Category Archives: Personal Development

The Stoic Way

stoicI’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I find encouragement in creator Gene Roddenberry’s future (especially these days) and revel in the close connections forged among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I get a kick out of the tension between the highly sensitive Doctor McCoy and the unflappable Mr. Spock. The latter serves as the model for my sense of a “stoic” – one who endures pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. Such persons are seemingly indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy.

To my surprise, this sensibility doesn’t apply to the ancient Stoics (e.g., Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius). They did not seek to banish emotion but rather maximize pleasant sensations (e.g., delight, joy, awe) and minimize negative emotion (e.g., frustration, anger, grief, envy). While the latter may serve a useful purpose momentarily, a needless cycle of misery should be avoided. Professor William B. Irvine lays it all out in The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. Unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. (Indeed, life might be less interesting should we experience smooth sailing all the time!) But we must learn to rise quickly and bravely to address whatever shows up… or, even better, create an alternate narrative from which we don’t need to bounce back.

An effective strategy for “rising up” treats the challenge as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness. In a “Stoic Test”, we take up the mantle to exercise creativity in conjuring up options, thoughtfulness in evaluating them, and decisiveness in choosing the best one. We treat it as a puzzle for which the universe has faith in your ability to solve it. To behave otherwise is a waste of time and energy.

Stoics also experimenting with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then? They’d try to find the humor in their situations and let a smile or giggle come through.

Bottom line, each setback has the potential for a two-fold effect: the challenge itself, and the negative emotions experienced in its wake. Anger and frustration shatter tranquility and cloud thinking. It can spiral into a “blame game” that amplifies negativity, thwarts effective action, and delays resolution. Rather than wallow in them, turn setbacks into vehicles for transformation. Recognize that we can grow stronger through adversity and become all the more adept at dealing with it. Learn to savor every moment of life and extract every drop of joy to be found even in the occasional stormy sea.

10 Tools for Embracing Finitude

In my last post, I summarized key recommendations from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that carry the intent of helping us make the best use of our limited time on earth. He reinforces these principles in the closing section of the book with ten tools for embracing our finite existence.

  1. what matters mostSet boundaries. We can’t do everything, and a life spent cramming productive activities into every moment isn’t all that fulfilling. No one really cares if we’re a paragon of productivity and achievement or an ordinary bloke leading and ordinary life. Make tough choices. Don’t add a project to the “to do list” until another one comes off. Confine work to a set schedule and stick to it.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time. Our brains are not wired for multitasking and work far less efficiently in the attempt. Moreover, a multi-project horizon suggests a lack of focus on what’s truly essential. Focus on what matters most and let the non-essential fall away.
  3. Make choices about where to pursue excellence and where to accept mediocrity. Put energy into that which truly matters and get comfortable with showing up and participating in areas of lesser significance. Check in on this distinction from time to time as priorities shift.
  4. Pay closer attention to what has been completed than what has yet to be done. The “to do list” will never empty out. Why feel weighed down by future responsibilities when it’s possible to revel in accomplishment?
  5. Consolidate your caring. Choose which causes, issues, charities, and/or political interests are most meaningful and direct time and resources to them. Dial down the calls for action and funding from all others.
  6. Embrace boring, single purpose technology. A digital “to do list” may promise to make life simpler, but it carries the risk of distraction with other apps when managing it. Manual “to do” and grocery lists work just fine. For that matter, consider getting rid of all those distracting apps from the mobile phone. Make it a tool, not an entertainment device.
  7. Find ways to enjoy the mundane. The endless search for novelty and excitement makes us anxious, unsettled, and unhappy. Joy and satisfaction await those who learn to plunge more deeply into the life they already have.
  8. Be curious. When beset by boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., don’t run away from it by seeking distractions. Explore how the feeling manifests in the body and mind, how it morphs into other sensations, and what happens next. We may realize just how fleeting these sensations really are. We may also learn a bit more about ourselves.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Don’t wait until work is out of the way to say YES to an interesting experience. Don’t wait until there’s enough money in the bank to be generous. Acting on impulse can be a good thing from time to time.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Stillness may bring forth poor choices to relieve boredom and anxiety. Go ahead and be a little bored and anxious. It’ll pass. Settle down and reflect before taking action… or just get comfortable with sitting there. It’s OK. Need a little help? Check out Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto for an amusing take on the subject.

