Category: Habits

Fighting the Habit of Assuming the Worst


When we’re in a relationship for any length of time, we form impressions of the other person.

Sometimes our impressions are right, but other times, we’re way off base.

First impressions are useful because there are times we have to make snap judgements about others and think on our feet (is this salesperson trying to scam me?).

But in a longterm situation where cooperation is most important (think marriage, coworkers, bosses) these assumptions can calcify and get in our own way.

[In arguments], the parties’ relationship tends to become entangled with their discussions of substance. On both the giving and receiving end, we are likely to treat people and problem as one. Within the family, a statement such as “The kitchen is a mess” or “Our bank account is low” may be intended simply to identify a problem, but it is likely to be heard as a personal attack.

Getting to Yes, 20

Nothing is stopping me from assuming a potential client is snubbing me when she doesn’t respond for a week. Or that my boss is trying to push me out of that important project when I’m left out of the latest development. Or that the offhand comment my friend made was a secret jab at me. But are these assumptions helpful?

Assuming the worst is scary because

  • It becomes habitual, meaning we don’t notice we’re doing it (instead, we treat our impressions as fact).
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the worst often means changing the way we respond, and actually creating the distance we imagined.

Fighting the Habit

Today I read a great (and hilarious) story about an SEOmoz employee who challenged his boss about an uncomfortable comment she made about another employee. This is a great story about how trust in relationships is built–and how easy it is to (even justifiably!) misconstrue one another. It would have been easy for there to be less openness in SEOmoz’s work environment, and for the employee to never talk about his discomfort.

Potential ways to fight the habit of assuming the worst:

  • Identify assumptions. When you feel negatively about a person, situation, or interaction, stop and think about why you feel that way. Try to figure out your assumptions and seperate them from what actually happened and was said.
  • Test assumptionsOften this is as easy as asking someone a question.
  • Prepare to be wrong.
  • Assume positive intent.

A passage on that last bullet point:

Our relationships at work are sometimes corrupted by negative assumptions that snowball over time. A colleague speaks out against our idea in a meeting, and we think, He’s trying to show off in front of the boss. If this happens another time or two, we might conclude he’s a “brown-boser,” a label that will become self-sustaining …

To interrupt this cycle, some organizational leaders urge their employees to “assume positive intent,” that is, to imagine the behavior or words of your colleagues are motivated by good intentions, even when their actions seems objectionable at first glance. This “filter” can be extremely powerful.

‘… If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed… you don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, ‘Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.’

Decisive, 108-109

Understand your negative assumptions, acknowledge them, then actively act the opposite.

When we adopt a habit of assuming the best, we have the same side effects as above (with a twist):

  • It becomes habitual, meaning you foster goodwill until you are explicitly shot down.
  • It’s often self-fulfilling–assuming the best often means changing the way we act, and actually dissolve other people’s negative assumptions.

[Image source: deflam via photopin cc]

How to Digest Books to Improve Recall

information recall learningIf you read a lot of books or blog posts, listen to sermons, or even watch documentaries, you are exposed to a lot of information. But whether you are learning a lot of  information is another matter.

While the mental click of processing a new item of information feels great, we often find ourselves unable to remember simple facts or ideas in the days after we learn them. It’s frustrating to just remember that you learned something relevant to the problem you’re working on, but not be able to actually recall what that helpful info is. This happens with actor’s names and book titles all the time.

Lately, I’ve amped up the amount of non-fiction I’m reading. While information consumption is something that lights my brain up and registers as an accomplishment, I’m really interested in trying to improve my ability to recall my new reading.

If you invest 10 hours of reading into a 200-page book (or 40 minutes into hearing a lecture), you don’t get that time back.

One way to maximize that 10-hour investment is to improve your recall. Better memory also improves the chance you’ll recall the information when you need it to make key decisions–and making better decisions with new information is the best kind of return on investment.

So how do you improve recall?

