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Align with your Values

Align with your Values
By Justin Wright

So many positive changes can be made in our lives if we take the time to assess how our current actions align with who we want to become. If you have never taken the time to define your values, it is a useful exercise that can help you figure out exactly what it is that matters to you. There is so much noise in life that it can become easy to get distracted by what is constantly going on around us. Taking the time to stop briefly and reflect is invaluable and necessary to long-term growth.

Without taking the time to do this, we are merely wandering through life aimlessly. More important than goals is our ability to understand the qualities and characteristics we wish to possess. These things act as beacons to guide our thoughts and actions. Furthermore, our overall happiness can be greatly increased if we simply stop to reflect on who we want to become in the future.

Define your values

When is the last time you looked in the mirror and truly saw who you are? There are countless moments each day where we react thoughtlessly to our environment. Whether someone cuts us off in traffic, sends us an angry email, or confronts us in some other fashion, we often instinctively react to these situations. Instead of acting in line with our true selves, we react with anger or frustration. 

If we instead took time to consciously act instead of subconsciously react, we would learn to alter our actions and thought patterns to be more in line with our ideal self. The problem is that we must define our ideal self first! If you have never gone through this exercise before, work through the following steps. It may seem difficult right now, and you might not have all the answers just yet. The benefits, however, lie in the process; embracing the challenge and discomfort will serve you well!

  1. Start by reflecting on individuals in your life whose actions have inspired you. These can be people you have met, or simply people you have read about or seen in the public eye.
  2. Use these individuals as reference points to identify the qualities and character traits that you admire about them. Focus on traits that carry a visceral response — you want to feel these characteristics on an emotional or spiritual level. Identify what sets these individuals apart, and why you admire them.
  3. With these traits in mind, draft out a list of character traits you yourself wish to have. Keep them as simple as possible and utilize fewer than 3 words to describe each. For example: honest, loyal, loving, compassionate, hard-working, etc. This list should be concise and easy for you to understand at a glance when you reference it in the future.
  4. Afterwards, create a list of traits or characteristics you want to avoid at all costs. These can be traits possessed by those who have left a negative impression in your life, or simply things you otherwise feel strongly about. The key is, just like the positive traits, these should elicit an emotional response. For example: anger, loneliness, sadness, anxiety, etc.
  5. Once these lists are complete, and you have identified the traits you wish to possess and wish to avoid, you must now go through the hardest part of the process!

Reflect and redirect

After you have completed your lists, you will have a strong sense of the type of person you ultimately wish to become. While this process may be uncomfortable on its own, the true discomfort comes when we must face our actions up to this point. It is crucial that you reflect on your life currently and, most importantly, reflect on how your actions align with your values. Do your repetitive actions align with the lists you created, or are you currently living in a way that is pulling you away from those values?

It is imperative that you are humble and honest when going through this assessment. While many of us may want to believe that we rarely fail and are wonderful people, the reality is that we all make mistakes and we often do things we aren’t proud of. The goal is not to beat yourself up over your mistakes, but to understand how to better align your actions with the values you have written down.

From here, we must redirect our thoughts and actions so that we can more closely align them with our lists. If you wish to be compassionate but find yourself constantly frustrated with those around you, force yourself to say something kind the next time you feel frustration building. If you wish to be loyal but find yourself blowing off commitments, double down your efforts to help those around you. If you wish to be honest but find yourself telling half-truths, take time to confess your shortcomings with a close friend you can confide in. The goal is not perfection, but if we make conscious efforts to align our actions with our goals then we can vastly improve our lives.

The journey is the goal

What is crucial to understand throughout this process is that there is no true end or finish. The journey of improvement is itself the goal. This entire process should be done on a regular basis, as our values may change with differing life circumstances. Understand, however, that you must go through this process regularly. If you don’t concretely define the characteristics and traits that you aspire to possess, the winds of life will prevent your values from taking root.

Fight to act instead of react. Focus on defining who you want to be and who you want to avoid becoming. Create your lists and reference them often; the more you view them, the more you will be reminded of the traits you admire. Use these definitions to act as guides on your life’s journey, and always be willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror. The things that matter to you today may change in the years to come. By embracing the challenge of self-reflection, you will ensure that your thoughts and actions grow with you instead of being left behind in the dust.



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Encouraging Ownership

Encouraging Ownership

By Justin Wright

There are countless reasons why some teams succeed while others fail. Some cultivate a culture of contribution, where everyone’s ideas and opinions are valued. More importantly, these individuals actually want to contribute and own their roles. On the other hand, there are many teams in which members push blame to others for failures and try to shirk responsibility as much as possible.