Four Thousand Weeks

Oliver Burkeman serves up a great big dish of finitude in his New York Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. He argues that time management should be everyone’s concern and offers some practical advice for making the most of it.

Make hard choices. There’s not enough time to do everything that feels worthwhile or interesting. There’s no peace and contentment trying to cram ever more things into each day. The more we fall into the trap of believing we can do it all, the more likely we’ll invest precious time in activities that aren’t truly meaningful for us. When we discipline ourselves to make hard choices, we make better ones.

Face finitude. We are each granted a limited time on this earth with no guarantees on how long that might be. Confronting that reality can make us truly present for the moments we’ve been given. As he says: “Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any later left?”

Get comfortable with procrastination. Do the right things and let the other stuff slide. Burkeman’s principles include: (i) focusing on personal priorities first to make sure they get done; (ii) setting limits on how many projects you’ll tackle at a time (i.e., top 5, not a top 25!); and, (iii) resisting the allure of middling priorities even if they’ll take consume very little time and resources. That approach may leave some items on the “someday list” for quite a while. If they prove compelling, they’ll work their way up. If not, they’ll fall off.

Avoid external distraction. Digital media excels at hijacking attention. Our devices provide alerts to new content and provide effortless ways to tap them. We lose momentum on the tasks at hand and often get drawn in to browsing their curated content. Beyond their disruptive influence, they exert a substantive impact on our attitudes and thoughts. It’s time to reset notification parameters and limit the parties who are granted instant access.

Avoid internal distraction. When facing difficult or uncomfortable tasks – even things we want to do – our minds can start scanning for ways to pull us off course. Turn on the TV. Check social media. Do busy work. Go to the refrigerator. Boredom accounts for a number of these interrupts. (Daily workouts, meditation, and music practice fall into this category for me… until I get going on them.) Fear accounts for others. (“What if I’m not good enough to get this job done well?”) Internally-motivated distraction chews up a lot of brain cycles while stalling forward progress. Rather than getting caught up in this spin cycle, acknowledge (name) the discomfort, deal with it, and then move on.

Rediscover rest. We needn’t justify our lives in terms of productivity or treat leisure time as recovery for work or yet another opportunity to achieve mastery. It’s OK to pursue hobbies at which we’re mediocre. It’s OK to go on hikes, runs, or bike rides without challenging ourselves to better our prior efforts. In fact, it’s OK to flat out “waste time” and do nothing at all. We’re allowed to just be and put the kibosh on the constant striving.

Practice patience. We’ve become speed addicts, always in a hurry. If traffic jams up, we get frustrated and start honking our horns. When in slow moving lines at the grocers, we get annoyed with the chatty check-out clerks or the folks who take too long with payment. When projects take longer to complete than we anticipated (as they usually do!), we stop enjoying the process and grumble about the unanticipated drag on our schedules. Why opt for anxiety-laden frustration when it won’t change the outcome? Breathe and opt for peace and calm instead.

Cultivate staying power. Life doesn’t always come with easy answers to the problems it presents. Stay in the mix long enough to discern the way forward. If challenged by a gnarly task, chip away at it a little at a time without succumbing to the pressure to race to the finish line. Embrace trial and error; fumble along while learning new skills or accumulating experience. It creates a more satisfying experience while delivering better outcomes.

Connect with people who matter. The cosmos will take little note of our lives on earth. All but a very few of us will make our marks in history. But our lives will be enriched immeasurably by aligning our temporal grooves with the family, friends, and communities about which we most care.

Am I Using My Time Wisely?

