This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I’ve previously written about how a great many of life’s anticipated misfortunes, adversities, trials and tribulations will never come to pass. Much of your worrying is ultimately fruitless and anger is often pointless.

Today, I shall discuss a technique you can use to let go of anxiety.

Bertrand Russell: Nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance

The Remedial Benefits of Deliberating, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

When you face anxiety, nervousness, fear, or worry, try the following technique: imagine all possible negative consequences of the situation you are confronting. Then, conceive of the worst outcome, even if there’s little chance events will turn out that way—imagine everything that could go wrong, in the worst possible way. Envision the worst outcomes.

When you exaggerate your fears and imagine the worst thing that could happen, you make your impending fears look unreasonable. You will realize that even the worst possible scenario isn’t so terrible after all. Often, this deliberation—and your sense of humor—usually restores your perspective on the anxiety you’re facing. You’ll realize that, at the worst, nothing that could happen to you is ultimately that significant.

'The Conquest of Happiness' by Bertrand Russell (ISBN 0871401622) Bertrand Russell, one of the west’s great intellectuals, was an advocate of this ploy. In The Conquest of Happiness, this extraordinary mathematician and brilliant philosopher asserts that happiness is in no way a passive endeavor, but a condition that takes a lot of work. Discussing how to avoid worry through the cultivation of right attitudes, Russell wrote,

A process … can be adopted with regard to anxieties. When some misfortune threatens, consider seriously and deliberately what is the very worst that could possibly happen. Having looked this possible misfortune in the face, give yourself sound reasons for thinking that after all it would be no such very terrible disaster. Such reasons always exist, since at the worst nothing that happens to oneself has any cosmic importance. When you have looked for some time steadily at the worst possibility and have said to yourself with real conviction, “Well, after all, that would not matter so very much,” you will find that your worry diminishes to a quite extraordinary extent. It may be necessary to repeat the process a few times, but in the end, if you have shirked nothing in facing the worse possible issue, you will find that your worry disappears altogether and is replaced by a kind of exhilaration.

To Get Rid of Anxiety, You Must First Embrace it

This Trick Can Relieve Your Anxiety: What's the Worst That Could Happen Russell’s method of overcoming anxiety and worry hints at the Stoic practice of “premeditatio malorum”—contemplating potential misfortunes in advance and reinstating emotional calm through positive affirmations. This classic technique of the Hellenistic world in due course laid the foundation for exposure therapy where anxiety is treated via exposure to stressful events either in vitro (in the laboratory of the mind) or in vivo (in real life.) Russell provides this explanation of exposure therapy:

Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. A man who has learned not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished. … The proper course with every kind of fear is to think about it rationally and calmly, but with great concentration, until it has been completely familiar.

Idea for Impact: When confronting your fears, denial is never a wise strategy, positive action is!

The Roman lyric poet Horace advocated, “remember to keep a calm and balanced mind in the face of adversity” (loosely translated from the Latin “aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem” in Odes, II, 3.)

When faced with potential adversity or anticipated worry, try imagining the worst thing that could happen. This strategy for approaching your worries can help you to maintain an assertive, self-determining attitude even in the presence of very real and serious fears and threats.

Inspirational Quotations #678

Charity is a virtue of the heart, and not of the hands.
Joseph Addison

A word to the wise is enough, and many words won’t fill a bushel.
Benjamin Franklin

When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man.
Bertrand A. Russell

If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Common Proverb

Listen, sir, to my words, and give ear to my utterances. Keep from strifes with thy neighbor, and if thou seest that thy friend does anything wrong, guard thy tongue from gossip.
The Talmud

Opportunity is lost by deliberation.
Publilius Syrus

In for a penny, in for a pound.
Common Proverb

It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.
Albert Einstein

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.
Mark Twain

There is perhaps nothing so bad and so dangerous in life as fear.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Experience is a great advantage. The problem is that when you get the experience, you’re too damned old to do anything about it.
Jimmy Connors

School can give a false sense of confidence or of loserhood. Too often, school success does not predict life success.
Marty Nemko

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in.
Alan Alda

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable on Self-Awareness

Your Mind Renders the Outer Condition into Inner Pain and Suffering—or Joy and Happiness

The state of your mind plays a vital role in shaping your everyday experiences of joy and happiness, and your general physical and mental well-being.

