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Thursday, July 19, 2020

Why perfection isn’t a viable goal

Setting extreme targets is a major cause of job-related stress and burnout.

I wonder why so much is posted about how to achieve your goals and so little about choosing them wisely? Many people seem to think that seeking perfection is a good way to achieve outstanding results. In fact, it’s usually the best way to cause yourself frustration and failure—and a great deal of needless stress along the way.
People love “how to” advice, and like others to share their experience of finding how to do something important to them. That could explain why advice on achieving goals is far more prevalent than advice on how to choose them. But surely, if the goals themselves are incorrect, uncertain, ill-defined, or unsuitable, knowing how best to achieve them is pointless? That’s especially true if the goal is to achieve something close to perfection.

Conversations about perfection tend to bring out three opposing views, which I’ll call the “fundamentalist,” “literalist,” and “relativist” perspectives:
  • The fundamentalist view is that aiming for the top is the best way to motivate yourself, and perfection is the only goal worth pursuing. If you don’t make it, that’s because you didn’t want it enough. It’s an expression of the archetypal American Dream, in which everyone can reach the heights, if only they apply themselves.

  • The literalist view is simple; perfection is impossible in human affairs, so it’s not a viable goal. Deciding to aim for it is always going to cause disappointment and frustration. “Good enough” is a better choice.

  • The relativist view questions the meaning of perfection and suggests what’s perfect for one person may not be so for another. From this standpoint, you can produce your own definition of perfection. Given that, aiming to achieve it becomes possible, even desirable. How far you want to go is the key to deciding direction and what constitutes achievement.
Perfectionism is a problem because it often wrecks lives—not just your own, but the other people whom you drag into your scheme, or who are affected by your choice. Being perfect may or may not be possible (it depends, as we have seen, on your viewpoint), but achieving it is just about always a task on the edge of reality. You can't set a more demanding objective, unless your definition is so "dumbed down" as to be meaningless.

A great deal of perfectionism is more or less unconscious, based only on the ill-considered assumptions of a competitive society. We’re urged to set our sights on being “the best” or “the winner,” without even considering what that means or what it will demand of us. Sadly, giving in to that thoughtless ideal has made a vast number of people feel that they are losers from the start. In fact, many of them don’t even try, since they know, deep down, that there’s no way they’ll be willing to follow the brutal regime needed to achieve the heights in their chosen field.

Still, many people have grown up with strong tendencies towards perfectionism, so we need to explore how to deal with this and avoid the worst excesses of the perfectionist mindset.

Countering perfectionism

The best way to deal with perfectionist tendencies is to decide in advance how far you want to go, then ask yourself when you want to get there and what you’re prepared to “pay” to do so. Further and sooner demands much more than slower and later. It’s like driving. If you want to cross the USA as quickly as possible, you’ll need a fast car and a big budget for gas. Pottering around your favorite neighborhood at 25 mph won’t strain your wallet so much, and won’t be so stressful either.

Another approach is to make sure that you select goals that truly represent your own values and desires. It’s too easy to choose goals thoughtlessly or pick up ready-made ones. There are plenty of people eager to tell you what your goals should be. But unless your goals are truly yours, and right for you and your circumstances, you won’t have the patience, determination, or interest to see them through to achievement, whatever that may take.

Review your goals regularly and weed out any that have slipped in and have an automatic perfectionist slant. How do you know if your current goals aren’t right for you?
  • When you forget them, keep changing them, or feel you can’t summon the energy to keep pushing against the obstacles.

  • When they cause you more stress and discomfort than you can handle comfortably.

  • When they cause the people you care about more stress and unhappiness than they deserve.

  • When achieving them is going to demand total devotion to that and nothing else—and you know that you want more than a single-track existence.

  • When each achievement costs so much that it brings you as much pain as pleasure.

Do you really want to be the best?

Too many of our ideals about achievement in life are based on sport. That isn’t to decry sport or belittle what sports champions attain to. It’s simply that being “number 1 in the world” in any sport is a short-term endeavor reserved for the young. In most cases, those with the talent get there—if they have the determination and obsessive need to do so—and retire young enough to establish another career afterwards.

Being the world’s richest person, or even just the CEO of a major corporation, is going to take the whole of your working life: first to get there and then to stay there. By the time you retire—if you ever truly do —there will be no time left for anything much else.

Perfectionism is, I believe, more often an absence of decision, not a true choice. It’s following the conventional dream without considering whether it’s really yours. That’s why, when it doesn’t work out, a great many of its former adherents find that they have nowhere else to go.

Make every choice conscious

People who fail to make their own choices and simply accept the idea of perfection as a goal soon find that they are facing a lifetime of “failure.” Their former dream becomes a daily nightmare. Of course, that failure isn’t real: it’s just a result of assuming a standard for success that cannot be reached. But it hurts just as much.

I believe that much of the reason why so many feel alienated and devalued in today’s world comes from the thoughtless assumptions about success peddled by the media. Only a tiny number of people can be “the best.” Almost an infinite number can be “very good.”

It doesn’t seem to me to be sensible for most people to set perfection as a goal, and not just because no one can attain it in a literal sense. Getting right to the top is going to demand just about everything that you can put into it, and leave no space for anything else in your life.

If that’s what you truly want, then go to it. Take what you desire (if you can) and don’t whine about the price you’ll have to pay. But if you want a balanced life, with time for things other than pursuing a single goal, perfectionism is a very poor companion. It’s best to let it go right away and settle on some more realistic target.



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Friday, June 29, 2020

What are you busy doing?

It’s not a trick question. Workplaces everywhere are full of people busy doing next to nothing . . . only they don’t realize it.

It’s one of the most prevalent, but least remarked upon, problems of our information-rich age. Today’s technology and management cultures allow anyone to work away busily with every appearance of being productive—even creative—when all they are really doing is treading water. Here’s how it works.
What these people are doing is mostly shifting information around. They spend large parts of their days responding to e-mail and voice mail; they attend meeting after meeting after meeting; they watch scores of presentations and prepare still more. It all appears extremely important and productive, but when you look at it closely, what you see is an organization that spends nearly all its time swapping information from person to person, without having the time to consider fully what it contains, let alone act on it.

What is in all those e-mails, instant messages, and voice mails? Typically, requests for information or responses to such requests. You might have 100 e-mails in your in-box, of which roughly one quarter are requests to you for information, one quarter contain information that you have requested, while the remaining half contains copies of e-mails swapping information between other members of the organization.

Let’s start with the half that are cc’ed; you didn’t ask for those and probably don’t want them, but you still have to spend enough time reading them to be sure that there isn’t anything important hidden in them somewhere. They keep you busy for some time—genuinely busy—but none of that time is productive. The quarter that contain requests to you for information is going to take up another large chunk of time: getting the information, setting down in the right way, and passing it to the person who requested it.