“This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.” – Seneca, Roman philosopher

“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver, poet

When we are young, we think we have all the time in the world. As we age, the ticking clock gets louder and louder. When our parents pass away and we join the ranks of the family elders, it feels as though time is flying by. And so, I wonder: Is this how I want to spend the final chapters of my life?

If I follow in my parents’ footsteps, I should have a good long while before the grim reaper comes knocking on my door. And yet no power on earth provides a guarantee of longevity. As my meditation teachers often remind me, all we have is this moment… and then the next one… and then the next.

As I reflect on books I’ve read about time management – including those covered in this blog – the content tends to focus on productivity. For instance:

It’s about squeezing more in to the fixed amount of time we have. I think these folks have some really good advice (else I would not have covered them in my blog!) And, as a productivity-conscious, achievement-oriented individual, I eat this stuff up. But perhaps that orientation isn’t entirely good for me.

I suffer under the delusion that I can do it all and work diligently to prove myself right. My mother used to call me “the girl who can’t say no” because I always had too much to do in too little time and found ways to say “yes” when asked to add more. With some sense of pride, I’d meet my obligations, but I clearly wasn’t taking the time to focus on things that mattered most.

I can get so caught in being efficient that I forego the present experience in favor of ticking off the boxes on my “to do list” and moving on to the next task. I can be quite impatient with myself and others when things take longer than expected or interruptions draw me off course. (Hofstadter’s Law says: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.) And when I finish tasks, I find that I keep adding new ones to the list, thereby ensuring that I never arrive at an end point. Life can feel like one long conveyor belt… one that has become my habit to ride.

I feel like I’m living in the future. I frequently hear myself say things like: “If I could just get through this project, then I’ll have time to…” “This year has been nuts, but things will ease up in the new year.” “I can’t wait until I retire and I can do the things I really want to do.” Guess what? Much like the greyhound who never catches the mechanical bunny that he chases around the race track, I never quite reach my target.

I’ve come to a place where I’d like to rethink what it means to make good use of my time. I like having goals, but I don’t want to confine my activities to things associated with progress toward them. I like having plans, but I don’t want to get overly attached to them or worry that I’ll somehow be ill-prepared to deal with whatever happens in their absence. (As author Oliver Burkeman says: “A plan is a present-moment statement of intent. The future is under no obligation to comply.”) I want to strike a balance between having engaging and meaningful things to do while also allowing for life to unfold and surprise me.

Would you like to join me on that journey? Stay tuned for some practical advice.

Priming for Peak Performance

From Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, last week’s post focused on how a combination of challenge and rest provides the impetus for growth. Authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness also discuss the importance of preparation for priming the field for success. Here are strategies they recommend.

Optimize Your Routine. Great performers set themselves up to operate at the top of their game every time they take the field. They identify the specific conditions that evoke their personal best and then integrate these elements into their daily routine. They don’t wait for the zone to magically appear. They know what they need to bring it on predictably, day in and day out.

priming for peak performanceWarm Up Your Mind. Elite track and field athletes don’t step into the starting blocks cold. They warm up off the field to ensure that they are ready to go when the starting gun sounds. In like fashion, great thinkers create a positive mood by thinking good thoughts about their projects and coworkers. When bolstered by a harmonious environment, this frame of mind improves problem solving and creativity.

Fashion Your Environment. Famed author Stephen King has said, “most of us do our best work in a place of our own.” Our brains engage with the objects with which we surround ourselves; they bring forth specific behaviors. If we want to elevate our creativity or productivity, we’ll want to manage the stuff in our space, adding things that help us, and getting rid of things that don’t.

Establish Your Routine and Stick To It. Don’t make it difficult for the muse to find you. When you set a consistent schedule, she’ll show up! An established routine doesn’t just prime us for work. It also alters our biology in a manner that increases strength, energy, confidence, creativity, attention, and memory. In short, routines both condition us to perform AND enhance our performance.

