TIME psychology

How To Calm Your Monkey Mind and Get Things Done

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen’s system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.

[…]

Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain’s way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t 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.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won’t be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey’s organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

Still curious? Follow up with Getting Things Done and Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Sweet Potatoes Could Help Fight Blindness

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Scientists are building a better sweet potato to fight blindness.

By Adityarup Chakravorty at the American Society of Agronomy

2. Mistreatment of female military vets isn’t just a women’s issue.

By Jennifer Dolsen in Task and Purpose

3. Can activists take on climate change with the marriage equality playbook?

By Ramez Naam in Quartz

4. In medicine, is there such a thing as too much information?

By Lisa Rosenbaum in the New England Journal of Medicine

5. We need a small business borrower’s bill of rights.

By Joyce Klein and Gwendy Donaker Brown in the Aspen Journal of Ideas

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Teaching Doctors Better Bedside Manner Will Benefit Patients

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Clinical empathy can be taught to doctors, and patients love it.

By Sandra G. Boodman in CNN

2. Should high schools make students ‘defend’ their diplomas like a Ph.D?

By Brenda Iasevoli in the Hechinger Report

3. It’s time to fix patents.

By the Economist

4. Can lessons from Israel help California solve its drought problem?

By Madison Margolin in the Forward

5. To really help the poor, create technology worth paying for.

By Alex Deng in Harvard Business Review

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How to Thrive in a Complex World

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Use simple rules to guide decision making

“Simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. The rules aren’t universal— they’re tailored to the particular situation and the person using them.”

We use simple rules to guide decision-making every day. In fact, without them, we’d be paralyzed by the sheer mental brainpower required to sift through the complicated messiness of our world. You can think of them as heuristics. Like heuristics, most of the time they work yet some of the time they don’t.

Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, a book by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt, explores the understated power that comes from using simple rules. As they define them, simple rules refer to “a handful of guidelines tailored to the user and the task at hand, which balance concrete guidance with the freedom to exercise judgment.” These rules “provide a powerful weapon against the complexity that threatens to overwhelm individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Complexity arises whenever a system— technical, social, or natural— has multiple interdependent parts.”

They work, the authors argue, because they do three things well.

First, they confer the flexibility to pursue new opportunities while maintaining some consistency. Second, they can produce better decisions. When information is limited and time is short, simple rules make it fast and easy for people, organizations, and governments to make sound choices. They can even outperform complicated decision-making approaches in some situations. Finally, simple rules allow the members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly.

Effective simple rules share four common traits …

First, they are limited to a handful. Capping the number of rules makes them easy to remember and maintains a focus on what matters most. Second, simple rules are tailored to the person or organization using them. College athletes and middle-aged dieters may both rely on simple rules to decide what to eat, but their rules will be very different. Third, simple rules apply to a well-defined activity or decision, such as prioritizing injured soldiers for medical care. Rules that cover multiple activities or choices end up as vague platitudes, such as “Do your best” and “Focus on customers.” Finally, simple rules provide clear guidance while conferring the latitude to exercise discretion.

***
Simple Rules for a Complex World

People often attempt to address complex problems with complex solutions. For example, governments tend to manage complexity by trying to anticipate every possible scenario that might arise, and then promulgate regulations to cover every case.

Consider how central bankers responded to increased complexity in the global banking system. In 1988 bankers from around the world met in Basel, Switzerland, to agree on international banking regulations, and published a 30-page agreement (known as Basel I). Sixteen years later, the Basel II accord was an order of magnitude larger, at 347 pages, and Basel III was twice as long as its predecessor. When it comes to the sheer volume of regulations generated, the U.S. Congress makes the central bankers look like amateurs. The Glass-Steagall Act, a law passed during the Great Depression, which guided U.S. banking regulation for seven decades, totaled 37 pages. Its successor, Dodd-Frank, is expected to weigh in at over 30,000 pages when all supporting legislation is complete.

Meeting complexity with complexity can create more confusion than it resolves. The policies governing U.S. income taxes totaled 3.8 million words as of 2010. Imagine a book that is seven times as long as War and Peace, but without any characters, plot points, or insight into the human condition. That book is the U.S. tax code.

[…]

Applying complicated solutions to complex problems is an understandable approach, but flawed. The parts of a complex system can interact with one another in many different ways, which quickly overwhelms our ability to envision all possible outcomes.