Is that time productive? Generally speaking, you can’t know, because that will depend on what the person receiving the information does with it. In many cases, they spend time collating and combining it with information from other people, then passing the whole lot on to someone else. How useful is that? You have no idea; most organizations have computer discs and filing cabinets full of such collated data that no one has ever read or ever will read.

Surely the data that you asked for is going to allow you to do some productive work? Well, maybe. You may have asked for it because you have to produce a report, complete with tables of collated data, for your own boss. What will he or she do with that report? My guess is skim over it, pick out one or two bits of information, and add those to another report that he or she is doing for someone higher up the hierarchy.

Strangled by data?

The curse of information technology is that it is so very, very powerful. It can collect, collate, and analyze data on a scale people fifty years ago would have thought impossible. It can pull data from all around the world, seeking out sources that would have been totally invisible to people back then. It’s a wonderful tool, with almost limitless possibilities. The problem comes, not from the technology itself, but from the use people make of it.

They overwhelm themselves in more data that their brains can handle, afraid that some missed or omitted piece might be the one that proves to be vital. They commission reports inches thick (far too much ever to read in the time left over from shuffling all that other data around), then base their choices on summaries of summaries of summaries: the one page of information that would have been all that their grandparents would have had available; all that the human mind can process in the five minutes or so allocated to making the decision.

And all those meetings? They mostly consist of people “sharing” information that they have spent hours collecting and preparing precisely to share in that meeting. Whom do they share it with? Those who will either ignore it as irrelevant, question it if it doesn’t show what they want, or use it to produce still more presentations for future meetings.

That’s how people can end up extremely busy, yet doing nothing more than moving information around for the sake of generating more information and more demands to move it somewhere else.

No time left for what really matters

I’m not saying information can’t be vital, but in this welter of data it’s hard to see that anyone is allowed the time to do the most important task of all: to sit and think carefully and deeply about what even a tiny fraction of all this data is revealing. We’re placing such demands on our brains that stress and mental are causing mental overload. We have all this wonderful data; but we are so confused, tired, and distracted that what we do with it is crippled.

Today, everyone is running around, working their tails off, shifting information like never before, and imagining that they’re being productive. They’re really not. They’re busy, sure, but they no longer have time to be thoughtful or genuinely creative. They have become slaves to the information mill, grinding out more and more data to increase this overload and generate still more data requests.

Just because you can do something, it isn’t always something that you should do. We are all at the mercy of the limits of the human brain to absorb information and process it in useful ways.

Even the smallest of today’s personal computers can process more data in a few moments than most people can process mentally in a lifetime. For example, you can send a file containing the equivalent of all the words in the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare and War and Peace to someone anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse.

So what? It’s technologically marvelous, but is it really useful?

That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves. If a normal human being can’t use the data to produce some sensible outcome, why waste the time collecting, analyzing, summarizing, and sending it? It will make many people very busy, but it’s hardly the stuff of useful work.



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Monday, June 25, 2020

How to work less and accomplish more

A simple way to increase your productivity without spending another minute working

There’s an easy way to get more done in the same total time. It doesn’t require fancy software, special organizational tools, or even understanding anything new. All it takes is to slow down and understand the realities of how you spend your time; then apply what you will learn.
Let’s begin with a simple picture of spending 20 minutes working on a single task. It will take you a little while to get into the work, say 5 minutes. That’s for getting things together, settling down, and starting your mind working in the right direction. Before you leave the task, you’ll need maybe another 5 minutes to wind down, put things away, tidy up, and shift your thoughts to what you’ll need to be doing next.

Simple arithmetic shows that, of the 20 minutes total time elapsed, 10 minutes in total was available for productive work, with two sets of 5 minutes allowed for starting up and winding down. That gives a productivity ratio (productive to non-productive time) of exactly 50%. It look like this:


However, if you increase the total period of uninterrupted, focused time on that task to 30 minutes, your productivity ratio immediately increases to 67%, since it takes no more time to start up and wind down. You now have 20 minutes of fully productive time out of 30 minutes total time elapsed, like this:


If you can increase the uninterrupted time to 40 minutes (and the task will take at least that long to complete), your productivity ratio will rise to 75%. With one hour spent like this, productivity rises to 83%. And if you could set aside two hours free from interruption, your productivity ratio would be 92%.

Now see what happens if you have uninterrupted time, as before, but decide to multi-task: that curse of much management thinking. We’ll go back to a period of 30 minutes in total, since that makes a chart that will fit on this page, and assume only two tasks for the sake of simplicity.

Because research has shown that it takes time to swap between tasks—the human brain can’t just jump fully-effective from one to the other—and you still have to allow start up time and wind down at the end, your total effective working time is sharply reduced. You still spent exactly 30 minutes, split between the two tasks, but your productivity ratio has fallen to 33% from the 50% in the first case in this article.


Being interrupted is the very worst thief of productivity, as this chart shows. With no multi-tasking and only two interruptions, 40 minutes being “busy” gives only 10 minutes of truly productive time: a productivity ratio of only 25%. Imagine how low that ratio will fall with more interruptions and a vain attempt at multi=tasking as well. Is it any wonder that people reach the end of a hectic day and cannot see any results for all that effort?


The lesson is simply this. To get the most done in the least time, focus on only one task, remove all possible interruptions, and never multi-task. And try to allocate as long a period to the task as you can, before you have to stop or change to something else. The longer the focused period, the higher the productive ratio of useful time to time spent in starting up, winding down, and the like. That’s why “chunking” time, thought much better than multi-tasking, still isn’t much of a help unless the “chunks” are good, big ones.



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Wednesday, June 20, 2020

Interruptions and choice

Taking away people's freedom of choice through constant, compulsory interruptions is a poor strategy.



It’s the demands from others to meet their schedules that really messes up your day. And yes, sometimes you have no option save to go along. But what makes the most difference in the “frustration power” of these interruptions is denial of choice. If you can choose what to pay attention to and when to do it—focusing for as long as you need to and taking a break some other time to catch up on all the rest—most interruptions aren’t much of a problem. Unless, of course, your boss is a total jerk and wastes most of your time with pointless deamnds to pay attention to him.
We all know that continual distractions are bad for concentration and increase stress. What makes them even more frustrating is when you are denied the option to ignore them. When someone—the boss, an insensitive colleague, a boorish customer—grabs your attention and refuses to let go.

