Y Is for Yesses

Your unconscious shrugs off neutral or positive news or experiences, sometimes barely registering them, and hones in on the negative. You have a stronger emotional reaction to negative stimuli, which increases the likelihood you’ll remember it. Since it takes less time for negative experiences to get stored in memory, your unconscious has more negative memories to draw on than positive ones when it’s evaluating information. And negative experiences affect you longer. As Rick Hanson famously says:

Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.

That’s because your brain’s main concern is your survival, so it’s primed to detect threats. Positive things may indeed help you survive. But negative things can kill you. It’s better to be safe than sorry. It’s better to expect and prepare for a possible threat than to be surprised or ambushed by one.

It’s easy to forget you’re operating with essentially the same brain your ancestors on the savanna had—a brain that doesn’t necessarily deal effectively with the stimulation, stressors, and sheer volume of information you have to contend with in modern daily life.

The brain is, first and foremost, a survival tool, and the way that it has found to be most effective at guaranteeing survival is through the threat and reward response. Put simply, your brain will cause you to move away from threats and move toward rewards. —Dr. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work

This may not seem particularly problematic until you realize that, in additional to actual survival needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) and actual physical threats, each of us has personalized our threat-detection system to include situations we have defined as threatening. And once your brain gets the idea that something is a threat, it responds as if it is facing a literal threat to your physical survival.

Your brain automatically looks for what isn’t working: the threats, the slights, the hurts, the things that fall apart or don’t go your way. And because the unconscious part of your brain uses associative thinking, it is all too easy to get on a negative track and stay there. One thing leads to another, or one similar thought reminds you of another similar thought, and before you know it, your mood and your attitude have soured, and your ability to refocus your attention has evaporated.

Count Your Yesses

You can’t stop your brain from noticing the negative, and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But neither do you have to give in to it. The advice to count your blessings comes to mind, but I find blessings to be a loaded word on several levels. I prefer to count my yesses. It’s an effective way to turn the tide when I notice I’ve mentally starting traveling along that road to nowhere.

Although I tend to be pretty optimistic and upbeat, the first thing I noticed when I began this practice was how much easier it is to count my nos. Because the nos are brought to our attention by System 1, the part of the brain that is always on and processes 11,000,000 bits of information at a time, they come to mind immediately and automatically. Counting yesses, on the other hand, requires intention, which is a function of System 2, the conscious part of the brain that is slow, lazy, and easily depleted.

That’s why when you’re tired, stressed, or sick—or when life has dealt you some kind of blow—you simply have less System 2 attention available. It’s easy, then, for the nos to get the upper hand. I remember when I experienced a bout of food poisoning. For several days, the nos were abundant. While I observed the downward trend in my thoughts, I understood what was happening. I was pretty sure my perspective would shift once I got better (which it did), so I didn’t let the nos carry me too far downstream.

It’s easy for one no to outweigh many yesses, so much so that we may not even notice the yesses when they occur. A Facebook friend used to post what she called “The Daily Yes.” It was a good prompt for me because it was my cue to pay attention to what’s juicy and zesty and working in my life—to who and what has said yes to me and who and what I’ve said yes to.

Don’t Let the Nos Foil Your Plans

The negativity bias can really wreak havoc on your attempts to meet your goals, master a challenge, or change an unwanted habit. Your brain is more likely to point out all the things you don’t do—or don’t do as well as you could or should—while ignoring your successes. Along with repetition and perseverance, change requires a cheerleader, not a critic scolding you from the peanut gallery.

If you allow the negativity bias to run unchecked, you’re likely to believe there are more nos than there actually are—and that they mean something. You’re likely to perceive anything that doesn’t work or turn out the way you planned as evidence that something is wrong with you or with your plan instead of using it as feedback to help you adjust your course.

Any time you’re trying to change the status quo is a good time to be intentional about counting your yesses. 

Note: Counting your yesses isn’t the same as positive thinking. Although positive thinking sounds like a good idea, it may be more of a hindrance to success than a help. Nor is positive thinking the same as optimism, which is a character trait. Positivity and optimism are desirable, but not to the point where your glasses become so rose-colored you’re unable to see through them.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

X Is for eXpectations

Life is an ongoing series of experiences, one after another after another. When you’re in the midst of one of them, you experience it. After it’s over, you explain it, meaning you remember it and tell a story about it, incorporating it into your ongoing narration.