Minimize Distractions. Great performers choose where to focus their time, energy, and attention. They eliminate activities that are either extraneous to their work or injurious to their health and harmony. While they remain open to new ideas and relationships, they are vigilant in their use of precious personal resources.

Eliminate Trivial Decisions. We all have a limited amount of mental energy. When inundated with a gaggle of small decisions, we lose our train of thought, wear out our mental muscle, and become vulnerable to procrastination. Consider making a routine out of every decision that isn’t core to your central mission – e.g., what to wear, what to eat.

Be Sensitive to Your Chronotype. Some of us are early birds; others are night owls. Take note of when you experience your peak energy, creativity, and productivity, and set your schedule accordingly. There’s no sense fighting your body’s internal clock.

Choose Your Friends Wisely. Motivation spreads among close knit groups; feelings are contagious. Through mirror neurons, we’re hard-wired for empathy. The emotional landscape in which we dwell prompts actions and behaviors. As such, the people with whom we interact regularly will have a profound impact on our performance and mood.

Show Up. As the authors tell us, “The best performers aren’t consistently great, but they are great at being consistent.”

Peak Performance

Even as a semi-retired person, I’m always on the lookout for ways in which I can stimulate my body and mind to ever greater levels of excellence. Enter Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness’ book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

stress plus rest equals growthExercise science provides a model for GROWTH by alternating STRESS (challenging stimuli) with REST. Stress demands rest, and rest supports stress. Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi noted a similar dynamic in creative thinking. A period of intense, total engagement (immersion) followed by rest and recovery (incubation) leads to insight.

So, what constitutes “good stress”?

We stimulate growth by giving ourselves manageable challenges and focusing on their mastery with total concentration. New skills arise in the context of struggle, but not too much (to the point of breakage) or too long (to the point of exhaustion). Furthermore, we must give their development our full attention. Our brains are not wired for multitasking. With each distraction from the primary task, our ability to filter out irrelevant information, identify patterns, and feed long-term memory declines. Consider “deep work” a practice to be cultivated over time.

We support our quest for continuous challenge with a growth mindset. With this frame of reference, we can’t wait to get out of the starting blocks. (“Let me at ’em!”) We welcome trials and tribulations as part of the process of gaining competency. We know that setbacks provide opportunities for learning and revising strategies. They do not shatter confidence in reaching toward the finish line.

Why does rest matter?

Athletes understand the need for rest. When their bodies have reached the break point, they back off to allow time for recovery. Rest prevents injury and supports muscle building. But since thinking does not create muscle strain, why take brain breaks?

While we certainly improve cognition through “exercise,” a skillful practice of meditation strengthens the mindfulness muscle – i.e., our capacity to be fully present in the moment. This “muscle” provides the means to view our thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a neutral observer and exercise choice in how we respond to stimulus. It helps us avoid getting hijacked by our reactive amygdala. Not surprisingly, a consistent practice of meditation gives rise to an increase in the size of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that exercises attention, inhibits impulse behavior, and exercises control.

Good ideas often crop up when we’ve made space between periods of intense thought. In these intervals, the brain switches from its task-positive network (linear, logical, if-then) to its default mode (random, subconscious, integrative). In this mode, the brain can retrieve previously inaccessible bits of information and make connections between disparate data pulled from all parts of the brain. Though seemingly coming out of thin air, these insights spring forth from a brain that was always active in the background.

So, what does this mean?

Top tier athletes, thinkers, and other performers understand the need for challenge and rest. Every 60-90 minutes of deep work should be paired with 7-20 minutes of rest. The latter need not be a period of sloth. It can be filled with activities that require little to no effortful labor or thinking. For example:

  • Take a short walk, preferably out in the fresh air (although indoor walking works in inclement weather). It’s heart and brain healthy!
  • Look at pictures of nature. It stimulates the brain and lowers inflammation.
  • Take a break with a friend or colleague with whom you can enjoy a light and pleasant social interaction. The resulting release of oxytocin will make you both feel better.
  • Meditate in a relaxed setting.
  • Take a 10 minute nap – just long enough to improve performance, alertness, concentration, and judgment, but not so long as to engender grogginess or disrupt nighttime sleep patterns.

