Category Archives: Personal Development

Tricks to Improve Memory

My husband and I recently watched a Wondrium course entitled Optimizing Brain Fitness by Dr. Richard Restak. He covered quite a bit of ground to which I had been exposed previously. But I took keen interest in his commentary on memory.

My professional and artistic endeavors regularly call upon me to commit substantive quantities of material to memory. I can get the job done, but it’s far from easy for me to do it. And it’s not just a function of getting older. It has always been challenging. But Dr. Restak offered several evidence-based suggestions.

FIRST: Pay attention. Concentrate on what you are trying to learn without succumbing to distraction. Focus increases with interest, so try to become engaged in material that captivates you.

SECOND: Look for ways of making the material meaningful. Try to relate it to something you know or do. See the material in your mind’s eye. Identify personal associations. In retrieval, try to mimic the experience when the memory was first formed.

THIRD: Use as many sensory faculties as possible to create memory pages. Form clear and distinct images associated with the memory. Find ways to use sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and emotions as triggers. The more dramatic the sensory and emotional associations, the more likely they will stick in memory.

FOURTH: Chunk it. Find ways to group the content into logical “buckets.” Work on memorizing each bucket independently and then chaining them all together. (Note: I typically learn “chunks” of material from the back of a speech or song and moving forward. Each time I add a new chunk, I repeat the chucks I’ve already learned as I work my way to the end.)

FIFTH: Use repetition wisely. We don’t retain content by simply jamming it into the brain by rote. We need a depth of engagement in how we structure the memory (as noted above) and how we work with it – e.g., recording it, listening to playback, writing it down, talking/singing along, etc. We also need time for the content to percolate. It’s more effective to do some memory work every day (or multiple times per day) rather than all at once. Neural networks strengthen each time a memory is stored away and later retrieved.

SIXTH: Use a memory palace to string content together. This technique calls upon us to establish a set construct that we can walk through in our minds. For example, I might walk through my townhouse and notice the following 12 items: the sofa, cabinet, and TV in the living room; the table in the dining room; the sink, stove, microwave, pantry, and refrigerator in the kitchen; the hall stairs; the bed and dresser in the bedroom. I memorize those items and the sequence in which I encounter them as I’ll be using this “palace” for many, many memory tasks. When working on a speech, I chunk it into 12 sections and attach a section to each stop on my route, preferably with a dramatic flair. (Note: For simple lists, conjure up a wild, vivid story that incorporates all the items to be memorized.)

Dr. Restak advises against using technology to solve our memory challenges. While it’s a crutch that addresses an immediate need, the resulting atrophy of our memory circuits does not bode well for cognitive health long term. Rather, we should create opportunities daily to exercise our memory even when we’re not required to do so – e.g., learn (and use) new words, practice memorizing strings of digits (and increasing difficulty over time), commit grocery lists to memory, learn favorite poems.

Is Quitting OK?

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” – Kenny Rogers as The Gambler

Famed football coach Vince Lombardi once said: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” He embodies that indominable spirit that would never give up no matter how rough the road ahead. Dr. Angela Duckworth affirmed his sensibilities in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Her research showed that grittier people experience more success, live longer, and enjoy healthier emotional lives.

Best-selling author and international chess champion Annie Duke takes a different tack in Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. She notes that while grit can help you stick to worthwhile enterprises, it can also keep you stuck in things that no longer merit your time, talents, and resources.

Let’s face it: We make decisions in the context of uncertainty. We don’t have all the facts up front. We can’t foresee the impact of good or bad luck. We can’t even predict how we’ll feel about things as we go along. Our goals and preferences may change. As such, quitting is an appropriate response when the expected value of further effort no longer passes the minimum threshold for sustained effort. It gives us the opportunity to invest in more profitable ventures and reach our goals faster.

Dukes acknowledges that most of us have trouble pulling the trigger on an initiative once we’ve gotten started. She identifies several impediments:

  • When our present circumstances seem OK, we don’t engage in the requisite mental time travel to see how the future might shape up. We stick with the status quo and just keep on keeping on. Then when things start to go south…
  • … we focus too much on what we’ve already invested (“sunk costs”) rather than keeping our eyes on future costs and benefits. And because we don’t want to close accounts in losses, we may double- or triple-down on our investments in the attempt to create some kind of win. Unfortunately, the greater the sunk cost, the harder it is for us to quit.
  • It’s hard to quit when we feel a sense of ownership over the things, beliefs, and decisions that got us into the game. This “endowment effect” is particularly strong if we’ve built something from the ground up.
  • There’s no feedback system to validate the wisdom of quitting. We can’t create alternate realities in which different choices play out. It makes us anxious to quit for fear that we might live to regret that decision.
  • We like to cultivate a positive self-narrative. In our minds, quitting says we were wrong simply failed in execution. We may even tell ourselves that we just didn’t have what it takes to see it through.

