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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 August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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