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Most problems never have to be solved

post-it art building

Beside me on my desk at all times is a pad of sticky notes, which was the size of a Rubik’s cube when I bought it. Now it’s the size of a Melba Toast.

Whenever I think of something I might have to deal with, I write it down on one of these squares. The sheets alternate yellow and hot pink, so my inbox always looks like a tropical salad.

Every few days I process these little notes, which means I look at what I’ve written and decide what to do about it. Sometimes I neglect this duty for a while, and end up with a week’s worth (or two) of sticky notes.

I end up throwing most of them right into the recycling bin, because when it comes time to look at it, the thing I wrote down is no longer relevant, or I’ve already done it, or I don’t feel like anything has to be done about it.

Yet almost all of those notes were scrawled in a moment when I felt some kind of urgency or worry about something, as if my life was suddenly becoming more difficult. I have to ______! I need a new ______! What am I going to do about _____?!

We have these kinds of moments all the time. Things are going fine, and then they’re not, because you think of something you might have to deal with. The moment goes a bit dark. You wish you hadn’t thought of it. Another thing on your plate.

Problems emerge like that: a mental tapping on the shoulder, and a darkening of the emotions. I’ve become really interested in the exact moment this reaction happens, and watching what physical feelings creep in. It almost always does something to the body: the jaw hardens, the skin flushes, or a pit grows below the ribcage.

In those moments, it can be easy to forget (assuming you realize this in the first place) that most of these apparent problems will never have to be solved. They’ll never ripen into real-life dilemmas that require anything difficult from you. Chances are they’ll be sticky notes in the bin at the end of the week (if you’re organized enough to write them down.)

Over and over and over in my life, things that I think will be a big problem turn out not to be. Something else happens instead. Or, a moment I’m dreading comes and goes and it’s not that bad.

Most of the time, the only difficulty posed by a problem is dealing with the moment in which it occurs to you that you might have a problem. After watching thousands of my worries go straight to the bin, I’m getting better at noticing the “shoulder tap” when it happens, and reminding myself that this problem probably isn’t a problem. 

Most problems never become real-life dilemmas for a very simple reason. Our minds work many times faster than real life does. In a single minute, your thoughts can jump between a dozen or more concerns:

  • The car is making a weird noise. I think.
  • There was something I was supposed to buy — what was it?
  • How will I know whether to do X or Y when the time comes?
  • I really need to establish a regular laundry day.
  • Oh crap, I have that thing tomorrow, and I hate mingling.
  • I have no idea if I’m saving enough for retirement. Probably not.

But one minute of actual life contains a lot less content than that. It doesn’t demand all that rapid gear-shifting. Real life only shows up one moment at a time. One thing on your plate.

Your mind tells you there is a problem whenever it detects a somewhat possible unpleasant future experience, which it can do all day, and it happily will if you don’t call its bluff. Of course there’s an infinite supply of potential disasters. These are just thoughts, but they seem like realities, and any one of them can create an emotional pitfall now no matter what actually happens later.

Each of these apparent problems represents itself as something you will have to act on at some point. Ninety per cent of the time, this is a lie. Thoughts are like little politicians; experts at rhetoric, sensationalism self-preservation, unlimited in number, mostly just noisy and useless but occasionally make important things happen.

We probably have ten or twenty or fifty apparent problems for every real problem, and that can make a normal day into a minefield if you react to every one as it comes up. The tendency is to want to engage with it right there, as if we can make it go away this way.

Unless the apparent problem is that I’m bleeding or something is literally on fire, I am very careful not to explore it mentally or decide what to do about it while I’m still feeling the emotional effect of first noticing it.

What I do first is remind myself that it’s probably not a problem. Then I write it down, knowing I’ll decide what to do about it later. This requires a decent workflow system of some kind, which you should have anyway if you expect to get anything done.

Later is almost always a better time to deal with something that comes to mind, if there is anything to deal with at all. When you first have a problematic thought, you feel caught off guard. This caught-off-guard state is probably the worst possible state to be in to be analyzing and solving a problem: you’re emotional, you feel unprepared, you don’t have the right tools with you, and you’re probably in the middle of something else.

As I get better at this, I notice something wonderful happening: problems don’t feel like problems any more. They’re just things to work on when it’s time to work.

This is dramatically different than what it’s like when you mistake thoughts of potential problems — of which there are thousands — for actual problems. In that mode, it seems like there are countless problems stalking you out there in the ether, ready to materialize in front of you when you’re least fit to deal with them.