So why do some teams successfully instill the values of hard work and ownership while other teams create passivity and lack of attention to detail? The answer lies in the culture of these teams, and whether or not their members feel empowered to take action. Learning how to empower a collective group is the first step in developing this culture of success.

Empower others

If you are leading a team or organization, being able to empower others to take action and show pride in their work is crucial to success. Even if you are not in what most would consider a leadership position, understanding how to empower others will increase the effectiveness of any group you are a part of. These strategies apply not just to teams in the workplace, but also to sports, friend groups, and families.

Empowering others and developing trust are closely interrelated. When you give a responsibility to another individual, and express confidence that they will do the job correctly, then trust is built in the process. This is where many leaders make a critical mistake that actually lowers trust amongst their team. If you have given someone ownership of a task or process, and then supercede them and take ownership back, it gives them the message that their work is not up to standard.

Leadership requires oversight, and there are often times when you will need to fix the work that someone else has done before it is finalized. How can you balance this dichotomy and still ensure that your team grows and develops? The key lies in a process that I call “coach versus capture.”

Coach vs capture

Mistakes are inevitable in all walks of life, on any team, and in any industry. Think back to when you first started the job you are in now. What was the learning curve like? For most careers, on-the-job training is where we learn almost every skill that we utilize on a regular basis. Many of these skills are developed through trial and error. When supervisors, managers, and bosses give constructive feedback, we learn how to fix our mistakes and improve the quality of our work in the future.

If our performance is corrected, and we are allowed to fix and learn from our mistakes, then we are armed with increased knowledge and confidence the next time we face the same hurdle. On the other hand, many bosses take a very different approach to these problems. Instead of using failure as a learning opportunity, they belittle those who make mistakes. When work is not done to their standard, they take over and make corrections on their own. These bosses are also likely the first ones to take credit for work that is done well, while also pushing blame to others for things done poorly.

These types of bosses are the antithesis of a good mentor. Instead of coaching and correcting, they take control and then subsequently take credit. Their team doesn’t learn or grow, and instead makes the same mistakes repeatedly. This then perpetuates the cycle of the boss taking control, jumping in to make their own corrections, and taking credit for the end result. These teams lack trust, and most employees work in a state of fear: afraid to make mistakes and afraid to deal with the repercussions of those mistakes.

The funny thing is, this state of fear actually causes them to make more mistakes. The human psyche is easily manipulated, and if we no longer feel safe in our teams, it becomes nearly impossible to function at optimal levels. The method of coaching instead of capturing helps fix this, and consists of 6 key steps.

  1. Give full ownership of a project to a team member. Explain the deadline, the parameters and scope of the project, and a brief overview of expectations. From the outset, explain that you expect mistakes to be made and you will help correct and fine-tune these mistakes throughout the process. Set a deadline before the final due-date so that there is time for multiple iterations as needed.
  2. Allow the team member to work through the project at their own pace and with their own vision. Help establish a timeline for steps of the project early on, but allow them the freedom to reach these checkpoints on their own. Trust is built when team members are given full freedom to complete a task.
  3. Be available for help and guidance throughout the process as needed, but emphasize that you will not interject or check in frequently unless those check-ins are necessary. When key milestones are reached, you can touch base to see if additional help is required.
  4. When the first iteration of the project is complete, meet with the team member and review the results. Provide constructive criticism as well as assistance with how to make the suggested corrections. Keep ownership of the project in the hands of the person it was given to!
  5. Repeat the above steps until a final version is complete. Give a final seal of approval and submit this version. No additional corrections can be made or the trust built throughout this process will be destroyed. If any changes need to be made, the person who performed the task or project must be involved.
  6. Debrief the project after it has been completed. Review the mistakes made and hurdles overcome with the individual. Use this opportunity to teach and provide guidance and mentorship for future situations.

If done correctly, this process empowers the individual to own the success or failure of a project, teaches them important lessons for how to overcome these obstacles in the future, and develops trust between the leader and the team. Junior members of the team mature, grow, and learn, while more senior members of the team see a positive example of trust and collaboration being built. The leader is a guide and a teacher, but they do not overtake control and supercede their team.

Effective leadership

The method of coach versus capture is applicable on any team, in any industry. Imagine if more leaders empowered their team to take action and actually developed trust and confidence in those team members to do the job correctly! When trust is present, team members feel safe enough to make and learn from mistakes. Instead of covering up failures, these failures are used as opportunities for growth. Whether you are the boss of a large corporation, the captain of a small team, or the head of your household, these strategies will earn the respect and admiration of those who follow you.