If you can maintain a peaceful and tranquil state of mind, the external conditions can cause you only limited disturbance. However, if your mental state is tense, restless, and agitated, you’ll find it difficult to be at peace even in the best of circumstances—even if you’re surrounded by the best of your friends and family.

When you truly become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause—for yourself and for others—you will not indulge them even a bit.

The following Zen ‘koan’ parable (see source in postscript) validates the potential dangers that can occur when you fall prey to your negative emotions.

When you become aware of how much damage negative emotions can cause, you will not indulge them even a bit.

Heaven and Hell: A Zen Parable

A tough, brawny samurai once approached a Zen master who was deep in meditation.

Impatient and discourteous, the samurai demanded in his husky voice so accustomed to forceful yelling, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master opened his eyes, looked the samurai in the face, and replied with a certain scorn, “Why should I answer to a shabby, disgusting, despondent slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything? I can’t stand you. Get out of my sight. I have no time for silly questions.”

The samurai could not bear these insults. Consumed by rage, he drew his sword and raised it to sever the master’s head at once.

Looking straight into the samurai’s eyes, the Zen master tenderly declared, “That’s hell.”

The samurai froze. He immediately understood that anger had him in its grip. His mind had just created his own hell—one filled with resentment, hatred, self-defense, and fury. He realized that he was so deep in his torment that he was ready to kill somebody.

The samurai’s eyes filled with tears. Setting his sword aside, he put his palms together and obsequiously bowed in gratitude for this insight.

The Zen master gently acknowledged with a delicate smile, “And that’s heaven.”

Self-Awareness & Self-Regulation: The Bases of Emotional Intelligence

'Emotional Intelligence' by Daniel Goleman (ISBN 055380491X) Retelling this Zen parable in his influential bestseller, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, the Harvard psychologist Daniel Goleman comments, “The sudden awakening of the samurai to his own agitated state illustrates the crucial difference between being caught up in a feeling and becoming aware that you are being swept away by it. Socrates’s injunction ‘Know thyself’ speaks to the keystone of emotional intelligence: awareness of one’s own feelings as they occur.”

In Emotional Intelligence (1995) and in his legendary Harvard Business Review article What Makes a Leader (1998), Goleman further argues that self-awareness and self-regulation are essential elements of emotional intelligence. In What Makes a Leader, he writes, “Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs and drives. … People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings hurt them, other people, and their job performance.”

With reference to self-regulation, “Biological impulses drive our emotions. We cannot do away with them—but we can do much to manage them. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of own feelings. People [with high self-regulation] feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.”

The Stoic Philosophers Advocated an Equanimous Outlook to Life

Equanimity is an essential state of mind that you must maintain when interacting with people who rub you the wrong way or push your buttons.

Equanimity (apatheia in Greek and aequanimitas in Latin) was one of the ideals of Stoic philosophy, the third great philosophy of the Ancient World. The ex-slave and leading Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches, “Man is troubled not by events, but by the meaning he gives them.”

Marcus Aurelius, who finally carried Stoic philosophy into the emperor’s seat, writes in Meditations, “When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”

Equanimity is an Essential Buddhist Virtue

In Buddhism, equanimity (upekṣā in Sanskrit and upekkha in Pali) denotes a mind that is at peace notwithstanding stressful and unpleasant experiences. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Vietnamese-French Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh defines upekṣā as “equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, even-mindedness, or letting go. Upa means ‘over,’ and iksh means ‘to look.’ You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other.”

In Dhamma Reflections, the American Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi describes equanimity as “evenness of mind, unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner equipoise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honor and dishonor, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. Upekkha is freedom from all points of self-reference; it is indifference only to the demands of the ego-self with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.”

'Comfortable With Uncertainty' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1590306260) In Comfortable With Uncertainty, an excellent discourse on overcoming the many challenges that life presents us, the renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chodron discusses the above Zen parable and comments,

The view of the warrior-bodhisattva is not “Hell is bad and heaven is good” or “Get rid of hell and just seek heaven.” Instead, we encourage ourselves to developing an open heart and an open mind to heaven, to hell, to everything. Only with this kind of equanimity can we realize that no matter what comes along, we’re always standing in the middle of open space. Only with equanimity can we see that everything that comes into our circle has come to teach us what we need to know.

Equanimous Outlook to Life Through Mind Training

Transcending Turmoil through Mind Training

If life is what you make of it, you can shape your attitudes and behavior by possessing a calm and stable mind.

