Sunday, August 7, 2011

Do You Have to Be So Optimistic?

One of my favorite times of the week is band rehearsal break. After playing for a couple of hours, we'll gather around the kitchen counter or on the couch and talk. Although we may discuss the weather or the mundane topics of daily living, we never do so simply as a matter of conveying information. Any topic, no matter how mundane, always manages to catalyze a philosophical or scientific discussion. (Go figure.)

Yesterday was no different. Over the past weeks and months, Iris has been experiencing difficulty staying on task. This is a relatively new phenomenon for her. In the past she's had no problem holding down a fulltime job, managing an office, taking care of a house, maintaining social activities, etc. However, lately her life has become a gnarled-up wad of loose-ends waiting to be tied off.

In the morning Iris will rise full of motivation and intention. Along the road to completion of one task, she'll get distracted by a side road leading to another task. Down that side road, she'll find yet another interesting side road, and then another. Next thing she knows, she's watched six-hours of America's Next Top Model and her task list has remained unchanged, her intentions unfulfilled.

As Iris shared this phenomenon, Will and Scott shared similar experiences and we delved into the factors that led to them. The sensations and emotions experienced by Will and Iris were remarkably similar, nearly identical. They were also nearly textbook descriptions of ADD (without the H).

On the other hand, Scott's description was quite different. Whereas Will and Iris expressed a sense of overwhelmedness as the profusion of tasks, thoughts and ideas crowded their minds demanding attention, Scott expressed a sense of foreboding. For Scott, the completion of the task only meant something bad, something to be avoided.

The first thing that occurred to me was, given Scott's belief, avoiding the task was the only reasonable thing to do. Think about it. If you have a task at hand that is pure drudgery, one that once completed will only make life worse, why you do it? So, the question for Scott wasn't "Why won't you complete your task?"

The questions were, "Why do you believe the task to be drudgery?", and, "Why do you believe completing it will only make things worse?"

After a bit of discussion, Scott declared, "Well, I guess I'm just a pessimistic person. What can you do about it if you're just naturally pessimistic?"

Will offered that there is now such thing as being naturally pessimistic; pessimism is acquired; it's learned.

I agreed and then thought aloud, "And there's no such thing as a pessimistic person. Pessimism is an activity, not a state of being."

We talked about pessimism and how we often view it as practical and necessary. We talked about Martin Seligman's research that shows it's the optimistic person who will seek help from a doctor when he believes he's sick and not the pessimistic one, how grounded optimism is much more practical than unfounded pessimism.

Scott asked, "So then, how do you become less pessimistic?"

And of course the answer was to become more optimistic.

As someone who others often consider to be ridiculously optimistic, I thought I'd share some shortcuts to optimism.

1. Set Achievable, Short-term Intentions
Each morning, set some intentions as to who you will be today. You can do this for tasks as well, but the main focus is on state of being. Keep intentions simple and doable. Limit their scope to just the day, i.e., no from now on statements. For example, let's say that Joe rubs you the wrong way. You might declare, "Today, every time I see Joe, I'm going to think of something that I admire in him and smile."

2. Abandon Grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it
When you take a let's-get-this-over-with attitude to undesirable tasks, you preclude breaking them down into smaller subtasks. However, the best way to accomplish an undesirable task is to break it down into small pieces. So, don't think about the big in-consumable task as something to be completed as quickly as possible; instead, create a list breaking it down into nice bite-size chunks.

3. Take delight in Small Accomplishments.
I can't tell you how good I feel after cleaning up the kitchen in the morning. I might as well have cured cancer or climbed Everest. Some may see the work as drudgery and my delight as unfounded and silly, but I feel really good about it.

4. Anticipate a Great Day!
Before I go to bed at night, I start thinking about all the things I want to do the next day. I start working through the solutions and getting excited about implementing them. Doing this is like priming an energy bomb for the following morning. I don't wake up groggy and confused. I wake up full of clarity and intent.

5. Treat Everything as an Experiment
The beauty of experiments is that you're supposed to get them wrong, at least the first n times you conduct them. If you're not getting things wrong, then you're clearly not experimenting. When you treat new initiatives and tasks as experiments, you make wrong right.

6. Toot Your Own Horn
How do you congratulate yourself when complete a task? Do you shout, "Yes!" or do you just move on. When someone compliments you, do you graciously accept or do you make apologies? Humility is for pessimists.

7. Take Delight in Others
When you see something done well, no matter how mundane or unremarkable the task may be, compliment the person who did it. Take joy and delight in things done well. Note that this is not effective if done indiscriminately, e.g., dolling out compliments in order to be nice or to be encouraging.

Taking steps towards optimism can completely transform your life and how you experience the people around you.

Happy Sunday,

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