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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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