Overcoming Hasty Judgments

Daniel Kahneman highlighted the tendency to develop hasty judgements in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel, Nobel prize winner in economics, explains that most often we make hasty, automatic and intuitive judgments that are helpful in crisis times but can rupture relationships. He describes this “fast thinking” as System 1 thinking. In contrast, “slow thinking” (System 2 thinking) is more considered, reflective, deliberative and analytical. Fast thinking is resource efficient for the brain, taking less time and brain power. However, as neuroscientist Gina Rippon points out, these “pervasive shortcuts” are riddled with stereotypical thinking, half-truths, myths and untruths.

Overcoming hasty judgments

Mindfulness coach, Brian Shiers, highlights the fact that one of the problems with System 1 thinking is that we tend to have blind faith in our perception, however ill-informed or inadequate it is. We do not subject it to scrutiny or challenge because such activity would be time consuming in our time-poor world. The increasing pace of life and our heightened reactivity make it more likely that we will resort to the time efficient System 1 thinking. We end up seeing the world and individuals through the veil of our biases and prejudices.

Brian Shiers suggests that we can overcome this tendency to make hasty judgments, by developing “meta-attention” – an outcome of mindfulness which heightens the depth and “granularity” of our inner awareness. He suggests that to truly understand other people we first need to get in touch with our System 1 thinking which hastily boxes them into one of more of our easy-to-use stereotypes. He offers a meditation to look inside our self to observe our thinking and how it shapes our judgments about individuals.

Developing “meta attention”

In a MARC guided meditation podcast, Brian leads us in a meditation designed to increase our attention and power of concentration. The meditation is grounded in our body through a focus on the breath. He suggests that it is important during this meditation to avoid a tendency to perfectionism and to ensure that we engage in observation of our “thought stream”, rather than analysis.

The guided meditation involves extended focus on our breathing, without trying to control our breath. As thoughts about another person appear during the meditation, we notice them and observe what they are saying about the individual – staying in observation mode, not reverting to analysis. As we capture these thoughts, we return to the focus on the breath.

Brain’s guided meditation builds inner awareness – helping us to get to know our self better and understand what thoughts are passing through our mind in relation to another person. At the mid-point, he suggests that we get in touch, too, with what is happening in our body – noticing any points of tension such as tightness in our fingers, arms, shoulders or legs.

As we increase our awareness of our thought processes, we begin to notice the accompanying feelings which Brian suggests we treat with “acceptance, curiosity and friendliness”. As the meditation comes to an end, we are invited to take some deep breaths and, on exhaling, let the thoughts and feelings pass through us into the open.

In one sense, this guided meditation is another form of building our “awareness muscle” but the approach here is to focus purely on being-with-our-breathing, not controlling it – unlike the fifty conscious breaths described in my previous post as a way to use the “Awareness-Focus Loop” to overcome procrastination.

As we grow in mindfulness by engaging in meditations designed to develop meta-attention, we can become more conscious of our thought stream and the automatic thoughts that shape our hasty judgments about people. Through this process, we can gain better control over our thoughts about others and adopt a more considered, understanding position while maintaining self-compassion.

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming Procrastination by Building the Awareness Muscle

We can handle procrastination by adopting the direct approach of focusing on a task that we are putting off and exploring through meditation what is the self-story behind the procrastination. This involves bringing the story “above the line” – bringing the messages we are telling our self to the level of conscious awareness. However, procrastination may be a habit related to a range of activities and the habit will often be accompanied by inertia – a lack of energy to move forward. In this case, it could be useful to attack the problem of procrastination indirectly by building what I call, your “awareness muscle”.

Building your awareness muscle

Tony Stubblebine offers a meditation exercise that can progressively develop your awareness muscle (or what he describes as your “mental muscle”). His exercise is a variation on mindful breathing that takes distractions or mental diversions as a source of awareness strengthening. His argument is that every time that your focus wanders represents an opportunity to increase your awareness of what is going on for you and hence building your awareness muscle – both the mental element and the energetic element in terms of readiness/energy to deal with the feelings/emotions behind the wandering.