There is nothing worse than being deeply immersed in a piece of work—right in the “flow”—when somebody or something comes along and demands your attention—now!—completely distracting you. “This won’t take a moment,” they say. Of course, it takes far more than a moment. And by the time you get back to the piece of work that you were doing, you’ve lost your place, you’ve lost your flow, and it takes you maybe an hour or more to get back into the swing of things—if you ever do.

When someone’s days are so fragmented with meetings, e-mails, telephone calls, and other interruptions that they never have the time to get anything useful completed, it’s bound to cause them frustration and stress. It’s a rare person who doesn’t get angry. After all, you have your own work to do—important work that others will judge you on—and important work takes time and concentration.

If your time is broken up into little pieces and sandwiched between other activities, especially those that you cannot choose to reschedule or set aside, it’s made next to useless. It’s not just the total amount of time that matters (though that is important enough), it’s the amount of continuous, uninterrupted time that makes all the difference between feeling happy and satisfied with what you have done, and feeling frustrated, uncertain, and embarrassed over a job that you’ve thrown together in what few moments were left to you after everyone else had had their demands met.

Creativity is virtually impossible under such conditions. If you’re interrupted and distracted right at the moment when some truly important idea has just occurred to you, there’s the strong possibility that you will forget it well before you can write it down or capture the thought some other way. Research has proved that the single, most significant difference between people noted for their creativity and the rest of us is that the creative ones always note their ideas down straightaway . . . if they are allowed the time.

It’s hard to understand why organizations cannot see how counterproductive and morale-sapping it is to force people to work like this. Maybe it’s because of today’s unprecedented ease of communication that the expectation has grown that, because you can contact someone virtually instantly, they should deal with whatever you want instantly as well. No time for thought. No ability to set time aside, free of interruptions, to complete important tasks. No freedom to schedule their own work. And it’s bosses—the very ones who claim to be most concerned about driving up productivity—who are nearly always the very worst offenders, driving productivity down again and again by interrupting their subordinates or dragging them away to pointless meetings.

If you want an easy way to increase productivity for everyone, declare war on interruptions of every kind. Make it a capital offense to schedule more than one meeting during the day. Make sure no meeting lasts for a minute more than two hours. Urge everyone to establish set times for sending and reading e-mails. Ban lengthy circulation lists and outlaw the practice of cc-ing the whole organization on every e-mail. Then make it abundantly clear that anyone who sets aside important work simply to deal with an interruption (unless it’s a matter of life and death) is guilty of significant time wasting and will be dealt with accordingly. Most of the things that interrupt you at work are neither urgent nor important. They should be ignored. Most of the important ones are not urgent, so you should set them aside until a more convenient time. If you only do that, it will totally transform your day.

And, as the drawing at the head of this article shows, an essential element of being a free agent is the power to make your own choices most of the time. If that power of choice is denied, most people find it extremely stressful—likely intolerable for any long period. It reduces you to the status of a slave: a person of no account who must jump to deal with his or her master’s slightest whim. Being a wage slave is still being a slave. It diminishes you as a human being and destroys your dignity as a person with your own responsibilities and choices to make.

Your freedom to exercise the power of choice in scheduling your work, giving the most attention to what needs it most, is too important to lose. Demanding that others drop whatever they are doing to pay attention to you—even if you are the boss—is selfish, childish, and unprofessional. Those who do it merely show the world what jerks they are. Make sure that you are never one of them.



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Tuesday, June 12, 2020

Lighten up

Don’t add to your own anxieties by obsessing about work.


Many of the problems that we face we cause ourselves by a combination of overwork, unrealistic expectations, and imaginary anxieties. Sometimes, it seems as if the whole world is losing its sense of humor and proportion in favor of chasing ever less realistic expectations and more magical beliefs about constant progress. Does life offer nothing better than making more money profit in less time by working all hours? Lighten up! That way you get to enjoy all parts of your life, not just one or two.
Most of us take our lives and our work far too seriously. We fret and fume over every setback, lash ourselves with harsh words when we screw up, and set ourselves such ludicrously excessive targets it’s a miracle we aren’t more anxious than we are. We live in tiny, cramped, “me-centered” worlds, where everything that happens is, we believe, directed at us. Problems at work are put there to drive you mad. It rains when you’d planned to spend time outdoors; therefore the rain fell specially to ruin your day. Someone passes you by in the corridor, ignoring your greeting; that means they’re mad at you, or stuck-up, or deliberating snubbing your attempts to be friendly, or plotting against you. Why couldn’t they simply be preoccupied, unobservant, or even slightly deaf? Why does it have to be about you?

Any sane person would surely laugh at such childish egocentrism. But then, even sane people fall into the trap of attributing results to the wrong causes. Most of our successes are due as much to luck as anything else. So are most of our failures. The people around us spend ninety percent of their waking hours thinking about themselves and their own concerns—just as you and I do—but we act as if they spend at least that amount of time worrying about us.

When do people perform best at any task, from sport to nuclear physics? When they’re relaxed, intent on what they’re doing, find pleasure in the activity, and are more or less oblivious of everything else. When they’re having fun. So loosen up, forget what others are thinking about you (mostly, they aren’t concerned with you at all), and enjoy your life. It’s the only one you have (so far as we know).

Try something new

I’m a strong advocate of thinking what most people would do in a given situation, then trying the opposite. In this case, most people will assume their inner doubts and worries reflect reality. So try the opposite. Tell yourself your doubts and fears are simply an over-active imagination and some temporary digestive problems. Instead, make the assumption that your performance can obviously be improved with a little effort, some practice, and fewer emotional tantrums. See if it works. My guess is that it will. Even if it doesn’t—and why wouldn’t it?—you’ll feel better without all that pandering to your fears and anxieties.

Sure, work is important. But so are many other things. When all that you focus on is one aspect of your life—working—all the other aspects are ignored. However much achievement you get from your work, it won’t make up for all that you’ve given up elsewhere. A one-sided life is bound to be limited and narrow. It’s like only ever eating pasta at every meal: neither sufficiently nutritious nor very interesting.

Don’t fall crank up your expectations to stratospheric levels

Don’t fall for the glib talk about being able to do anything, if only you set yourself some sufficiently demanding goals. There’s no magical force of intention and affirmation. Doing this will encourage you to create foolish hopes that you can do anything (no, you cannot) or reach the heights in no time (wrong again, it’ll take many years). Worst of all, thinking like that encourages people to believe in the power of “if only.”

If only you can get that next promotion. If only you can get a raise. If only you can buy a new house or a new car, everything in your life will be wonderful. It’s a fallacy. Nothing is that simple and excessive hopes are very likely to end in equally excessive despair. If you want to have some realistic expectation of success, try taking steady, patient action. It’s not spectacular, nor will it deliver without effort, but you’ll be far less likely to end up disappointed and depressed.