Centuries of eastern contemplative practices have posited that regular physical yoga exercises and mindfulness meditation can train your mind to regulate your emotional states and bring about positive effects on your physical health and psychological well-being. In the last two decades, thanks to the Dalai Lama’s collaboration with the scientific community through programs such as the Mind and Life Institute, a growing number of scholars in the biological and cognitive sciences are convinced that such contemplative practices are a substantially beneficial introspective laboratory into the effects of negative emotions on overall wellbeing.

Given that your mind is the cause of all emotional upheaval, you can attain an enlightened state of mind by transcending turmoil. Practice of yoga and meditation can help you develop a compassionate assessment of the feelings of pain and suffering, and pleasure and happiness that dominate your existence.

In several well-known books and lectures (such as the Habits of Happiness TED Talk,) the French biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk Matthieu Ricard has popularized the practice of mindfulness meditation as the key to mind training. In Motionless Journey, his awe-inspiring photographic journal of his retreat in the Himalayas, Ricard writes,

A [practitioner] begins by understanding that true happiness does not fundamentally depend on changing external conditions, but rather on changing his own mind and the way it translates the circumstances of existence into happiness or frustration. He sees that as long as he is still not rid of hatred, obsession, pride, jealousy and the other mental poisons, it is as hopeless to expect happiness as it would be to hold his hand in a fire and hope not to be burnt.

Postscript / Source: The Zen Koan “The Gates of Paradise”

Japanese-American Buddhist teacher Gyomay M. Kubose‘s Zen Koans (1973) includes a faithful translation of the parable from Shasekishū (trans. Sand and Pebbles,) an anthology of koans by the thirteenth century Japanese Zen monk Mujū DŌkyŌ:

Nobushige, a soldier, came to Hakuin, a famous Zen Master, and asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”

“Who are you?” inquired Hakuin.

“I am a samurai,” Nobushige replied.

“You, a samurai!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What kind of lord would have you as his guard? You look like a beggar!”

Nobushige became so enraged that he began to draw his sword.

Hakuin continued, “So you have a sword. It is probably too dull to even cut off my head.”

Nobushige brandished his weapon.

Hakuin remarked, “Here, open the gates of hell.”

At these words the perceptive samurai sheathed his sword and bowed.

“Here, open the gates of paradise,” said Hakuin.

Intel’s Andy Grove on Looking at Problems from an Outsider’s Perspective

Look at Problems from an Outsider's Perspective

Fixation Hinders Creative Thinking

In two previous articles (this and this,) I’ve addressed the psychological concept of a “fixed mental set” or “fixation:” assessing a problem from a habituated perspective can prevent you from seeing the obvious and from breaking away from an entrenched pattern of thinking.

A period of rest, entertainment, or exposure to an alternative environment can usually dissipate fixation. The resulting shift in perspective can alter your point of view in a literal and sensory way, or it may change the way you think about or define the problem at hand.

A particularly instructive example of the beneficial effects of altering thought perspectives comes from Andy Grove’s autobiography / management primer Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) Grove, the former Chairman and CEO of Intel who passed away earlier this year, was one of the most influential tech executives Silicon Valley has ever seen.

Japanese Onslaught on Intel’s Memory Business

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Memory chips dominated Intel’s revenue, since the company was founded in 1968. In fact, Intel had a near monopoly in the memory business. However, by the late ’70s, a few Japanese competitors emerged. Grove reflected, “The quality levels attributed to Japanese memories were beyond what we thought possible. … Our first reaction was denial. We vigorously attacked the data.” In due course, Intel recognized the threat to its competitive position. (Between 1978 and 1988, the Japanese companies grew their market share in the memory business from 30% to 60%.)

At the same time, a small entrepreneurial team of engineers had developed Intel’s first microprocessor. In 1981, Intel persuaded IBM to choose this microprocessor to run their personal computers.

By 1985, when Grove was President, Intel’s executives engaged in an intense debate on how to respond to the onslaught of Japanese competitors in the memory business. One faction of engineers wanted to leapfrog the Japanese and build better memory chips. Another faction was in favor of disposing the lucrative memory business and betting Intel’s future on its promising microprocessor technology—something they believed the Japanese couldn’t match.