In addition to periods of workday rest, stellar performance calls for extended breaks – e.g., observing a weekly day of rest, and taking regular 7-10 vacations without bringing work with you!

Rethinking Person-to-Person

Having engaged last week’s post about rethinking, I hope we’re all committing ourselves to adopting an ounce of humility and equal measure of flexibility in our thought patterns. Getting stuck in “being right” isn’t a healthy or profitable way to go through life.

But what should we do when encountering a family member, friend, colleague, or community member who comes across as particularly rigid? Can we hope for a breakthrough? Adam Grant, author of Think Again, offers the following advice:

Approach the discussion with mutual respect and a deep desire for mutual understanding. Treat the interaction as an exploration with two engaged dialog partners, not a battlefield with two sides. Think like scientists. Acknowledge the complexity of the issue and be willing to look at it from multiple points of view. See the shades of gray.

Be an active listener. As the author says, “Interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener makes people less anxious and defensive.” Show a genuine interest in their views and ask thoughtful questions on how they came to hold them. How would they translate their views into reality? Tease out the benefits and costs that they’d expect to realize. Be curious, not accusatory. Simply hold up a mirror and let them take a good look at what they see.

Acknowledge common ground. It does not weaken your argument or conclusions to take note of points of convergence. Rather, it demonstrates your willingness to concede valid points and expresses confidence in their thought processes. It also encourages them to consider yours.

Ask: “What facts or experience might change your mind?” This question probes the extent to which one’s dialog partners would be willing to be open-minded. It also reveals what they consider to be the center of gravity for their belief system. Should you choose to provide evidence, focus in on a handful of relevant points, not the entire collective of opposing research. Less is more. An avalanche of input dilutes your message and gives them the option of rejecting your point of view based on your least effective argument. Be attentive to your data sources, using only those deemed credible.

Take the temperature of the conversation periodically. If emotions start to run hot, press the pause button and redirect the conversation to the process. Be curious about the dynamic. Express your frustration, disappointment, sadness, ambivalence, etc. and invite your partner to do the same. See what you might do to ease the tension. If you’ve reached an impasses, try a new approach. For example:

  • Consider how our views might be different had we been born in a different time, place, or circumstances.
  • Take the other person’s point of view and make a strong argument in favor of it. Pick up the mantle with seriousness of purpose – as if you were trying to win a debate with substantive prize money attached to it.
  • Think about how this issue might be viewed from outer space? Or from 100 years hence?

Honor freedom of choice… respectfully. At the end of the day, you may agree to disagree. That’s OK. We each exercise choice over what we believe. Let’s also make the choice to value each other’s humanity.

The Power of Rethinking

Graduate studies in business avail themselves of case studies to stimulate thought and discussion among budding corporate magnates. Some shine a light on success stories to provide exemplars of strategically sound thinking. Others highlight epic failures. The horse-and-buggy manufacturers who failed to take horseless carriages (a.k.a., automobiles) seriously. The purveyors of Encyclopedia Britannica who believed parents would continue to invest in their meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated tomes when personal computers hit the scene. The Blackberry CEO who held fast to miniature keyboards on his devices in lieu of touch screens.

While we may not carry the weight of corporate strategy on our shoulders, we are certainly vulnerable to mental miscalculation. Habitual patterns of thought may weigh us down, stifle our creativity, disrupt relationships, and render us blind to opportunities, dangers, and roadblocks – especially in a world that changes rapidly. Adam Grant illumes a path to mental agility in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise. In fact, the more often our intellectual horsepower has proven right, the less likely we are to question our mental processes, and the more difficult it is to pivot in response to new information or insights. In our conviction that we’re right, we receive data through a distorted lens. Our confirmation bias leads us to focus on that which affirms what we already believe to be true. Our desirability bias gives greater weight to that which we want to be true. Both validate our established notions and feed into the sense of pride that kicked the cycle off. In reality, we are all wrong more often than we’d like to admit!

overconfidence and rethinking cycles

When we commit to being flexible and open-minded in our thought patterns, we proceed from a place of humility. We may be confident in our ability to process data and exercise sound judgment, but we’re open to the possibility that our thought processes may not reveal the best interpretations, conclusions, or solutions. We allow ourselves to be curious about a subject or issue and engage enthusiastically on a journey of discovery. This exercise alerts our minds to the vast sea of knowledge and perspectives over which we are not masters. It keeps us humble, interested, and open.

