Interesting Thought: Helpful Heuristics
Making decisions is hard. Your brain goes to great lengths to figure out the "right" thing, even, and perhaps especially, when such a clear-cut "right" thing doesn't exist. Playing out a million scenarios in your head and trying to convince yourself that you have control when you don't is exhausting. That's why it's so helpful to have a handful of heuristics: principles that you can apply to nearly any situation for direction.
Think of heuristics as your process for making decisions. If you trust and follow your process over the long-haul, the outcome is likely to be favorable.
The topic of decision heuristics has come up a lot recently with my coaching clients. All of these folks are high-performers. Many of them lead large firms and organizations. Rather than help my clients make individual decisions (there are simply too many coming at them too fast; plus, all my clients know more about their jobs and organizations than I do), I work with them to develop heuristics that can be readily applied to just about everything.
I figured I'd share a few of these heuristics, in no particular order:
What are the three things that really matter to me right now? Does this action work in service of those things? Write down your three things and post them on your desk. Take an inventory of how you spend your time. You'll be surprised how much you can eliminate. When new activities arise, test them against these three things.
If I say "yes" to this new commitment, to what am I saying "no"? So many clients come to me with time management and schedule issues. The first step is often figuring out what really matters to them (see above) and wiping out activities that don't align with their priorities. Once someone feels like they have the time to focus on what really matters, every new commitment needs to be time and energy neutral.
Where on the spectrum of letting it happen and making it happen does this fall? The commision bias is a widely researched phenomenon that shows we have a tendency toward action over inaction. In other words, we like to feel like we are doing something. But there are so many times when the best thing we can do is actually nothing!
Does this action align with my core values? Those of you who have read Peak Performance (the book) know the research behind having core values and living in alignment with them. I write my core values on a notecard and tape them above my desk. I reference them often. For example, I had all sorts of mixed emotions (and received all sorts of mixed advice) when I was deciding whether or not to write about my experience with OCD. Ultimately, staring at a notecard every day that had "authenticity" and "community" written on it led me to publish the essay. I'll never know if this was the "right" choice or not, but at least I know it was in alignment with my core values.
Do I need to be hunkering down and gaining stability right now or do I need to be pushing forward and growing? In his book What Matters Most, psychologist James Hollis writes, "Ask yourself of every dilemma, every choice, every relationship, every commitment, or every failure to commit: Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” This is good, but sometimes you actually don't want to be "enlarging" yourself. Some people are so busy figuring out ways to enlarge themselves that they quite literally blow-up. We all have different seasons in our lives. Being aware of of them, knowing the difference between winter and spring, and then making decisions accordingly is vital for health, wellbeing, and long-term performance.
Hopefully these heuristics can help you. At the very least, maybe they'll prompt some brainstorming so you can develop heuristics of your own. If you've got ones you'd like to share with the Peak Performance community, hit me up on Twitter or respond to this email.
Coaching Corner: You Can Get Really Good Without Much Talent
During a break from teaching, I was sitting at a picnic table overlooking the track at St. Mary’s University when a grade school PE class came out to use the facilities. Thirty odd school boys made their way onto the track with their teacher in tow. As they reached the start of the 100-meter straightaway the teacher barked out commands: “Let’s warm-up with leg swings. And then line up and we’ll run.”
With all 30 of the kids starting at the same time, it could have been quite a mess when the teacher yelled “Go!” Yet as the students took off, I couldn’t help but notice the pattern of effort exerted. A handful of boys took off, running hard for that 100 meters and separating themselves from the rest rather easily. Some of these kids were obviously talented, blessed with good genes and some fast twitch muscles. Others, though, seemed to possess no natural inclination towards running, they were simply trying exceptionally hard.
As the top runners crossed the finish line, my eyes moved towards the rest of the kids. About 30 meters back, an indistinguishable mob of individuals trotted down the track. Boys, girls, tall, short. It didn’t really matter; around 20 of the kids were within 10 meters of each other making their way down the track. As I glanced behind them, I noticed the stragglers strung out from just a few meters past the starting line to a tad closer to the main pack. None of them looked pressed, some of them were still walking, none of them appeared to suffer from any physical disability, and they were simply talking to their friends while strolling instead of running down the track. They weren’t putting forth any effort.
In athletics, we get obsessed with talent and what makes individuals great. Some say hard work, some say talent. The wise among us obviously say some mixture of both. As athletes, we lament about the fact that someone else is more talented and we can’t quite match their prowess, even though we put in more work. We resign ourselves to not being blessed with genes from our parents that equals our faster, stronger, or smarter colleagues. And often, we can talk ourselves into not caring and ask questions like, “What’s the point?”
In psychology, there’s a line of research that investigates whether individuals are effort seekers or avoiders. Depending on the activity, individuals are biased towards pushing or retreating. When we utilize the aforementioned doom and gloom rhetoric—saying we just don't have the genes—we are transitioning from a seeker to avoider: someone who rationalizes his or her way out of hard work because “winning” isn’t possible. We start to sabotage our own success.
But what if we step back and look at the gym class in England. While effort seeking versus avoiding might not separate the gold medalist from the devastating 4th place finish in a race, what it can do is “put you in the club.” Seeking effort elevates you above those who choose not to. And while being in the back of the club might seem disheartening or like you are “losing”, the reality is it’s because you’re viewing the world through a distorted lens. Instead of seeing the 30-odd kids running down the track, some 80 meters behind as you cross the finish line, you only see the 3 in front of you.
Unless you are pursuing an Olympic gold, success in life revolves around being good, not perfect. Perfect relies on a combination of talent and work ethic. Good, even with an abysmal level of talent, can be achieved with enough work. There will be very few of us who are blessed with the genetic gift to reach the highest level. Yet, we can finish better than 90% of the rest of the world, simply by doing what most will not, being an effort seeker. Separating good from great is difficult. Separating good from average is easy, those who put in the work.
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