Archive for June, 2009
How we focus on the passage of time can result in a significant bias when applied to everyday life. This bias could make all the difference in our relationships, our work, and our overall happiness. Philip Zimbardo, one of the most prestigious psychologists in the world and a part of the Positive Psychology movement, has recently turned his focus to time. His book, The Time Paradox, and his most recent online talks (#1, #2 – both recommended) have been all about time perspective and delayed gratification – or as he says, having a “healthy take on time”. Zimbardo holds a special place in my heart because he was the author of the textbook used in Psych 101 at Cornell University, which first piqued my interest in psychology. His new research on time fascinates me and in many ways speaks to what this blog is about.
Time perspective is about how we subjectively divide the flow of human experience into time zones or categories. We each create segments of reality through time using significant (or sometimes insignificant) events in our lives. Zimbardo calls this “subjective time” because it’s highly personal and unique to each of us. The way we approach time in general varies quite a bit and can easily become a bias as we’ll see.
The famous longitudinal marshmallow study, referenced in just about every positive psychology book these days, is a great example of how time orientation has an effect on who we are and what we do. If you haven’t heard about the study, it involved a group of 4-year olds who were given a marshmallow as a reward for completing a task. The kids were told that if they could hold off and not eat the marshmallow once left alone, they would receive another marshmallow. Of course, more kids than not couldn’t wait and ate the first marshmallow. They wanted instant gratification over delayed gratification, even though there would have been a better outcome through waiting.
When these kids graduated high school, they were interviewed by the researchers and there were significant differences across the board. The kids who were able to delay gratification and hold off eating the first marshmallow scored 250 points higher on the SAT and had far more positive personality traits than those who gave into the impulse. They were self-motivated, decisive, self-confident, and balanced. It pays to embrace delayed gratification.
If you’re interested, you can read more on the marshmallow study before going further.
One of the oft overlooked rules of focus and concentration is that friction must be avoided at all costs. Friction in this sense can be defined as anything that pulls you out of your zone and slows down forward momentum. As an example, frequent interruptions induce loads of friction for anything involving deep focus. But there are other things. Have you ever sat down to do something important and realized you forgot to grab something critical to your effort? Like a notebook full of notes or a file off of your office computer? Or have you ever rushed out of the house just to realize 15 minutes later that you have to turn around because you forgot your briefcase/purse/laptop bag? Not being able to find the things you need makes it difficult to focus on anything!
Sometimes it’s hard to even realize that this is what’s happening to you. It sounds a little crazy, but some people are so used to not being organized, they think it’s normal to spend 30-50% of their time just gathering what they need instead of actually doing the thing they set out to do. Naturally this means the effort either takes 30-50% longer – or worse, is rushed… sacrificing quality in the process.
Speaking from personal experience, at some point years ago I got so frustrated with forgetting things that I put some systems in place to prevent this from happening again. Of course it does still happen every once in a while but it’s far less frequent these days than it used to be.
Look, it’s just far easier to stay organized than it is to deal with the ramifications of not being organized. Having a base level of organizational ability will “grease the skids” and make any effort far more effortless. But like anything else, it requires a little effort to first know what to do, and then secondly form a long-term habit to make sure it sticks.
This October I’ll celebrate a personal milestone. 15 years ago on my 18th birthday, I started an intense strength training regimen while a freshman at Cornell University. At that time I was training for my Black Belt test in both Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do and I figured a little extra strength and flexibility would help me when it came to that dreaded “break bricks and boards” part of the test. I didn’t know much at the time, just that lifting weights gives you muscle and protein is important for that – but that didn’t stop me from jumping in headfirst and giving it my all.
Over the last 15 years I’ve certainly had ups and downs. I’ve slacked off and felt completely out of shape for months at a time. I’ve also hit my stride many times throughout the years and realized that when I’m exercising regularly, just about everything else in my life comes into serious clarity. I’ve learned that for me, the benefits of strength training (and martial arts) are far more mental than physical. I’d tradeoff any gains in strength, size, or flexibility for the things I list below.
In 1999 I started a list of the things I’ve felt I’ve learned “in the gym” and I’ve been expanding on this list ever since. These are things that I learned as a kid (and as an adult) training in martial arts, and how I’ve since expanded my understanding through intense strength training in a gym environment. Just like other posts in the Exercise category, the things I list below are certainly not limited to the activities I perform. If you’re a dancer, a yoga practitioner, a cyclist, or a volleyball player, chances are a lot of these same lessons can be learned with your activity.
Finding balance is top of mind for so many people. As a topic of interest, it’s increasing in popularity on the web and in books and magazines year over year. It’s no wonder that in a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), 48% of Americans surveyed feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years. When you add up all of the inboxes you’re struggling to manage each day just to feel productive, and then add the expectation that you feel you need to react immediately, it’s no surprise. People have a lot of plates spinning simultaneously. More than one third of the people surveyed in this study feel that work encroaching on personal time was the reason for their increased stress. So naturally, finding balance is a life-essential skill for 2009 and beyond. Heck, even the contributors at Wikipedia agree, “As the separation between work and home life has diminished, this concept has become more relevant than ever before.”
But what does balance really mean – and couldn’t it mean different things to different people? When people talk about balance, they’re frequently referring to work/life balance. A quick search on “work life balance” yields a number of results seemingly indicating that work/life balance means working a 9-5 job and then “shutting off”, compartmentalizing your work and home life. When you’re at work, you aren’t thinking about your home life – and when you’re at home, you definitely aren’t “worrying” about work. There are steps you can take to protect your personal time such as refusing to answer email off-hours, setting expectations up-front with your employer that you’re offline as soon as you walk out the door, planning recreational activities and sticking to a schedule, and so on.
Naturally I’m a big believer in embracing the present moment. But what if pure compartmentalization can lead to mediocrity? What if in the struggle for daily balance, you’re missing out on long-term accomplishment and complete contentment? If every single day contained a healthy balance over the course of a lifetime, would you meet or exceed the goals you set out for yourself? Would that make you happier or more content, or would it leave you feeling empty?
Ed. note: It seems like a rite of passage to post about habit forming on a personal growth blog. But the primary reason I’m posting this is because I feel I have something to add to the conversation, not just because I have Leo envy! Hopefully you pickup a trick or two from this post.
Forming new habits is hard. But it’s absolutely possible for everyone due to the plasticity of the brain and the core of human nature. If we are what we repeatedly do, then it serves to reason that our habits are somehow a part of us. What we focus on from minute to minute and day to day has a large part to do with who we are – and more importantly who we want to be.
It’s not uncommon to see people with ambitious goals and aspirations who haven’t formed any of the required habits to achieve them. For 23 hours and 59 minutes each day they’re mired in bad habits, struggling to understand why it is they just can’t get motivated or can’t make progress. The 1 minute each day they spend thinking about and focusing on their goals can’t help overcome the inertia of their habits.
Habits are the single most important ingredient to achieving real focus and real growth.
Social psychologists have been studying the process of habit forming for quite some time. In the late 1970s, researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente came up with a model to help frame the various “Stages of Change”. While this model was formed out of a desire to cure smoker’s addiction, it’s useful to help identify which stage someone is in with respect to one or more of their habits, good or bad. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during early stages, but eventually become more proactive and committed to forming or replacing habits.