These impediment plague all of us – even cognitive scientists whose research provides these insights. Duke offers these strategies for helping avoid the stayed-in-the-game-too-long pitfalls:

  • Be really picky about the things to which you lend your commitment. Persevere only in things that matter, that bring you happiness, and that move you toward your goals. Set aside everything else to free up resources to pursue what matters. Stop sticking to things that weigh you down!
  • Create a pre-commitment contract – states (measurable conditions or accomplishments) and dates (time frames for achievement) – that identifies requirements for staying the course. Then think about the conditions under which you would quit – a.k.a., “kill criteria.” Have an “unless clause” for every goal.
  • Tackle to hardest part of the project first. The sooner you identify obstacles that aren’t worth your while (or even possible) to overcome, the sooner you can switch to something better.
  • Have a Plan B (and perhaps C, D, and E) in your hip pocket to enable you to pivot quickly should conditions warrant a change. Hold fast to an exploratory mindset.
  • Find someone who cares deeply about you and doesn’t have a problem telling you the cold, hard truth when the need arises. Take the blinders off and listen to what they say.
  • Create a diversified portfolio of opportunities so that you aren’t overinvested in any one thing.
  • Celebrate progress.
  • Give yourself partial credit if you choose to stop something you started.

Bottom line: Life is too short to squander it on losing or unrewarding bets. Take it from a highly successful poker player:

“Contrary to popular belief, winners quit a lot. That’s how they win.”

Don’t Waste Time Fussing Over Inconsequential Decisions

choicesMy last post provided an overview of Annie Duke’s decision-making process when contemplating an important move in her life – e.g., moving to a new city, purchasing a home or car, taking a new job, hiring an employee, etc. She assesses preferences, payoffs, and probabilities and documents her assumptions, facts, and analyses for post-decision assessment. She also balances her inside view of the world with an outside perspective. It takes time and effort, but it yields a more accurate picture of the road ahead with all its challenges and obstacles and increases the likelihood that she’ll realize a good result.

While she argues for an appropriate investment in time for big decisions, Duke is quick to point out that we often squander valuable time on inconsequential ones. For example:

  • A study commissioned by Seated (a restaurant mobile app) reported that American couples spend two-and-a-half hours a week negotiating what type of meal to eat.
  • The Nielsen Total Audience Report suggests that we spend 45 hours per year choosing our live or streaming content on TV.
  • Retailer Marks & Spencer claims that men take 13 minutes daily and women 17 minutes daily figuring out what to wear.

Those three activities combined yield a total of 254 to 278 hours of analysis paralysis, or roughly 16 to 17 days’ worth of waking hours. Is that really necessary?

Duke’s litmus test for investing her time rests in figuring out the penalty for a lower quality decision. If low, then make the decision quickly. If high, slow down. Alternatively, consider the impact of a decision in a week? A month? A year? If it won’t matter all that much, then put your foot on the accelerator.

Decisions that repeat offer little reason to go slow. Order a meal (or hedge you bets and order two for sharing with a friend). Watch a show and switch if it doesn’t prove engaging. Choose an outfit. The opportunity to make a different choice will present itself forthwith. In the meantime, you save time and gain additional insights on preferences to inform future choices.

If the available options present comparably attractive outcomes, go fast. These circumstances typically carry an inner voice that says: “I can’t decide because they’re all good choices.” That means the decision is easy. You’ll enjoy a favorable outcome no matter what.

Another trick to speed decision making involves asking yourself: “If this option were my only choice, would I be happy with it?” Then separate the options that you’d find satisfactory from the ones that fall short of joy and choose one of the foregoing.

Duke characterizes some choices as “Two-Way Door Decisions” – i.e., ones in which it’s as easy to enter the decision as it is to exit. For such choices, go fast and gain experience. If it’s a “One-Way Door Decision” – i.e., a high impact choice with a high cost to quit – then see if there are low impact decisions you could make ahead of time to inform the looming high impact choice. In tandem, seek additional information that might illumine a preferred path.

