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Back to Basics: The Big Picture

Back to Basics: The Big Picture

The 50,000-Feet View

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in the details of any productivity system, all the fiddly little bits that fit together just so. But how does everything you do add up to a life? Or does it?

    Thinking about the big picture too much can get in the way of our day-to-day lives – you don’t want to be dreaming about your life 20 years from now while you’re trying to get across a busy intersection with a broken traffic light! – but don’t let your day-to-day life get in the way of thinking about the big picture. When your focus is always on the next action, you can easily next action yourself into a dead-end, with no idea how you got there and no room to turn around.

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    The goal of any productivity system, then, isn’t to keep you focused on the tasks in front of you, it’s to allow you to direct your focus to all the aspects of your life when they need focus. Both the telephoto focus of getting work done and the wide-angle focus of sorting out who your are, what you’re doing, and where you want to be headed are important if you’re going to make any sort of life for yourself.

    The View from On High

    David Allen uses the metaphor of a plane in flight to explain the need to shift our focus to the big picture from time to time. When the plane’s on the runway, the world is a-bustle with motion: the flight crew are running all their pre-flight checklists and securing everything for take-off, the ground crew is fueling the plane and loading the baggage, everyone’s milling about just trying to meet their schedules.

    Once the plane takes off, though, things calm down. As you look out the window, the jumble of buildings, trees, and roads resolves itself into a grid of streets and city blocks. Individual buildings fall away as the plane climbs higher and higher, until the city itself blurs into a part of the landscape. From cruising altitude, the hubbub on the ground is invisible, and you can relax, get comfortable, and watch the world roll along under the plane.

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    This is what Allen calls “the 50,000-feet view”, where next actions and contexts drop away and instead you can think about the meaning of it all – what gives your life purpose. Where are you headed, and what will your life look like when you get there? Is it too late to change your itinerary and take a different connecting flight, to destinations un-thought-of before now? And when are they coming around with the peanuts, anyway? (OK, maybe that’s taking the metaphor too far…)

    Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

    The 50,000-feet view is where you focus on, in a word, your mission. It seems odd to most people to have a mission. Corporations have missions, usually some BS gobbledigook about “synergizing this” and “maximizing that”. Superheroes have missions, some naive nonsense about truth, justice, and the be-leotarded way. 28th level half-elf war mages have missions, usually something about rescuing the Night Queen from the clutches of the evil Tralfamadora and rebuilding the broken spires of the Moon Palace..

    But you? Do you have a mission?

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    It bears thinking about. It doesn’t have to be fancy or esoteric – this is your life we’re talking about! In plain language, what are you here for? What is it that, looking back from your rocking chair on the porch, in between hurling abuse at neighborhood kids whose danged ball keeps landing in your hedges, what is it that will make you feel you’ve lived a life worth living?

    A mission makes a useful mantra, a little ditty to look in the mirror Stuart Smalley-style and chant to yourself when things are looking bleak, but it’s also a test,a yardstick against which to measure your actions. Whenever you take on a project, ask yourself, “Is this going to bring me closer to accomplish my mission?” When things get bad and you start to think about quitting, remembering how whatever you’re working on advances your mission will help give you the determination you need to get the job done.

    What Matters to You?

    To figure out your mission, you need to know what really matters to you. Does your job matter? Your favorite TV show? Who matters most in your life? Whose expectations matter most? Could you live knowing that Uncle Frank thinks you’re a mess-up just like your dad, or that Granma Millie hates seeing you wasting your potential?

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    This seems like an easy question, but it’s not – not if you’re truly honest with yourself. It can be hard to come to grips with the fact that the thing you’ve done for the last X years of your life doing really doesn’t matter all that much to you after all – that it might have been the cats pajamas when you were 24 but at 34 seems like a dead-end. Or that the person you’re engaged to, married to, or living with isn’t really your One True Love. Or that you never really enjoyed reality shows, you just watched because there was nothing else on.

    People will do just about anything to avoid answering these questions and facing their lives head-on, because the answers often suggest that we need to make massive changes, and that means work. And not just “carry this box” work, but Sisyphean labor – rolling the huge stone of our lives uphill with nothing to do when it comes plummeting down from the summit except brush ourselves off and try again.  But as hard as it is, asking the tough questions is the key to a life well-lived.

    Prepare for Takeoff

    Like I said, you can’t spend every minute of every day with your head in the clouds, taking in the 50,000-feet view. Making an appointment to spend a few days with yourself isn’t a bad idea, though, and revisiting that appointment every year or two is a pretty good idea, too.

    You might not need a few days – maybe when you let go of all your day-to-day worries for a bit, you’ll discover that your unconscious mind has been mulling these issues over for quite a while. But usually you will need a good chunk of time, first to clear your mind (go hiking or something), then to really think things through. A weekend is probably appropriate, but don’t fret if you can’t find the time – take whatever time you can get, lock yourself up somewhere quiet, and do what you can – remember that you’re not writing anything in stone, you’re just trying to grab ahold of the things that give your life meaning. You have a whole lifetime to revise.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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