What I Don’t Know About Earworms and Subliminal Influence

If you don’t think you can be influenced by things in your environment you don’t pay attention to, let me ask you: have you ever had an earworm — a song stuck replaying in your mind? Sure you have. And have you wondered why that song? Have you ever had one that wouldn’t stop repeating that you don’t even like?

I found myself the victim of that this morning. Caught myself mentally humming a song I hear overhead at work, one I don’t like at all. I’m not even sure what the song is or who performs it. All I know about it is it’s outside my taste range. Bad enough I have to hear it at the workplace; why in the world is my own brain torturing me with the melody today?

Even though I didn’t think the mystery song had made an impression on me, and even though I very much don’t want it to stay with me, evidently I’ve heard it enough that it did.

So what other background noise are we absorbing throughout each day that can sneak up on us later?

Evaluating conversations and input when we’re actively listening takes effort and skill. What about when we aren’t so aware of what we’re hearing?

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Psychologists have been aware of subliminal effects on behavior since the 19th century. There is a wealth of proof that incidental exposure to images, phrases, and sounds have an influence on mood, thinking, and our actions. Concerned? Don’t get too worried yet.

As in most things, awareness is your greatest asset. The more aware you are of your surroundings, the greater you ability to react in a positive, healthy manner. And even though we’re ironically addressing stuff that’s by nature difficult to be aware of, knowing there’s the possibility of picking up signals you might not want in your psyche gives you great advantages. You can be prepared.

There are (at least) two things that should encourage you:

First, although some unrecognized messages can find their way to you, nothing has greater control on you than YOU and your mental strength. As in other aspects of dealing with life, you choose how you behave, react, and perform. Outside stimuli shouldn’t be ignored, but your attitude toward them is your own to develop.

Second, with the knowledge that subtle triggers can affect you, you can arrange for positive subconscious cues to help you remain strong, healthy, and happy. Put the psychology to work for yourself. Reinforce good thoughts, beneficial emotions, inspiring ideas, happy memories, and encouraging targets that motivate the best in you.

For example, where I work I have to use several passwords to access systems and applications numerous times each day. While adhering to good security practices, I make make my passwords some sort of positive message to myself — variations on “PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) all day,” for instance. So every time I nearly mindlessly type in the password, I get a tiny reminder to keep the chin up. Believe it or not, even doing it as long as I have, the little phrases hidden in my passcodes still often spur a good pause and smile. And the smile itself serves as a reinforcement to happiness.

Other folks have recommended setting reminders on your phone or other device to alert you periodically. Set messages to yourself like “you’re awesome” or “remember to be grateful” that you’ll see a few times a day. If you can’t count on anyone else, you can at least be your own cheerful coach.

Obviously, the more you can structure your environment to prevent unpleasant signals and exude beneficial ones, the better. When in situations where that’s limited or not possible, there are still steps you can take to prime your subconscious the way you want.

Remember, you may not always have control of your environment, but you do always have control of yourself.

Two more suggestions:

1. Watch and carefully choose your own language. Keep it positive. Not only will that broadcast good vibes for other people in your area, but it effects you as well. The concentration and attention to selecting verbiage increases your awareness of all the communication occurring at the time, not just what you’re saying. Also, your voice is the one you hear loudest, and if you speak consciously, you effectively “hear” the words twice — once as you prepare to say them and then again as their spoken out loud.

2. Allow yourself moments of reflection throughout the day. Doesn’t have to be full out meditation, although that’s certainly optimal. A simple few seconds to objectively recognize where you are and what you’re doing is all it takes. Awareness is an asset, remember? Take a pause, ask yourself whether your behavior has been what you want it to be? Are you being true to your best self?

You might realize in these moments how things or people you’ve come in contact with during the day have influenced you. Might give you cause to be grateful, which is great! Might reveal an opportunity to correct the path on which your day has turned. That’s also great. And you might find that nothing has interfered with you achieving all the things you want. In that case the self check-in gives you a great opportunity to high-five yourself!

Lastly, remember there are lots of good messages we pick up without realizing it, too. Don’t shut yourself off from all outside stimuli. Be open to new messages. You never know where your next favorite song will come from.

 

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What I Don’t Know About Lasers and Prisms

Focus and prioritization appear to be hot topics in popular media right now. Isn’t it interesting how we still need reminders about subjects long accepted as principles of success?

The knowledge that multitasking is contrary to effectiveness is no secret, yet many people continue to operate as if they are somehow the exception to the rule. Kind of like how we all know overly processed fatty foods aren’t the healthiest choice, but we rationalize our fast food purchases as being an exception to our supposedly wiser normal eating behaviors. All three times we do it during the week.