Finally, you can speed decision processes by making “category decisions” that dictate what you will and won’t do – e.g., foods you’ll eat, investments you’ll make. Don’t relitigate items for which you’ve already made considered choices.

How to Make Better Decisions

Take a minute and think about a good decision you made in the past year. Consider the factors that weighed into your decision and the process you used to make it. Now think about a bad decision and the factors and process that went into making it. Now ask yourself: To what extent did the outcome of your decision effect your assessment of the process that led to it?

In How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, Annie Duke argues that most of us are not very disciplined in making decisions and judge our efficacy based on results. A good outcome leads us to believe that we made a good decision; a bad outcome leads us to believe that we made a bad one. This bias causes us to repeat a bad decision process if the result was favorable and avoid a good decision process if the result proved disappointing.

We also fall prey to hindsight bias when the outcome proved less than stellar. Our inner critic (and perhaps friends and family) say: “How could you not have known that this decision would turn out so badly?” We may even lead ourselves to believe that we’d had a key insight but chose to ignore it. The bad outcome inevitably casts a shadow over what we actually knew (or could have known) at the time a choice was made. It makes it hard to see that some information was available before the decision and some revealed later.

Another form of clouded memory might be characterized as the inevitability bias. After the fact, we take a chain saw to our decision tree, leaving the lone branch associated with the outcome that came to pass. We forget about all the other ways that our decision might have panned out.

Finally, luck intercedes between decision and outcome. We tend to ignore good luck when the outcome is favorable and overplay bad luck when the outcome is bad. Just look at the words we use to characterize the influence of luck:

Role of Luck

Albert Einstein famously said “the only source of knowledge is experience.” Annie Duke reminds us that we need clarity when reflecting on it to gain wisdom.

So, how would Annie Duke guide our decision process?

For consequential decisions, she recommends a 6-step process with a healthy chuck of recordkeeping for post-outcome assessment:

  1. Identify the reasonable set of possible outcomes for a given choice under consideration.
  2. Identify the payoff(s) associated with each outcome in terms of progress toward a goal, monetary impact, time, self-esteem, quality of life, relationships, or other vital metrics. Rank order them by preference based on what you’d like or wouldn’t like given your values. Be attentive to the size of the payoff.
  3. Estimate the likelihood of each outcome unfolding. You may be tempted to use common language to express probabilities – e.g., almost certain, probable, likely, good chance, possible, toss-up, unlikely, improbable, doubtful, nearly impossible. If so, make sure you’ve defined what these terms means quantitatively, even if it’s just a range of values. This exercise is crucial if you are working with others as their interpretations may differ widely from yours!
  4. Assess the relatively likelihood of outcomes based on what you like and don’t like for the option under consideration. Does the upside outweigh the risks?
  5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 for other options under consideration.
  6. Compare the options to one another.

With its focus on preferences, payoffs, and probabilities, this discipline encourages decision makers to think carefully about the range of options and all the things that might go right or wrong on the journey from choice to outcome. It also shines a spotlight on information – what you know, what you might be able to find out, and what will likely remain uncertain. It may challenge you to think: Would I be shocked if things turned out a far cry from what I might expect? If so, why might I be wrong in my assumption set? What information might I discover that would change my perspective? She admonishes us to be on the look-out for corrective information, and be open-minded to it.

Even with the best of intentions, we’re subject to bias when in the midst of our decision-making process. For instance:

  • Our confirmation bias leads us to filter in information that affirms our beliefs and filter out that which challenges them.
  • Overconfidence makes us prone to accepting what we believe without challenging it.
  • Availability bias causes us to give greater weight to our direct experience than the statistically significant evidence from a broad cross-section of individuals.
  • Recency bias makes us believe that our recent experience is likely to recur.
  • The illusion of control causes us to give insufficient weight to external factors and luck in our probability calculus.

In short, we get trapped inside our own views and neglect the wealth of insights made possible by an external perspective. The outside perspective sees the scales more clearly. It can identify blind spots, information gaps, wishful thinking, and the like, and illumine the path to improvement. We lend balance to our inside view by:

  • Educating ourselves on what is true for most people when facing this situation. Find survey data and get success rates for various endeavors. That data informs the assessment of the difficulty and opens our eyes to potential obstacles.
  • Actively seeking out what others know without contaminating their assessments with our analyses and opinions. Make sure that they have a reasonable basis from which to offer information or render opinions. Go outside the echo chamber and listen to those with opposing views.

