Thursday, July 31, 2014

Overcoming Procrastination

If he who hesitates is lost, what about he who procrastinates?

As long as people have been reflecting they have been reflecting on procrastination. It is puzzling that people can delay doing what they know they should be doing and want to be doing. And that they will keep delaying even when delay is unpleasant, even painful.

University of Calgary professor Piers Steel has studied the phenomenon. He has observed that people who procrastinate lack self-discipline. They are bad self-regulators. He also learned that procrastination is the “flip side” of poor impulse control.

Maria Konnikova explains the link:

Just as impulsivity is a failure of our self-control mechanisms—we should wait, but instead we act now—so, too, is procrastination: we should act now, but instead we wait.

We are indebted to Steel and the other neuroscientists for this observation. And yet, how do you know the difference between delaying a task because you are waiting for the right time or delaying it because you are afraid to do it. And what about people who seem to use their delaying tactics to provoke drama?

And the lack of impulse control is not always a bad thing. True enough, people who lack impulse control might very well do the wrong thing at the wrong time. But, it is possible to do the right thing at just the right time, spontaneously.

Neuroscience tells us that procrastination and impulse control are two sides of the same coin. It does not, however, tell us how to distinguish between the right and the wrong of any specific action.

Sometimes people delay a task because they are not ready to do it. Sometimes delay helps them to compose their thoughts and to do a better job.

If you have been hard at work on task 1, it is often not possible to flick a switch and to move on to task 2.

Sometimes, preparation is needed. At other times, people wait for the right moment because they want to do their best. Others procrastinate because they want to irritate the person who is waiting to see the report.

To know whether or not you are procrastinating you have to know how well you accomplish the task once you set about to complete it.

Of course, if you never complete the task you are not just procrastinating, you are failing to fulfill a responsibility.

If someone is constantly getting into fights in bars we believe that he has poor impulse control. And yet, if he is a tennis player and has developed his skill to the point where he does not think before responding to a shot on the court, we would not say that he lacks impulse control. We would say that he has attuned his impulses to the point where they serve his competitive purpose.

Again, neuroscience does not tell us the difference between right and wrong.

Be that as it may, today’s cognitive therapists have developed constructive ways to combat the negative effects of some forms of procrastination. They do not do it by exploring the depths of your mind, but they seek out new ways to motivate people.
Konnikova reports:

When it comes to self-control, one trick that tends to work well is to reframe broad, ambitious goals in concrete, manageable, immediate chunks, and the same goes for procrastination. “We know there is a lot of naturally occurring motivation as deadlines approach,” Steel pointed out. “Can you create artificial deadlines to mimic the same thing?”

Next, be more specific in defining the task. If you tell yourself that you must write you will be less motivated and less productive than if you tell yourself that you need to write a certain number of words or pages within a specific time frame:

For instance, Steel uses timed ten-minute sessions to get started on tasks that he doesn’t quite want to do. “The problem with a goal we’re avoiding is that we’ve already built into our minds how awful it’s going to be,” he said. “So it’s like diving into a cold pool: the first few seconds are terrible, but soon it feels great.” So, set the goal of working on a task for a short time, and then reassess. Often, you’ll be able to stay on task once you’ve overcome that initial jump. “You don’t say, ‘I am going to write.’ You say, ‘I will complete four hundred words by two o’clock,’ ” Steel says. “The more specific, the more powerful. That’s what gets us going.”

And then, eliminate distractions, preferably before they begin to tempt you:

Identify the “hot” conditions for impulse control—those moments when you’re most prone to give in to distraction—and find ways to deal with them directly. “One of the easiest things to do is to realize that maybe it’s your distractions, not your goals, that are the problem,” said Steel. “So you make the distractions harder to get to. Make them less obvious.”

According to the best thought on procrastination and motivation, you can best overcome your bad time management skills by reorganizing your time and redefining the tasks you need to accomplish.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Coming Together or Coming Apart

He’s an extrovert. She’s an introvert.

He’s outgoing. She’s more retiring.

He likes to go out all the time. She’s a homebody.

One might say that they complement each other. Don’t opposites attract?

That’s what they think. They find each other charming. Each is thrilled to be attached to his or her polar opposite.

Until they aren’t.

In time, she resents being dragged out every evening to meaningless events. He does not like being pressured to stay in and miss the party.

Are they falling out of love? Have they developed what the psychologists call a “fatal attraction?”

The label feels far too dramatic. Why classify this loving couple as psychopathic?