Life has many sides

A good life is doing the best that you can with what you have been given—and that means all of it, not just the parts that you take to your place of work. Grim determination and excessive work may produce material benefits (though even that isn’t assured). They will also destroy any chance of others (and that’s much more certain). Do alcoholics drink for the pleasure it brings them, regardless of the terrible effect is has on the rest of their lives? Surely not. They do it because it has become a compulsion that they cannot fight, and they endure the misery and shame as best they can. Do they have a carefree glass of wine once in a while with good friends?

Workaholics are the same. They do what they do because they are obsessed and gripped by a compulsion they have brought on themselves. Do they enjoy it even? I suspect few do. They simply fear the alternatives so much that they cannot do anything else. They wreck most of their lives to satisfy only a part.

Relax. Lighten up. The world will go on much the same, whether you’re around or not. You might as well enjoy as much of it as you can.



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Monday, April 02, 2020

Unscientific management


Decision making by data collection isn’t management. It isn’t even sensible.

The current-day obsession with data and measurement is part of a supposedly “scientific” approach to management and decision making. Yet our equal obsession with speed and cutting corners ensures that choices are often made without taking enough time to weigh all the evidence, test it for validity, or even consider its true meaning. To parody Sir Winston Churchill: “Never in the history of human leadership has so much been measured by so many for so little resulting clarity.”
We live in an age that prizes data and measurement to an almost obsessive degree. Computers have increased our ability to collect and process information by many orders of magnitude. Almost every special interest group, from political parties to social action groups and trade associations, trot out yet another slew of survey results whenever they wish to make a point or attract the attention of the media. No one seems to stop to ask what use we are making of all this data. Do we even know if it’s correct? Or what it means?

The media report all the often conflicting survey results with gleeful interest. Survey stories fill air-time and column inches. You can nearly always find some nugget in them to create a jaw-dropping headline. Never mind that today’s survey contradicts yesterday’s. The public attention span is assumed to be too short to care—or maybe even to notice.

Surveys and statistical studies have long been the stock-in-trade of academics. You publish your results, others test and criticize them, and—slowly—knowledge inches forward. If what you report fails to stand up to analysis and replication by your peers, it is rejected. You are an expert writing for experts. They demand solid evidence and unshakeable methodology. This process is the foundation of the scientific method.

Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.

In organizations, much of the data is collected and analyzed by amateurs. The methods used are often poorly understood. Once available, results are use more politically than scientifically: to justify individual points of view, support pet projects, or wave in the face of opponents. What supports a case is seized up. Often there is no one to question it, since any “inconvenient” findings are quietly hidden away. Thanks to Powerpoint, presentations contain carefully chosen summaries—little more than headlines designed to produce an emotional reaction, not an analytical one.

It is the aura of scientific respectability that makes the day-to-day use of numerical data and survey results so attractive—and so dangerous. The results printed in the media, or reported in tens of thousands of Powerpoint presentations in corporations every day, are not delivered to be checked, questioned, or challenged. They are to be believed. All the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) trappings are used to foster an unquestioning acceptance of the supposed findings. The hearer or reader is subtly reminded that they are ill-informed amateurs being addressed by experts possessing all the data. This isn’t science. It’s marketing and PR “spin” wrapped in scientific garb. It’s a very aggressive wolf trying to pretend it’s a harmless, scientific sheep.

In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five . . .

In the workplace, more and more data is demanded, processed, and used to justify various points of view. Do those making decisions based on presentations of this data understand it? Do they have the knowledge, or the time, to question its validity—or even reflect on what else it might be pointing to, in place of whatever they have been told to believe? Is there any opportunity given for fact-checking or attempts to replicate the findings?

The answer to all these questions is usually “no”. Haste is endemic. Executives are expected to make virtually instant decisions. Most of them are too overwhelmed with data, let alone all the other demands that they face, to do more than accept what their “experts” tell them. In today’s hyper-competitive climate, no one wants to admit that they understood barely one word in five; or that they have virtually no grasp of statistics and can be bamboozled by almost any set of plausible-seeming figures.

Worse, yet, many of the “experts” producing and presenting this data are consultants, and expensive ones at that. When you pay millions to get a report from a consulting firm, you aren’t usually disposed to question or reject the results. And the more that you’ve paid for the consultants’ findings, the less willing that you are even to consider that your money might have been wasted.

What does it take to make sure of a sensible level of fact-checking, critical analysis, and consideration of all this data, let alone the conclusions that you are told that it supports?

In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual.

It takes time and the willingness to regard all proposals, however enthusiastically presented and wrapped in “scientific” analysis of data, with initial skepticism. In our judicial systems, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty (though try getting the media to respect that). In management decision making, all data ought really to be presumed false or misleading until proven factual; and all proposals supported by data, however superficially convincing, should be the subject of deep suspicion until proper independent evidence is produced.

Time and skepticism: the very heart of Slow Leadership. Without them, managers and executives are almost helpless against manipulation by special interests and confusion by data overload. A glut of macho Hamburger Managers, all primed with endless ambition and eager to appear decisive, coupled with silly workloads and a corporate obsession with instant gratification, is a terrifying prospect. It’s like putting a group of manic two-year olds in charge of your trust fund.

Hardly a recipe for sound, truly scientific decision-making, is it?



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Tuesday, March 27, 2020

Management today is becoming a fantasy game

He (or she) that expecteth too much often receiveth nothing at all.

When it comes to key decisions in the business world, expectations seem to outweigh reality on just about every occasion. The results include endless gyrations in financial markets, increasing levels of stress and anxiety, and the needless loss of excellent staff. It’s time to get our feet back on the ground.
Have you noticed how much the world we live in today is driven by expectation, especially the world of work? Expectation trumps reality on just about every occasion, from the stockmarket to the boardroom and the office cubicle.

Let’s suppose that Acme Corporation reports a profit of $200 million for the quarter. That’s a tidy amount of money. Last quarter, they made $195 million, so they are consistently in the black by a substantial margin. Yet their share price falls on the news, perhaps by a significant amount. Why?

Expectations. The gurus of the stockmarket expected a higher profit, so Acme Corporation’s performance is judged to be below standard. But while this seems logical at first, it takes no account of whether those expectations were reasonable—or even had any rational or objective basis at all.

Reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.

A great many expectations in the financial markets and the media have neither factual basis or logical support. They are created from rumors, hopes, fears, and fantasy. In our imaginary example, Acme Corporation is returning a steady and substantial profit. But that reality is immediately trumped by expectations—even if those expectations are based on nothing more than hot air.