A final suggestion for improving decision quality would be to conduct a pre-mortem. imagine the day after a decision has come to fruition with an outcome that didn’t measure up. List up to 5 reasons why things failed. Then consider what you might be able to do now to remove obstacles, course correct midstream, or hedge bets to lessen the impact of an unhappy ending. Contemplating bad outcomes helps inoculate from an adverse reaction that could trigger an emotional (bad) decision. On the flip side, imagine a great outcome and list up to 5 things that contributed to success. That assessment emphasizes critical success factors necessary to reach the desired end game.

Can Dreaming Make It So?

fantasyA cult of optimism has taken root in America. It puts forth the notion that you can get everything you want or need if only you believe in an outcome, think about it repetitively, and adopt an attitude that attracts it. Politicians, self-help gurus, entrepreneurs, pundits, and advertisers routinely traffic in this ideology to garner attention and support. Some Christian preachers exhort their congregations to leverage faith, positive speech, and tithing as a means of manifesting God’s will for health and material wealth. It’s a compelling message. But does it work?

Dr. Gabriele Oettingen spent over 20 years researching the efficacy of dreaming and came to a startling conclusion. Positive fantasies, wishes, and dreams in and of themselves did not instigate the requisite action to realize them; they did the opposite. They exert a dampening effect on motivation. For example:

  • The more folks merely fantasized about pursuing a romantic relationship, the less likely they were to attempt connection.
  • The more often morbidly obese subjects simply dreamt of having a svelte body, the less weight they lost.
  • The more students indulged in images of stellar performance on an upcoming, the poorer their actual performance.
  • The more frequently students fantasized about the career they’d have after graduation, the less success they enjoyed.
  • The higher the expectations for a quick and easy recovery from surgery, the poorer the results realized during rehabilitation.

Dr. Oettingen observed people of different ages, in different contexts, in Germany and the United States. The consistent finding: positive fantasies didn’t help (and often hindered) realization of goals. She cataloged her findings in Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation.

So, what’s up with that?

It turns out that we have a physiological response to fantasy. Our blood pressure drops, and we move into a state of relaxation. We lose the vital energy to think critically, weigh our prospects for success, identify obstacles in our path, and put forth concerted effort to overcome them. In fact, we may revel in the theater of the mind so thoroughly that we avoid input that might disrupt our vision and prompt us to take a different path. We cling to the pleasant state that our imagination offers. We may also fool ourselves into believing that we’ve achieved our goal, a phenomenon known as mental attainment. In short, we substitute dreaming for doing!

Nonetheless, Dr. Oettingen believes dreams serve us if placed within an appropriate context. She refers to her motivational model as WOOP:

  • Wish: Imagine something you’d like to achieve in your personal or professional life. It should be challenging, attainable, and deeply felt.
  • Outcome: Paint a detailed picture in your mind’s eye of what it looks like after you’ve gotten your wish (or resolved your concern). Think about the events and experiences that will have transpired in getting there. Imagine how you’ll feel. Test the validity of your dream by asking: Does this outcome really resonate for me? If not, find another dream!
  • Obstacle: Take a careful look at where you are today and contrast that with your desired outcome. What is holding you back from realizing your dream? Are you plagued by thoughts, attitudes, or behaviors that get in the way of success? Are there external obstacles that need to be overcome?
  • Plan: Create a detailed action that carries you from point A to point B. Anticipate obstacles and have a ready strategy in place to overcome them.

Having placed a dream on the radar and made plans to realize it, you’ll pay closer attention to it as well as things that cross your path that might lead to its realization.

Of course, fantasy can play a useful role outside the realm of achievement. Should we find ourselves in places where action is not possible, we can use dreams as healing balms while imagining better days ahead. They can help us persevere during a rough patch in our lives – e.g., forced confinement while healing. They can relieve boredom when stuck in a holding pattern. And they can help strengthen our brain circuitry for skills we’re developing when we’re unable to exercise them directly – e.g., playing an instrument, flexing muscles, solving problems. Mental practice is effective when done systematically.

Adopting a Fact-Based Worldview

get the factsI just finished reading a book by Dr. Hans Rosling entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He was a Swedish physician and researcher whose life’s work focused on the links between economic development, agriculture, poverty, and health. He was also the co-founder and chair of Gapminder Foundation which promotes global development through effective use of data to understand social, economic, and environmental factors.

