talk to mom about moving her to a senior care facility” or “Draft letter of resignation,” for instance, there may be barriers between you and getting that action completed. Here are some of those barriers and what to do about them.
A. Lack of knowledge. If you don’t know how to do what you need to do, then probably your real next action is to learn something–by reading, seeking out someone more knowledgeable, taking a course, finding a step-by-step guide, etc.
B. Anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, etc. If a negative emotion is getting in the way of you taking the action you have decided to take–for instance, if you’re too angry to talk constructively with your coworker who just caused your big project to fail, or if the very thought of talking to your mom about assisted living makes you want to go stick your head in the sand, then it may be necessary to work through that emotion as your next action rather than moving ahead with something more task-oriented. Working this through could be accomplished by journaling, talking with a friend, or talking with a therapist or other professional. You may simply need to apply idea repair.
C. Someone or something you’re waiting for. If someone else needs to do something before you can make progress, you have three choices: wait for them and do something else in the mean time; try to encourage them to move ahead; or find a way around them. Realistically, there may be times when you don’t have any other option than to wait, but these are the minority: usually, there will be something you can do to move almost any project forward, even if it’s just preparation for a later step while you wait for someone whose input is necessary for the current step.

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

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Mental Schemas #4: Defectiveness

Handling negative emotions

This is the fourth in a series of articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. There’s more information about schemas and schema therapy on a new page on The Willpower Engine here.

I don’t know about people in other part of the world, but we in America have a weird relationship with criticism. Some parents criticize their children constantly, while others are afraid to criticize them at all. While I think it goes a little too far to be supportive when a kid is merrily scribbling away on the brand new coffee table with permanent marker, the parents who are worried about criticism are worried for good reason: criticize a kid too much, and they may deal with it by developing a defectiveness schema. If you already know you’re defective, maybe it doesn’t hurt as much when people keep telling you that.

The defectiveness schema
Of course, feelings of defectiveness and inadequacy don’t translate very easily to a healthy life. Someone with a defectiveness schema might be overly defensive and never willing to hear themselves criticized–or they might go to the other extreme and always assume everything’s their own fault. Either way, there’s a basic broken idea here, namely “I’m inferior and defective.” This kind of broken idea is called “labeling” (is it weird that there’s a label for it?).

Another problem with the defectiveness schema is that people in its grip may feel that they are in danger of being “found out”–that people who get too close to them will discover that they are fundamentally flawed and leave, and that therefore no one must ever be allowed to get close.  (You might notice a trend of the schemas I’ve covered so far being ones where people are scared to let others get or stay close; that’s because we’re beginning with the set of schemas that deal with disconnection and rejection.)

Overcoming a defectiveness schema
As with any mental schema, the key to overcoming it is overturning, time and time again, the broken ideas it encourages. This means consciously replacing the thought “I don’t deserve this” with “I’m not perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t have this thing that I want” or the thought “If I get close to this person, they’ll find out about all of my shortcomings and leave me” with “I can’t know for sure how someone will act in different situations; this person may or may not end up liking ‘the real me.'”

Repairing broken ideas often takes the form of acceptance, especially acceptance of the possibility of either good or bad things happening. People with defectiveness schemas will benefit from learning to accept even those things they dislike about themselves, and also from accepting that bad things may happen–or that good things can happen too, if those good things are given enough of a chance.

Photo by McBeth


How I’m Keeping My E-mail Inbox Empty


I’ve aspired for years to keep my inbox empty and up-to-date, but it wasn’t until very recently that I figured out how to actually achieve it. Before, my idea was “Well, I’ll kind of reply to things in order of importance and just try to really keep on top of it.” This is another way of saying “I’ll just try harder,” and just trying harder doesn’t work . While I was aware of this on some level, I didn’t see a better solution available for the time being, which is fine–we can’t tackle every goal in our lives all at once. But then I learned how to actually get it done–and it turned out to be quick and even kind of fun.

Why keep an empty inbox?
Keeping an empty inbox means no worrying that there’s something I ought to have replied to, no forgetting to follow up on important matters, no burdened sigh on seeing a long list of maybe-I-need-to-do-something-about-some-of-these messages every time I open my e-mail. It improves my mood and keeps me focused on things I actually need to do.

I’ve only had an empty in-box for a short time, but all indications so far are that it will be much easier to keep an empty inbox now than it was to keep a full one before. What enabled me to really tackle this job was switching to a Web e-mail client that I could access from everywhere instead of using one e-mail client on my laptop and another at home on my desktop. Using two programs meant I had to process every single e-mail twice, which was tedious and didn’t seem worth my time. Using the Web client gets rid of this problem, though it doesn’t in and of itself provide any solution to inbox management.