We can see the same process working at the individual level in many organizations. Sara Smith has a good performance record. She works hard, has good skills and a sharp mind, and maintains a clear focus on what needs to be done. Her boss has high hopes for her. Suddenly, things seem to go awry for Sara. She gets a performance rating of “adequate” and a long lecture from the boss on “letting the team down.” She’s urged to work harder. Hints are even dropped that her career prospects are on the line. Whatever happened?

Nothing. Sara has been doing what she has been praised for doing in the past. But her boss’s expectations have soared into the stratosphere. Without any reference to Sara, he has created a dream of constantly-accelerating results, all based on his imagined view of Sara as a whizz-kid. As her manager, he is already enjoying (in his head only, alas) the praise and rewards showered on him from the top brass. All it needs is for Sara to comply.

But Sara has a life outside of work. She is a good employee and well aware of the need to give a fair day’s work in return for her salary. But, when that is done, it’s time to go home and enjoy the rest of her world. She is not aware of her boss’s glorious dreams for her, and would not go along with them if she was. So she keeps right on doing what she has always done—only suddenly it’s no longer enough.

In this tragi-comedy of errors and misunderstandings, the boss feels fully justified in re-classifying Sara’s performance downwards, based on his expectations of what (in his mind alone) it ought to be. Not surprisingly, Sara is hurt and confused. She cannot see where she has failed. In her bewilderment, she starts to lose confidence in herself and the others around her. Her performance really does falter.

When the boss once again expresses disappointment and anger, Sara decides enough is enough. She looks for another job. When she leaves, her boss sees a team member who never really had the “right stuff.” Sara sees a boss, and an organization, that has no clear standards and arbitrary ideas about what is required.

It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.

The reality is that they are both wrong. The organization has lost an excellent employee, and must now incur extra cost to replace her. The boss allowed unsupported expectations to become his reality, ignoring what was really going on. He has failed as a leader and cost the business a great deal of money as a result. Sara has lost a job that she enjoyed—and probably taken away a severely lowered sense of self-confidence that may indeed impact her subsequent career. It is the perfect lose:lose scenario, played out in hundreds of workplaces every day.

Reality is what counts. Expectations are insubstantial thoughts—mere dreams and hopes—often based on little or nothing at all. To allow expectations to guide actions is like driving along with your eyes shut, following an imaginary road map inside your head. Is it any wonder if disaster lurks at every corner?

In a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines whereas facts produce only dull text.

We have lost sight of the difference between legitimate hopes and goals and the reality that follows. There is nothing wrong in setting goals for yourself—or others—so long as everyone is able to probe and question how reasonable those goals are before accepting them. The notion that, merely by setting a “big, hairy, audacious goal,” you will galvanize peak performance is total fantasy. I can set myself the goal of earning $10 million next year, but such a goal has not the slightest contact with reality—nor can I justify it by enthusiastic wishing. So why do we do it? Mostly, expectations are more exciting than reality. And in a world driven by the media, expectations create headlines where facts produce only dull text.

Leaders and managers need to have the best possible grip on reality, however disappointing that reality may be. Nothing is to be gained by indulging in fantasies, even if they are well meant. Leave exaggerated expectations and imaginary scenarios to media hacks and political lobbyists. To succeed in life and work, every decision and choice has to be made on reality as it stands—never allowing your dreams for something very different to be confused with what is happening in the real world.



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Friday, March 23, 2020

Real courage is knowing when to let go

Why “hanging tough” is typically a sign of leadership cowardice.

Letting go of the past—even the most successful and joyful parts—is an essential discipline for everyone. Too many of us cling to burdens that no longer fulfill any useful purpose, lacking the courage to face reality and give lost hopes and failed ideas a decent burial. Stress, pain, and frustration are all we get in exchange for such misplaced loyalty. Buddhists believe that most of the troubles people face are caused by “attachment”—by our habit of clinging to ideas and situations that are long past their “use by” date. I believe there is a good deal of truth in this viewpoint, especially in the workplace.
Many organizations, and their leaders, cling to products that should have been replaced, working practices that no longer work, management techniques that are long past whatever usefulness they ever had, and projects that should have been abandoned as unworkable months or years ago. People are loathe to give up what’s familiar, even when it causes them more problems than profit. They also invest so much of their self-esteem and credibility in some of these outdated activities that giving them up feels like having a limb amputated.

And while we all know that those in positions of authority—and that includes ourselves—tell lies when it seems useful to do so, the lies and half-truths that we tell ourselves always result in the most pain and frustration. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that it will all come right, if only we persist just a little longer, when the reality is that all chance of success disappeared long ago.

In today’s macho cultures—especially Hamburger Management—being a “quitter” is almost the ultimate term of abuse. It isn’t only in the political arena that the “tough guys” constantly claim that their critics are going to “cut and run.” For macho management types, almost any kind of desperate clinging to failing ideas can be supported for years by claiming that the alternative involves weakness and cowardice.

In reality, of course, letting go of something often demands extraordinary courage, especially if it was once a much-loved and extremely successful operation. Sadly, nothing in this world lasts for ever and even the most successful ideas eventually run out of steam. That’s why we all need to take time out on a regular basis to question our preconceptions and review our lives for the sins of clinging to something we ought to let pass.

When is it time to summon the courage to let go?
  • When something that used to be important or successful is showing signs that its power is waning. The technique you mastered way back then that has served you so well, but now seems to have lost its edge. The approach on which you built your reputation, but which is being replaced by fresh ideas or new technologies. The beliefs that have sustained you, but whose truth you are now unsure about.

  • When a hope, a dream, or an expectation isn’t going to happen. We all suffer from selective vision, clinging to our dreams and hopes long after it’s become plain that they aren’t going to come to fruition. Few things cause more frustration, misery, and stress to ourselves and those around us than hanging on to some increasingly forlorn belief. It’s like carrying a corpse around, pretending life will somehow return.

  • When a plan or a project has clearly failed. Giving up is an extremely tough thing to do, especially when you know that some of your credibility is going to be lost, along with time, cash, and the organization’s expectations. It takes real courage to face reality and admit to being mistaken. Yet the alternative—to hang on until your rigid fingers are pried away from the levels of command—is still worse. Everyone else knows it has failed. Would you rather have their forgiveness for making a mistake; or their pity for being too stubborn and blind to admit to it?

  • When enough is enough. Clinging to what is no longer useful causes pain to others as well as to you. You may be silly enough to accept that pain, but that does not give you the right to continue inflicting pain on others: you subordinates, your colleagues, your friends, or your family. Making others hurt to avoid admitting to your own folly is the ultimate in selfishness.
From time to time, we all need the courage and the wisdom to let go and face the reality that what we once found indispensable is no longer useful. Continually putting off that time is a true sign of cowardice. Until you admit the truth, you cannot learn new ways to replace what now needs to be laid to rest.