The book begins with a simple 13-question test to assess the reader’s knowledge about the world. It covers:

  • Primary school education for girls in low-income countries
  • Population distribution across low-, medium-, and high-income countries
  • Percentage of world population living in extreme poverty
  • Global life expectancy
  • Population forecast for children in 2100
  • Primary cause of population growth
  • Deaths due to natural disasters
  • Population distribution across the continents
  • Childhood vaccination rates
  • Differences in education between men and women
  • Endangered species
  • Global access to electricity
  • Climate change

Without fail, his audiences score poorly; they’re overly pessimistic about the state of the world. These findings remain consistent across varying levels of education, profession, and socioeconomic standing. Chimpanzees – with their random selection of answers – outperformed humans.

As the extended book title suggests, Rosling explored 10 reasons why we tend toward a dim view of global development and offered suggestions for how we might self-correct.

Challenges Remedies
The Gap Instinct suggests that we characterize the world in binary terms with gaps between opposing sides. Reality generally shows no such polarization. Many (or most) data points could be in the middle and/or spread across a continuum. Be wary when comparing averages across two groups; look at the distribution of data and the overlaps between them. Don’t get mesmerized by stories about the extremes. Learn about real lives on the ground by getting close to them.
The Negativity Instinct says that bad news is more likely to get publicized and discussed. Good news and gradual-improvement news does not garner headlines. Get the facts from reliable sources. Let yourself hold in tension the notion that things may be bad/unpleasant but getting better. Don’t glorify history; things were rougher than we remember.
The Straight-Line Instinct leads us to assume that trends will proceed linearly. Remember that trend data may have S-bends, slides, bumps, doubling, or flattening.
The Fear Instinct suggests that frightening things – e.g., violence, captivity, contamination – get our attention and distort our view of the world and its risks. Recognize that one’s actual risk is a function of the real danger and the probability that one might be exposed to it. Get the facts and clear your mind before rendering any judgments.
The Size Instinct tells us that any number may seem impressive when it stands alone. It may distort our perspective. Look for relevant comparisons. Remember the 80/20 rule. Consider rates (e.g., per capita) when evaluating different sized groups.
The Generalization Instinct explores our tendency to view members of a group as homogenous and then using that categorization as explanatory. Look for differences and similarities within and across groups. When discussing “the majority,” ask whether it’s 51%, 90+%, or somewhere in between. Don’t get swayed by vivid examples.
The Destiny Instinct presumes that innate characteristics explain development differences across people, countries, religions, or cultures. Become attuned to the constant change in technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions… especially slow and steady progress.
The Single Perspective Instinct cautions us to beware of instances where we are so convinced that we understand a problem and its solution that we fail to grasp its complexity or be open to alternate approaches to dealing with it. Be humble. Test your ideas, especially among folks who think differently. Look at solutions that may be outside your wheelhouse. Combine numbers with real lives. Beware of simple answers and simple solutions.
The Blame Instinct stems from our desire to find a clear, simple reason for why something has happened. It’s the counterpoint to the Hero Instinct which wants to assign credit for good. Resist the impulse to find a scapegoat or a cast of villains. Bad things happen. Look for multiple interacting causes and the systems that provide remediation.
The Urgency Instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived threat. It may foster impulsivity rather than critical thinking and considered action. Things are rarely as urgent as we make them out to be. Pause. Gather and review good data. Consider multiple future scenarios. Remember that drastic action may do more harm than good.

Rosling admonishes us to practice humility and curiosity. Humility breeds awareness of the limitations in our own knowledge and the difficulty in getting the facts right. Curiosity motivates us to seek out new information and be open to what it tells us… even if it does not accord with our prior sensibilities.

Rosling leaves us with two solid reasons for adopting a fact-based perspective:

“First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying. When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”

A Toolbox for Balance and Confidence

Life can be challenging. Things don’t always go the way we planned. We may find ourselves on the outside of groups toward which we’d hoped to be an insider. And then big disruptions – like job loss, relationship upheavals, and global pandemics – can upend our lives completely and leave us feeling completely out of sorts.

the light we carryFormer First Lady Michelle Obama understands the roller coaster ride of life – from personal experience and through contact with thousands of people over the years. In The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times, she shares the tools she uses to maintain balance and confidence, to move forward even during life’s rough patches.

While I’ll summarize the main lessons that I gleaned, I recommend direct engagement with the material. She’s a thoughtful writer and wonderful storyteller.