So, what advice does Adam offer to keep our minds nimble?

  1. Locate your identity in your core values, not your opinions. You’ll gain intellectual flexibility when your sense of self is not tied to a need to be right.
  2. Think like a scientist. Treat opinions like hypotheses that need to be tested and proven true (or false) with hard data.
  3. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. You can hold your mental skills and capacity to learn in high regard while questioning your current thinking on a subject or problem.
  4. Engage actively with facts and opinion pieces that challenge your sensibilities. Lend them a sympathetic ear and see how they inform your perspective.
  5. Be OK with being wrong – in fact, celebrate it! It means you’ve learned something and will invite self-improvement in whatever form it takes. As Thomas Edison was reputed to have said: “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. I only needed to find one way to make it work.”
  6. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. Rather, welcome people into your orbit with whom you regularly disagree. We learn more from people who challenge us than we do folks with whom we share points of view! Make sure your rules of engagement call for mutual respect. Try framing discussions as scholastic debates in service of a spirit of discovery. You might even take the opportunity to argue in favor of a side that you oppose initially to stretch your capacity to see things from multiple points of view.

A final thought from Adam sums it up for me:

“Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground in the stubbornness of preaching and prosecuting. Or we can operate more like scientists, defining ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth – even if it means proving our own views wrong.”

Clutter Free Productivity

Though mostly retired from paid employment, I still like to fill my day with meaningful tasks and go to bed at night with a feeling of accomplishment. I’m open to ideas that will help me feel greater satisfaction out of my waking hours. David Allen’s book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity – fit the bill. While the title suggests it’s just one more way to simply check more things off the “to do” list, the author has a loftier goal. He wants us to have more energy, feel more relaxed, and have more clarity in the moment. As he puts it: “Be effectively doing while you are delightfully being.”

overwhelmedAllen’s methodology challenges us to capture all of the things that might need to get done now or later and get them out of our heads and into a trusted system. Why? It turns out that unfulfilled commitments large and small (a.k.a. “open loops”) take up space in our consciousness and drain energy and focus. They stand ready to hijack our attention while doing something else or keep us up at night when we should be getting restorative sleep. That being said, the manner in which we process the resulting list and develop systems to track progress matters greatly.

As we contemplate each item on the list, we need to ask ourselves: Why does this item matter to me? What commitment(s) have I made to myself or others about it? What deadline(s) have I set? How do I define “done” (outcome) and “doing” (action)? What is the next step to make progress? If the task does not hold up to scrutiny, we may decide to jettison it. If it holds interest but requires no action, we close the loop by filing the item away for future reference or placing it in a tickler file for consideration at a later date. If action is required, we can do it, delegate it, or defer it and use a reliable tracking system to free up our brains from fussing about it. (Allen suggests that we knock out any item that takes <2 minutes – i.e., just do it!) Every “open loop” should have a next action and associated due date and system for prompting action.

Of course, we may still face the age-old dilemma of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Allen presents a “natural planning model” to align our priorities with how our brains work.

  1. Define purpose and principles. Purpose clarifies why the task earns a spot on the list and provides guideposts for success, decision-making, resources, and options. Principles tell is what behaviors are in and out of bounds as we proceed.
  2. Envision outcomes. We need a clear sense for what we’re trying to accomplish by articulating what success looks, feels, and sounds like. This clarity ensures our actions stay on course.
  3. Brainstorm. We capture ideas without judgment to load up on options for consideration in achieving our objective(s).
  4. Organize. We identify natural relationships and structure, constituent pieces, sequences of events, and priorities in sufficient detail to create an actionable plan.
  5. Identify next action(s). The rubber meets the road in this final step. We ask ourselves: Are we really serious about taking this task or project on? If so, who will do what by when?