Old, outworn ideas; past achievements not firmly past; old grudges and half-forgotten wrongs; failed policies and projects that never quite made it; let them all go. Lighten your burden in this world. It’s tough enough going without weighing yourself down with all manner of useless baggage from the past.



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Wednesday, March 21, 2020

What do you have time for?

What you make room for in your schedule reflects your true values


There’s a joke that goes like this: “Which three statements are never true?” The answer is:
  • “My check is in the post.”
  • “Of course I’m not just interested in persuading you to have sex with me.”
  • “I’m from Head Office and I’m here to help you.”
I want to add a fourth: “I really meant to do it, but I didn’t have the time.”

What this statement actually means is either “I didn’t want to,“ or “I didn’t know how to,“ or “I spent the time doing something else more important to me.

Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless—a helpless victim of stress, overwork, and external circumstances. Of course, you may object that you truly do have far too much to do and something had to be left out. But who decided what you did in the time available? Either you set those priorities yourself, or you’re the helpless slave of some all-consuming power that decides how you spend every moment of your time.

I’m much less interested in what people don’t have time for than what they do.

Lack of time is an attractive excuse, because it implies that you’re blameless.

When someone says they don’t have time for family, or friends, or hobbies, or recreation, because they have so much work, what I hear is someone telling me that work is the most important aspect of their life. It comes first. Let’s be honest, it must do, or they wouldn’t accept living the way they do. If they choose to be at their desk by 5:00 a.m. and stay until 9:00 p.m., they are making success at work the only true goal of their life.

Just about everyone goes to great lengths to make time for whatever they believe is most important. We all have the same amount of time available to us, so how we use it nearly always shows what we value most. Of course we face decisions about what to do first. Of course we have to choose between competing claims on our time. Of course we probably have more demands on us than we have time to meet them. Nevertheless, we can nearly always manage to find time for what we cannot imagine doing without.

I imagine cavemen were little different. They had to choose whether to hunt, or make pots, or paint pictures on the cave walls, or help with the children and tidy up the cave. And I expect some of them grumbled that they fully intended to make a new carrying board for the baby, but the hunting took so long, and the clan chief was such a bastard about demanding help to make a new headdress, and the dog needed more training before the next hunt. and so on and so on.

When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for. Whatever you say to the contrary, that’s where your priorities lie at present.

When you find yourself saying that you didn’t have time for something, take a moment to remember what you did find time for.

So if you’re continually telling people that you’d like to relax more, achieve a better work/life balance, improve your education, plan to set up your own business, spend more time with your family, or generally sort out your life, but you don’t have time, you’re not telling the truth. Those things are lower down your list of priorities than whatever it is that you’re spending all that time on. So be honest with yourself. Admit who’s choosing to spend his or her time that way. And if you still want to do what you claim you want, push something else out of the way and make the time.

If you don’t have time for building the life that you say you want to live, what do you have time for?



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Wednesday, February 28, 2020

The Critical Importance of NOT Doing Things

Why a “don’t do” list is vital to good working habits

Most gurus and teachers spend their time telling people what to do. But if you’re already over-stretched and facing an unending future of still more pressure, that’s not likely to appear palatable. Here’s how NOT doing things can help even the most stressed person find ways to improve their working life.
I’m always a little uneasy about all the websites and blots devoted to Getting Things Done and avoiding procrastination. I see the attraction—especially to those who feel frustrated and harassed—but it seems to me that getting things done is less than half of the problem. The greatest part is stopping yourself from spending time on all those unnecessary activities that clutter the working day, force people into staying late to catch up on essential tasks, and provide an enormous workload with almost nothing to show for it.

Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day.

Take meetings. My own experience has been that as many as 75% of meetings are unnecessary. They’re mostly called to provide either an illusion of team consensus; to pass information that could be passed in one hundredth of the time by other means; to allow the self-important to have a forum to enjoy hearing their own voices; or to engage in the widespread game of synchronized cover-your-ass. Of the remaining 25% of meetings, close to 100% take too long, are ill-prepared, have poorly coordinated outcomes, or involve far longer in travel time than the meeting itself. Stopping unnecessary meetings would boost available working time, lower frustration, cut costs, and free up time for essentials during the normal working day. Not doing them would get far more done than any fancy scheduling and prioritizing system.

Unnecessary communication is another sinkhole for time and effort. All those copied e-mails, circulated memos and minutes, papers marked “FYI,” and constant demands to “keep me in the loop” and make sure this, that, or the other person is “on side.” The culprit here is a deadly combination of fear and ambition: fear that something will happen behind your back that might harm you; and ambition to become so essential that nothing—and I mean nothing—can happen without your implicit approval. All nonsense, of course, but still accepted as normal.

Cutting out all useless communication, and trusting people instead to get on with their jobs and do what they are paid for, could transform productivity overnight. All it would take is the determination to stop behaving in ways that even clinically-diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics would see as crazy.

Another great way to save time and cut waste would be to stop rushing into action before you’ve spent enough time thinking about what you are going to do. Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start. The workplace equivalent of the old saying, “marry in haste, repent at leisure” should be posted in a prominent position on every boss’s desk.

Our society places such a ridiculous premium on action over thought that a great deal of activity goes to waste because it was ill-conceived, badly prepared, poorly focused, or simply unnecessary, right from the start.

An hour’s quiet thought might save a month’s wasted work. A few days of reflection and consideration might prevent 20 people being given a project that they will work on for a year, before it’s finally abandoned as unfeasible. Holding back on angry words, until you can understand clearly what is going on, could save you weeks of trying to repair a shattered relationship.

We are action-mad, reactive idiots for much of our working days, and pay a heavy price for the luxury of feeling that we’ve done something instead of merely thinking about what we ought to do.

Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before.

Don’t add to your own distractions. That latest electronic gizmo, that neat computer software, the fashionable cell phone, or the device to check e-mails fifteen times every minute is only going to make your level of distraction greater. Each time you’re distracted, it takes extra time to get back to where you were before. Enough distractions in a day can leave you exhausted from constant effort, but with nothing actually accomplished—which is pretty much what may people experience as routine.

If you want to make a serious impact on all those activities which consume time with an inadequate—or non-existent—return for the energy expended, try these:
  • Take time to make a list of those activities that consume most of your time.

  • Sort out all the ones that you can stop doing with little or no real effect. Cal this List A.

  • Make a second list of all the ones you can reduce in frequency or delegate. Call this List B.

  • Make a daily “Do not do” list alongside any “to do” list. Make sure that you stop all items on the “ do not do” list. Keep this up until you are no longer even tempted to consider doing them.

  • Delegate everything on List B right away.