They were only ever thoughts, which might correspond to some real-life thing that’s worth doing later. And when they do, you can do it with intention, in the way you think best, and there’s probably a nice prize at the end of it.

***

Photo by wsilver
sally April 6, 2014 at 11:13 pm

“Thoughts are like little politicians; experts at rhetoric, sensationalism self-preservation, unlimited in number, mostly just noisy and useless but occasionally make important things happen.”

Love this bit especially!
It’s quite the Scarlett O’Hara approach overall, isn’t it? “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” I used to think that was shortsighted, but I’ve come to realise there’s something to it.

Thank you for another quality piece of work :)

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:27 am

“I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” I used to think that was shortsighted, but I’ve come to realise there’s something to it.

Right. It’s silly of us to believe that we ought to examine every thought that occurs, when it occurs. There are just too many to deal with intelligently.

Vishal April 7, 2014 at 12:51 am

Totally Agree.
Lot of it are just mental noise. We have to realize whether we really need to take action or ignore/deligate it.
Thank you for the reminder :)

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:37 am

Yes, chances are it doesn’t warrant action, and we almost never need to decide whether it does until later.

Jonny Hung April 7, 2014 at 1:23 am

GTD system (shoutout to the two affiliate links):
1. Capture/Collect
2. Process Periodically

I personally use a pocket notebook that I back up to a Google Drive doc. Rudimentary, but it’s working so far.

It’s definitely easy to lose awareness and have ‘apparent’ problems pile up into a full blown crisis. Related to what you discussed in your post about keeping doing and deciding separate:

http://www.raptitude.com/2014/02/keep-your-doing-and-your-deciding-away-from-each-other/

Thanks again David! Gratitude!

Jonny Hung April 7, 2014 at 1:26 am

PS: how do I get a picture on my comments so I don’t look like two white circles imposed on a gray background?

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:38 am

Go to gravatar.com

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:30 am

After I wrote this I realized it’s very much related to “Keep your deciding and your doing away from each other.” Both are essentially encouraging a strict separation between two classic GTD modes. This one is collecting and processing, the other one is between processing and doing.

Celia Koz April 7, 2014 at 1:26 am

Brilliant. As ever. Mindfulness magazine should reprint your blogs. They are perfect.

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:31 am

Thanks Celia.

Andy Sum April 7, 2014 at 1:50 am

I’m feeling this right now! I went out and bought a new Moleskine notebook earlier today so that I wouldn’t have Post-Its stuck everywhere! I’ve also been thinking about the Bullet Journal system for taking down notes and thoughts. But at the end of the day, a lot of this stuff is inconsequential… yet I still feel a need to write it all down.

I think the act of writing things down does provide some comfort, as then you don’t have to keep those thoughts in your head. I haven’t read GTD in a while, but I think that’s one of the reasons for writing it down in the first place.

It is kind of nice to find old sticky notes around the place and for them to be irrelevant or for tasks you’ve already done a while ago.

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:41 am

I saw your tweets :)

The writing-down habit makes a huge difference to how much is in your head. Making a habit of it allows you to de-train your “Oh crap” reaction whenever you remember something you might have to act on. Because you don’t have to switch modes right there, you can just record it and continue with your day.

Ric April 7, 2014 at 4:16 am

Great post, thanks.

” … and you’re probably in the middle of something else.”
This alone is a great reason to delay action. I find interruptions (including from my own thoughts) are one of the biggest time wasters when I need to get something done.

Also I use the back of unwanted paper from my printer, neatly torn into squares and hung next to my desk in a clip. I think this is slightly more environmentally sustainable than using manufactured post-its, notepads or notebooks, and I can still recycle them once they have been used for the second time.

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:42 am

Thanks Ric.

Alice April 7, 2014 at 4:39 am

Notes notes notes. I have them everywhere to remind me about stuff. Stuff to buy on one side of the note and stuff to do on the other. When other nagging things pop into my mind that I see needs attention… I’m with Sally….No no… can’t deal with you now. It’s usually in that very moment that I’m on a mission to do one of those other things on the list and another note only derails me. Later, when that thing I didn’t write down or do becomes a problem is when I remember thinking I said, “no no, not now” and I get angry with myself for not taking the time. I’ve come to the conclusion however, that we can’t do it all and I just have to say, “oh well.”

Good post!

David Cain April 7, 2014 at 8:42 am

“Oh well” is a great mantra.

Craig M April 7, 2014 at 8:53 am

David,

Great post, again. I work with a lot of start ups and I see examples of this everyday. It’s easier to coach than sometimes dealing with it myself. Recently I had to start planning for a move. Problem, after problem arose. Last night I was super anxious and I had to remind myself, what feels like a problem today is often nothing in a week or so.