Having gone through the process of creating the master list, we can create our own system to manage it or take advantage of an app to do that work for us. On a weekly basis, we are encouraged to:

  • Process all of the new stuff that vies for our attention and decide what (if anything) to do about them – including the all-important next action
  • Review the system to ensure that it is still set up to meet our commitments and desired outcomes
  • Update short-, medium-, and long-term task lists
  • Get clean, clear, current, and focused

The more complete the system – and the more we work it – the more we trust it. Allen warns against getting paralyzed in the process or allowing ourselves to procrastinate. We don’t have to get it all done now! In fact, the beauty of sustaining focus on the next action is that we make our lives easier all the while gaining clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.

While we may pride ourselves in having a good memory, the mind really isn’t designed to manage projects and tasks on its own. We can relieve our cognitive load and have more energy for projects, tasks, people, and fun if we let external systems do some work in our behalf. Allen promises rewards in psychology capital – self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resilience.

Ten Tips for Mastering Self-Control

Having discussed Baumeister and Tierney’s findings on self-control, I now turn to proven strategies to win the game of willpower. The short answer: Structure your life such that you minimize temptation and inner conflict. In other words, avoid situations that will drain this finite resource. Here are their recommended strategies:

willpower improvement planDon’t procrastinate. When you put off a difficult task or give in to boredom over a mundane task, you are more likely to substitute an activity with the potential for immediate gratification – e.g., raiding the refrigerator. Procrastinators tend to perform worse and exhibit poorer health outcomes than doers while still (eventually) having to get the dreaded job done.

Watch for symptoms of ebbing willpower. Are you feeling increasingly agitated? Are you anxious about making decisions? Are you uncharacteristically making mistakes? Do you snap at others? If yes to any of these questions, push the pause button. Relax and breathe deeply. Get healthy food in your body. Then get back to whatever you were doing.

Pick your battles. Set aside a day each year to reflect on your life and create a rough 5-year plan with monthly goals. Then plan to make important changes during periods with relatively low demand on your internal resources. Huge, quick, ill-timed attempts at transformation tend to backfire. Instead, budget your willpower and use it wisely.

Create rules that dictate what you will (and won’t) do – e.g., “I will exercise every morning right when I get out of bed.” “I won’t have more than 2 glasses of wine during the course of an extended dinner party.” Once you’ve made these decisions and take action on them, you won’t waste brainpower on them. They’ll become automatic mental processes.

Beware of planning optimism. Human beings consistently underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to complete a project. Set realistic expectations by using your history as a guide and/or getting input from others who’ve gone before you. Try to chunk big projects into small pieces and set priorities for how you’ll proceed.

Attend to the basics – diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene. A healthy, rested will is a strong will. An orderly environment creates a well-disciplined mind. Cultivate good habits and get rid of bad ones. Habits are strengthened by routine.

Postpone with a plan. If you really can’t motivate yourself to tackle a must-do project but can’t stop thinking about it, set it up as the #1 thing on the following day’s to-do list. Add pleasurable tasks as items 2, 3, 4… as incentives to knock out the top priority. This strategy frees the mind to do something else in the present moment while providing assurance that the task is not left unattended.

Set aside time daily to attend to your most important priorities. Do not allow for alternate activities to intrude upon that time. Scheduled time prepares the mind to focus on that activity and stops the internal debate about competing uses of time.

Track your time. The more carefully you monitor your time, the better you’ll get at using it wisely. (There are lots of tools to help you do it!)

Give yourself rewards. Acknowledge your accomplishments and the willpower necessary to achieve them. Use little rewards for little things, and big rewards for big things.