But before anything even occurs, you have an expectation about what will or won’t happen, what should or shouldn’t happen, or how events will unfold and the consequences that are likely to ensue.

Expectation is

  • A belief about what should happen or the way things should be.
  • An estimate or forecast of a future situation based on present or past experiences.
  • Anticipation: looking forward to something, whether hopefully or fearfully.

Experience is:

  • The apprehension of an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind.
  • An event or a series of events participated in or lived through.
  • Direct personal participation or observation.

Explanation is:

  • A story about how or why something happened or turned out the way it did.
  • Rationalization, justification, and/or judgment about the experience.
  • The cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason.

There’s some degree of conscious (System 2) involvement in all three phases of an experience. But there’s even more unconscious (System 1) involvement in them.

The Way Things Should Be

According to Andy Clark, philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh:

Our primary contact with the world…is via our expectations about what we are about to see or experience. 

Your expectations are constrained not only by what has already happened (your past experiences), but also—and even more significantly—by the stories (and explanations) you’ve constructed about them. Your expectations, arising from your mental model of the world, determine much of what you make of your experiences.

It’s worth remembering that your experience of what’s going on in your mind and in the world is not the same as what is actually going on in either your mind or in the world.

In addition to helping you navigate the terrain you inhabit, your mental model gives rise to your sense of the way things should be. It generates expectations that are either confirmed or denied, as well as assumptions, biases, etc., that determine what you pay attention to, what you perceive (even what you are able to perceive), how you interpret and respond to what you perceive, and the meaning you assign to it.

Who I am is the habit of what I always was and who I’ll be is the result. —Louise Erdrich

Although it doesn’t have to be, the cycle of expectation/experience/
explanation can be a vicious one that narrows your perspective—and your world.

Generating expectations isn’t something you are doing; it’s something your brain is doing. You may have come across advice to do away with expectations because they are either “self-defeating” or nothing but a prelude to disappointment. (Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath are just a few who have linked expectations with disappointment.) The advice to eliminate them is based on a belief that expectations are consciously created, which gives us control over them.

Your Brain is Predictive, not Reactive.

Your felt experience may be that something happens and you react to it, but the reality is that your brain is not reactive but predictive. It is always doing its best to anticipate what’s going to happen next, as if it were playing a never-ending game of chess, continuously anticipating and preparing you for your next move.

Your brain generates multiple possible representations of what to expect in the environment. The representation with the smallest prediction error is selected. However the generation of representations is constrained by what is stored in memory and by the sampling of the environmentDirk De RidderJan Verplaetse, and Sven Vanneste, Frontiers in Psychology

You’re only aware of what your brain thinks you need to know, when you need to know it. Although your reactions and responses feel spontaneous and freely chosen, most of the time they are neither.

The unconscious is always several steps ahead of the conscious part of your brain. As neuroscientists have pointed out, this is what makes activities such as sports possible. If the brain was merely reactive, it wouldn’t operate fast enough to enable you to hit a baseball or block a goal. A reactive brain wouldn’t have helped Michael Phelps win his 10th gold medal while swimming blind after his goggles filled with water. All of his previous practice, experience, and knowledge gave his brain a solid basis for predicting what to expect and what he needed to do in order to win.

Because your brain is predictive:

  • You are not constantly surprised.
  • You don’t always have a choice.
  • You are able to engage in activities that require quick and accurate responses.
  • You are capable of learning from your experiences.
  • You don’t have to think about every little thing you do in the course of a day.
  • You find it difficult to change undesirable habits.
  • You may be tricked by various types of illusions.
  • You are unaware of your visual blind spot.

Your predictive brain—and the expectations it creates—can be a major obstacle when it comes to behavior change if you don’t take it into account. The neurons in your brain are constantly firing, interacting, and stimulating each other at various rates. If you stick to the belief that you always have a choice and try to use willpower to override your brain’s wiring, you will make things much harder for yourself than they need to be.

Not only can you not stop your brain from generating expectations, but doing so would be self-defeating. What you can do is become more aware of what those expectations are, check how closely they match reality, and evaluate how well they work for you in creating a satisfying and meaningful life.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

W Is for Writing

Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.

The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist

The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.

Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.

The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.

Flow Writing:
Making Use of Associative Thinking

The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.

Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.

Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.

Deliberate Writing:
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking

The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.

This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.

Integrated Writing:
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking

Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:

10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.

Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.

Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).

No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.

As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.