Thanks
Craig

Debbie G April 7, 2014 at 9:20 am

Hi David,
Love your writing and introspection! I’m writing this at work, surrounded by post-it notes stuck all over my desktop. And you’re right, most of them get thrown away without requiring action or because the action happened at the right time without the reminder of the note. I’ve always realized that writing these things on a note gave me relief of some kind. I think you have explained perfectly why this works the way it does. It provides a means of letting go of these distracting thoughts.
Thanks for doing what you do.

Deb

Michael Eisbrener April 7, 2014 at 11:04 am

David, I used to have this issue. When I spent the time writing down my list of commitments, short term, intermediate and long term, organized them into a congruent direction, I noticed many had to be set aside for now. I then spent enough time going over the list to ‘program’ my unconscious mind so it now ‘it’ only yaks at me with something that has me off tangent. Concentrate your focus on one commitment at a time with all the commitments congruent increases velocity. If you are having trouble with all the ‘c’ items on your list, you do need to schedule them in time. Items that you need to do that if you don’t will make a mess of your life… either schedule the time or hire a maid, cook, security and maintenance person. The second method has made my life so much better and stopped much of that mind chatter.

Jeremy April 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

The tyranny of thoughts!

Wan April 10, 2014 at 5:28 am

“Your mind tells you there is a problem whenever it detects a somewhat possible unpleasant future experience, which it can do all day, and it happily will if you don’t call its bluff.”

True.

It’s as if we are tuned to predict problem in every moment in our life and forgot the possibility that good things can happen too.

Sarah Burgin April 12, 2014 at 6:26 pm

You’ve made an excellent point, David. I’m through with my awful habit of sticking post-its everywhere.
Thanks for writing this, your posts always give me some food for thought!

Garrett April 13, 2014 at 9:55 pm

“Our minds work many times faster than real life does.” So true. Good article. Like Sally, I appreciate the thoughts/politicians analogy.

Ana April 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

You’re making a very good point here. But as someone who’s not very good at quick responses I found out it’s sometimes more useful to give my brain a problem and let it run possible answers “in the background” for days or months. Big stuff like when’s the right time for a new baby, or small stuff like moving the furniture. If the answer is not urgently needed, then there’s no anxiety to it and I think about it more or less during the day depending on whatever else I’m doing. And then I usually stumble upon some information or idea that’s helpful and it leads to a better solution than if I concentrated on the problem only when it really needed to be solved.

Pam May 19, 2014 at 8:55 pm

Interesting, Ana – that’s how I work, too. Nice to hear from another one like me. I really like taking my time and being very thorough, if I can. Thanks for a great post, David.

Koobazaur April 14, 2014 at 2:22 am

Great article, and the point about most problems not really needing to be addressing reminds me of my own conclusions working as a freelancer with my own side project, making my own schedule. I learned in most cases good enough REALLy is good enough (more on my system here if curious: http://koobazaur.com/freelancer-tips-for-getting-work-done-while-keeping-your-sanity/)

What caught my interest most in your article is your description if “the moment when the mood drops.” Like you say its not too hard to rationalize it away, but the subconscious anxiety response (drop in mood, nervousness etc) can still be frustratingly present, especially after a long period of chronic stress when it becomes a conditioned response. Would love to hear you write a post on that – in my experience merely pushing through it doesnt seem to alleviate it, nor do things like cbt when your conscious mind already dismissed the negative thoughts yet the anxiety prevails.

Toomuchcontent April 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

“But one minute of actual life contains a lot less content than that. It doesn’t demand all that rapid gear-shifting. Real life only shows up one moment at a time. One thing on your plate.”

Not trying to be snarky here but, tell this to someone with Bi-Polar…

Or tell it to a mother with Bi-Polar…

Or tell it to a depressive, working full-time single mother, with Bi-Polar with or without meds.

It’s all the same for her, too many stripped gears and broken plates.

Lynn May 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Most brilliant line:

“Thoughts are like little politicians; experts at rhetoric, sensationalism self-preservation, unlimited in number, mostly just noisy and useless but occasionally make important things happen.”

I remember when I first heard the term “non-thought” and it sounded like pure bliss. But then would I be me without my thoughts? What’s left if there are no thoughts? Instincts? The lizard brain? I don’t agree with Descarte but I struggle to understand who I would be if not for my thoughts.

Chuck Freeman May 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

Superb article!
Very original point of view, I like it!
New fan here!

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