The “Revolving Door Test:” Getting an Outsider’s Perspective

In the middle of this intense debate, Grove was at a meeting with Intel’s CEO, Gordon Moore (of the Moore’s Law fame.) Grove had an idea for Moore; he recalled this episode in Only the Paranoid Survive,

I remember a time in the middle of 1985, after this aimless wandering had been going on for almost a year. I was in my office with Intel’s chairman and CEO, Gordon Moore, and we were discussing our quandary. Our mood was downbeat. I looked out the window at the Ferris Wheel of the Great America amusement park revolving in the distance, then I turned back to Gordon and asked, “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think he would do?” Gordon answered without hesitation, “He would get us out of memories.” I stared at him, numb, then said, “Why don’t you and I walk out the door, come back in and do it ourselves?”

Andy Grove's Revolving Door Test: Getting an Outsider's Perspective The switch in perspective—i.e. asking “What would our successors do?”—provided a moment of clarity for Moore and Grove. By contemplating Intel’s strategic challenges from an outsider’s perspective, shutting down the memory business was the discernible choice. Even Intel’s customers were supportive:

In fact, when we informed them of the decision, some of them reacted with the comment, “It sure took you a long time.” People who have no emotional stake in a decision can see what needs to be done sooner.

From the time Intel made the important decision to kill its memory chips business, it has dominated the microprocessor market.

If existing management want to keep their jobs when the basics of the business are undergoing profound change, they must adopt an outsider’s intellectual objectivity. They must do what they need to do to get through the strategic inflection point unfettered by any emotional attachment to the past. That’s what Gordon and I had to do when we figuratively went out the door, stomped out our cigarettes and returned to the job.

People in the trenches are usually in touch with pending changes early. Salespeople understand shifting customer demand before management does; financial analysts are the earliest to know when the fundamentals of a business change. While management was kept from responding by beliefs that were shaped by out earlier successes, our production planners and financial analysts dealt with allocations and numbers in an objective world.

Idea for Impact: If You’re Stuck on a Problem, Shift Your Perspective

Often, you can find the solutions to difficult problems merely by defining or formulating them in a new, more productive way.

Consider employing Andy Grove’s “Revolving Door Test” and examining your problems through an outsider’s lens. This shift in perspective may not only engender intellectual objectivity but also muffle the emotion and anxiety that comes with momentous decision-making.

Inspirational Quotations by Robert Frost (#677)

Inspirational Quotations by Robert Frost Today marks the birthday of Robert Frost (1874–1963,) one of America’s most famous poets. This four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize is celebrated for such popular poems as “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Frost’s early years were difficult. After quitting Harvard University due to illness at age 25, Frost lived on a farm in Derry, New Hampshire, for 12 years. He woke up early to write poetry and then worked on the farm all day. He was not a successful farmer and his family grew destitute. Frost sold the farm and moved to Britain in 1911. There, he befriended the poet and essayist Edward Thomas; they regularly took long walks in the English countryside. Thomas’s habitual hesitancy on what path they should stroll amused Frost and inspired his best-known poem, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (1920.)

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In England, Frost published A Boy’s Will (1913) and North of Boston (1914.) The latter sold 20,000 copies and made him famous. After three years in Britain, Frost returned to America and supported himself through his readings and his writing. Frost’s other books include Mountain Interval (1916), New Hampshire (1923), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943).

John F. Kennedy invited Frost to recite a poem for the 1961 presidential inauguration. Frost wrote a poem called “Dedication” especially for the occasion but typed its final version on a typewriter using a dim ribbon. At JFK’s inauguration ceremony, Frost couldn’t recognize the dimly-typed lines and instead recited his well-known poem “The Gift Outright” by heart.

Inspirational Quotations by Robert Frost

A champion of the working man has never yet been known to die of overwork.
Robert Frost

Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.
Robert Frost

The only way around is through.
Robert Frost

Friends make pretence of following to the grave but before one is in it, their minds are turned and making the best of their way back to life and living people and things they understand.
Robert Frost

Earth’s the right place for love. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Robert Frost

Have courage and a little willingness to venture and be defeated.
Robert Frost

Take care to sell your horse before he dies. The art of life is passing losses on.
Robert Frost

You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.
Robert Frost

By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.
Robert Frost

A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman’s birthday but never remembers her age.
Robert Frost

The strongest and most effective force in guaranteeing the long-term maintenance of power is not violence in all the forms deployed by the dominant to control the dominated, but consent in all the forms in which the dominated acquiesce in their own domination.
Robert Frost

Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.
Robert Frost

A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.
Robert Frost

“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”—A Poem by Robert Frost

Here is Frost’s popular 1922 poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” First published in 1923 in the New Republic magazine, this was Frost’s favorite of his own poems—he identified it as, “My best bid for remembrance.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

According to an essay by N. Arthur Bleau, Frost explained the poem’s back-story during a reading at Bowdoin College in 1947. One winter solstice, Frost felt poor enough to purchase Christmas presents for his children. He gathered some produce from his farm and rode his horse-drawn wagon into town to sell them. Unfortunately, he did not sell anything and therefore could not buy any presents for his children.