In short, teams who successfully implement these policies are more successful. When the members of that team actually feel as if they fully own the projects they are working on, they take more pride in that work. When they know that they have the support of their leaders to function independently, they produce better quality work. Furthermore, when a culture of safety, autonomy, and ownership is cultivated, the morale of the team is highest. If more companies focused on cultivating a culture of ownership and trust, the positive impact they could effectively create would increase exponentially.



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Improving Communication

Improving Communication
By Justin Wright

Communication breakdowns happen in every industry, to every team, and within every family. A high percentage of my clientele hire me specifically to aid and assist with communication strategies for their team. These breakdowns can be frustrating to deal with and often difficult to diagnose internally. In addition to the headaches involved, businesses also lose countless dollars every year as people work to remedy the adverse effects caused by poor communication.

So where do we begin? Understanding first what communication is and what the requisite steps are is a good place to start. From there we must analyze where things go wrong at each step, and how messages can become distorted and misinterpreted. This will give us a roadmap for better understanding where communication errors occur within a specific team or organization.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution; communication breakdowns happen for a number of reasons which are often specific to the industry or group in question. Regardless of where in the sequence your specific problems lie, there are strategies at each step which can reduce pain points and improve the effectiveness of your team.

What is communication?

To understand where breakdowns in communication occur, we must first understand what exactly communication is. Communication between two parties essentially involves three phases. It is first a transmission of a signal, followed by the reception of that signal, and lastly followed by the interpretation of that signal. Each of these phases provides opportunities for things to go wrong, and each is critically important.

When a signal is transmitted, we must analyze how effective that transmission was. Let’s use the signal from a radio station as an example. If there are issues with the radio tower, then regardless of the content of the message being sent from the station, it will never be received properly by the target individuals. There is an inherent issue in the signal being sent that is unrelated to content or context. 

Likewise, if your personal radio is broken or malfunctioning then you will be unable to receive the transmission as intended. The radio station is sending out perfectly clear, high-quality audio, but difficulties in reception limit the audience’s ability to hear that signal. A more personal example of issues with reception include language barriers; if the listener does not understand the language of the message, they will be unable to deduce its meaning.

The last phase of communication is a bit more nuanced. Every message requires interpretation after it is sent by one party and received by another. This category is difficult to understand and can be difficult to positively affect, and thus it largely goes ignored. Part of this is an unwillingness for many to step inside the shoes of another and try to see things from their viewpoint. It can be difficult to think of how we would interpret a message if we were the receiving party, because we all carry our own inherent biases and life experiences. These life experiences drastically affect the way that we interpret the messages we receive. Nonetheless, this category is an important area to put forth effort when it comes to improving our own communication.

Transmission

There are a number of ways we can improve the transmission of any message that we send. First, and potentially most obvious, is to make sure that we are clear with the articulation of our message. Whether we are sending a message digitally, or delivering it in person, we should be clear and concise with our delivery. Adding more variables is a common strategy that I suggest as well; this can be accomplished by delivering a message over the phone versus email, or in person versus over the phone. By adding in voice and, progressively, body language, the signals we are sending become even more clear. The more serious the message, the more variables are required. There is a reason that we do not traditionally inform relatives about a death in the family via text or email.

Avoid using unnecessary words and make sure that the instructions are clear. If you have trouble being verbose, practice delivering shorter messages more regularly. I told a coworker one time that if they couldn’t deliver their entire message in the span of a 1-minute instagram video, they were probably speaking too much. Find ways to condense what you are saying so that the main deliverables, points, and action items are clear. Combining these strategies will ensure that your message is as clear as possible to those you are delivering it to.

Reception

Issues with reception generally stem from timing, language, or technical errors. If a message is delivered quickly and at a bad time for the person receiving it, there is a high likelihood that they will not retain the important details of that message. Oftentimes important communication is delivered as individuals are heading out the door in an effort to inform them before they leave. The downside to this is that the message is rarely received correctly. Additionally as we have previously discussed, if there are any language barriers or translation issues then the message will be incorrect as well. Prioritizing accurate translation and clarity in these situations is critical.

Technical issues have created more problems in the modern age of communication as well. If you are having a video conference and the feed is fading in and out, this distraction can cause people to miss key pieces of the presentation. If the cell reception is poor from where you are calling from, words or phrases can be dropped from the call. Working to improve these factors to the best of your ability will make communication more clear across the board.

Interpretation

The interpretation of a message is where many factors are at play which can negatively affect how this message is processed after reception. The primary issue with interpretation is that it is based on a wide range of life experiences, biases, previous interactions, cultural norms, past history, etc. A person’s life story will literally affect how they interpret every message that they receive.