Tony sees the exercise involving restoring your focus to your breath, after naming your source of distraction, as a form of “reps” like you would undertake in a gym or a series of exercises with a personal trainer. The “reps” serve to build the capability to undertake a given activity when the demand arises e.g. running a race, lifting heavy weights, undertaking housework, handling a stressful job (or in our case here, dealing with a specific procrastination). The repeated action of bringing your attention back to your focus, after raising your awareness, is embedding a “focus-awareness-focus” mental cycle that can be applied anywhere to any activity. Tony describes this cycle as the “Awareness-Focus Loop”.

Utilising the “Awareness-Focus Loop”

Tony describes an “I Am Aware” meditation that can take five to ten minutes of your time. The basic four-step approach is as follows:

  1. make yourself comfortable and close your eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing by counting 1 to 50 (or more if you want to extend the meditation for mental endurance training)
  3. Whenever your mind wanders away from the focus on your breath, pay attention to what is happening and frame it as a “I am aware that…” statement. This needs to be a complete sentence to elevate the unconscious source of wandering to the conscious level e.g. “I am aware that I am thinking of a major meeting coming up later today”; “I am aware that I am getting anxious about what I forgot to do this morning”; or “I am aware that I am wondering whether I got the job I applied for a week ago”.
  4. When you have noticed and named your distraction, you resume your focus on counting your breaths from where you left off counting. I found that I lost track of where I was up to in my counting once a distraction set in. If this happens, you can restart your counting somewhere, without cheating to get to the end in a hurry.

Using your awareness muscle to deal with a specific procrastination

Having developed your awareness muscle, you can now apply this mental capacity, and associated energetic impetus, to dealing with a procrastination over a specific task. Once you notice yourself procrastinating you can use your highly developed awareness muscle to become aware of the anxiety underlying the procrastination, name the anxiety and related feelings (e.g. fear) and deal with the anxiety without seeking a diversion or some form of flight.

The mindfulness exercise serves as a form of mental training that can develop the self-regulation necessary to overcome your natural tendency to avoid what is perceived as painful or personally challenging. The awareness muscle has stored the history of your personal distraction tendencies and these can be more readily noticed and dealt with.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation exercises designed to build our awareness muscle, we can develop the consciousness, willingness and strength to deal with procrastination as it occurs in our daily lives. The “I am aware that…” meditation is designed for this specific purpose.

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Image by A. Debus from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Do Those Difficult Tasks That You Avoid or Put Off Doing

We all have tasks that we ought to do, or want to do, but that we avoid or put off because they are difficult or challenging. Sometimes our negative self-stories get in the road, other times we may have developed the habit of procrastinating without knowing why. We find ways to distract ourselves from the task or take on other tasks that are not important or time-sensitive. We may have difficulty building up the energy to tackle the task in addition to overcoming the personal barriers we create that prevent us from completing the task.

Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, offers a comprehensive strategy to address this problem of avoiding or putting off tasks. In his article, How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day – with Joy, he introduces an approach that he describes as creating a “training container”. He discusses how to develop the training container and offers a number of steps to encourage you to undertake the associated training in a spirit of joy.

Creating a training container to develop the habit of tackling a difficult task

Leo is an internationally recognised expert on developing habits – he has 2 million readers who seek out his wisdom in this area. The training container (or dedicated block of time) acts as a routine (for a new habit) that can be developed to suit your own personal and work style and that, with persistence, becomes an integral part of your day (just like any other training or gym regimen).