The setup
So Web mail for me was what opened the door to keeping my inbox empty. But what am I doing differently to actually accomplish it? Well, let’s take a look at my e-mail folders (see the close-up, below). The key to this system is that group called _Utility. All the other folders are just where I keep old e-mail for reference.

Information” contains e-mails that have something in them I might someday need to know: login information for a new hosting account, a discount code for a Web site I shop at sometimes, a schedule for a conference I might go to, that kind of thing. It’s there only to keep the most important reference information I receive through e-mail all in one place. Because of the small number of things I need to keep here (I only use it for information I have a high probability of needing), it’s always easy to find what I’m looking for. I’ve been using this strategy for years, and it’s worked really well for me.

Pending” contains e-mails about things I’m expecting from other people. I review it regularly to see if there are any situations that have changed or gone on too long and require my attention. Because there are usually only a few e-mails I’m waiting to have someone else follow up on, it usually contains very few items. Right now it holds only one, a note from someone who owes me a refund on a defective computer part. This is a new category for me in e-mail, but a similar category has worked really well for me in my task list (I use ToDoist, which is free unless you want a few extra geegaws, has good features, and is very easy to use.)

REPLY or act” is my folder for e-mails that need a substantial response or that require me to do something. This might seem like just another inbox at first glance, but it’s actually the key to the whole system. E-mails only go into “REPLY or act” if I have

1) already looked at them, and
2) need to take some action (writing back or doing something), and
3) have decided exactly what kind of action or response I need to provide, and
4) have decided I’ll definitely take that action or make that response (that is, there are no “maybe follow up on this” e-mails in this folder), and
4) can’t answer the message in two minutes or less.

Before I started this system, my inbox contained thousands of e-mails. As of this moment, my “REPLY or act” folder contains exactly eight, none more than a week old.

Things to Read” is where I put things that I’m interested in reading but don’t need to specifically get back to anyone on or do something about–blogs of interest, a non-critical update about a group I’m involved in, etc. I only put things in here if they will take some time to read: anything that I can read within a few minutes gets read right away and never makes it to this folder.

How it all fits together
What this means is that going through my inbox ends up being a process of making quick decisions and taking quick actions. Here’s a letter from a friend: I’ll put that in “REPLY or act” and respond at length later on. Here’s a long description about new features on that Web site I use: I’ll put it into “Things to Read.” Here’s some spam and a couple of notices I’m not interested in: delete, delete, delete. Here’s a short e-mail about recent events at my son’s school: I’ll read it now and then file it. Here’s an e-mail asking if I’ll be at Taekwondo class Thursday: I’ll fire off an answer now. And so on.

The result is that I can mow through everything in my inbox in a very short period of time and bring it back to “empty.” Anything that takes a long time by definition gets shuffled into one of the utility folders.

Then whenever I go into e-mail and don’t have anything in my inbox, or else get through the inbox quickly and don’t find anything interesting, if I actually have some time, I dive into my “REPLY or act” folder, open the oldest e-mail in it, and reply to or act on it. I had tried using a “reply or act folder” with my old system, but since I hadn’t figured out yet how to keep my inbox clear, the huge mass of e-mails in the inbox always distracted me from looking at “reply or act.” With the new system, my empty inbox forces me to look into my utility folders if I want to do anything. What I’m finding is that instead of feeling paralyzed by the mass of mostly low-importance, undealt-with e-mails in my inbox, I’m energized by the short list of really meaningful e-mails in “REPLY or act.”

Principles for easy e-mail management
It’s important to point out that I process everything in my inbox only once. If some message really is going to take a prolonged decision process, it can go into “REPLY or act,” but usually the decisions take a very short period of time. In the past I would defer them in favor of digging around for a more interesting piece of e-mail. Now I have a rule that if the decision is short I make it immediately, and this allows me to respond very quickly to all kinds of e-mails that otherwise might have languished for weeks.

So, the three principles that need to be followed for this kind of system to work are:
1. Process everything in the inbox from beginning to end regularly
2. Don’t defer dealing with e-mails that just need a quick decision or read or a short response
3. Review actionable e-mails in utility folders on a regular basis.