Finding Strength Within Yourself

The Power of Small: Major disruptions can be overwhelming. Huge projects looming on the horizon can be intimidating. Big, seemingly intractable issues can be daunting (and downright discouraging). Instead of standing by and feeling the weight of it, try introducing yourself to something good, simple, and easily accomplished. For Michelle, it was knitting. As her hands worked the yarn, the enforced stillness and steadiness of the task provided a welcome respite from angst and worry. And much like the stitch-by-stitch process of knitting a sweater or hat, she found ways to break the big things in life down to manageable pieces. She could quietly “click” her way out of a hard place. As she said, “I’d had to go small in order to think big again.”

Decoding Fear: We all face loss, harm, and failure. Fear may cause you to avoid situations in which pain might arise. But you’d miss opportunities, and your world may shrink as a result. An alternate strategy calls for understanding the mechanics of fear to discern when it rightfully serves your best interests and when it holds you back. When we befriend fear, tame our inner doubt, and go forth, we increase the likelihood that we’ll come out the other side with new skills and confidence. For Michelle, a critical tool in this regard is preparation. It settles her nerves and gives her the assuredness that she can tackle whatever comes at her.

Starting Kind: Michelle shares an endearing story about a friend’s husband who greets himself in the mirror daily with: “Hey buddy!” In that simple act, he tells himself that he’s glad to see him. It starts the day with a vote of confidence and approval. It acknowledges his light and tells him that he’s enough. That practice may not float your boat, but find ways to silence your inner critic and tell yourself that you’re loved and worthy just as you are.

Am I Seen? Human nature craves belonging, but we may experience moments where we feel different and set apart. That sensibility can make us doubt our fundamental goodness and what we know to be true about ourselves. Michelle encourages us to accept who and what we are and carry our difference with pride. We needn’t live with a burden of judgment from others. We can choose which signals we let in and which we ignore. As her father often reminded her: “No one can make you feel bad if you feel good about yourself.”

Navigating Relationship with Others

Kitchen Table: Good friends provide emotional shelter and a safe haven for your truest self. They travel life’s journey with you and can always be counted upon to show up. Admittedly, no one person satisfies every need, and the “kitchen table” changes with time. But there is joy in investing in one another and reveling in conversations that never finish. It takes time and effort to create and sustain community. We must practice and commit to the art of opening up to others and allowing their stories to intermingle with ours.

Partnering Well: A life shared with a committed partner adds another layer of richness to the journey. That choice finds best expression from a place of knowing who you are and what you need. She says: “When you know your own light, you are then better prepared to share it with another.” As with cultivating friendships, it’s a journey that takes time, effort, and a fair chunk of trial and error. The right partner is someone who will do the work with you, not for you. Openness, vulnerability, and compromise are hallmarks of success.

The Whole of Us: In the age of social media, we are prone to put forth our rosiest life narratives and hide the stories about which we are embarrassed or ashamed. That which we hold back becomes a cloud over our heads and dampens our light. When we embrace all of our stories, we release ourselves from fear and find more of our light. Our courage can have a ripple effect. She says: “The strength of one resolute soul can become the strength of many.” As others drop their guards – perhaps with a “me, too” – we increase connection. We become more human together.

Owning, Protecting, and Strengthening Our Light

The Armor We Wear: Life does not reward openness and vulnerability in all circumstances. There are occasions when we need to armor up. We need to be attuned to those arenas, choose our battles carefully, and manage our resources to address them effectively. Michelle’s armor includes preparedness, adaptability, and excellence. She also makes judicious use of boundaries to separate other people’s issues and worries from her own.

Going High: Amidst a particularly nasty presidential campaign, Michelle delivered a keynote speech in which she said: “When they go low, we go high.” So, what does that mean? Try harder. Be thoughtful. Tell the truth. Do your best by others. Keep perspective. Stay tough. Fight for decency, fairness, and justice. Have a clear message and a call to action that makes it difficult for anyone to write you off. Do what it takes to make your work count.