When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.

Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

V Is for Vampire

More accurately, V is for choosing whether or not to become a vampire. (Stay with me.) It’s an example offered by philosophy professor L.A. Paul to describe the difficulty of making certain kinds of decisions—decisions that will, literally, transform you in some way. She asks, how could you make an informed choice about whether or not to become a vampire?

Imagine that you have a one-time-only chance to become a vampire. With one swift, painless bite, you’ll be permanently transformed into an elegant and fabulous creature of the night. As a member of the Undead, your life will be completely different. You’ll experience a range of intense new sense experiences, you’ll gain immortal strength, speed and power, and you’ll look fantastic in everything you wear.

So far, so good. However…

You’ll also need to drink animal blood (but not human blood) and avoid sunlight.

Paul goes on to say that all your friends and family have already become vampires and they are crazy about it. They encourage you to become a vampire, too. When you ask for more information, they tell you that, as a human, you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be a vampire until you become one.

High Stakes (no pun intended)

Paul refers to such decisions as high-stakes transformative decisions. Once you take the plunge, there’s no turning back. High-stakes transformative decisions definitely alter your status quo, for better or for worse. Other examples are:

  • Becoming a parent for the first time
  • Being born deaf and getting a cochlear implant
  • Being in a war
  • Seeing color for the first time

Normally, Paul argues, experience helps us develop the conceptual or imaginative abilities we need to imagine things or situations that don’t currently exist. (It’s easy enough to imagine a vampire, especially these days, but it’s not so easy to imagine being a vampire.) When we go about trying to decide if we should take path A or path B or stay right where we are, the right kinds of experiences allow us to project ourselves into the future so we can make a rational decision about how to proceed. If we lack such experience, we have no basis for making a rational decision.

We Are Not so Rational

Paul says:

There’s a lot of value in introspecting. It’s important for us to try to think about who we are and who we want to become when we make these big decisions.

Of course that’s true for all kinds of decisions. And there are no guarantees that even the most rational of decisions will produce the results you want or hope for. Whether the stakes are high or low, even if you think you know yourself pretty well, and you think you know who you want to become in the future, and you have suitable previous experience, and you attempt to include all the relevant information, you can still end up choosing something that leaves you disappointed or far from where you thought you’d be.

Besides that, the vast majority of choices we make are non-rational (System 1, unconscious) choices. Rational decision-making isn’t even the norm for most high-stakes transformative choices.

Affective Forecasting

When we project ourselves into the future, trying out various potential outcomes, we may be weighing (consciously or unconsciously) numerous factors. But a primary consideration for most of us is how we’re going to feel as a result of a particular outcome. This is called affective forecasting—and we tend to be really, really bad at it.

In order to predict how we’re likely to feel about something, we need to be able to imagine the event. As Paul says, that’s easier to do if we’ve experienced it or something similar in the past. If we’ve been to a lot of parties, we can imagine—in general—how we’ll feel about attending a party on Saturday. If we’ve cleaned out the garage before, we can imagine how we’ll feel about doing that on Saturday, too. But if we haven’t experienced something, what we imagine or expect may not bear much resemblance to the actuality. Thinking we can predict the future leads us to believe in the veracity of what we imagine.

Even if we’re able to imagine an event because we’ve experienced it before, our memory of it—and how we felt at the time—may be faulty simply because it’s the nature of memory to be faulty. And the feelings we experience when remembering an experience from the past are not necessarily the same feelings we had at the time of the experience. (Daniel Kahnaman claims the experiencing self and the remembering self have very different agendas.) Additionally, when we don’t recall actual details of something, we may come to rely instead on our beliefs or theories about how that thing will make us feel in the future.

The Future Will Not Be the Same as the Present

There are many other variables that influence the way we make decisions, including how we’re feeling at the time, both physically and emotionally. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes how our attempts to imagine the future are based in our experiences in the present:

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

He adds:

We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

And our future world won’t be identical to our present world, either.

So if you want to improve the odds of having your decisions lead to positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes, you need to identify what’s really important to you and focus most of your attention on going after those things. Feelings are fleeting, but the things that are most important to you are also likely to be the most constant.

Trying to decide whether or not to become a vampire isn’t really so different from actual decisions you face. Making high-stakes transformative decisions will lead to unexpected results and unintended consequences.

So will not making them.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

U Is for Urgency

According to the gospel of Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, paraphrased by Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, and subsequently adopted by Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.