With this knowledge in hand, it becomes important to remain sensitive to these factors any time you are delivering a message to someone else. You must give thought to how they will receive and process the information you are giving them. For example, the phrase, “Break a leg!” means something far different in the acting community than it does in other industries. This knowledge is critical when choosing which colloquialisms or phrases to use in conversation. Even certain hand gestures mean something far different in other countries outside of America.

Ensuring proper interpretation of a message relies, in large part, on having empathy for the individuals you are speaking with. As a teammate in any capacity it is our responsibility to understand our teammates and gain a deeper understanding of their life experiences, wants, and needs. With this information in hand we can more effectively communicate in our daily lives.

Reduce static

With a deeper understanding of the three phases of communication, it becomes possible to “reduce the static” at each phase. This allows for messages to be delivered more clearly, be received more readily, and properly transcribed or interpreted by those receiving them. Focus on truly understanding the people you spend time communicating with to ensure that your messages to them are received and understood properly. Constantly question and analyze yourself to make sure that you are being clear, concise, and direct with the messages you send out. Focusing on all of these areas together will allow you to reduce the common pitfalls of poor communication which negatively affect every industry in the world. Increasing the effectiveness of your communication within your teams will drastically improve the output and success of those teams; as all individuals get on the same page, massive, positive action can be taken more readily.



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Don’t Let the Past Dictate your Future

Don’t Let the Past Dictate your Future
By Justin Wright

Change can be difficult at times, and downright impossible at others. The conviction required to make small changes, let alone large ones, should be celebrated. Many of us know at least a handful of people who have turned their lives around, those who have set goals and taken control of their future. It can seem like they have cracked some secret code that eludes the rest of us.

One of the largest challenges that comes with change, however, is the biases we carry with us from the past. Many of us truly believe that “some people never change” despite evidence to the contrary. If we do not allow ourselves to grow and evolve, to look at situations through a new lens, then our previous experiences will adversely affect our future.

Some people don’t change, this is true. Many more push themselves to grow, and we must allow our perspectives to change as they do. Reflect on your own life experiences. How many times have you held previous actions against someone, despite them being very different now? How often has this caused you to react or respond in a way that may have been appropriate in the past, but has no bearing now? The reality is that this affects many of our interactions with others, and oftentimes prevents us from fostering stronger relationships and more fruitful collaborations.

Forgive and Forget

The old adage around forgiving and forgetting the transgressions of others is not practical in many situations, but lies at the core of embracing change. Let’s say that you try a new restaurant in town when it first opens and have a lousy meal. You return a month later once they have sorted out some of their initial problems and have a wonderful time. This sort of thing happens often when it comes to our experiences; we give ourselves the freedom to change our opinion when new information is presented and the experience changes.

Aside from a small percentage of extremely stubborn individuals, this type of change is common. The problem is that a much larger percentage of us resist changing our opinions of people. We are taught that first impressions matter a great deal, which is certainly true, but not as much emphasis is placed on additional impressions. Many of us tend to formulate our opinions of others within our first few moments with them, and these opinions permeate our thoughts surrounding those individuals in the future.

If we meet someone’s friend at a house party and they were rude or disagreeable, we tend to always assume that they will act the same way in future situations. What if that individual was later confronted about their attitude and, realizing that they had been out of line, corrected their behavior in the future? In our next encounter with that person, despite them making changes to better themselves, we may avoid interacting with them entirely or may be short or curt with them during the interactions we do have.

This behavior is caused by our natural biases which were informed by previous experiences. This was, and is, an evolutionary advantage; for the survival of our species we had to learn quickly which creatures in the wild would do us harm and which were safe to interact with. We needed to know the appearance and actions of members from warring tribes in order to preserve our own tribespeople. In order to communicate effectively in the modern world, we must override this tendency. We must learn to forgive and forget, to give others a chance to change our opinions.

Team culture and growth

This phenomenon can be especially detrimental when it comes to teams. Whether you are playing sports at a high level, in a boardroom launching a new product, or expanding the team at your business, culture becomes critical for success. A team that stifles growth by finger-pointing, covering up mistakes, or minimizing communication must experience a culture shift to become successful. This culture shift requires the members of that team to change their personal viewpoints and biases as well.

Far too often I see groups that are willing to change, fully committed to the process of growth, yet still view others on their team in the same light as before these changes occurred. If you have a boss who used to rule with fear decide to embrace change and empower his team, it is unfair for those team members to view him as the same tyrannical leader he once was. In the same way, new employees are expected to make mistakes as they grow in their roles; we don’t still assume that they are incompetent once they have learned to perform their job tasks effectively. Our opinion of them must change as they learn and grow.