'The Poetry of Robert Frost' by Robert Frost (ISBN 0805069860) That evening, as Frost was returning home, it began to snow. His horse stopped in the middle of the woods as if it sensed his melancholy. Beset with the disgrace of not providing for his family, Frost “bawled like a baby” even as the snowflakes continued to drop into the stillness of the woods. Abruptly, the horse shook and tinkled its bells. Frost took the horse’s reaction as a reminder of the Christmas spirit and as a motivation to persist and get home to family.

Frost’s daughter Lesley later corroborated the story and quoted her father recollecting his crying, “A man has as much right as a woman to a good cry now and again. The snow gave me shelter; the horse understood and gave me the time.”

Tim Dee, writing in The Guardian, observed that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was the most requested poems on BBC Radio 4’s Poetry Please, the world’s longest-running radio show on poetry. Explaining the popularity of the poem, Dee commented, “Here are 16 short-rhymed lines recalling a moment’s pause on a horseback journey through a winter woodland. The scene is captured with economical precision. The silence of the snow is broken only once—by the jingling bells of the restive animal. We sense the fairytale terror-allure of the muted woods. And in the last three lines we are ushered towards something wider and deeper still, where the suggestion of unfinished business makes a parable and becomes incantatory.”

Everything Takes Longer Than Anticipated: Hofstadter’s Law [Mental Models]

Think of your weekend days. You typically wake up and think of all the free time at hand. You plan a day of leisure. You intend to run some errands and get a few things done around the house. Yet, at the end of the day, you’ve done barely half of what you originally set out to do.

People Habitually Underestimate the Time Tasks Take

Almost everything that humankind has ever wished for—from renewing a driver’s license to achieving peace between countries at war—seems to have not completed within the time originally planned.

As the following case studies will illustrate, interruptions, deferrals, and delays characteristically result in cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and disputes.

  • Sydney’s Opera House was originally forecast in 1957 to be completed in 1963. The magnificent performing arts complex formally opened only in 1973 and cost 15 times the original budget.
  • Hofstadter's Law: Boeing 787 Dreamliner Delays and LossesWhen Boeing first launched its 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2004, it ambitiously planned for first flight in September 2007. After six delays in the design and prototype phases, the 787 first flew only in December 2009. First aircraft delivery was scheduled for 2008, but didn’t happen until September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Then, after a series of early in-service technical and operational problems, Boeing embarked on serious drawn-out repairs on 787s. Following yet more production delays, the 787 started flying full-fledged only in 2013. The innumerable delays and cost overruns associated with the 787 program became a financial nightmare for Boeing’s investors. Boeing took nine years to get the Dreamliner off the drawing board and into mature service at a total development cost of $32 billion—twice as long as the company’s original estimation and more than five times more expensive.
  • Less than 50 days before the start of last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the state of Rio de Janeiro declared a “state of public calamity” citing severe delays and acute cost overruns. The New York Times reported, “The city is a huge construction site. Bricks and pipes are piled everywhere; a few workers lazily push wheelbarrows as if the Games were scheduled for 2017.”

Hofstadter’s Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things Take

Hofstadter's Law: We Chronically Underestimate the Time Things TakeThe American cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter conceived an ironic and recursive rule to characterize the observation that everything takes longer than planned.

Hofstadter’s Law states, “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”

Hofstadter first discussed this law in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book popular among American computer programmers.

Underestimating Task-Time Means Constantly Rushing to Finish Things

According to planning fallacy, when people predict the time it takes to complete a task, they make their estimations by considering the various steps they have to take, but fail to imagine the pessimistic conditions where things could go wrong.

Project Delays: Hofstadter's Law, Planning Fallacy and Optimism BiasIn other words, thanks to optimism bias, people are generally too optimistic about the time it takes for them to complete a task, even when they are explicitly asked to think about potential obstacles.