Break Up With Your Phone

In last week’s post, I talked about how and why our brains are wired for distraction and interruption. That facility keeps us alert to threats when our attention is focused on other matters. It works wonders in primitive environments that are rife with peril but doesn’t serve us terribly well in our twenty-first century technology-laden lives.

break up with your phoneAccording to, 85% of American adults owned Smartphones as of February 2021. Half claim to use them 5-6 hours per day; another 22% copped to 3-4 hours of daily usage. It’s hardly surprising. They’re key communications devices (calls, email, text) with integrated cameras, Internet access, and a mind-boggling warehouse of downloadable apps. Author Catherine Price acknowledges their utility but explores their deleterious effects in her 2018 book How to Break Up with Your Phone. In particular:

  1. They feed our thirst for novelty with an everchanging media stream (and get us addicted to it).
  2. With an array of configurable alerts and easy access to the associated apps, they’re designed to get us to use them. Every time we hear a “ding,” our distractible brains note the intrusion; curiosity (and Fear of Missing Out) compels our attention. We lose our train of thought on the task at hand and become far less efficient completing it.
  3. A sustained pattern of distraction overloads working memory. We don’t process incoming data and register it effectively across multiple schema in long term memory. This deficiency inhibits our capacity for creativity and complex thought.
  4. They stimulate the pleasure sensors in our brains. We tune in to see if there something good to consume or to relieve boredom or anxiety. Once they’ve captured our attention, they provide no cues to get us to stop. We just numb out.
  5. They provide the illusion of human connection through social media and give us the means to be “liked.” Yet studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are. We get caught up comparing ourselves to others and fixated on who is (or is not) paying attention to us. We’re also subject to context-specific gleaned from our browser history.
  6. The blue light radiating from Smartphones inhibits sleep by delaying the proper release of melatonin. And to the extent that we encounter something unpleasant during these late-night episodes, we may ruminate on it long past lights out.

In short, despite all their utility, Smartphones can have a negative impact on physical, cognitive, and emotional health. A bit of restraint may improve our lives without impinging on all the great things these devices can do. Here are some suggestions:

  • Pay attention to the habit loops that feed phone addiction. Do your reach for it as soon as you get out of bed? Do you take action whenever you hear an alert? Do you mindless surf the phone while watching TV? Then ask yourself: What’s driving the behavior? Habit? Anxiety? Boredom? Is there a healthier response?
  • Turn off alerts on all but essential applications. Customize the latter to minimize unwanted disruptions.
  • Schedule times for uninterrupted work; turn off the phone and leave it in another room. Enroll family, friends, and colleagues in respecting your privacy during this time.
  • Make it more difficult to check social media by getting rid of the custom apps on the phone. Use the Internet browser for access with the associated inconvenience of logging in. If that seems too extreme, set an alarm on the phone when connecting to apps to limit time spent there.
  • Resist the temptation to look at the phone first thing in the morning or within an hour of bedtime. There are plenty of other hours in the day to plug in!

Feeling the need for a more structured intervention? Grab a copy of Catherine’s book and follow her “30-day plan to take back your life.”

Pep Talk for the Fall Season

While it has been many years since I looked to September as the start of a new school year, I still gear myself up for new activities and initiatives as summer winds down. This year’s “coach” is Ayelet Fishbach, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Her book – Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From The Science of Motivation – served up four guideposts.

4 steps to get it doneChoose Your Goal. The goal should point you in a specific direction and then pull you toward the end game. The most powerfully motivating goals share four characteristics: (i) They are ends in and of themselves, not a means to other ends – e.g., “I want to be financially independent,” and not “I want to make money.” (ii) They are specific and have some uncertainty regarding their success (ergo, you’ll work harder at attaining them!) (iii) They carry a powerful incentive for achievement. (iv) They satisfy meaningful wants or needs that may relate to self-acceptance, personal growth, relationships, contribution, and health. Such goals are inspiring; they don’t feel like chores.

Ideal goal statements emphasize meaning behind the associated actions. They focus on what folks WILL DO instead of what they will refrain from doing. (“Avoidance goals” are harder to implement!) They also provide challenging, measurable, actionable targets (how much, how soon) and suggest the path from point A to point B. A well-conceived path is enjoyable, if not exciting.

What litmus tests might be used to judge the quality of a goal? It serves a noble purpose that aligns with your values. It encourages personal excellence. It compels you to stay on task even when the going gets rough. It stimulates curiosity and creativity; you are eager to solve problems and make progress. It feels like play.

Keep Pulling. Once an initiative gets out of the gate, it takes effort and intention to sustain momentum. Progress monitoring looms large in motivation. As a rule, the more progress made, the greater the commitment to keep going. To that end, breaking large goals into smaller chunks creates an opportunity to attain milestones, take stock of all that has been accomplished, and celebrate. It minimizes “long middles” where motivation tends to sag and cutting corners becomes tempting. It also serves as a check point for actions yet to be taken and a sense for time frames to completion. That assessment may light a fire if things appear to be falling behind. Finally, breaking big goals into smaller units provides “fresh starts” and the boost in energy and enthusiasm they instill.

