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What Are Your Filters?

What Are Your Filters?

20080813-filters

    Whammo! You didn’t see that coming, did you?

    Why is it that, despite all our planning, we sometimes get caught by surprise, totally unprepared, with our pants down as it were? I mean, we’re smart folks, right? How come sometimes we just don’t see stuff coming?

    The answer is, much of the time, that we don’t see everything clearly because we don’t see a lot of things at all. We process the raw stuff of experience through a variety of filters – and we act on the “processed” information, not the world as it is.

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    Those filters are engrained in us, often from birth, and most of the time they help us to effectively function in our social and physical environments. For example, one very simple filter we have is how to isolate something interesting or important from a cluttered background – think finding your keys among the mess at the bottom of your purse. Or identifying something good to eat – a ripe fruit, perhaps – among the unripe fruits, leaves, and branches of a tree.

    That’s a pretty basic filtering ability (though the physiological mechanisms involved are quite complex) that humans everywhere rely on every day to survive, so it’s a good thing. But there are many much more complex filters that we pick up as part of our thinking repertoire, and as helpful as they might sometimes be, they can also get us into a lot of trouble.

    Here are some examples:

    Language

    Language is a powerful force in shaping our behavior. Just ask a sanitation engineer! Employers have long recognized the way that job titles can affect employee performance – which is why there are so few clerks and so many associates at your local retail mega-outlet.

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    But language can lead us astray, as well. Consider this example drawn from the annals of linguistics: a tanning factory discharges wastes, mostly animal matter, into a pond. The decomposing waste creates flammable gasses. A “pond”, though, is not flammable, right? I mean, right?! A man is working near the pond. Not taking any special precautions – why would you, next to a “pond”? – he ignites a blow-torch. A sheet of flame engulfs the pond and spreads to the nearby factory, destroying it.

    The language we use to describe people can strongly influence our behavior towards them. Feminists recognized this when they started insisting on terms like “police officer” rather than “policeman”. Or consider this: numerous studies have shown that people with “ethnic-sounding” names are less likely to get job interviews as similarly-qualified people with “white-sounding” names.

    Gender

    Gender is a powerful filter in every culture – although the behaviors it shapes can be very different from culture to culture. What is considered men’s work in one society – carrying heavy loads of bricks, for example – might be considered women’s work in another.

    Gender leads us astray when it leads us to look at a person’s gender as an index of their abilities. For instance, in the US, it is common to hear people say things like “men are stronger than women”. This is not true. Some men are stronger than most women, a handful of men are stronger than all women, and most men are stronger than some women. But knowing someone’s gender does not tell you anything about how strong they are!

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    Assumptions about gender extend far beyond physical attributes. With few exceptions, women still are not promoted to top-level corporate positions, despite the number of qualified women in the business world. Men are assumed to have “leadership qualities” that women lack – and women’s leadership qualities tend to be dismissed as signs of “manliness” or “bitchiness”.

    Race and Ethnicity

    What is true of gender is also true of race and ethnicity. Knowing someone’s race or ethnicity tells us little about that particular person – yet we act as if it told us a lot. Here’s an example: a black student of mine was accused of plagiarism in another class when she handed in an excellent essay. This is a student that added immensely to every classroom discussion she took part in, and who wrote insightfully in every assignment she gave me (including “personal reflection” papers that cannot be plagiarized). The other professor did not have any examples of work that the student had allegedly copied from; it was simply “too good”. Race may not have been the only factor, but it was clearly a factor; I’ve never had a white student of similar quality face a similar accusation.

    Here’s another example: Black and other minority athletes, performers, even military leaders and politicians are often described as “articulate”, an adjective rarely applied to their white counterparts. People do not expect articulate speech from non-white persons, and are surprised when they hear intelligent dialogue from black speakers.

    Personal Experience

    An old joke claims, “All Indians walk single file. At least, the one I saw did.”

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    Personal experience is a powerful learning tool, but it can lead us astray when we make false assumptions based on generalizations from limited experience. Childhood experience can make for especially powerful filters, as they tend to be imbued with strong emotional resonance, but any experience can lead us to wrong conclusions.

    Examining Your Filters

    What is insidious about all of these factors is that most of the time they function without us even noticing them. We don’t promote Chad over Wilma because Chad’s a man, but because he seems more “leaderly”, because he has that “certain something”. And maybe he does – or maybe our invisible assumptions about gender make weak signs of “certain somethingness” seem strong, while Wilma’s powerful “certain somethingness” is filtered out.

    It’s unlikely that you will catch your filters at work in your day-to-day life, but you can reflect on the way you have interacted with other people and how you’ve handled various situations (perhaps in a weekly review?). You may well be surprised to find that, in many cases, you can’t seem to put your finger on exactly why you acted the way you did – a sure sign of a filter at work. Paying attention to those moments will bring you a long way towards replacing the stock of experience and received wisdom with filters that allow you to more accurately and effectively act.

    I’ve listed only a handful of obvious filters here. What are your filters? How could you deal with them?

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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