The key elements for creating a training container are:

  1. Set aside a time of the day when you train yourself to do the task. It’s important to allocate a set time that suits your lifestyle and/or work pattern that you can dedicate to the training. I’m a morning person, so I find that mornings are best for training myself to complete a difficult task. You can let others know about your dedicated time and even set up a reminder through the alarm on your mobile phone. The time set aside may change as your circumstances change, e.g. when I was writing my PhD, I used to write at 4am for two hours before our baby woke up and before the phones started to ring.
  2. Set aside a place for this training. You can find a space that is different to your normal place of working so that you break free of environmental blockages associated with your procrastination. If I have a difficult task to work on, I go away from my office and work at the kitchen table (with a view) or go to a tolerant, coffee shop. If you have a recurrent difficult task, you can go to an alternative space daily and treat it as your training space.
  3. Set up a ritual for starting your scary/difficult task. Leo, who happens to be a mindfulness expert among other things, encourages you to develop a ritual at the start to focus on your intention and commitment to dedicate your attention fully to your task. This helps you to undertake your task mindfully, fully utilising the opportunity that the training container provides.
  4. Focus on a single task during your training session, do not multi-task. I learnt early on that if I start the morning with reading emails, I get side-tracked very easily and hours can pass before I get back to my difficult task or have to put it off to another day. If you find that you feast on the news, you will have to develop the discipline to put off chasing the news until you have finished your training session. This discipline of undertaking a single task during your training session, not only builds your capacity to focus but also enhances your productivity.
  5. Revisit your “why”. You need to get in touch with the fundamental reason you want to do the difficult task – Who are you doing it for?, Who will benefit from it? In my case, I try to keep my focus on my readers who come from all walks of life but who share many common personal difficulties that impact negatively on their lives. Richardo Semler suggests that you ask yourself three “why’s” to get to your deeper purpose. Focusing on purpose builds motivation.
  6. Express gratitude at the completion of your training session. Leo suggests that initially you set a timer for your training session. He urges you not to rush off to something else when the session is completed, but to take the time for a brief gratitude meditation. As he puts it, “Bow to the practice, and to yourself, out of gratitude.” In the long run, you will certainly be grateful for having set aside the time, place and focus for your training container.

I have found these tactics very useful in creating the discipline and focus to write this blog. Yesterday, I completed my 300th post. I now have a set time and place every second day when I write my blog and maintain a single focus throughout the research and writing involved. I have found, too, that some preparatory work in the form of thinking or research before my writing day also helps me to start writing because I am not starting from a blank sheet. So, jotting down some notes during the day may be helpful when you come to tackle your task within the training container.

Training with joy

Leo provides a number of ideas to help you bring joy to the challenge of completing your training session. Two of these steps – dropping into your body & staying with your sensations – are consistent with my previous discussion on managing anxiety with mindfulness.

Leo also suggests that playing some music can help to achieve the mindset and focus necessary to realise joy in undertaking your difficult task. I play classical music when I write this blog. I find that Mozart’s music strengthens my concentration and increases my relaxation. I have yet to follow Leo’s final step, “Dance with the chaos- let your body move to the music”. He also suggests that the dance can be figurative in the sense of having fun while you are encountering uncertainty and venturing into an aspect of your life that you used to avoid or put off.

As we grow in mindfulness – by bringing a disciplined, mindful, focused, curious, grateful and joyful attention to a difficult task – we can experience greater productivity, energy and sense of achievement. Overcoming procrastination takes time and persistence but having a plan like the “training container” can help us to remove the blockages that get in the road of achieving our tasks and associated, meaningful endeavours.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line

In a previous post, we explored the storytelling mind that leads to self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and thwart our endeavours. The impact of these stories is that we become stuck in a pattern of responses (or lack of response) that impedes our progress towards successfully accomplishing our goals. Procrastination, the art of “putting off” some action, is one such habituated pattern.