In truth, they and some psychologists have missed the first lesson of living together: the need to create couples routines.

When they were singletons each member of this couple could do as he or she pleased. Each developed single-person habits and routines. The routines were comfortable; they felt like second nature.

And then came the disruption. When the couple decided to build a life together they might have believed that they could each hold on to their old singleton habits. Unfortunately, that is far more difficult that it seems.

If she stays home while he goes out, he might feel that she does not want to be seen in public with him. If she stays home while he goes out, she might feel abandoned. If he stays home when he wants to go out he might feel that she is imposing her will on him and stifling his personality. And she might feel that the presence of a grumpy and resentful man is not such a good thing.

Such was the case of Laurie Davis and Thomas Edwards, reported by Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal.

One day Davis turned the dislocation into a conflict:

One Friday, Ms. Davis, 32, decided at the last minute to opt out of a weekend trip to the Hamptons the couple had been planning with friends. "Thomas, you go out way too much," she told Mr. Edwards.

He was completely shaken. "I felt like she was attacking the very nature of why she liked me," says Mr. Edwards, 29.

Truth be told, this has nothing to do with who liked whom how much. It had everything to do with Davis’s reneging on an agreement. By going back on her word Davis manifested the kind of bad character that makes relationships much more difficult, regardless of how much anyone loves or does not love anyone else.

Apparently, no one noticed this detail, so the couple did the next best thing. They tried to find a compromise, one that would allow him to go out more often, that would allow her to have more time with her girlfriends and for the two of them to have some date nights.

I would note in passing, that there is a significant difference between being a homebody and wanting to hang out with your girlfriends.

Bernstein explains:

Then they sat down and talked about what they wanted in a relationship, why they craved it and what it would look like. Ms. Davis said she wanted Mr. Edwards to set aside time and space so they could be alone together. Mr. Edwards told Ms. Davis he would like her to hang out with her friends more, "within reason, of course."

And so the couple, who wed two months ago, worked on their differences. Mr. Edwards scheduled regular date nights. Ms. Davis held sleepovers for her girlfriends and joined entrepreneur groups where she met new friends. When socializing together, they planned more outings with couples than with large groups, because large groups drain Ms. Davis. And while they were out, they would thank each other for going.

"That support and validation were good for us because they taught us to be more aware of each other's needs," says Mr. Edwards, who is a dating coach.

"Above all, we realized that we never want the other person to feel like they need to do something," says Ms. Davis. "It's just most important to us that we're both happy, even if that means spending a little time apart."

Happily, the couple has now taken some positive steps toward creating routines in which they can both participate.

And yet, having sleepovers with your girlfriends is not the same as being a homebody. Am I the only one who finds it peculiar that a married woman would want to have regular sleepovers with her girlfriends? Evidently, there are aspects of this relationship that we know nothing about. Thus, it is difficult to analyze what is really going on.

We were led to believe that Davis liked to stay at home with her husband because she wants to nest. Perhaps, she wants to have a family and wonders whether her peripatetic husband will be able to stay at home enough to help her out.

Surely, that is an important issue. Bernstein’s account does not address it.

Nor do we know anything about the nature of the outings that Edwards plans. Since he is a few years younger than Davis, she might find his friends to be puerile and childish, overgrown frat boys. The information we have does not address this issue, though the mention of “large groups” suggests as much, to me at least.

If that is the case, then clearly Edwards is doing well to abandon some of his partying in favor of dinner dates with other couples.

Interestingly, this solution represents the golden mean between his wish to go out and her wish for more good conversation.

The moral of the story is that in order to understand or to conduct a negotiation you need to command all the relevant details and even a few irrelevant ones.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Executive coach S. Chris Edmonds offers the three pillars of good leadership.

They are, with my variations:

Do not tolerate bad behavior.

Take all opinions into account.

Put it all in context.

To elaborate:

Surely, leaders must set an example of good behavior. They must be respectful and considerate, never rude, insulting or demeaning.

But, they should never countenance bad behavior in others.

Evidently, if they behave badly themselves they will not be respected when they reject rudeness in others.

Once an executive allows his staff to believe that rudeness, bullying and demeaning behavior is acceptable, he will have a very difficult time putting an end to it.

As for the ability to listen, we ought to be clear that there is much more to it than just listening. Being a good listener means taking what you hear seriously. You show yourself to be a good listener by including what you hear in your decisions.

Employees who do not believe that their concerns have been taken into account will be less motivated to implement company policy.