As Brendon Burchard says, “common sense is not common practice.”

Attempted multitasking and being busy for the sake of being active as opposed to working exclusively toward a defined goal might cast illusions of productivity, but, as illusions, they aren’t real. Like oasis mirages in the desert, they won’t end up helping you survive, no matter how good they might look.

Thinking of illusions and seeing things, consider this: lasers and prisms both manipulate energy (light), but the way in which they do so is dramatically different. So are the results. Practically opposite.

This is such an obvious metaphor I’m certain thousands of coaches and instructors have utilized it. It’s a good one, though, and worthwhile. And since it seems we could use reminders,  lets’s go over it again.

A laser amplifies light by focusing it tightly. It creates a highly focused, direct, powerful beam with awesome capabilities. A prism, on the other hand, refracts light. It bends and spreads the light’s wavelengths, creating a spectrum of color. It’s pretty to look at; it can make an interesting display that captures attention because of all the different colors. Each color, though, has only part of the energy the beam of light entering the prism has.

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We all have the ability and the choice to likewise use our personal energy. When we want to accomplish something, we can either concentrate our effort — focus — to be powerful like a laser beam, or we can spread our internal resources broadly… and create the opposite effect.

We didn’t get to play with lasers when I was in grade school (what a shame), but we did have magnifying glasses. Same idea on a simpler scale. We’ve all used a magnifying glass to concentrate sunlight and burn something, right? That doesn’t happen when the same sunlight goes through a prism. You won’t be setting any fires with your energy spread out.

When you have a goal, you’re likely to accomplish it quicker, with greater impact, by tightening your focus. Move toward that one goal directly. The shortest distance between two points is, after all, a straight line.

We’re all faced with having multiple goals, though, aren’t we?

Probably not. Not as many important ones — the “needle movers,” as Christine Comaford-Lynch calls them — anyway.

You might have many interests, you might have several good ideas you’d like to pursue, but trying to address them all at the same time can lead to frustration. Which of those ideas are going to make the greatest impact? On you, your mission, or the world? Whatever the scope of your endeavors, analyzing your options to direct your energy toward one at a time is likely to increase your effectiveness and personal satisfaction.

A multitude of great thought leaders have addressed the necessity to prioritize and narrow focus. Recently, Greg McKeown coined the term Essentialism for the discipline of “making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution.” Identify and eliminate the trivial for the sake of doing what’s vital.

Consider your work. What keeps you busy, and what actually matters? Are they the same? Even close?

You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule. It’s generally acknowledged that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Read the other way around, 80% of what most of us are doing is ineffective, inessential, or, at best, not immediately bearing fruit.

Do you really want to spend the greatest percentage of your living and working hours NOT moving toward goals?

What’s the fix? Self-awareness. Analysis. Clear goal setting and defined actionable steps. Review the tasks ahead of you, the things on your to-do list. Are they important and necessary? Will they propel you in a positive direction? If they meet that criteria, prioritize them by recognizing which are MOST likely to have the GREATEST impact on helping you achieve your goals. Then get to work, and dedicate your best energy toward completing them without distraction.

It’s not always an easy exercise, but it always — ALWAYS — pays off.

By the way, do you know what the term in physics is for the process in which lasers create laser beams? Coherence. So by contrast a prismatic display not only lacks focus, it’s… incoherent.

Really helps to make the point, right?

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What I Don’t Know About Once in a Lifetime 

Friends of mine were making fun of music appreciation classes the other day. I’ve never taken one, but I did go through a period where I fell in love with classical music. Studying and exploring classical on my own really helped me learn how to listen. To music, especially, but also in general.

Another friend shared a really cool video of Kermit the Frog performing Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” She remembered I’m a Talking Heads fan, and she must also know I’m a good bit silly. I didn’t expect her to know how much I like the Muppets. The video clip is fantastic. Kermit (‘s muppeteer) does a terrific David Byrne impersonation. See for yourself:

I love how the video production nicely imitates the official video while paying tribute to the performance — and the suit — from Stop Making Sense.

Some folks see this and go, “ha,ha, that guy dances funny! Look at those weird, twitchy movements!” Some hear it and like the cool bass line; some go to the lyrical hooks. “Ha, ha! ‘This is not my beautiful wife!‘”

Me, I’ve always been interested in the lyrics and meanings of songs. Part of my character is always looking for deeper meaning in nearly everything. Music is particularly magical to me. The blend of meaning in the mix of rhythm, melody, harmony, AND words presents many layers to be interpreted.