One exception to the above: if you know you have time to answer a more lengthy e-mail, you can just process your other in-box items and then get back to the e-mail you want to answer right away. Anything you are going to act on immediately after processing your inbox never needs to go into the utility folders at all. Just whatever you do, don’t leave something in your inbox because you want to follow up on it soon but can’t immediately. Even one leftover e-mail can encourage us to avoid inbox processing, and all that needs to be done is to put that e-mail into the Reply folder, maybe with a star or a red flag if it’s of special interest.

How to get started
To set this kind of system up, what do you do with the half-a-billion e-mails already in your inbox (if you’re like me and had them piling up)? Well, you need to set aside some time if you’re going to do this, but it only took me a little more than an hour to set mine up and get organized. Once you have your block of time, here’s the process I’d suggest:

1. Make a set of utility folders that works for you.
2. Pick a time period, from 5-30 days. Anything this recent, you’ll consider “fresh” e-mail. (Don’t worry: older e-mails will be covered in a later step, so this doesn’t have to be a long period. I used 10 days.)
3. Move everything older than that to a new folder called “Old Inbox.”
4. Process your inbox in the way I’ve described, starting with the first item and going through all e-mails without skipping any. Only process! This means: delete e-mails you don’t need, put messages needing long responses in your reply folder, file away non-actionable e-mails you want to keep, and deal immediately with any e-mail that you can get through in two minutes or less. Don’t get bogged down in detailed responses for anything that isn’t absolutely urgent: only answer e-mails that will take 2 minutes or less for now. Even very important things, as long as they don’t need to be done right this second, shouldn’t merit responses: you’ll have a chance to get to those soon.
5. When you have processed all of your fresh e-mail, you will have an empty inbox. Everything has been deleted, queued in a reply/act folder, queued for reading, stored with pending (waiting for someone else) items, or filed away.
6. If you think there may be anything important in your Old Inbox folder, start going through it from the most recent item going back. Just skim the titles and check e-mails as necessary if you need to know what’s in them. Don’t worry about processing everything in here unless you have a lot of extra time: just look for actionable items and put them in reply/act, to read, or pending. Everything else is just reference and can be found within Old Inbox if you ever need it. (This step will be especially easy if you’ve been flagging important e-mails prior to now: start by processing all of your flagged e-mails.)
7. Keep your inbox empty by following the three principles above.

My categories are just guidelines: you may find a different way you prefer to sort your e-mail. However, you may find something very similar is the most efficient method for you if you’re interested in keeping a clean inbox. However you organize, make very clear distinctions between actionable e-mail folders and non-actionable ones, or you’ll start to get a huge mass of stuff accumulating without knowing off the top of your head what needs your attention and what doesn’t.

This post owes much to the ideas of Dave Allen and to his book Getting Things Done, although it also is informed by personal experience and organizational skills I’ve learned over the years. Here’s hoping you find it useful.


Relieving Stress by Understanding Your Inputs

Strategies and goals

This morning I got out of bed with the realization that I often have to sort out the same set of e-mails twice: once on my desktop and once on my laptop. Realizing that this was getting in the way of me keeping on top of e-mail as it comes in, I found myself a good Web-based interface for my e-mail, where I started by working on just my last ten days of e-mail. I went through every single non-spam message I had received in that time, sorting them into appropriate folders, responding to or following up on the ones that could be done within a minute or two, and putting about half a dozen that will require more time into a special “REPLY/ACT” folder where I’ll be able to easily tackle them in order. Then I went over the past month and a half and any marked e-mails in my own inbox and added anything that stood out to the REPLY/ACT folder.

And now my inbox is empty. This doesn’t mean that I have no e-mails to respond to, but that I’ve cleared away everything except the e-mails that will need detailed responses and have those easily accessible in priority order. As new e-mails come in, I’ll deal with them in a similar way, since I have a system in place and am going to the same spot to handle e-mail whether at home or on the road. Instead of always opening my e-mail box to a long list of mostly-unimportant e-mails, I’ll open it to a few things that I’ll review, fire off quick replies where those are needed, and have a single place where the bigger tasks will go. Everything else will get filed away. This takes very little time, now that my system is set up. And since I had been gradually developing my ideas of how to sort e-mail in past attempts at this process, it all came together quickly, in just over an hour!

Update, March 30th: I’ve continued emptying my inbox this way virtually every day since I started the process, and it has continued to be much easier than my old process. My REPLY/ACT folder sometimes gets more full and sometimes less, but “full” in this case is at most 16 items. The system seems to be working, and I’m definitely much more responsive than I have been in the past, in large part because I get the short responses out of the way immediately regardless of how important they are and have the e-mails that need longer responses somewhere they’re easy to find and pick off.

