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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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