Check you intuition

intuition-by-lovelorn-poets

We base a lot of our decisions on intuition rather than evidence.

It’s a sensible strategy most of the time. It’s faster, less effortful and it allows us to focus on more pressing concerns.

But the environment in which we make decisions can change quickly and our intuitions don’t auto-update.

Take 30 seconds to check your intuitions.

What are they based on?

Are they still accurate?

Are they still helpful?

A quick examination of our own thought processes can often help us to avoid sleepwalking into trouble based on bad intuitions.

Getting unstuck from the everyday

Packed_Lunch_by_Mark_Robinson

It’s super easy to get caught up in the sticky web of distraction with two major consequences:

  1. We get diverted from our most important work – where we can have the most impact
  2. We close down and start to behave in a reactionary, automatic way without the full toolbox of choices available to us

While it’s hard to catch yourself in the moment, we can set a few alarms to go off throughout the day to trigger the following 2 questions:

  1. Am I doing my most important work right now? If not, how can I get to it asap?
  2. Am I behaving in a way which I would be happy for those I most love and admire to see?

These questions – or variations of them – can be helpful tools to course correct us. They can help to steer us back towards the kinds action and behaviour which will truly serve us in the long term.

Breaking the back of big tasks

Pizza Slice by Jenn Durfey

Every big job has a back you can break – a point at which you can apply attention and effort to make it manageable and enable big gains.

The trick is to find it early enough. To be oriented in the right way to see it.

If you’re stuck and not making headway, you’re probably applying your effort to the wrong point.

This doesn’t mean give up, it means re-orient.

Think of your task as a pizza.

You can make a pizza into equal parts by slicing it into thin discs or cutting it into slices.

Both will give you pieces of equal size, but one is a lot easier (without a weapons-grade laser).

This is orientation.

Think of your task as a car.

You can put the jack on the roof, of under the rim near the wheel arch.

Both will allow you to raise the jack, but only one will result in you raising the car.

This is applying the effort.

Now stop thinking about your task and go break its back.

Lobotomies and imaginary snakes

Snake by Parker Knight

It’s easy to get caught up in an abstract world, and miss what’s happening right around us.

This is because we experience the world in a re-constructed, semi-artificial way.

We don’t “see” a tree. We see a reconstruction of it. Our brain receives information from the outside and reconstructs it in a model which makes sense to us.

It’s an abstraction, removed from the outside world, and yet it feels perfectly real.

This ability to create abstractions and then treat them as real, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to interact with the physical world around us in a meaningful way. We can recognise and manipulate objects and respond to changes in our physical environment. It also allows us to interact with other people both directly and indirectly, sharing thoughts and ideas which are themselves abstract.

In fact, you and I are doing this right now. And we’re not even in the same space (or time) – that’s pretty amazing.

The flip side of this ability is that we can create imagined or potential scenarios in our brain and respond to then in much the same way as we would the real world. We can think about a potential event in the future and it can bring us the same joy and excitement or stress and discomfort as an event we actually perceive in the present.

Since all our experience of the world is via reconstructions, and we often like to switch between levels of abstractions, our brain has little interest in distinguishing between what’s real and what’s made up. To (at least one part of) the brain, it can pretty much seem one and the same.

And this is a problem when it comes to our physical stress responses and how they are wired to be triggered.

We have a number of deeply ingrained, biological warning mechanisms which are designed to fire a stress response when we perceive threats in our external environment. A leopard in a tree or a snake at our feet triggers this response and makes us uncomfortable enough with the current situation that we just want to leave.

Once we get out of the situation, the stress response disappears and we go back to normal. Phew.

But here’s the rub: That same ability to work with abstract concepts as if they are real, can trigger our stress response in exactly the same way – for imagined as well as actual threats. We think about a horrible email we might get in the future – zing – stress response. We imagine a confrontation with our boss – zing – stress response.

The result is that this stress response, which is meant to be an acute, short-term response to a real, immediate threat can be fired in a continuous and relentless way in response to imaginary and less immediate situations.

This can quickly overwhelm us and seriously inhibit our ability to operate normally.

It can also make us feel like shit.

The bad news is that there is no way to turn this off without losing our ability to interact with the real world, or work with abstractions. It would also leave some serious lobotomy scars.

The good news is, we can turn it down, it just requires some time and deliberate attention. We can be much more skilful at managing our responses if we start watching our thoughts and being aware of what’s happening in our brain.

It’s largely irrelevant whether you do this through a formal practice like meditation or just by taking note of how you feel and what you’re thinking about – the important thing is that you do it.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on in your brain, you can then make better decisions about what to do about it.

Sometimes you’re going to want to make changes in the physical world, but other times it might makes sense to just stop thinking about imaginary snakes.

This post riffs on ideas from Tara Brach, David McRaney and Seth Godin.

Protecting your mental RAM

It’s not a perfect metaphor, but sometimes it’s helpful to think of our brains as computers.

The things we’ve learned are written to disk. They sit on our hard drive, but we can really only made use of them if we load them into RAM.

There are heaps of things we’ve learned which are relevant to any given situation, but unless we consciously drag them to the surface and load them into RAM, they don’t really influence our thinking or actions.

But we can’t just load everything into RAM. It’s a precious resource, it’s what we need to do our work, and it’s really easy to fill up with shit.

That 5 minute check of your facebook feed? That’s all sitting in your RAM. That fact about whale testicles spouted at volume by the loud guy in the office? That’s sitting in your RAM.

When you sleep, your RAM gets (mostly) purged – so if you want to retain something, you have to make the effort to write it to disk (or write it down).

When we wake up, our RAM is pretty fresh but we should be discerning with what we load into it. If we fill it with shit first thing in the morning, we’ll have it rattling around all day.

One of the most important things I’ve learned comes from this quote by Victor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

It’s the reminder to pause. To create enough space to ensure that a response is a deliberate choice and not just the product of habit, fear or bullshit. It’s the reminder that, irrespective of circumstance, we get to choose our response and that’s the cornerstone of our freedom.

When we react without making that choice, we have no freedom. We’re just a slave to the unfathomable algorithms of our experience.

It’s a great lesson, but I almost never heeded it, because I never made the conscious effort to load it into RAM. It wasn’t there when I needed it.

Now I’ve changed how I think about my RAM. I’m protective of what goes into it and I’m careful of the boot sequence. Frankl’s quote is in the boot sequence, but Facebook and facts about whale balls didn’t make the cut (although they’re in your RAM now).

Keep your RAM tidy and make deliberate choices about what you load into it. And if you are going to add something into your boot sequence, you could do a lot worse than some Victor Frankl.