When teams undertake cultural shifts and buy in to the process of changing, there tends to be a recurring pattern that emerges. There are huge, positive shifts early on and then things seem to plateau. Members of the team get frustrated when they feel like progress has stagnated, but forget to look internally at how their biases may be preventing further growth. Their expectations for the team have evolved, but they are still viewing other team members with the same lens as before. Someone who was historically lazy but has taken huge strides to provide value is still seen as a slacker. Someone who lacked communication skills in the past is still viewed as a poor communicator, despite development and progress to the contrary.

Review, revisit, revise

Just like with setting goals or building out plans and habits, it is crucial that we consistently revisit and revise our opinions of others in our lives. Especially if you are part of a team attempting to change, you should consistently review your biases and prejudices that come from past experience. Ask yourself if your opinion of someone else is based on current information or outdated information.

Just as technology is constantly being updated, we must update our viewpoints. If you failed to update your cell phone, it would stop working eventually. The old software could not keep up with the apps and services you rely on. This is a simplistic comparison, but should paint a picture of the importance of revisiting our opinions. People do change, and we must recognize this if we wish to communicate and collaborate more effectively.

Do not hold an individual’s past against them. We have all taken actions which we regret, and it is the lesson that matters more than the mistake. The person you see in the mirror today is (hopefully) much different than the person you were five years ago. Realize that others are working just as hard to better themselves, to grow and develop into their ideal selves. Learn to revisit your opinions, and make sure they reflect the present instead of the past. By constantly revising your viewpoints you will be able to more effectively lead and follow, to contribute to your communities at the highest level, and to have stronger relationships with everyone in your life.



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Action!

Action!
By Justin Wright

I once worked with a client who was very analytical in her approach to health and fitness. We had a number of great conversations about the theory behind exercise, the science behind the approach to training and, when it came to nutrition, we built out a specific meal plan that aligned with our discussions and her goals. Every aspect of her training, nutrition, mobility, and sleep were meticulously laid out; the stars were perfectly aligned and it would be almost impossible for her to not succeed.

There was only one major problem: she didn’t actually make progress. How could this be? There was one key piece of the puzzle missing. No matter how perfect your plans are, no matter how well you outline the steps required for success, unless you execute on those plans and take action then all of the planning is irrelevant. My client had failed not due to lack of planning, and she had certainly put substantial effort into the thought behind her actions. Her failure was solely due to over-analysis, and a hesitation to take the first forward step.

Planning can be a mechanism to combat anxiety. It is scary and difficult to actually put one foot in front of the other and commit to forward progress. Failure is inevitable and you will make mistakes. To be successful and actually accomplish your goals, you must soldier on in spite of this possibility. Failure can be your greatest teacher, and you must embrace a culture of doing over thinking to get where you want to go.

This is not to say that planning is unimportant. Had my client not spent time thinking about what she needed to do, I would argue that she would have failed in a different way. As Warren Buffet has famously said, “An idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan.” Add to this the old adage, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail” and it should be obvious that planning is, in fact, important. What remains after you have formulated a plan is understanding how and why to put these plans into action. 

Direct your life

When a director yells, “Action!” it is understood that the scene is commencing and everyone on set works to bring the pieces together well enough to make the final cut. There is an explosion of activity as actors and actresses perform their roles, the camera crew works to achieve the right angle for the shot, and sound engineers optimize the voices and noises playing out in the scene. This one simple phrase creates all of the necessary movement for the production of the film to commence.

You are the director of your life. The set is your day, and the scene is how it plays out. Take control of each day by taking action, by pushing the pieces to move and align accordingly. Once you have created a plan by writing out your goals, by breaking them down into actionable steps, and by learning to create priority targets for each day, you have all the tools necessary for success at your disposal. All that remains is a strategy for aligning your actions with those goals.

Actions must follow plans

One thing I want you to focus on as you go through any goal-setting exercise is how you can take immediate action on each step. One way to increase your likelihood of success is to think about the smallest actionable step that you can take following each activity. If you have defined your SMART list and have broken things down into subsequent, repeatable tasks, how can you move the needle today instead of tomorrow? If your goal is to get up earlier in the morning each day, set your alarm as soon as you finish writing out your list instead of waiting until you go to bed. If you want to read more, put a book on your bedside table or on your desk at work as soon as you have established this goal.

