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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Personal Productivity

Tom, Discipline and the Rest of Us

     Tom played clarinet in the marching band, skirmished regularly – and competently – in pickup basketball games and enjoyed active friendships with a variety of fellow students at Holy Cross.
     He also studied three hours a night, every night, and was assigned to the elite section of his class. He was a math major at a level where they were generating concepts so original that they had to invent their own names for the stuff.
    He did everything with assured confidence.
    Tom was the first member of our college class to marry, which he did a few days before graduation.  
     He went on to earn a doctorate and spent a long career teaching university-level math. He wrote textbooks that were popular enough over the years to keep him busy producing revisions.
     And he fathered children who grew into successful adulthood.
     I had the mixed fortune of rooming with Tom for our last two years at Holy Cross. Occasionally I would try to match Tom’s disciplined evening study hours. Invariably, after a day or two, though, I would revert to my accustomed life of bull sessions and coffee breaks leavened by modest doses of class prep.
     I gained a lot personally from the college experience and did well enough academically. Tom did somewhat better: He was the summa cum laude in a class of 500.

     Tom, in sum, was superb in personal productivity. He did it by the unvarying application of discipline at a level I consider beyond most of us. Tom was a very nice guy, but he was somewhat inhuman.
     So what are all us ordinary humans to do?
     Decades later, I was introduced to one promising alternative: a route to individual productivity for the rest of us.
    Over time I have added elements suitable for my (somewhat self-indulgent) constitution, and it works. It has helped me become substantially more productive both personally and professionally, and it eases worry and tension.
     It started with the Investment in Excellence program of the Pacific Institute, in which the late Lou Tice preached a social “religion” of creative visualization and positive affirmation for self-improvement.
     The year was 1986, and at first this New Agey stuff clanged discordantly on my sensibility, hardened as it was by a previous career in the news business. I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of sitting around creating vivid images of myself that were the opposite of reality, and muttering statements of nonexistent accomplishments.
     Still, I was being paid by Digital Equipment Corp. to learn the material and lead groups through it: a four-day program of descriptive video, detailed personal examination and class discussion. So I did.

     The concepts required looking dispassionately at one’s self-image and ferreting out assumptions about personal strengths and weaknesses, determining where they originated and how they controlled current behavior. Truthfully, it was very revealing.
     Then you would regularly invest a small amount of mental effort to encourage and maintain in yourself thoughts and actions intended to move you, however gradually, in desired directions.
     You would create a new set of automated behaviors in a new comfort zone. The new way would become effortless. After all these years of spotty application, I can say it works – well enough.
     I presented this in a four-day course 48 times throughout the U.S. and in Canada over several years. Each time, as the course participants examined their life experiences and recorded their thoughts, I did likewise with mine. Four days, 48 times.
     This was at the beginning of my consulting career, a radically new way of life. Imagine the powerful effect that had then, and has had to this day.
     My contribution to the adapted method is at the implementation end.
     I developed a process, Constructive Substitution, that adds the action piece to Lou Tice’s focus on self-image improvement and goal setting.
     I’m into motivation: How do I get myself to do what I’ve been telling myself I should do, that I want to do?

     There are several convictions arising from my consulting work that underpin Constructive Substitution.
     First, action is driven by emotion, not intellect or logic. I may know what I should do, but I won’t do it until I want to.
     Second, self-improvement means change, and my accustomed way of life, made up of numerous habits developed over a lifetime, is precious to me. Changing it is a lot harder than I think . . . until I try to do it.
     I may understand the importance of changing to something new, and I may have a lot of sensible reasons to do so. Well then, why don’t I?
     The answer: Because I don’t want to. The power, the comfort, of accustomed activity makes me feel good, so very good. I don’t know how strong that factor is until I disturb it. I can force myself to dislodge a long-held thing I do, but it will come back fiercely and repeatedly.
     In the face of this, I often have just given up and backslid when the persistent rebound of a long-held practice just wore me down.
     Constructive Substitution calls for careful preparation and persistent application, but it does not frontally challenge my familiar way of life and it doesn’t consume excessive amounts of will power. It is gentle and patient . . . and effective.

     You carefully examine the practice or habit you want to reduce or eliminate – say, temper flashes, inattention at key moments, interrupting in conversation – and think of when and why you do it.
     Then you review your personal values and current behavior in that general sector of human life – conversation or workplace meetings, for example. You search for values, strengths and practices you already have in that area, or ones that are natural or compatible for you.
     You devise specific strategies and tactics for use in the problem area, and promise yourself to keep them mentally handy. Then you focus your attention on the chosen alternatives when you need to. You insert the preplanned positives as familiar problem moments arise. No great effort, and no big deal.
     The idea is to elbow aside what you don’t want yourself to do by substituting the thing you can now do, without discomfort, that blocks the undesirable behavior. It’s not all that hard – you just never thought about it before.
     How might it work in practice?
     Here’s an example. In conversation, you sometimes get so enthusiastic in agreeing that you interrupt and pre-empt what the other person is saying. You want to offer stories and thoughts in support, and your enthusiasm takes over.

     But the other person doesn’t see this as supportive. She wanted to complete the thought, and you bulldozed it right under. She doesn’t care why you did it, nor does it matter a whit to her that you actually might have had value to contribute. She wanted to talk, and you overrode her.
     This often doesn’t penetrate until you experience the reaction. Oh damn! Just did it again!
     Well, how about planning well in advance to consciously remind yourself as each conversation is about to begin that this person is someone you think well of, and you want the person to think well of you.
     Train yourself to put a damper on the surge of agreement. Keep it to a smile and a nod. And maybe just a syllable or two. There will be time later to reinforce the point. Or not. What matters is you have modestly improved the relationship, besides heading off potential erosion from annoyance.
     The good listener is a universally beloved person. BE that person. Not only will you strengthen the relationship (with multiple rewards for doing so). Often, you also will learn something.

     Personal productivity is another area frequently mentioned as in need of improvement. Most people I associate with would like to get more done in their lives, show up on time more often, enjoy more of that serenity you feel when you know you’re on the ball.
     You can make substantial progress here just by investing briefly – and frequently – in taking a moment or two to pause and nail down that important detail, think through the preparations, plan out steps to be taken. Redirect attention from talk to action.
     As I think about Tom, my friend and onetime roommate, from the distance of all these years, I realize he had an unusual measure of that serenity.
     I’d be further ahead today if I had understood that secret is the one I needed to learn from him, not the one about nightly study.

     Everybody who is personally productive knows why they're that way. Now you've seen my "secret." What's yours? Comment below

SEE ALSO:    Stuart Smalley, Dilbert & the Project Manager



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