[…]

Complicated solutions can overwhelm people, thereby increasing the odds that they will stop following the rules. A study of personal income tax compliance in forty-five countries found that the complexity of the tax code was the single best predictor of whether citizens would dodge or pay their taxes. The complexity of the regulations mattered more than the highest marginal tax rate, average levels of education or income, how fair the tax system was perceived to be, and the level of government scrutiny of tax returns.

***
Overfitting

Simple rules do not trump complicated ones all the time but they work more often than we think. Gerd Gigerenzer is a key contributor in this space. He thinks that simple rules can allow for better decision making.

Why can simpler models outperform more complex ones? When underlying cause-and-effect relationships are poorly understood, decision makers often look for patterns in historical data under the assumption that past events are a good indicator of future trends. The obvious problem with this approach is that the future may be genuinely different from the past. But a second problem is subtler. Historical data includes not only useful signal, but also noise— happenstance correlations between variables that do not reveal an enduring cause-and-effect relationship. Fitting a model too closely to historical data hardwires error into the model, which is known as overfitting. The result is a precise prediction of the past that may tell us little about what the future holds.

Simple rules focus on the critical variables that govern a situation and help you ignore the peripheral ones. Of course, in order to identify the key variables, you need to be operating in your circle of competence. When we pay too much attention to irrelevant or otherwise unimportant information, we fail to grasp the power of the most important ones and give them the weighting they deserve. Simple rules also make it more likely people will act on them. This is something Napoleon intuitively understood.

When instructing his troops, Napoleon realized that complicated instructionswere difficult to understand, explain, and execute. So, rather than complicated strategies he passed along simple ones, such as: Attack.

***
Making Better Decisions

The book mentions three types of rules that “improve decision making by structuring choices and centering on what to do (and what not to do): boundary, prioritizing, and stopping rules.

Boundary Rules cover what to do …

Boundary rules guide the choice of what to do (and not do) without requiring a lot of time, analysis, or information. Boundary rules work well for categorical choices, like a judge’s yes-or-no decision on a defendant’s bail, and decisions requiring many potential opportunities to be screened quickly. These rules also come in handy when time, convenience, and cost matter.

Prioritizing rules rank options to help decide which of multiple paths to pursue.

Prioritizing rules can help you rank a group of alternatives competing for scarce money, time, or attention. … They are especially powerful when applied to a bottleneck, an activity or decision that keeps individuals or organizations from reaching their objectives. Bottlenecks represent pinch-points in companies, where the number of opportunities swamps available resources, and prioritizing rules can ensure that these resources are deployed where they can have the greatest impact. In business settings, prioritizing rules can be used to assign engineers to new-product-development projects, focus sales representatives on the most promising customers, and allocate advertising expenditure across multiple products, to name only a few possibilities.

Stopping rules help you learn when to reverse a decision. Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon argued that we lack the information, time, and mental engine to determine the single best path when faced with a slew of options. Instead we rely on a heuristic to help us stop searching when we find something that’s good enough. Simon called this satisficing. If you think that’s hard, it’s even hard to stop doing something we’re already doing. Yet when it comes to our key investments of time, money, and energy we have to know when to pull the plug.

Sometimes we pursue goals at all costs and ignore our self-imposed stopping rule. This goal induced blindness can be deadly.

A cross-continental team of researchers matched 145 Chicagoans with demographically similar Parisians. Both the Chicagoans and Parisians used stopping rules to decide when to finish eating, but the rules themselves were very different. The Parisians employed rules like “Stop eating when I start feeling full,” linking their decision to internal cues about satiation. The Chicagoans, in contrast, were more likely to follow rules linked to external factors, such as “Stop eating when I run out of a beverage,” or “Stop eating when the TV show I’m watching is over.” Stopping rules that rely on internal cues— like when the food stops tasting good or you feel full— decrease the odds that people eat more than their body needs or even wants.

Stopping rules are particularly critical in situations when people tend to double down on a losing hand.

These three decision rules—boundary, prioritizing, and stopping—help provide guidelines on what to do—”what is acceptable to do, what is more important to do, and what to stop doing.”

***
Doing Things Better

Process rules, in contrast to boundary rules, focus on how to do things better.

Process rules work because they steer a middle path between the chaos of too few rules that can result in confusion and mistakes, and the rigidity of so many rules that there is little ability to adapt to the unexpected or take advantage of new opportunities. Simply put, process rules are useful whenever flexibility trumps consistency.