What Doesn’t Work (probably)

Somewhere in the middle years of my education I was taught that the way most people learn things is largely ineffective.

The idea goes like this (typically attributed to William Glassser):

We only remember:
10% of what we READ
20% of what we HEAR
30% of what we SEE
50% of what we SEE and HEAR
70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS
95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE.

Whether or not this is true, it strikes me as fundamentally right on some level. It’s the idea of active recall: the greater your active engagement, the better your recall.

Many common studying practices, like highlighting, are largely a waste of time according to some sources. I suspect that only holds true if you passively highlight, meaning never return to those sections. Highlighting and underlining (as well as simple rereading) can promote false confidence, because the “click” of passive rereading might be misconstrued as true understanding, without actually improving recall.

In other words, the higher rung you climb on the ladder of engagement, the better your recall. 

Your Brain is a Network

Active recall matches with our understanding of how the brain encodes things.

Your brain doesn’t just store information in little cordoned brain boxes. Information spreads out across networks of neurons throughout the brain. The more you engage with an idea, the more the densely that idea is represented in your brain, as it connects to other ideas. Effectively, when your brain exercises an idea that idea becomes more muscular.

This is why you remember new acquaintances’ names better if they have the same name as your sibling–the network of associations for that name is already dense. It also explains why it’s so difficult to remember foreign names: you don’t have existing networks for those names, and often don’t even have strong patterns for those combinations of sounds, so your brain has to work harder to recall them.

Learning actively forces you to build more neural connections for new ideas. If you do a relevant science experiment instead of just reading about a new concept, you create a whole bunch of sensory experiences and associations that strengthen your recall. If you teach a concept, you’re forced to recall the idea and then communicate it, probably in a format you didn’t receive it in the first place.

Actively Digest Books

Here are three ways I’m trying to digest my non-fiction reading to improve my return on the time invested:

  • Read comprehensively. Read in topics that interrelate, instead of reading scattered subjects. For me right now, that means a lot about business, nonprofits, psychology and persuasion. Often, you’ll run into the same case studies from a different light, which reinforces your learning. Try to take time to integrate new knowledge with your old understanding. All this strengthens your neural connections.
  • Create a quote bank. Stick tabs into the text when a thought strikes you as especially important or profound to the overall message, and worth being able to remember later (if you aren’t as old fashioned as I am, use whatever the e-book analogue is to tabbing a page). Then, once you’ve finished the book, go back through the tabs and decide if they still seem as important–they might not! If they do, though, type them into a quote bank in Google Docs (so you can access them wherever) to increase your engagement. Then go back in the coming weeks and review the quotes in the quote bank to reinforce your new connections. (A quote bank will also help you be more willing to get rid of old books.)
  • Write/Teach.  Use the above points to create a new thing that integrates your knowledge. I write and blog in my work life, so I have an organic opportunity to teach and process new information in creative ways. This allows you to get an immediate return value from your reading things, in addition to improving your long-term recall–since you have to have pretty high engagement to articulate new knowledge to others in a different way than you consumed it. This blog post is an example of writing to improve recall.

What  ways do you  improve your recall of important information–whether it’s blog posts or sermons–instead of just consuming it and crossing your fingers? I’d love any suggestions.

[Image source: Inclued]

4 Scenarios to Test Your Awesome Level

Here are four scenarios:

a) You’ve been laid off from your job. You knew the company was going through changes and other people have already, sadly, been laid off. You didn’t worry too much about it because you were doing a good job. But then you were laid off anyway.

Honest appraisal time–pick your response:

1) I hate that company. Why didn’t they appreciate the value I was offering? I did all I could do.

2) Why was I fired? What could I have done differently to not be the kind of employee/position that got eliminated?

3) Well, times are tough. Better people than me got fired and I shouldn’t be surprised. I couldn’t have done anything to avoid that.

4) Time to get a new job and see if it sticks. I’ll try again and see if it works out better.

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