The idea is to immediately begin to align your life with your new goals and the habits you are trying to form. This is more symbolic than anything; you aren’t taking massive action immediately but you are committing to forward progress instead of staying in place and over-analyzing. Even a small step in the right direction is still a step, and this action helps align your thoughts, plans, and purpose with your new goals. By doing something immediately, in the present, you are reinforcing the importance of your decisions.

Challenge yourself to accompany any plan with immediate action in all avenues of your life. The key is to debunk the notion that your actions need to be colossal in nature or that you need to move mountains every time. You just want to avoid planning without doing. Over time, you can effectively rewire your brain to immediately follow planning with movement. You will go from architect to builder, and your likelihood of success will increase dramatically in all avenues of your life. Every fire starts with a spark, and accomplishing your goals is no different.

Meeting resistance

Keep in mind that there will be resistance to these changes initially. The hardest part may be overcoming the natural fear of failure which we often harbor internally. In order to effectively change course and embrace action, it requires you to completely redefine failure for yourself. Understanding that failure is a necessary component part of long-term success can empower you to take action consistently and create lasting change.

Failure is a scary term for most people in the world today. The problem is not with failure itself, but rather the perception of it. To most, failure seems finite. “I have tried and I have failed” implies the end of something, not the beginning. It is important to question your own biases surrounding failure and deeply analyze where, exactly, they come from. Why do we view mistakes and stumbles as negative in the first place?

What if failure were simply the start of a new course? What if the entire process were much like getting an alignment for your car? This requires us to alter how we view failure and the stigma associated with it. If you can overcome the inertia provided by the fear of making mistakes and the natural hesitation to act on your goals, you can take meaningful steps towards accomplishing something important. You must be able to break through this resistance, and you must begin to align your life with what you want to accomplish. Always remember, you are the director. It is with your command that your movie begins, so stop hesitating and get the film rolling!



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The Brain Dump

The Brain Dump
By Justin Wright

Regardless of how well you prioritize tasks, lay out goals, and properly define a course of action for achieving them, sometimes it can still be difficult to focus. Even with the best of habits in place, making progress can be difficult over time as you settle into a routine. Think about your daily life as carrying with it a base level of white noise. This background static builds as you work through your tasks and create new habits. Over time, this noise grows so loud that it becomes difficult to ignore. The end result of this enhanced distraction can be trouble focusing and being productive.

In my own life I find it notoriously difficult to fall asleep at night. My productivity always seems higher at the end of the day, and it is very common for me to go on a series of tangents with my thoughts. Most of the time these thoughts are productive, but it can be difficult to put forth focused effort when my brain is going in numerous different directions. This sensation is much like trying to do work with your phone nearby. Notifications can make it difficult to stay on track, as every buzz and alert pulls your attention away from the task at hand.

This mental tug-of-war made it impossible to focus as my mind kept leaping to the next thought. Not only was I accomplishing less than I wanted to, but this lack of productivity brought with it increased anxiety as I poured over my task list in bed. The more distracted I was at night, the longer I would stay awake ruminating on what needed to get done. I knew that I needed to fix this problem before the combination of lower productivity and loss of sleep compounded over time. Out of necessity I found a solution: the brain dump.

The symbolic nature of writing

The brain dump is a simple exercise which can be performed any time your thoughts are erratic, but it is particularly helpful at night before bed. Essentially, you take a blank sheet of paper and write out every thought or action currently on your mind. Each entry can be a task or action item, a stray thought, a list, a series of reminders, rough ideas or concepts, absolutely anything that carries significance in your mind. We will discuss the final structure shortly, but the goal now is to understand the nature of the things being written. Anything in your brain which carries significance is fair game.

The key is to move quickly and to be concise with each item. Think snapshots, highlights, or single words which represent larger thoughts. Your goal is to create a list which jogs your memory when referenced later, but more importantly you want to declutter the mind. Every time you write a thought down, it is crucial to visualize this thought being physically pulled out of your mind. Think of each word or phrase as being attached to a string; as you put pen to paper, picture yourself tugging on this string and pulling it out of your brain.

This is why physically writing out this list, not typing or speaking it, is so critical to the process. It is also why you must use a blank sheet of paper every time. We want to make sure there are no other words, phrases, or marks to pull our attention away from the list being written. Writing is, by nature, symbolic. It plays to human psychology. The act of jotting down these thoughts allows us to strongly visualize the thoughts exiting our mind. We are taking advantage of this visualization to organize our brain and bring a sense of order to the chaos. Channel your mind through the pen and, just like cleaning and organizing your home or office, every phrase written represents you tidying up your brain. Take note of how relieved you feel as every thought that was previously running free in your mind is reigned in and finds its home on the paper.