The purpose of good listening is to allow everyone to feel like a part of the decision making process, to give everyone a voice.

When Edwards talks about context he means that employees must know how their jobs fit within the larger context of the company, perhaps even the industry or the nation.

Once the leader sets a strategy, he must not only show that it reflects the input he has been receiving, but he must be sure that everyone understands it. The higher an executive the larger his scope. His is a more global view.

And he should be sure that all employees understand how their jobs fit into the larger picture. Otherwise employees will feel isolated from everyone else.

In a word, the three pillars of good leadership are about making all employees feel like they belong, lare being treated with respect and are an integral part of the work process.

Slavoj Zizek, Plagiarist

Surprisingly, the story was important enough to appear in Newsweek.

Superstar Marxist (and Freudian) philosopher Slavoj Zizek was caught plagiarizing.

A discerning reader was surprised to discover, in a Zizek article, a couple of readable paragraphs. He understood that something was wrong.

In time he discovered that the offending passages had been lifted, nearly verbatim from another publication. Not just from any publication but from a white supremacist magazine called American Renaissance.

Of course, Zizek is not merely a Marxist philosopher. He is a leading proponent of psychoanalysis, especially that of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. I defined his role clearly in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

Writing about the kerfuffle in Slate Rebecca Schuman expressed some sympathy for the superstar. Don’t all great academic thinkers do the same thing? We do not expect such people to write every word that they publish, do we?

As for Zizek, he defended himself on the grounds that a friend had passed along the offending passages without telling him that they had been lifted from someone else’s work. Since the friend gave Zizek permission to transcribe his words verbatim, the superstar philosopher asks forgiveness because he did not know what he was doing.

He merely thought that he was plagiarizing a friend’s work. And besides, the plagiarized passages merely summarized an argument. They were, Zizek claimed, merely informative.

As Schuman hints, Zizek thereby showed that he does not understand plagiarism. You cannot plagiarize an idea; you can only plagiarize someone’s words. And on that count Zizek’s editor agrees that the philosopher stands guilty as charged.

And yet, said editor, from the journal Critical Inquiry now says that he would have dealt with the problem by asking Zizek to remove the plagiarized paragraphs. He would not, in other words, have held Zizek to account for his intellectual malfeasance and would have happily run the rest of the article.

Fortunately, Zizek does not much care about his reputation, but why would an apparently reputable journal of ideas adopt such an insouciant attitude toward a plagiarist?

Monday, July 28, 2014

"The Exercise Cure"

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your health. It’s good for your physical health. It’s good for your mental health. It’s one of the most beneficial things you can do for yourself.

And yet, it requires work. In a culture that has taught people that there’s a pill for everything, exercise is often shunted off to the side, an activity for those who are less cerebral and thus less intelligent.

And, physicians do not profit directly when their patients exercise. You might say that fitness centers do and that Nike does, but the medical profession has very little vested financial interest in exercise.

Worse yet, exercise competes with treatments that earn more for doctors.

Everyone knows about exercise, but the message does not seem to have a privileged messenger. Perhaps, Dr. Jordan Metzl will be that messenger. As both a practicing physician—specializing in sports medicine—and a trainer, Metzl treats patients and teaches exercise classes.

Dr. Metzl’s specialty is treating injuries without surgery. His favorite medicine, he says, is exercise: It is one he takes often and prescribes to all of his patients. He’s completed over 40 marathons and Ironman competitions, and his goal is to do at least one Ironman every year.

Hopefully, Metzl’s training regimen does not make those who prefer a few hours on the treadmill feel inadequate.

In the course of his Times interview Metzl discusses his book, The Exercise Cure:

It takes what I believe in personally and puts it in a scientific approach, namely that exercise is medicine. I want people to learn how they can take exercise for their problems, whether its memory issues, depression, anxiety, heart disease or high cholesterol. How do you use exercise as a first line drug, and how do you talk to your physician about that? Those are things I want people to learn.

It’s a lot better than touting the transformative power of Prozac, don’t you think.

Fellow Feeling

Greg McKeown believes that if we want to have good relationships with our colleagues on the job we should develop filters to protect us from each other. We should learn how to protect ourselves from rude and caustic criticism and we should protect others from our own rude and caustic criticism.

It sounds like good advice. Yet, McKeown should have added that we would all get along better if we knew how to save face.

Keep in mind, the face you save is never just your own.