The self-stories behind procrastination

Procrastination can block us at any time in relation to any endeavour. Behind procrastination there is often a self-story based on fear. It can take many forms and block us from taking action:

  • “I might appear as a fraud or hypocrite because I do not always do what I encourage others to do.”
  • “I could appear stupid because people might not understand what I am getting at.”
  • “I could make a fool of myself because I lack the intelligence to take on this endeavour and be successful.”
  • “I may not be able to live up to the expectations of others if I start on this project.”
  • “What would happen if I fail?”
  • “Will people be upset with me and think less of me if it does not work out really well?”
  • “What will happen to my reputation if things go wrong and don’t turn out as I had promised?”
  • “How can I possibly live up to so many diverse expectations of me?”

Bringing the procrastination self-stories “above the line”

Fear embedded in our self-stories can block us from taking action. The first step to redressing this situation is to identify, or “throw light on”, the stories that underpin our fear. In the previous post, I discussed the “circle of awareness” that depicts our unconscious awareness as existing “below the line”. Tara Brach suggests that the aim in dealing with mental and emotional blocks to our progress is to bring these underlying self-stories “above the line” so that we can loosen the hold of our false beliefs and self-defeating stories.

You can bring the self-stories into conscious awareness (above-the-line awareness), by taking several steps that can break your procrastination pattern:

  1. Identify the self-stories that are blocking your progress, naming the story – “What are you saying to yourself when confronted with a challenging or stretching endeavour?”
  2. Get in touch with the feelings that are generated by your procrastination self-stories
  3. Revisit the parental influences that underly the stories that you are telling yourself
  4. Examine any pattern that may be occurring in your stories
  5. Reflect on any life experiences that have served to “solidify” your false beliefs and self-stories – What has happened in your life to reinforce these beliefs and stories?

The impact of life experiences in solidifying self-stories was brought home to me during a workshop I was facilitating on the power of positive feedback. One manager reflected on why she had stopped giving positive feedback to her staff over the previous five years. She recalled a negative experience of giving positive feedback to a staff member where the recipient turned on her and was abusive towards her. The manager from then on maintained the self-story, “Whenever I give positive feedback, the person receiving it will attack me.” It was only when she reflected on the previous negative experience and brought her self-story to light, i.e. above the line, that she could see what had been holding her back from using the power of positive feedback. She resolved “then and there” to begin again to give positive feedback in a timely, sincere and specific manner that would ensure her success in this endeavour.

Self-stories that lead to procrastination lose their power over time if brought into the full light of consciousness, so that they can be seen for what they are – seemingly true but fundamentally false. Tara encourages the regular practice of bringing self-stories above the line – they will recur throughout your life as you face new challenges or may take on a new shape (as Tara publicly acknowledges, her own self-story challenge has oscillated between “self-deflation” [less than others…] to “self-inflation” [more than others…]).

The repetition of the practice of bringing self-stories above the line, creates new neural pathways so that the self-defeating stories are eventually replaced by self-enabling beliefs and stories. You can strengthen these new neural pathways by developing success “anchors” – alternative stories of successful outcomes that you have achieved.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop the capacity to throw light on our procrastination self-stories and bring them “above the line” by naming them, identifying patterns of false beliefs, disowning self-defeating stories and creating new neural pathways that facilitate our pursuit of successful, creative endeavours.

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Image by MabelAmber on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Our Thoughts Can Affect Our Performance

In the previous post, I discussed how nervousness can affect your mind and body and impact your performance.  I also looked at two strategies – naming your feelings and accessing your success anchor – to gain control over your nervousness.  In this post, I want to focus on how our thoughts can affect our performance.

Our negative thoughts

When we are nervous or anxious about our performance before some public activity, our minds tend to race, and we lose control over our thinking. We can be bombarded with a whole host of negative thoughts – “What if I forget what I was going to say?”, “What will people think of me?”, “How will I ever recover if I embarrass myself in front of my colleagues?”,  “Will I cope if they reject me?”, or “What if I do not meet their expectations?”