The most widely used process rule is the how-to rule. How-to rules guide the basics of executing tasks, from playing golf to designing new products. The other process rules, coordination and timing, are special cases of how-to rules that apply in particular situations. Coordination rules center on getting something done when multiple actors— people, organizations, or nations— have to work together. These rules orchestrate the behaviors of, for example, schooling fish, Zipcar members, and content contributors at Wikipedia. In contrast, timing rules center on getting things done in situations where temporal factors such as rhythms, sequences, and deadlines are relevant. These rules set the timing of, for example, when to get up every day and when dragonflies migrate.

While I was skeptical, the book is well worth reading. I suggest you check it out.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

Join over 60,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Hospitals Can Work Better

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Learn how copying a car maker is helping hospitals boost patient care.

By Anna Gorman in Kaiser Health News

2. Uber is changing life for women in Saudi Arabia.

By Evie Nagy in Fast Company

3. Scientists tricked harmful bacterial colonies into self-destructing.

By Adam Wernick and Alexa Lim in Science Friday, from PRI

4. Here’s how a simple sticker made Seattle safer for LGBTQ people.

By Sami Edge in the Seattle Times

5. Want your kids to stay active? Encourage sport sampling.

By Project Play at the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Being Sarcastic Is Good for You

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Go ahead, be sarcastic. Harvard says it’s good for you.

By Christina Pazzanese in the Harvard Gazette

2. Serving in Congress is a pretty crummy job.

By Ezra Klein in Vox

3. Does America need a truth and reconciliation commission for race relations?

By Ronald C. Slye in Reuters Great Debate

4. Who would win a war between Al Qaeda and ISIS?

By Mark Hay in Vice

5. Where are all the women chess players?

By Hana Schank in Aeon

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How to Gather Ideas and Combine Them Into a New Creation

books-stacked-table
Getty Images

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

“Combinatory play,” said Einstein, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Ruminating on the necessity of both reading and writing, so as not to confine ourselves to either, Seneca in one of his Epistles, advised that we engage in Combinatorial Creativity — that is, gather ideas, sift them, and combine them into a new creation.

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says,

Pack close the flowing honey,
And swell their cells with nectar sweet.

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it … Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation,— whereby separate elements are united into one substance.

But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Montaigne, perhaps echoing Seneca, reasoned that we must take knowledge and make it our own, Seneca comments:

We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

The Loeb Classic Library collection of Seneca’s Epistles in three volumes (1-65, 66-92, and 92-124), should be read by all in its entirety. Of course, if you don’t have time to read them all, you can read a heavily curated version of them.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How Driverless Cars Will End Parking Gridlock

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. The search for parking gridlocks cities. Enter the driverless car.

By Peter Wayner in the Atlantic

2. Privilege at the principal’s office: White kids get medicated, black kids get suspended.

By Jack Holmes in the Science of Us

3. Chinese textile manufacturers found a cheap new place for outsourcing: the U.S.

By Jenni Avins in Quartz

4. Here’s what tech firms should do on college campuses to boost diversity.

By Tony Luckett in Re/code

5. Find out how to save poor kids from the summer vacation brain drain.

By Libby Nelson in Vox

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

What Steve Jobs Said About Creativity

Steve Jobs at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.
Paul Sakuma—AP Steve Jobs at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

In a beautiful article for The Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes:

[C]reative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. … Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.

The same point of view is offered by James Webb Young, who many years earlier, wrote:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

A lot of creative luminaries think about creativity in the same way. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

In I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, editor George Beahm draws on more than 30 years of media coverage of Steve Jobs in order to find Jobs’ most thought-provoking insights on many aspects of life and creativity.

In one particularly notable excerpt Jobs says:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

The more you learn about, the more you can connect things. This becomes an argument for a broad-based education. In his 2005 commencement address to the class of Stanford, Jobs makes the case for learning things that, at the time, may not offer the most practical benefit. Over time, however, these things add up to give you a broader base of knowledge from which to connect ideas:

Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.

While education is important for building up a repository for which you can connect things, it’s not enough. You need broad life experiences as well.

I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words is full of things that will make you think.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

Join over 60,000 readers and get a free weekly update via email here.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How the Gender Pay Gap Widens Over Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Watch the gender pay gap start small, then explode over time.

By Jeanna Smialek in Bloomberg Businessweek

2. You can now look up emergency room wait times, hospital noise and more on Yelp.

By Lena H. Sun in the Washington Post

3. Under pressure, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood might be growing even more extreme.

By Nathan Brown and Michele Dunne at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

4. Do we know how to help teachers get better? Unfortunately, no.

By Dan Weisberg at TNTP

5. Never mind Iran and North Korea. Here’s where the real nuclear danger lies.

By Joe Cirincione in Al Jazeera America

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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