List structure

Now that you understand the concept of the brain dump and why it is useful, it is equally important to have some structure to bring to this list. Without some rules to follow it is easy for this exercise to become counterproductive. If there is too much to write down, and the list lacks organization, this activity can provide more stress instead of reducing it. Focus on creating three categories and working through each one in succession:

Higher-level ideas: this list contains important ideas or key words related to big-picture thoughts or high-level problems you are currently trying to solve. They may not be fully-formed yet, and they likely aren’t actionable at this point in time. Most of these ideas will be half-baked, but they contain the roots of bigger thoughts down the road. These are things you don’t want to forget, but they are likely things you can’t continue working on right now. If left unchecked, these thoughts can be incredibly distracting because they are likely important and exciting. Writing them down now allows us to return to them when the time is right.

Action items/task list: this list contains tasks or action items which we must perform soon. Creating this list at night is a great way to reduce the anxiety associated with anticipation. How many times have you been unable to fall asleep because you are thinking through all the things you need to do the next day? Letting these thoughts go unchecked can cause anxiety for two reasons. First, the more we think about these tasks the more stress we associate with having a full plate or being busy. Second, the more time we dedicate to thinking through the next day’s tasks, the more likely we are to get the feeling we have forgotten something on the list. Emptying the mind of upcoming tasks the night before helps prevent these ruminations from happening, which can drastically reduce anxiety and improve quality of sleep.

Extraneous thoughts: this final list is essentially a large net for everything else. Maybe there are other things on your mind which don’t relate to higher-level ideas or problems, and have nothing to do with your task list. Maybe you think of an activity that might be interesting and rewarding to pursue. Maybe there is someone you want to reach out to or do something positive for. Maybe you have a few books that you want to add to your reading list. Anything else that carries enough importance to linger in your mind for any period of time belongs here.

Be complete but concise

As you start to fill out each category, understand that it is important to be as complete as possible. That said, this exercise is meant to be helpful and is not meant to take an extreme time commitment to finish. Your brain dump does not have to be perfect to be effective. As long as you are jotting down everything at the forefront of your mind, the list will serve its purpose. It can be helpful, for this reason, to set a limit for how much time you spend writing things down.

A good rule of thumb is to only write for as long as your ideas are freely flowing. Any time when you have to stop and think for longer than an instant is a good time to stop. If given long enough, your mind can come up with an infinite number of thoughts. If these thoughts don’t come to you immediately, they likely aren’t important enough at this time to solidify in writing. Your brain dump should not become a source of stress or anxiety. The more frequently you do this exercise, the better and more complete your lists will become.

There are myriad benefits to performing this exercise, ranging from reduced anxiety, to increased productivity, to better sleep quality. The brain dump is beneficial immediately; it is not a practice that must be implemented for some time before the benefits are realized. Additionally, it is effective regardless of its frequency. You do not need to perform this exercise any more than is necessary. Some days you may find that your mind is decluttered already and you can focus without issue. Save this exercise, then, for the next time your thoughts are cluttered. Consider the brain dump yet another tool in your ever-expanding toolbox of goal-setting strategies!



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Intelligent Procrastination

Intelligent Procrastination
By Justin Wright

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” — Benjamin Franklin

This quote is one we have likely heard often, repeated to us during our childhood and into our teenage years. Sometimes, however, procrastination can actually be beneficial. This does not mean you have carte blanche to push things off and avoid getting tasks done. It does, however, mean that you need to be smart about which tasks receive your full effort each day. One of the fastest ways to guarantee that you don’t accomplish much is to build a task list that is too large. If your attention is pulled in a multitude of directions, focused effort becomes nearly impossible.

This concept is the cornerstone behind Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Newport suggests that we must find time to work, undistracted, in order to create anything truly meaningful. When it comes to our priority task lists, these are the types of activities that require focused, uninterrupted effort to complete. 

This is easier said than done in the digital age where almost every activity carries with it a notification and an alert. If you don’t find ways to sort through all of this white noise, it can be nearly impossible to get things done in a reasonable amount of time. So where does intelligent procrastination come into play in all of this? It just might be the one strategy that allows you to make substantial progress towards accomplishing your goals.

De-stress: intelligent procrastination

Intelligent procrastination is the act of pushing certain activities to another day or time not out of laziness, but out of a desire to increase productivity. It seems counterintuitive to procrastinate in order to be more productive, but this concept makes sense when you consider the trade-offs. Let’s say you have a number of tasks to complete in a given week. Let’s also assume that many of these may be time-intensive, but not necessarily thought-intensive. There are repetitive tasks in any job that command more time than creativity; it is easy to overfill our plates with these tasks if we aren’t careful. The net result is being busy, but not necessarily making forward progress.