  • Spend the time that you’ve freed up thinking, completing essential tasks, and being creative. Defend it like your life.

  • Repeat on a regular basis.




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Monday, February 12, 2020

Beware of Management Fashionistas

Fashionista, noun. A dedicated follower of fashion.

Have you noticed that management has become a fashion industry, like Hollywood, the media, politics, and marketing? No one has time today for dull, slow, and boring activities like looking for the truth, testing assumptions, or waiting to see how well anything works. The rush is on to grab at anything that seems to work and use it right away. It's part and parcel of a suicidal trend towards the shortest of short-term thinking in the executive suite.
Following the latest management fashion has several advantages for Hamburger Managers. It looks “hip” and up-to-date. It makes you seem to be innovative, without needing to have a single creative idea in your head. It allows you to look down on anyone not as fashionable as you are. It gives you a new clique to join and a new guru whose words you can parrot. And, best of all, it offers safety in numbers. If it all goes wrong, you certainly won’t be alone. You can then trot out the old excuse that everyone else said it was a great idea, so it seemed sensible to go along.

Fashion setters and followers also help to meet the demand for "something new" in management, when all past approaches seem to fail. Unfortunately, their response is not so much to go back to develop a more fundamental understanding of what has proved unsatisfactory in current methods, but to swiftly take up fresh approaches that differ from the past ones mostly in packaging and presentation. Like fashions in dress, such changes tend to be cyclical and superficial.
Management fashion-setters produce the collective beliefs that certain management techniques are both innovations and improvements relative to the state of the art. These beliefs may be accurate. In such cases, fashion creation involves the invention of a management innovation that is also an improvement over the state of the art in management. Alternatively, the belief that a management technique is either innovative or an improvement may be inaccurate. In such cases, fashion creation may involve either inventing management techniques that only appear to be improvements or rediscovering/reinventing old management techniques that were invented previously and forgotten. [link]

The rise and fall of management fads

Ambitious managers often seize on management fads as a way of demonstrating their “superior know-how” and enhancing their reputation—moving swiftly on to the next fad to avoid falling behind their competition—other, equally superficial and fad-driven players. These managers are often quick to claim solutions to problems that are themselves equally faddish: the problem du jour is approached by the equally instant, fashionable solution. Some of this is, of course, driven by consulting firms seeking to find new ways to sell their time to their clients. But it seems that even internal managers have quickly caught on to the benefits of seeing their careers rise on the crest of some new wave of supposed management expertise that only they, so they claim, are sufficiently up-to-date to understand.

Imitation for imitation’s sake is the essence of fashion

Something sets the fashion and everyone rushes to copy it. The worst sin is to be unfashionable or miss the current trend. “Dated” is a deeply abusive word.

In Hollywood, every successful movie is followed by a slew of pallid imitations. News is indistinguishable from entertainment and “human interest” blots out factual reporting. The same happens in publishing and advertising. Sometimes it looks like a single group of people have designed every TV advert . . . until the fashion changes. Commentators deride last year’s fashions and speculate about what may be the next “big thing.” The meaningless phase “new and improved” appears on any product that’s been on the market for more than six months, maybe three. “Employee Pricing” is followed by “Employee Pricing Plus” . . . and prices stay the same.

In management, look at the rush to benchmarking, comparisons with “industry best practice.” and the way that every public statement contains the same, tired jargon. Values are “in.” Let’s have a mission statement and write it like we’re a charity. Let’s follow political fashion and babble about family values and getting “back to basics.” Work/life balance is fashionable. We’ll establish a fine-sounding policy and guidelines (just so long as we don’t have to act on any of them). Let’s do what everyone else is doing. Who’s setting the fashion? Quick, get on their bandwagon.

Fashion industries breed gurus

Successful designers, filmmakers, or directors become stars and develop fan clubs who hang on every word and treat their hero’s pronouncements as holy writ. Hordes of fashionistas parrot the views of the latest high-profile leaders and mimic their slightest gesture. As a 1996 article in the Academy of Management Review said (The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (1996), pp. 254-285):
Management fashion setters disseminate . . . transitory collective beliefs that certain management techniques are at the forefront of management progress. These fashion setters—consulting firms, management gurus, business mass-media publications, and business schools—do not simply force fashions onto gullible managers. To sustain their images as fashion setters, they must lead in a race (a) to sense the emergent collective preferences of managers for new management techniques, (b) to develop rhetorics that describe these techniques as the forefront of management progress, and (c) to disseminate these rhetorics back to managers and organizational stakeholders before other fashion setters. Fashion setters who fall behind in this race (e.g., business schools or certain scholarly professional societies) are condemned to be perceived as lagging rather than leading management progress, as peripheral to the business community, and as undeserving of societal support. [link]


Successful CEOs become media personalities and appear on the covers of Time and Newsweek, spawning thousands more imitators. Books promising to share the supposed “secrets” of leaders from Genghis Khan to Donald Trump are in every bookstore. TV gets in on the act with “The Apprentice” and the Martha Stewart spin-off (imitation now copies imitation). Management has become the new spectator sport. Stand in a row and say, “You’re fired.” Let’s all be like Enron— oops! I mean . . . (hey, who’s making serious money these days?).

Spin is “in” and style is more important than substance. Management, Hollywood, and politics are blurring into one another. Politicians talk like executives and executives have their own primetime TV shows. Everyone must stay “on message,” even if the message is trite, meaningless or downright deceptive. Marketers openly acknowledge they tell lies, where once they tried to hide their manipulations. “So it’s not true? Hell, it made a better story, didn’t it?” Don’t tell me about your new idea, tell me who else is already interested. Any big names?

Does it matter?

Yes, it does. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s an abandonment of reason. In the mad search for answers based on the words or actions of the fashionable, reality gets lost and truth is subordinated to a good plot-line. You’re either a trendsetter, a wannabe or a nobody. What maybe worked for one company in one set of specific circumstances is inflated into sacred dogma. Who cares about the truth? We want soundbites!

There’s an enormous waste of time and resources involved in chasing some fashionable approach that is soon dropped or discredited. It’s fair to say that most vogues and fashions in management later prove to be ineffective, instant nostrums for much more highly complex problems. Many fashions in management are based on flimsy evidence. Changes in executive personnel swiftly lead to sudden re-evaluations in strategy. Each newly-promoted leader leadership seeks to establish his or her territory and power through a new gospel: a fresh truism dusted off and brought out of the closet, then championed with as much vigor as was seen for whatever was the orthodoxy under the previous incumbent. Is it any wonder that, for many organizations, long-term strategy is less a focused progress towards a desired end than a series of unexpected U-turns and diversions.

