Slicing Projects

Rather than looking at tasks, projects or decisions as items that must be completed, slice them into the smallest possible units of progress, then knock them out one at a time. This strategy relieves the pressure of thinking we need a perfect plan before we begin something — after all, if your first step is “open a new Google Doc for this week’s newsletter” and not “pick a perfect topic, write a perfect lede and have a perfect organization,” you either have achieved that micro-goal or you haven’t. There’s no gray area.

Tim Herrera writing in the New York Times 


Under the right circumstances, a subconscious neurobiological sequence in our brains causes us to perceive the world around us in ways that contradict objective reality, distorting what we see and hear. This powerful shift in perception is unrelated to our intelligence, morals, or past behaviors. In fact, we don’t even know it’s happening, nor can we control it. 

(We) found that it happens in two distinct situations: those involving high anxiety and those associated with major reward. 

Under these conditions, all of us would do something just as regrettable as the headline-grabbing stories above, contrary to what we tell ourselves. Phrased differently, we don’t consciously decide to act a fool. Rather, once our perception is distorted, we act in ways that seem reasonable to us but foolish to observers.

Robert Pearl writing in Vox

Your Greater Goal

We often imagine that we generally operate by some kind of plan, that we have goals we are trying to reach. But we’re usually fooling ourselves; what we have are not goals but wishes. Our emotions infect us with hazy desire; we want fame, success, security – something large and abstract. 

Clear long-term objectives give direction to all of your actions, large and small. Important decisions became easier to make. If some glittering prospect threatens to seduce you from your goal, you will know to resist it You can tell when to sacrifice a pawn, even lose a battle, if it serves your eventual purpose.   

Robert Greene, 33 Strategies of War


Each Step

The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decision, the more our heart softens - or better perhaps, comes alive.  

Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action.       

On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost. With each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for people to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.     

Erich Fromm, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil    

Regretting your Choices

The choices we make are statements to the world about who we are. When all you could do was buy Lee’s or Levi’s, the jeans you bought were not a statement to the world about who you are because there wasn’t enough variety in the jeans you bought to capture the variety of human selves. When there are 2,000 kinds of jeans, or 20,000 kinds of jeans, well, now all of a sudden it is a statement to the world about who you are because there’s so much variety out there. This is true of jeans. It’s true of drinks. It’s true of music videos. It’s true of movies. That makes even trivial decisions seem important, and when that happens, people want the best. We’ve got a bunch of studies that show that large choice sets induce people to regard the choices they make as statements about the self, and that, in turn, induces them to raise their standards.If there are 200, and you buy a pair of jeans that don’t fit you as well as you hoped, now it’s hard to avoid blaming yourself. The only way to avoid regretting a decision is not making it, so I think a lot of the reason people don’t pull the trigger is that they’re so worried that when they do pull the trigger, they’ll regret a choice they made.

Barry Schwartz quoted in Vox

The Indecision Cycle

No-brainer decisions, like jumping in a pool to rescue a drowning child, are driven by a very fast-thinking part of the brain (known as the prefrontal cortex). When you jump in to save a theoretical child in need, you’re driven by that emotional part of your brain — and you don’t spend time analyzing how deep the water is, how to best approach the rescue, etc.

Most tasks, however, utilize rational parts of our brain. Unfortunately, these are the same parts of our minds that helped us avoid danger in primitive times. As a result, we approach an Excel spreadsheet the same way we foraged for food as cavemen — by looking at all the possible dangers behind it, and constantly analyzing the best approach. It’s a slow and inefficient process that causes procrastination, and stress only makes it worse.

The key here is to end the indecision cycle by to activating the proper parts of your brain.

While you cannot immediately flush out procrastination out of your system, you can start by conditioning your mind into focusing on what is important and knowing that you can do it (or at least take a crack at it) during the 5-second window.

Elle Kaplan writing in Medium  

The green fig tree

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

We Prefer the Available Evidence

People are inclined to make decisions based on how readily available information is to them. If you can easily recall something, you are likely to rely more on this information than other facts or observations. This means judgements tend to be heavily weighted on the most recent piece of information received or the simplest thing to recall.

In practice, research has shown (pdf) that shoppers who can recall a few low-price products—perhaps because of a prominent ads or promotions—tend to think that a store offers low prices across the board, regardless of other evidence. And in a particularly devious experiment, a psychology professor (naturally) got his students to evaluate his teaching (pdf), with one group asked to list two things he could improve and another asked to list 10. Since it’s harder to think of 10 bad things than just two, the students asked to make a longer list gave the professor better ratings—seemingly concluding that if they couldn’t come up with enough critical things to fill out the form, then the course must be good.

Eshe Nelson writing in Quartz

Testosterone makes men less likely to realize when they're wrong

Higher levels of testosterone increase the tendency in men to rely on their intuitive judgments and reduce cognitive reflection -- a decision-making process by which a person stops to consider whether their gut reaction to something makes sense. 

Researchers found that men given doses of testosterone performed more poorly on a test designed to measure cognitive reflection than a group given a placebo. The testosterone group also "gave incorrect answers more quickly, and correct answers more slowly than the placebo group," the authors write.

Caltech's Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics and T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience Leadership Chair (says) "The testosterone is either inhibiting the process of mentally checking your work or increasing the intuitive feeling that 'I'm definitely right.'"

The research will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Read the full story in Science Daily

Attributes of a high-performing Leader

A decade long study published in Harvard Business Review set out to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs: 

Our findings challenged many widely held assumptions. For example, our analysis revealed that while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors.

We were also surprised to learn that virtually all CEO candidates had made material mistakes in the past, and 45% of them had had at least one major career blowup that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. Yet more than 78% of that subgroup of candidates ultimately won the top job.