This strategy works best when you feel overwhelmed or when you feel stuck in place. Make a list of everything that you need to get done, no matter how large or how small. Be as complete as possible with this list; don’t worry about the order, as we will reorganize it afterwards. Whether you are preparing for a large presentation or simply need to send an email response to a client, jot everything down. Once your list is complete, we can break it down into categories and figure out where to focus our efforts.

Create categories and order-of-importance

Once the list has been completed, the goal is to organize these items into categories representative of the tasks in question. In order to simplify this process, utilize the following categories:

Repetitive tasks — these are regularly-recurring tasks and actions that are a crucial part of your week. A lot of these will fall under the Green list we have previously defined. These are likely not time-intensive, but are important nonetheless.

Quick/Unimportant tasks — these are tasks which are relatively easy to accomplish, don’t require much time, and likely aren’t of critical importance right now. They need to get done, but they also aren’t time-sensitive.

Quick/Critical tasks — these tasks don’t require much time investment, but are important and time-sensitive. They need to get done quickly, but won’t require a substantial amount of energy to complete.

Long/Unimportant tasks — these are the tasks that often trap us and sap our time and energy. They take a long time to do, but also don’t need to be done right now. Big projects with unclear deadlines fall under this category. If possible, these are the types of tasks you want to delegate to others instead of taking on yourself.

Long/Critical tasks — these are things that require a substantial amount of time and energy, but they are also important enough to be urgent. This category is important, and should be the first place you look when figuring out where to spend your time each week.

After sorting through your larger list of tasks and batching them into the categories above, you will have a much better understanding of both the length and importance of everything you have written down. The goal of this practice is to figure out where to focus efforts and, more importantly, where not to. The next step will be to determine exactly how to move forward with this list of tasks.

Do or delegate

You now have an organized list of upcoming tasks, sorted by both importance and time required for completion. This is powerful because it helps direct your attention and effort effectively. The first thing to do is analyze the last category of long and critical tasks. This is the place where your high-priority list should be created each day. Focusing your efforts first and foremost on these tasks is a way to ensure forward progress is being made on a consistent basis.

The quicker, critical tasks also need to be done, but these shouldn’t be the first place you start working. Many people fall into the trap of filling their schedule with these types of activities. They are attractive because they are important, but they often don’t fit into the bigger picture or help create forward progress. These are the types of things that can, when multiplied, occupy a substantial amount of time without much to show for our efforts. We have all had those days where we do so much and feel like we have accomplished so little.

Use these small tasks as ways to fill time or transition between larger projects. When you hit a roadblock or can no longer make forward progress on a larger task, it can help to chip away at the smaller task list in order to refocus. Sometimes you will need a break from working on larger, important tasks as well; these often require more thought and deeper thinking which can be mentally exhausting. Chipping away at easier tasks that are also important can be a good way to reset the brain and allow for more productivity later on.

Lastly, the two unimportant lists provide a great opportunity to delegate work to others in your team or organization. Many business leaders fall into the trap of doing work that should be assigned to someone else. Even if you aren’t running a business or a larger team, modern technology allows for myriad ways of outsourcing monotonous tasks to others. Hiring an online assistant or looking to websites selling freelance services is a great way to save more time for important tasks. If a task doesn’t need to be done now, especially if it will require a large time investment, this is something you should strongly consider delegating or outsourcing to someone else.

Pick your battles

The whole purpose behind this strategy is to create time for things that matter instead of cluttering your calendar with unimportant activities. Procrastinating is beneficial when it comes to tasks that are unimportant right now or will require a large time investment for little return. Putting these things off can help you hone in on the activities that actually matter. This focused effort allows you to make progress instead of struggling to keep your head above water.

Find ways to spend time and energy focusing on the longer, most-important tasks. Clear your plate of things that you can push off onto other people. More importantly, understand the pitfalls of taking on a large number of smaller tasks, no matter how important they may seem. The only way to make true forward progress is to invest time and energy into meaningful work. As mentioned before, this is a key philosophy in Newport’s Deep Work.

A plague of the modern world is that it is so easy to be distracted. Mundane tasks are thrown at us frequently because of how interconnected we are, and this can make it difficult to sort through what is important now and what can be put off until later. Creating a task list and organizing it into categories will save you from feeling overwhelmed. More importantly, it will save you from wasting time working on the wrong things. Sometimes, putting things off until tomorrow might actually be the best way to ensure that you accomplish things today!



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