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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 March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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