What Stress Has to Do With Organization
We can mostly only do one thing at a time, so ideally we’d always know exactly what that one thing should be at any time. Let’s say you’re at home, no phones are ringing, and nothing’s on fire. What do you choose to do with your time? Relax and watch a movie? Wash the plate and glass on the counter? Go over your kid’s homework? Fix that squeaky door? Catch up on some reading for work? Call your old friend from college you’ve been wanting to get back in touch with? Organize papers for tax season? Every responsibility–like housekeeping, friendships, bills, work, concerns about world hunger–and every way we communicate–like mail, notes sent home from school with kids, email, voice mail, conversations with family members–provides another potential source of things that might need to be done. And it’s exactly the same in a work or school environment, often with a completely separate set of systems in each location.

The problem is that all of these inputs can be stress-producing, if not overwhelming. Without some serious organization, it’s next to impossible to keep track of all of them at once, which means that anything that isn’t getting taken care of can potentially be a distraction and a worry. You find yourself regularly pushed around by thoughts like “Do I really have everything set up for the trip next week?” or “I keep thinking I need to pick something up at the hardware store” or “I’ve got to remember to get back to that prospect with a quote.”

Fortunately it is possible to channel some of this chaos and cut back on stress. Here are a few quick tips to that end, inspired in part by my continued reading of Dave Allen’s excellent organizational book, Getting Things Done, along with other sources.

Recognize your inputs. Anything that’s not in the place where you want it to be, may need to be acted on, needs to be reviewed to decide whether you need to act on it, is in the way of you knowing or doing something you need to know or do, etc. is an input, a potential “to do.” That doesn’t mean that you need to waste attention to all of those things every time you notice them, only that they’ll tend to dilute your focus unless you’ve got some kind of reliable system in place to handle them.

Don’t let the noisy things distract you from the important things. An e-mail about a new version of some software you use may be interesting and may pop up right in front of your face while an important financial matter that doesn’t have a specific deadline could be lingering in the background. It can help to have places to put lower-priority things  as they come in, for instance an “Interesting/check out” folder in your e-mail program for that e-mail to go until after the financial matter is settled.

Minimize the number of task systems you use. Almost everyone needs more than one task list: for instance, you might have an e-mail program with messages that need to be read, responded to, or acted on; plus a traditional “to do” list, a place to stack incoming mail, etc. But it’s easy to let task systems proliferate–a few notes written on paper here, an occasionally-updated PDA task list there, a stack of unreviewed papers on your desk to go through, etc.–making it difficult or impossible to determine what the one thing you want to do at any given time is, because there are too many places to look to figure that out.

Ditch unimportant tasks. Still have last week’s newspaper because you didn’t get around to reading it but might still? Consider how often you’ve gotten around to ever reading a week-old newspaper before, and if it’s close to 0% of the time, the newspaper can go. I’ve found sometimes in the past that I’ve been hanging onto an unimportant tasks for years–something that really would be good to do, but has never been important enough to trump all the other things that are going on in my life on a daily basis. It can be freeing (and a good way to cut down on an unrealistically long task list) to be able to look at some items like this and say “I’m just going to decide to not do that one.”

Part of how you’ll be happiest dealing with all of these inputs will depend on whether you want to organize your life or just keep the noise level down a bit. You may find you want the productivity and peace of mind you can get from a real organizational system. Allen’s book is a good resource for tackling this if you decide to.

On the other hand, maybe your life isn’t all that hectic, but a little additional clarity and order will help–in which case the suggestions above might be enough to give you the lift you’re looking for.

If you’re not sure whether it’s worth committing to a big organizational effort, ask yourself: Am I sometimes not taking care of things I need to get done, with bad consequences? Do I feel overwhelmed or anxious about the things I need to do? If either of these is a yes, time spent organizing effectively can provide relief while making more efficient use of your time. A successful organizing effort pays for the time it takes to do it in short order, and doesn’t have to necessarily be done all at once to be effective.

Photo by andres.thor

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Mental Schemas #3: Emotional Deprivation (with help from Holden Caulfield)

Handling negative emotions

The Emotional Deprivation Schema
A few quotes from J.D. Salinger’s character Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye can help explain what this schema is about.

“Sometimes I act a lot older than I am–I really do– but people never notice it. People never notice anything.”

“She bought me the wrong kind of skates–I wanted racing skates and she bought hockey–but it made me sad anyway. Almost every time somebody gives me a present, it ends up making me sad.”