We discovered that high-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather, they stand out for being more decisive. They make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction. They do so consistently—even amid ambiguity, with incomplete information, and in unfamiliar domains. In our data, people who were described as “decisive” were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.

Read more about the CEO Genome Project in the Harvard Business Review

the Past vs. Possibilities

When I encounter a $2.89 cup of coffee, it’s all too easy for me to recall what I paid for coffee the day before and not so easy for me to imagine all the other things I might buy with my money.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before, or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only questions I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction. If an international bean embargo suddenly caused the price of coffee to skyrocket to $10,000 per cup, then the only question I would need to ask myself is:

“What else can I do with ten thousand dollars, and will it bring me more or less satisfaction than a cup of coffee?”

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Vacationing on Extremia

Imagine that you are preparing to go on a vacation to one of two islands: Moderacia (which has average weather, average beaches, average hotels, and average nightlife) or Extremia (which has beautiful weather and fantastic beaches but crummy hotels and no nightlife). The time has come to make your reservations, so which one would you choose? Most people pick Extremia.

But now imagine that you are already holding tentative reservations for both destinations and the time has come to cancel one of them before they charge your credit card. Which would you cancel? Most people choose to cancel their reservation on Extremia.

Why would people both select and reject Extremia? Because when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Extremia has the most positive attributes and the most negative attributes, hence people tend to select it when they are looking for something to select and they reject it when they are looking for something to reject.

Of course, the logical way to select a vacation is to consider both the presence and the absence of positive and negative attributes, but that's not what most of us do.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Imagining the Future

I often ask people to tell me how they think they would feel two years after the sudden death of an eldest child. As you can probably guess, this makes me quite popular at parties. I know, I know—this is a gruesome exercise and I’m not asking you to do it. But the fact is that if you did it, you would probably give me the answer that almost everyone gives me, which is some variation on "Are you out of your damned mind? I’d be devastated—totally devastated. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. I might even kill myself. So who invited you to this party anyway?"

If at this point I’m not actually wearing the person’s cocktail, I usually probe a bit further and ask how he came to his conclusion. What thoughts or images came to mind, what information did he consider? People typically tell me that they imagined hearing the news, or they imagined opening the door to an empty bedroom.

But in my long history of asking this question and thereby excluding myself from every social circle to which I formerly belonged, I have yet to hear a single person tell me that in addition to these heartbreaking, morbid images, they also imagined the other things that would inevitably happen in the two years following the death of their child.

Indeed, not one person has ever mentioned attending another child’s school play, or making love with his spouse, or eating a taffy apple on a warm summer evening, or reading a book, or writing a book, or riding a bicycle, or any of the many activities that we—and that they—would expect to happen in those two years.

Now, I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that a bite of gooey candy compensates for the loss of a child. That isn’t the point. What I am suggesting is that the two-year period following a tragic event has to contain something—that is, it must be filled with episodes and occurrences of some kind—and these episodes and occurrences must have some emotional consequences.

Regardless of whether those consequences are large or small, negative or positive, one cannot answer my question accurately without considering them. And yet, not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event suggested by my question. When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

embracing the life that's been forced upon you

From the beginning you are in the victim of circumstances. You're born, kicking and screaming, into an unknown family. As a child, you soak up influences that mold your mind in certain ways. When you finally get a driver’s license and move out of the house, you think, you’re free—but you marry someone who looks like your mother and drinks like your father. By the time you figure out who you are or what you want, a life has already been forced upon you. But it’s never too late to change. Although you can’t begin again from scratch, you can make a splendid ragout from the mishmash of damaged goods in your cupboard.

I choose how to live a life I didn’t choose.

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflications

Let Kids Struggle

When children aren’t given the space to struggle through things on their own, they don’t learn to problem solve very well. They don’t learn to be confident in their own abilities, and it can affect their self-esteem. The other problem with never having to struggle is that you never experience failure and can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Both the low self-confidence and the fear of failure can lead to depression or anxiety.

I (am not) suggesting that grown kids should never call their parents. The devil is in the details of the conversation. If they call with a problem or a decision to be made, do we tell them what to do? Or do we listen thoughtfully, ask some questions based on our own sense of the situation, then say, “OK. So how do you think you’re going to handle that?”

Knowing what could unfold for our kids when they’re out of our sight can make us parents feel like we’re in straitjackets. What else are we supposed to do? If we’re not there for our kids when they are away from home and bewildered, confused, frightened, or hurting, then who will be?

Here’s the point—and this is so much more important than I realized until rather recently when the data started coming in: The research shows that figuring out for themselves is a critical element to people’s mental health. Your kids have to be there for themselves. That’s a harder truth to swallow when your kid is in the midst of a problem or worse, a crisis, but taking the long view, it’s the best medicine for them.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult

Overinvolved parenting

The data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of them when it comes to life skills yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them.

Karen Able is a staff psychologist at a large public university in the Midwest. (Her name has been changed here because of the sensitive nature of her work.) Based on her clinical experience, Able says, “Overinvolved parenting is taking a serious toll on the psychological well-being of college students who can’t negotiate a balance between consulting with parents and independent decision-making.”

When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult


Time to stop looking for signals and start acting

The more information we sift through, the more nuggets of truth we are likely to uncover. But this also means we raise the level of noise that we must cut through in order to find those nuggets. We don’t do a very good job of regulating our intake of information. In our hunt for certainty we assume more is better. We consume a ton of noise to gain an added ounce of signal. Picking a  time to stop gathering and start acting is critical to avoid paralysis and stagnation.

Stephen Goforth