In Ancient Greece, writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides probed the causes of tragedy and the downfall of rulers and heroes. Their understanding was summarized in a single sentence: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

Management today seems dangerously close to meeting that definition too. It’s time to slow down and allow reason to take the place of mindless imitation, and reflection to take the place of “shoot-from-the-hip” action.



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Friday, February 09, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 3)

Deficit Thinking Ruins Lives

Whatever else you do, drop the habit of deficit thinking: concentrating on what’s wrong, what’s missing, and what’s not working, rather than what is. It’s a very poor way of looking at the world, and a major source of all kinds of limiting and negative beliefs.This is the third and final posting in this series. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

The principal source of negative beliefs is an ingrained habit of deficit thinking. This means focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression.

All beliefs need regular scrutiny

You should challenge all your beliefs. All beliefs need to be checked regularly for accuracy and usefulness, so question them constantly. It’s tempting to take comfort in beliefs when life is difficult and the future is uncertain. Beliefs help you feel stable. You’ll feel uneasy about recognizing the ideas you trust could be false. But if you’re thinking clearly, you’ll see that a true belief will always stand up to scrutiny. It’s the false, outdated beliefs that must be moved out of your way. It is always worth asking yourself, “Is this true? How do I know it is true? Is it still to be trusted?”

Negative or limiting beliefs need to be subjected to especially rigorous questioning. Since they stop you from doing something, it’s hard to prove them false in any other way. When you try some idea, you find out how well it works. But when your beliefs prevent you from even making an attempts, you cannot know for sure what might have happened if you had. That’s why these belief are so pernicious: they remove options and possibilities without testing them—or, usually even considering them properly.

Here’s how to get rid of deficit thinking

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. You’ll always find plenty, especially if you set your standards so high at the start that there’s no way you can even come close. That’s like deciding to start playing golf, then deciding that you’re no good unless you can beat Tiger Woods right away.

  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Perfectionism can easily become a disease. Life is what it is. The skill is to be able to do something useful and fun with whatever the universe serves up.

  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong and the problems don’t exist outside your mind. Many people fall into the habit of over-dramatizing their lives, perhaps to make them feel more exciting than they are. But when you play up the good parts, you do the same (or more) to the bad ones. Look at the media. How many good news items do you see, compared to all the ones promising doom and gloom?

  • Quit taking yourself so damn seriously. Life is uncertain and difficult enough without adding to your problems. Slow down, relax, and chill out. It’s good to be insignificant. It lets you have fun while all the pompous, important types are giving themselves ulcers.

  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Get used to it.

  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again: random gyrations like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying.

  • Don’t casually pick up beliefs from other people. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people pick up beliefs and assumptions from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? They’re even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth.

Free yourself from the tyranny of useless beliefs

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some unexamined belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a serious management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long past their “sell by” date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves, and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. They’ll come out of the process unscathed. If they aren’t useful any more—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated ideas and cripple you with deficit thinking.



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Thursday, February 08, 2020

What's Stopping You? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this series, I considered the power and importance of essentially unprovable beliefs in determining people’s actions and outlook. In this part, the focus is on limiting beliefs: those that actively reduce the options open to you in dealing with whatever life brings. Limiting beliefs can block your future and confine your choices. Start by recognizing them and understanding how they work and what they do. Then counteract the effects by broadening your outlook and adding to your strengths. You don’t need these beliefs. Let them go.


Suppose you think that you have no chance of ever living the kind of life you want. Maybe someone in the past told you you would never make anything of yourself—and you believed them. Children are very impressionable. They easily believe what they’re told, especially by parents and others they look up to. You may have been living with this ever since. Something in your head keeps telling you it’s not worth making an effort, because you’ll never succeed.

Stop and ask yourself whether this is true or not. Was it ever true? Has it become a self-fulfilling prophecy? My guess is that it’s true as long as you believe it is. The minute you tell yourself you can do it, you can succeed, that will be true instead. Try it.

Limiting beliefs have power over you only because you treat them as the truth

Remember, a belief is no more than a thought or opinion that’s automatically treated as correct. In reality, they have no greater likelihood of being right than any other thoughts. But once we give them the label “belief,” we convince ourselves they’re different and must not be questioned. Whether they’re our own beliefs, or ones we’ve accepted from others, or the commonly-held beliefs of the society in which we live, they aren’t necessarily true—even if that’s how we’ve come to treat them.

There are at least four distinct sources of limiting beliefs:
  1. Hidden fears. Nearly everyone has a few long-standing, hidden, and irrational fears. My mother was deeply afraid of frogs, though she knew they couldn’t hurt her. For other people, it’s spiders or snakes (not so irrational here in Arizona!), flying or enclosed spaces. The one that’s most likely to block people’s careers is fear of risk. Any change involves risk. Life itself is risky. Beware telling yourself: “I could never do that.” It may be true (I could never be an Olympic athlete), but it may be nothing more than an irrational fear. Check it out. You have nothing to lose. Try kissing a few frogs to see if you can find a prince.

  2. Outdated habits. Outdated habits are like worn-out, shabby clothes. They may be comfortable but they look ridiculous to everyone else. Comfort is more powerful than most people believe. Look at all the people who know they ought to change something in their lives, but keep putting it off because they’re comfortable as they are. The clue is when you notice yourself thinking: “It’s going to be trouble. Probably more than it’s worth.” Ask yourself if you want to stay fat, dumb and happy. I guess many people do.

  3. Mixed-up values. Inner values are much more powerful in people’s lives than they credit. But, like everything else in our world, they sometimes get a little muddled and crazy. People tell themselves they must do something. Why? Because it’s their duty. Because it’s “right.” Because it’s the way to get ahead. Because … whatever. Beware of emotional reactions driven by your values. If your decision is a thoughtful one, that’s fine. If it’s an immediate, instinctive reaction, take care. The world has many shades between “black” and “white” and they’re worth exploring before you settle on a choice.

  4. Untested assumptions. Untested assumptions are caused by mental laziness. There’s no kinder way to put it. People who don’t check out their beliefs and assumptions are the couch potatoes of the mental world. Hey, it’s easier to reach for the mental remote and look for some more entertainment than do the work of weighing choices and checking data seriously.
Until you’re conscious of your limiting beliefs, and how they work against you, you’re powerless to overcome them. Take back your freedom of choice. Don’t let mere opinions call the shots in your life. Look around inside your head. Do some mental “spring-cleaning.” Chase those silly fears and outdated habits out of the dusty corners of your mind. Sort out your values and get them working to help you instead of hinder. And most of all, get off that mental couch, put down the remote and do some serious exercise. If you let your mental muscles get flabby, you’ll pay for it one way or another, believe me.



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