Hofstadter’s Law also alludes to,

  • Superiority Bias where people overrate their own positive qualities and abilities—and underrate their negative qualities—when compared with others. “This takes three hours for the average Joe, but I am smarter, and I can do it in two hours.”
  • Beneffectance Bias where people perceive themselves as selectively accountable for the desired—but not the undesired—outcomes. “Last week, this took me 45 minutes, but the delay was because of conditions beyond my control. Today, I have full control; so I should take just 20 minutes.”

Idea for Impact: The problem with unforeseen delays is that you can’t foresee them, no matter how comprehensively you plan

Though somewhat silly in its recursive character, Hofstadter’s Law observes that, irrespective of how carefully you plan, every project will be prone to something unanticipated that will hinder its timely completion. The law’s recursiveness affirms that, even if you know a project may overrun and build that expectation into your planning, the project will overrun even your new estimated finish time.

12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

12 Sensible Ways to Realize Self-Responsibility

The French-American essayist Anais Nin (1903–77) wrote in her diary (from Diary of Anais Nin Vol. 5,) “We cannot always place responsibility outside of ourselves, on parents, nations, the world, society, race, religion. Long ago it was the gods. If we accepted a part of this responsibility we would simultaneously discover our strength.”

Self-responsibility is recognizing that you are responsible for your life—that you are the sole master of yourself. Responsible people take charge of themselves, their conduct, and the consequences. Here’s how to live self-responsibility and approach work and life proactively:

  1. Accept that no matter what happens, you’re not a victim. Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens to you.
  2. If something bad happens in your life, don’t let it define who you are. Don’t make it your excuse for not moving ahead. Don’t brood over it without end. Understand it, learn from it, and get on with life. Make it be a part of you without letting it being who you are.
  3. Don’t look back too often. Dwelling on the past deprives the present of its joy and prevents you from enjoying each day to the fullest. Open yourself up to today’s new opportunities. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
  4. Life is what you make of it. You are solely responsible for the choices in your life. You cannot blame others for the choices you have made. You alone are responsible for what you choose to think, feel, and act.
  5. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Face reality and make the right choices based on that reality. Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. Anticipate and plan—the best time to change is when you want to, not when you have to.
  6. Be willing to let go of the life you’ve been hoping for. Challenge your beliefs about what you can and can’t do. Life the life that is waiting for you.
  7. Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor not entitled to good treatment. American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said, “I tend to accept life as it is. … I’m not one of these ‘Life isn’t fair’ people. I tend to accept whatever the limits are, whatever the rules are.”
  8. You do not have as much control in life as you would like to have. You cannot influence or affect people and events. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes and actions.
  9. Care less for what other people think. Listen to your friends and loved ones, but don’t become dependent on what they think of you.
  10. You are your best cheerleader. Surround yourself with kind people who love you and encourage you. However, do not depend on others to make you feel good about yourself. Protect and nurture your physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.
  11. Take an honest inventory of your strengths, abilities, talents, virtues, and positive points. Pursuing your strengths is the key to becoming productive and happy. Identify the limits of your abilities and your time and say ‘no’ to things you know you can’t do well.
  12. When stuck, be grateful for everything that life has offered you. Turn your focus from something you don’t want to something you do want. Take a baby step forward—consistently acting in small ways toward your goals will give you a sense of possibility, power, and accomplishment.

Idea for Impact: Inefficacious People Can’t or Choose to Not Own Responsibility for the Choices They Make

In the words of the American martial artist Bruce Lee (1940–73) (from the essay “The Passionate State of Mind” in the compendium Bruce Lee: Artist of Life,) “We can see through others only when we see through ourselves. … There is a powerful craving in most of us to see ourselves as instruments in the hands of others and thus free ourselves from the responsibility for acts that are prompted by our own questionable inclinations and impulses.”

Take Responsibility for YourselfDespite everything you have to do in life to fulfill your obligations and discharge your responsibilities, anything and everything you do is your choice.

Notwithstanding pervasive external constraints and impositions, you are free to choose your action and carry out your ends.

You are the only one in control of your life. Take responsibility for yourself. This is a very powerful idea.