Occasionally feeling like other people don’t understand, don’t care, and/or couldn’t do anything about it even if they did seems to be a normal part of the human experience. Feeling like this every day and all, though, can be emotionally debilitating as hell.

I’m not suggesting that everything that goes on with Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye is part of an emotional deprivation schema. As real human beings, our motivations are too complex to be meaningfully explained by any one concept, and to Salinger’s credit, Holden feels like a real human being to many readers. But Holden does us a favor in helping to show the emotional deprivation schema and some of its effects.

A person with an emotional deprivation schema might choose relationships with people who aren’t very capable of giving care, understanding, or support, and might act in ways that make it harder for even people who are capable to give these things. Such a person might provoke others or try to keep people at a distance (on the assumption that they wouldn’t really be able to get close anyway).

Overcoming an Emotional Deprivation Schema
Making progress with this schema first requires understanding how it’s working in one’s life: taking note of behaviors and choices that come from these beliefs and that can affect relationships. Techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and mindfulness practices can help bring these ideas out.

One way to tackle an emotional deprivation schema–or any schema–is to identify broken ideas and then repair them. Schemas express themselves as broken ideas, and repairing these ideas helps make progress in taking down the schema.

Since an emotional deprivation schema is a lack of faith in receiving attention, care, and understanding from other people, any experience that demonstrates people actually providing these things is worth paying attention to and building on. Even small gestures, when recognized as real caring or support, show the inherent flaw in the line of thinking that this schema promotes, and focusing on these gestures widens the cracks in this kind of mistaken belief in a way that can eventually break it apart.

Holden himself seems to have come up with a way to feel better about other people caring about him, which is to care about other people:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Unfortunately, this particular way of demonstrating that people can care for each other is a little impractical. Yet right at the end of the book, Holden finds a simpler, more practical way, which is just watching his little sister on a merry-go-round.

“I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”

Photo by Fozzman


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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Want to Be More Mindful of Your Moods? Try on an Idiot Hat!

States of mind

My yurt-dwelling, goat-raising, kid-celebrating, writer friend Maya has a daughter named Sophie, and Sophie has developed a new mindfulness tool that I expect may be showing up and getting some use in our house soon, and I don’t mean for my son. It’s called an “Idiot Hat.”

I’ll leave it to Maya to fully explain the origin and use of the Idiot Hat in her post, “the idiot hat, or, sophie has had enough“: the short version is that when someone is being grumpy, they put on the Idiot Hat and wear it until they do something nice. (“But what if I want to be grumpy sometimes?” you may ask. “Are you telling me I can’t be grumpy?” This is an excellent point, and if grumpiness isn’t something that you personally feel no need to work on, I say grump away. Still, there might be other uses for the hat in your house.)

As playful as the Idiot Hat idea is, I have to say that it exemplifies what I consider extremely practical thinking about mindfulness. After all, if I want to change a habit (like grumpiness, which is the specific vice the Idiot Hat is designed to cure, although I think the hat’s potential uses are legion), I’m going to need to 1) catch myself in the act whenever the habit comes up and 2) change my behavior. And I’ll need to do that consistently until it becomes a habit. The Idiot Hat catches the behavior when it occurs and leaves a visible reminder until change occurs. For extra points, it also offers an immediate change of perspective, distancing both grumper and grumpee(s) from the negative emotion, and provides an emotional antidote through humor–as long as the grumper is in the mood to take a little ribbing.

The basic idea behind this–using something physical as an aid to mindfulness in changing habits or behaviors–is a pretty impressive one. By definition, the tricky thing about mindfulness is paying attention to the right thing at the right time. Having a physical reminder of that thing makes keeping attention on it strongly enough and for long enough to make a difference more likely. Having a physical reminder that doesn’t go away until you’ve taken some compensating action gives you something to actually accomplish and a constant reminder to accomplish it.

Examples: an ugly statue you set on your desk whenever you miss a deadline you’ve set for yourself, a little meditation waterfall you turn on whenever you’re feeling stressed until you feel better, or something you carry with you to a restaurant to remind yourself that you plan to eat mindfully when you’re there.

A note: I don’t mean to be posting two articles close together with the word “Idiot” in their title, since just last week I posted “How to Form a Habit: It’s Like Training a Friendly Idiot.” It just happened that there was this idiot hat thing that came up and needed to be blogged about. I promise to underuse the word for the next little while.

Illustration by Ethan Reid, age 13. Ethan also did a cartoon on the subject.

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