These negative thoughts often lead to procrastination.  I have found many times that people fail to start something because of these kinds of negative thoughts.  Sometimes, these disabling thoughts are not at a conscious level – they may just manifest as nervousness or anxiety.  This is where an exercise to name your feelings and the thoughts that create them can be very helpful.

Reframing with positive thoughts

I was recently following up people by phone who had participated in one of my courses – effectively a coaching session.  I was wondering what was causing me to procrastinate.  I have facilitated hundreds of courses and the people I was ringing were participants on my most recent course and yet I was nervous about the phone activity.  I started to follow the suggested step of naming my emotions and identifying the thoughts that gave rise to them.  The thoughts predominantly related to, “Would I live up to their expectations?”, and “Could I actually provide them with some help with their practice or project?”.  Sometimes, our doubts are not rational, but they persist.

Getting in touch with my feelings and negative thoughts enabled me to move on and actually conduct the phone coaching discussions.  What I found was that by controlling my negative thoughts through mindfulness, I was able to change my mindset and view the phone coaching differently.  I came to appreciate the very positive aspects of this exercise and this helped me to reframe the activity as relationship building.  I found that the participants were actually putting into practice in their workplaces the skills we covered in the course and they were having a positive impact on their workplace and the people in their team (intrinsically rewarding feedback!).

I came to the realisation yet again (somewhat blocked by my current anxiety), that my major role was to listen and ask questions for clarification and understanding (mine and theirs).  The experience then was very reaffirming.  Reframing the activity in positive terms, rather than focusing on possible (but not probable) negative outcomes, freed me up to perform better in the coaching interviews.  However, I have a long way to go to be free of “ego” concerns.

Becoming free of ego concerns

When we revisit our concerns or negative thoughts, we often have in advance of some public activity, we begin to realise how much “ego” is involved.  We are concerned about our image – how we will be viewed or assessed, what impact our performance will have on us or our future, what impression we will make or how embarrassed will we be if we “fail”.

These issues constitute ego concerns.  Tom Cronin (The Stillness Project) in his blog post, How to Find the Confidence to Speak in Front of 300 People, suggests that controlling your ego is a key aspect of gaining that confidence.  The less ego plays in determining how you feel about your forthcoming performance, the better you are able to just be present and appreciate the moment. Your presence and sense of calm can be very effective in helping you access your creative abilities and best performance.  He recommends daily meditation as a way to dissolve the ego and gain peaceful presence, no matter what we are doing:

… meditation plays a HUGE role. In the stillness of meditation we connect with that unbounded state of peaceful presence, beyond the limits of the ego. The work is to put aside time to meditate, and then outside of meditation, to observe the difference between that which is ego and that which is not. 

To remove all ego from our thoughts and activities requires a very advanced state of mindfulness.  As Tom indicates, this is a lifetime pursuit, because ego often gets in the road of our performance and our ability to have a positive impact.  However, we cannot wait until we are cleansed of all ego before we perform.

I have successfully addressed 1,800 people at a World Congress in Cartagena, Colombia in South America.  The topic was on action learning and I was doing the opening address as President of the Action Learning and Action Research Association.  My luggage had not arrived by the start of the Congress, so I had to present in my jeans that I wore on the flight over and a colourful Cartegena t-shirt I bought in the street outside the Congress.

I had to let go of any ego concerns about my standard of dress (the other dignitaries were in suits) if I was to actually get up on the stage.  I think this need and the casualness of my dress helped me in my address – it was particularly well received by the Colombians who were present amongst the representatives from 61 countries.  I certainly had ego concerns but the momentousness of the occasion and the potential contribution of the Congress to global cooperation, helped me to get through and manage my nerves.  But you can see I still have ego concerns that are alive and active when I undertake a relatively simple phone coaching activity (as described above) – lots more meditation to do!!

As we grow in mindfulness, we can clear anticipatory, negative thoughts about our performance, identify and control our emotions and progressively remove our ego concerns.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of xusenru on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.