Failures and negative feedback may accompany the journey from point A to point B. Both can derail momentum when the ego gets bruised. Use the opportunity for learning and growing as the antidote for flagging motivation. Figure out what went wrong and do things differently going forward. As playwright Samuel Beckett said: “Try again. Fail better.”

Navigate Competing Goals. With multiple goals on the horizon, it pays to understand the “goal system” – i.e., the relationship between the focal goal, other goals, each goal’s means of attainment, and how each contributes to the realization of others. Maximum attainment calls for making as much positive progress on multiple fronts while minimizing negative impacts among them. Activities that serve multiple goals rock!

Prioritize goals (and back burner others) when actions express commitment, when they’re integral to who you are, or when you’re getting increasing marginal utility out of them. Consider compromise when you’ve made sufficient progress, you want variety, or you seek a balanced “middle road” for all of your efforts.

Secure Social Support: We are social animals. We pay attention to what our peers say/do/think and find ways to coexist harmoniously with them. We’re also wired for collaborative effort in service of shared goals. Moreover, we tend to work harder when others are watching. Therefore, the best social support consists of those whose values, goals, and actions are compatible with ours and who thrive in a context of mutual support. Step it up further by finding role models whose life choices and comportment help you set your sights high.

Finding Greatness

chess boardI don’t recall how Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance wound up on my reading list. I didn’t recognize his name from the days when he was America’s chess phenom on whom the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher was based. I didn’t know that he’d gone on to win 21 national martial arts championships and several world titles. And, truth be told, I’m not at a stage in my life where I’m seeking peak performance in a competitive arena. However, the book provides an interesting window into the worlds of competitive chess and Push Hands tai chi while sharing good advice for high achievement in any discipline. Bottom line: A good read.

Here are my take-aways:

Mastery relies upon a solid foundation in the fundamentals and keen insights into the dynamics of play. Those who get to the top have a well-conceived approach that inspires resilience, the ability to make connections between diverse pursuits, and a genuine enjoyment of daily practice. They have a passion for learning and the heart for continuous improvement.

In accordance with Dr. Carol Dweck’s research, a growth mindset yields substantive benefits over a fixed mindset. The latter views intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. It places limits on one’s potential and may lead to overly conservative behavior. A growth mindset views intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training. It believes in possibilities, instills an appreciation for the value of learning, and encourages relationship with those who have far better skills and knowledge. “We learn by pushing ourselves and finding out what lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.” Painful losses can provide a jumping off point for the next leap forward.

We should expect setbacks, distractions, and disappointments. Progress comes in ebbs and flows. Our environments won’t always be conducive to undisturbed thinking. We’ll make mistakes or get bad breaks that adversely impact outcomes. We can bolster our performance by working in less than ideal conditions (e.g., noise, interruptions) and getting acclimated to them. It helps us learn to flow with whatever comes and use it to our advantage. And when results fall short of expectations, we learn the lesson(s) and move on.

Errors and mental lapses happen. We must regain composure quickly and be present to what is going in the moment. When carrying unrealistic expectations of perfection or getting frozen in the past, we open ourselves up to making more mistakes and moving in a downward spiral.

In any long-standing discipline, it often pays to reinstate “beginner’s mind.” We go back to the basics and take things apart for the sake of identifying and correcting bad habits and creating a platform for long-term improvement. Waitzkin refers to it as a “plunge into the detailed mystery of the micro in order to understand what makes the macro tick.” It may be challenging when internal and external expectations run high for performance. But it’s often what’s needed to break through.

While a certain intensity may be necessary for peak performance, it is not forwarding to sustain that attitude feverishly. Much like interval training, mind and body profit from stress and recovery. Concentration improves when paired with little breathers.

When called upon to perform, it’s really helpful to have a routine that reliably evokes “the zone.” Time permitting, it might contain a light snack, meditation, stretching, and listening to music. A shortened version may suffice when the clock’s ticking. Why does it matter? There are physiological and mental connections that come into play between a performance and the activity that immediately precedes it. And these connections can be invoked by simply visualizing the routine!

Finally, there is much to be said for developing one’s own distinctive expression of a discipline. Successful competitors play the game differently. Successful artists leverage their natural gifts, creative sensibilities, and life experiences to good effect. Great thinkers tackle problems differently. The right combination of passion, individuation, and dedicated effort can produce wonders.