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New Year’s Resolutions and Deficit Thinking

New Year’s Resolutions and Deficit Thinking

As we approach the New Year, many of you may be starting to consider one or more New Year’s resolutions. Okay, you’ve done it before—probably many, many times—and the results have not been spectacular in terms of success. In fact, most of your past resolutions have lasted maybe a week or two. Don’t despair. Exactly the same thing happens to most people, and for the same reason: the deadly habit of deficit thinking.

Deficit thinking is an ingrained habit of focusing on gaps and weaknesses (the deficit) instead of what’s working (and can be made to work still better). It’s focusing on what you can’t do, not what you can. Instead of your dreams and ambitions propelling you forward, you let the gap between your current state and your desires become a source of frustration and depression. It’s the old business of seeing the glass as half empty.

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People who suffer from ingrained deficit thinking (and that’s just about all of us, since it’s drummed into us from school onwards) spend their whole time checking up on their failings, limitations, weaknesses, and the gaps in their knowledge. Then, armed with a mental list of all the things that are wrong with them, they start trying to put them right, usually by applying willpower. It rarely, if ever, works. Why? Because many of the “problems” are part of their basic make-up, so that’s like deciding to will yourself to be six inches taller, or to have blue eyes instead of brown ones. Go at it all you like, but nothing will change.

Most of the other “gaps” are there because, deep down, it isn’t you who wants to be different or “better” in that precise way: it’s other people who tell you that you ought to be so. They want you to change to suit their agendas. And you go along—on the surface—because it’s polite, or socially desirable, or you wish that you could agree with them (only you don’t). This gives you almost zero real motivation to change. Result: you talk a great talk about whatever it is, yet never quite seem to be able to turn the talk into effective action. If you truly wanted to change—or give up whatever it is—you would find a way to do it, believe me.

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Deficit thinking is a waste of time, promoting misery, guilt, and frustration for no good reason. Here’s how to get rid of it:

  • Don’t waste energy looking for gaps and deficiencies. Sure, you have some. Everyone does. Try using that energy to celebrate and build on what you do well. It’ll give you a far better payback.
  • Don’t assume the glass is half empty, when it’s simply half a glassful. Be grateful and enjoy what you have and who you are, instead of ignoring both in favor of worrying about what you don’t have and aren’t likely to become, however much you obsess about it.
  • Don’t take fears for reality, commonplace thoughts for truth, and worries for real problems. Nearly all such opinions and thoughts are wrong. Most of the gaps you’ve been encouraged to fret about don’t exist outside the minds of those others who want you to change to fit in with their ideas. The “gaps” are only in your mind because you allowed someone else to put them there.
  • Don’t accept judgments by others without looking at whatever they tell you very, very closely. If you saw a slice of pizza lying on the sidewalk, would you pick it up and eat it? No? Then why do so many people accept judgments and assessments from just about anyone and swallow them down without a moment’s hesitation? Judgments like that are even more likely to contain something toxic than the pizza. What you put in your head can poison you as easily as something you put in your mouth. When someone passes judgment, or tries to put some guilt feeling onto you, tell them to go poison someone else’s mind.
  • Stop focusing on life’s negatives. The world is uncertain and difficult enough without you adding to the pile of problems you have to deal with.
  • Don’t buy the foolish idea you have a right to be happy. There’s no such right. The best way to be happy is to give up being miserable. Let it go. Sometimes you’ll feel happy, sometimes sad, and very often neither. That’s the way life is. Smile and enjoy it.
  • Stop watching your emotions. They’re not worth it. They go up, then down, then up again like the stockmarket. No one really knows why, whatever they try to tell you—not even mental health professionals. You can’t will your emotions go or stay where you want, so quit driving yourself nuts by trying. Best of all, treat them like the weather: sometimes an inconvenience, sometimes a pain, and sometimes full of joyous sunshine. Many of them are probably due more to what you ate or drank yesterday than anything meaningful.

The commonest source of the fears that weigh us down is some belief about what is “normal” or “standard.” Here’s an example. One company that I worked in had a common belief that anyone who hadn’t been promoted to a significant management position by the age of 30 was never going to be promoted. There was no basis for this belief, but it persisted. The results were predictable. People of 29 lived in constant fear of being “passed over.” By age 31, anyone not promoted had already left to find another job.

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A good way to start clearing up the problems in your life this New Year is by throwing away all your old, wrongheaded beliefs and assumptions. Many of them will be plain wrong; others will be long out of date. Most people carry around a heavy load of such mistaken beliefs about the world, themselves and others: beliefs that stir up negative emotions and behaviors; assumptions that cause deficit thinking; and a host of other habitual ways of seeing the world that are virtually guaranteed to limit their achievements and cause them unnecessary suffering.

Take them out and question them mercilessly. If they’re still true and sound, you have nothing to lose. If they aren’t—and many, many won’t be—drop them immediately. Then make sure you repeat the process often. Today’s knowledge quickly gets stale. Yesterday’s beliefs soon become moldy. Don’t let them fill your mind with outdated worries, useless guilt, and idiotic deficit thinking for one moment longer.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His new book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available through all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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