Inspirational Quotations #676

The wicked is in the power of his passion; the righteous keeps passion in his power.
The Talmud

Remind yourself regularly that you are better than you think you are. Successful people are not supermen. Success does not require a superintellect. Nor is there anything mystical about success. And success isn’t based on luck. Successful people are just ordinary folks who have developed belief in themselves and what they do. Never—yes, never—sell yourself short.
David J. Schwartz

There are admirable potentialities in every human being. Believe in your strength and your youth. Learn to repeat endlessly to yourself, ‘It all depends on me’.
Andre Gide

If you touch pitch, it will stick to your fingers; even so, if you associate with evil companions, you will acquire their vices.
The Talmud

He who hardens his heart with pride softens his brain with the same.
The Talmud

The busy have no time for tears.
Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron)

No accurate thinker will judge another person by that which the other person’s enemies say about him.
Napoleon Hill

A truer image of the world, I think, is obtained by picturing things as entering into the stream of time from an eternal world outside, than from a view which regards time as the devouring tyrant of all that is.
Bertrand A. Russell

Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest.
Common Proverb

Wisdom increases with years; and so does folly.
The Talmud

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with Strength

Kindness Can Be a Weakness

'The Art of Being Kind' by Stefan Einhorn (ISBN 0749940565) I’m currently reading Swedish oncologist Stefan Einhorn‘s The Art of Being Kind (2006.) Arguing that being a good person is the key to a happier and fulfilled life, Einhorn stresses (watch his TED talk) the need to distinguish ‘true’ kindness from ‘false’ kindness.

Einhorn describes three forms of false kindness:

  • Manipulative kindness where deceitful kindness masquerades as goodness. This superficial kindness is driven by some ulterior motive—to shrewdly obtain something, rather than to be genuinely helpful.
  • Stupid kindness that lacks appropriateness—trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, for instance.
  • Weak kindness is thinking that being kind sometimes means yielding and being a doormat to others’ demands.

Weak Kindness Will Make You a Doormat

The doormat phenomenon is the outcome of weak kindness where a doormat bends over backwards to desperately satisfy others, often resorting to do whatever it takes to try to make others happy, no matter how badly the others treat him/her. In the name of kindness, the doormat allows others to walk over him/her due to lack of strength, fear of conflict, or fear of rejection.

The doormat phenomenon is perpetuated primarily by an inability to say “no” effectively. Here are the consequences of being too gullible, too empathetic, and too timid.

  • Doormats neglect their own self-interests.
  • Doormats often resort to passive aggression and/or resentment. Eventually, they find themselves silently annoyed by others.
  • Doormats don’t enjoy spending time in a social context, since they resent the people they assist.
  • Doormats often face more demands than they can handle. Hence, being fully conscious of how they’re taken advantage of and unable of standing up for themselves, they suffer from stress and depression.

Don’t Be Duped by your Own Kindness

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with StrengthThe key to leading a wise and purposeful life is to balance kindness with strength. To be wise and kind,

  • Be profusely kind and obliging but never weak. Don’t give up your power to another person. Don’t become a people-pleaser. Don’t put everyone else before yourself.
  • Be vigilant for nefarious people and their hidden motives. Be alert and aware of the many negative ploys and manipulations you could confront.
  • Be assertive and stand up for yourself. Don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no”. Don’t be so desperate to please others as to ignore your own priorities. Keep your own interests at the forefront of your mind.
  • Be on the lookout for win-win opportunities to be kind and giving. Don’t always prioritize other people’s needs above your own; seek opportunities to help out where you can expect some reciprocity. Successful people tend to ask for what they want.

The Chinese use a “flower and sword metaphor” to illustrate the need to balance kindness with strength. For the most part, present the world a flower—a symbol of kindness and compassion. However, when people try to take advantage of your kindness, that is to say when they try to crush the flower, wield the sword—a sign of protection and strength. The sword exists to protect the flower.

Idea for Impact: Wise kindness entails judiciously subjugating some of your self-interests sometimes in aid of others’ welfares, while still having the courage to stand up your values when necessary. Be kind when you can, and tough when you must. Remember, a wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less.

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress [Mental Models]

Zeigarnik Effect: How Incomplete Tasks Trigger Stress {Mental Models}

People Remember Incomplete Tasks Better than Completed Tasks

When you listen to a song that’s unexpectedly cut off in the middle, your mind will repeatedly inject your thought stream with bits of the song in an attempt to remind you that you’re not yet “done” listening. But, once you listen to that song completely, your mind moves on.

Psychologists identify this tendency for interrupted tasks—and thoughts—to be evoked better than completed tasks the Zeigarnik Effect.