You’ve probably seen—or at least heard of—the Eisenhower Box or Covey’s time-management matrix. Maybe you’ve used it. In any case, it has gained traction to the point where it’s generally accepted as a viable operating principle by nearly everyone who’s trying to be more productive, effective, or successful.

The four quadrants in the matrix are:

  • #1: Urgent and Important
  • #2: Important but not Urgent
  • #3: Urgent but not Important
  • #4: not Urgent and not Important

Although I understand the concept, this matrix has never seemed useful to me so I haven’t paid much attention to it. But the wide acceptance of it has had a profound effect, one that I encounter repeatedly when I talk to my clients about change: it has turned urgent into a dirty word.

Gentlemen, Define your Terms!

The definition of important is: of great significance or value; likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being.

The definition of urgent is: compelling or requiring immediate action or attention; imperative; of pressing importance.

According to proponents of the matrix:

  • Important tasks contribute to your long-term personal or professional goals or mission. Sometimes important tasks are also urgent, but typically they’re not. Focusing on important tasks puts you in a responsive mode, which keeps you calm, collected, and inventive.
    .
  • Urgent tasks, however, require immediate attention, which puts you in a reactive mode. You become defensive, negative, hurried, and narrowly-focused. Furthermore, urgent responsibilities require immediate attention. These activities are often tightly linked to the accomplishment of someone else’s goal, and not dealing with them will cause immediate consequences. Urgent tasks are characterized as: crises, pressing problems, deadlines, emergencies, last-minute preparations, and (my favorite) fire-fighting.

This is a whole lot of hooey for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this post. The most annoying aspect of the matrix is the seeming conflation of urgency with emergency.

An emergency is defined as: a serious situation or occurrence that happens unexpectedly and demands immediate action.

While both urgent tasks and emergencies require action or a response now, not everything that’s urgent is an emergency. And there is nothing inherently negative in the definition of urgent, which begins with compelling: evoking interest, attention, or admiration in a powerfully irresistible way.

If It Feels Good, Don’t Do It?

According to the matrix, or interpretations of it, pleasurable activities are neither urgent nor important, so they should get the lowest priority in terms of how you spend your time. Try telling that to the part of your brain that runs you, and which is not remotely interested in all that stuff in box #2.

The unconscious part of your brain (System 1) is interested in immediate gratification, not long-term satisfaction. That’s why (I’m guessing…) you don’t always do what’s in your own best interest, even when you’re clear about the benefits of doing those things or the consequences of not doing them.

Why are pleasurable activities banished to the bottom of the heap, anyway? That seems somewhat puritanical. Pleasurable activities are rewarding to the brain, so you naturally want to experience them—and, one way or the other, your brain will see to it that you do.

In fact, anything you experience as urgent falls under the operation of System 1, whether it’s good for you or not. All of your planning and evaluating and strategizing require the attention of System 2, the conscious part of your brain. The matrix is a System 2 product. It’s logical and it seems like a really good idea. System 2 has millions of really good ideas. (Anything you classify as important but not urgent is, until you take action on it, nothing but another good idea.)

System 2 forgets it is often a mere bit player in the game of life.

Make What’s Important also Urgent!

The prime directive of System 1 is your survival. It carries out that directive in a number of different ways, one of which is to maintain the status quo. When you try to change your behavior, System 1 “corrects” you back to your previous path.

For example, per the matrix, you may decide that it’s really important to make different choices in regard to exercise, eating, snapping at your co-workers, or the amount of sleep you get. If so, you will likely notice that important is often insufficient to maintain your commitment to making those changes. That’s because, from moment-to-moment, System 1 will keep you focused on what it considers to be urgent. You simply don’t have enough System 2 attention to continuously override System 1’s impulses.

System 1 is powerful and pretty relentless. If you want to change the status quo, you need an equally powerful and relentless force to counteract it and to get it to work for you rather than against you. So the best thing you can do is make what’s important as compelling to your brain as possible. You want to have a sense of urgency about accomplishing what really matters to you. If you don’t have that sense of urgency, then what you claim is important to you is nothing more than a good idea or intention—you know, those things famously paving the road to hell or at least to disappointment, mediocrity, and failure.

You’re much more likely to take action based on what’s important to you if you—and your brain—feel a sense of urgency about it. Get your brain to take on those good ideas and intentions as if your life depends on it because, not to be overly dramatic, it probably does.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.