Of course, saving face means maintaining your dignity by keeping a stiff upper lip when you are feeling anguished or in despair. But it also means respecting the face of others, showing consideration for their feelings and their self-respect.

McKeown is right to frame the issue in terms of protection, because when you are talking with someone else you must first protect his face. If you hurt his feelings, you need to apologize quickly. If he exposes too much of himself you must help him to cover up.

A culture that tells you to be straightforward and direct, to be open and honest, to get things off your chest and to blurt out what is on your mind… saves no one’s face. If you are rude, insulting and demeaning to others you are compromising your own dignity by attacking someone else’s.

McKeown offers some fine examples of how people act toward each other when they have no face.

He writes:

I once worked with a manager who gave blunt feedback in perpetuity: “You’re not a grateful person!” and “You’re just not a great writer!” and “Well, that was dumb!” My response, at first, was to listen as if everything she said was true. On the outside, I became defensive — but on the inside, I returned home emotionally beaten up. 

To deal with the emotional fallout from such assaults, one does best to consider, as McKeown said, the source. One does well to ignore the comments of people who do not respect you. One does better to find a better boss.

For having absorbed the attacks of an abusive boss, McKeown managed to pick up the habit himself. Without knowing it.

He explains:

On the other hand, I once worked with a leader with whom I felt I could be completely open. One day she said to me, “I value what you have to say, but sometimes it feels like I’ve been punched in the solar plexus when we talk.” 

Astonishingly, McKeown was unaware of his own rudeness. It felt right; it seemed to echo what he had been hearing; it must have been culturally acceptable speech.

If his interlocutor was signaling, with her facial expressions, her distress at hearing his words, he was oblivious. One might say that he lacked empathy or sympathy, but feeling her feelings would not, in itself have told him what to do about it. Empathy is not a moral principle.

Saving face begins with respecting the feelings of others. In conversation you read the facial expressions of your interlocutor. You mimic those expressions to learn what the person is feeling. In truth, you need to know the feeling more than you need to feel it. Can you know it without having something of an emotional intimation? Possibly, you can, but sensing the feeling does not, in tell you what to do about it.

One might call this a capacity for empathy. Surely, those who tout the virtue of empathy would say so. And yet, feeling someone else’s anguish is not a moral principle. It does not tell you what you should do in order to attenuate that anguish. Empathy does not tell you whether you should try to diminish the anguish or to take advantage of it.

You certainly want to know if your competitor is weakening, but you do not want to feel the feeling. The more you feel his feelings the more you will start acting as he does. That is, acting defeated.

If you are playing chess you want to size up your opponent. You want to know who he is, what his tactics are likely to be, how well he reacts to this or that move. You might even try to read his emotion through his facial expression.

Yet, nothing guarantees that you have read them correctly. The state of play on the board, combined with the possible moves and countermoves provides a context in which you can interpret the emotion you are sensing in your opponent. The fact that he feels confident in his moves and displays his confidence in his expression does not mean that the game is going his way. It might mean that he is oblivious to what is really going on.

If he looks like he is worried about the course of the game that might mean that he knows he is losing, but it might also mean that he has not yet seen the move that will spell your defeat. Surely, good competitors will try to trick their opponents into feeling the wrong feeling.

Feeling someone’s feeling might be a part of the knowledge you need in order compete effectively, but it is not decisive. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Meanwhile, Back in Afghanistan

In a news report on Taliban advances in Afghanistan, the NewYork Times does not offer opinions. And properly so.

Yet, the picture is grim, and the facts are well worth your attention.

Here is the opening of the Times’s long, and well reported story:
MAHMUD RAQI, Afghanistan —Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.

The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.

Their advance has gone unreported because most American forces have left the field and officials in Kabul have largely refused to talk about it. The Afghan ministries have not released casualty statistics since an alarming rise in army and police deaths last year.

At a time when an election crisis is threatening the stability of the government, the Taliban’s increasingly aggressive campaign is threatening another crucial facet of the American withdrawal plan, full security by Afghan forces this year.

“They are running a series of tests right now at the military level, seeing how people respond,” one Western official said, describing a Taliban effort to gauge how quickly they could advance. “They are trying to figure out: Can they do it now, or will it have to wait” until after the American withdrawal, the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the coalition has officially ceded security control.

Interviews with local officials and residents in several strategic areas around the country suggest that, given the success of their attacks, the Taliban are growing bolder just two months into the fighting season, at great cost to Afghan military and police forces.

The rest of the story is well worth a read.