Ruminating about Unfinished Tasks Causes Anxiety

Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik who reported Zeigarnik Effect when working with research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of BerlinThis phenomenon was first reported in the 1920s by the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. Working with her research advisor Kurt Lewin at the University of Berlin, Zeigarnik observed that restaurant waiters seemed to remember a complex order just so long as the order was in the process of being prepared and served, but not after it was finished.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik effect is in force when an episode of a TV series ends with a cliffhanger leaving the audience in suspense until the next episode. Teachers who conclude their lectures by posing a perplexing question stimulate the class to think about the answer until the next class.

In another prominent use of the cliffhanger and the Zeigarnik Effect as a literary device, the English novelist Charles Dickens released most of his novels in the form of serial publications, i.e. in monthly or weekly installments. Dickens’s cliffhangers initiated such anticipation in reader’s minds that his American fans would gather at New York City’s docks for the latest installment to arrive by ship from England. The installment format also allowed Dickens to rework his character development and his plots depending on audiences’ reactions.

Zeigarnik Effect and Cliffhangers

Zeigarnik Effect and the Need for Closure: Task Management

Psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik’s research showed that the human mind hates unfinished tasks. Zeigarnik theorized that incomplete tasks incite “psychic tension” in you, which can be a persuasive impetus to complete the task. As long as you leave the task unfinished, your brain is in an uncomfortable position. Thoughts of the task serve to remind your brain of what it needs to do to get “comfortable” once again. As soon as you complete the task, this tension is alleviated, and in so doing, your brain lets the mind to release thoughts of the task from consciousness.

In other words, much mental effort is required when your tasks are interrupted or are still in the process of being completed.

From a time-management perspective, uncompleted tasks and unmet goals have a propensity for popping into your mind and worrying you persistently until the task is completed and the goal reached.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (ISBN 0143122231) According to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, further research in cognitive psychology has suggested that the Zeigarnik effect exists not just until you actually finish a task but also until you make concrete plans related to the task.

… turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

According to Willpower, one research study asked students to think about an important exam. Half of the students were asked to put in writing specific plans of what/where/when they would study. Later, all students were asked to do a word association test. The group of students that did not write any study plans produced more word associations related to studying because studying was still on their mind; the group who did write down their study plans did not exhibit a comparable bias during the word association test.

Emptying Your Mind of Nagging Tasks to Get Things Done

The Zeigarnik Effect is the central theorem in David Allen’s legendary “Getting Things Done” method for task-management works.

Allen reasons that the dominant cause of everyday anxiety is that you are never truly sure of all the ‘things’ you’re supposed to do. You know you’ve got things to take care of and haven’t. Therefore, your mind keeps incoherently revisiting all that’s important but not yet completed. These “open loops” occupy much of your cognitive effort and debilitate your attention, causing anxiety, sapping your energy, and draining your willpower.

The primary benefit of using Allen’s Getting Things Done system is to reduce anxiety by emptying your mind of nagging tasks, filing away (or writing down) everything that must be done, placing them into a processing system, and scheduling chunks of time to single-mindedly do important things.

Human Mind Hates Unfinished Tasks

'Getting Things Done' by David Allen (ISBN 0670899240) According to the Zeigarnik Effect, unresolved and interrupted tasks thieve the attention of your brain until you have a clear—if subconscious—proposal of what you’re going to deal with them.

Just the simple act of capturing a task that reaches your head can achieve that sense of completion. Even if you haven’t completed the task, you’ll know that you’ve accomplished what could be done up to the moment.

Here’s three clever ways to use the Zeigarnik Effect to your advantage:

  • Use the Two-minute ‘Do-It-Now’ Rule. See my previous article on this task management discipline—in a nutshell: act immediately upon a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes. Don’t add it to your to-do list.
  • Make a Concrete Plan. Whenever you have a task in mind, stop doing whatever you’re doing, take a blank sheet of paper, and invest one minute to plan and record how you intend to tackle the task. If you intend to write an essay, write an outline; if it’s a report, start the list of contents.
  • Use To-Do Lists Judiciously. Establish and peruse a trusted system to capture your projects and tasks, and the commitments you have to yourself and others. According to David Allen’s Getting Things Done, your human brain is an ineffective and unreliable repository of all the things you try to cram into it. All this “stuff” collectively clutters your headspace. Getting all your stuff out of your head and into a trusted system can bring about a profound sense of relief.