And, yeah, I’m drawn to the weirdness.

Having been involved in collaboratively creating songs in a band, I am ever more in awe of the art in which each band member adds their viewpoint to the developing composition. All art being participatory, there’s the additional element of how the listener hears, feels, and interprets the song. It’s been said that communication depends not only on what is said but also, and more importantly, on what is heard. The listener’s point of view informs their understanding of what the musicians put out, and that informs their appreciation of it.

Considering that, when I hear “Once in a Lifetime” these days, I realize I maybe should have listened better long ago.

Go With the Flow

Not long before I first heard the song, when it came out in 1980, I read Alan Watts’ Tao: The Watercourse Way. It was one of Dad’s interesting books I found the book lying around the house. Being the impressionable kid I was, I adopted a lot of the philosophy in the book as great advice. Be like water, it says; when flowing water meets a rock, it goes around it. Eventually, as water gently washes against the rock, it wears it away. In short, go with the flow and you’ll avoid stress.

The Watercourse Way continues to be one of the most influential books I’ve read. And I did let it dramatically influence how I lived my life for decades. More on that in future posts.

As a  teen, the Taoist philosophy I’d picked up led me to incorrectly hear what Talking Heads were saying in “Once in a Lifetime.” The imagery, all the “water flowing” references; I thought they were also saying, “go with the flow.”

Most folks probably don’t actively choose to use pop music as a guide for living.

I’ve never really been exactly like most folks.

Older and Wiser?

The story of my 20s and 30s is mainly one of going with the flow. Not that my life was completely rudderless, but I did get involved in stuff and head in unexpected directions I — looking back — might have been better off avoiding. Now that I’m near (at? past?) midlife, I believe “Once in a Lifetime” may be a cautionary tale about exactly that.

Listening to it with the experience and earned perspective I have now, the “you may find yourself…” lines and “how did I get here?” hold a lot more relevance than they did when I was young. They’re a little less funny and a bit more whoa.

I hear the song now as being from the perspective of someone at the end of life, looking back. Similar, I guess, to that god awful Sinatra song, but with a much funkier groove and postmodern poetry.

Don’t pay attention, let life carry you around without you navigating your way, and before you know it, everything’s over. And you weren’t ready for it.

Not exactly the message you’d expect from a young(ish) group for a young(er?) audience. I, and perhaps others, didn’t get the importance of the lyrics because it was unexpected. Sort of the same reason we don’t really hear advice from older, wiser people when they tell us we need insurance, or to save for retirement. It just doesn’t align with our beliefs of how life is based on our experiences at that age.

But — WOW — isn’t THAT exactly illustrating the point ? “Same as it ever was.”

ONE Lifetime

Here’s something: even if you live a supremely directed life setting and going after goals, time still goes by. Everything you do, whether by choice or circumstance, occurs, in each moment, surrounded by the unique characteristics of that moment, once in a lifetime. You may drive the same route to work every day, but the weather, the other cars on the road, what you hear on the radio, all that stuff and more changes, so each drive is different. Singular. Unique.

The lesson I hear in “Once in a Lifetime” is a kind of old one, directed at the population who follow a plan, or at least a pattern of behavior, letting the days go by one 40 hour workweek after another. They might get the beautiful house and the beautiful wife, but don’t even know how they did. It isn’t purposefully choosing to go with the flow that makes one actually skip living; it’s staying busy with busy-ness, unconsciously going through the motions of work, societal expectations, and even leisure that keeps one so occupied that you don’t realize life is passing by.

I could totally be mishearing the song again. I’m fairly certain I’m overthinking it. Regardless, I believe it is extremely important to know we each have only the one life to live, and it’s a damn shame to waste it away punching timeclocks and watching sitcoms.

Mindful living, being present and fully aware in each moment, I truly believe, is the key. You can’t live every minute like it’s your last — you’ll never get laundry done if you act like you aren’t going to wear those clothes again — but you can choose to live each one like it’s the first and only one that will be exactly like it. What you decide to do with it can make the difference between looking back someday knowing how you got where you did rather than wondering how.

 

 

What My Dog Showed Me I Didn’t Know About Relating to People

I never expected to be so fortunate as to spend time with a great teacher every day who not only gives me daily encouragement and excellent lessons but makes the learning incredibly fun. I am talking about my dog, of course.

I love my dog. He really is my best buddy. As much as we relate especially well to each other, I recently noticed how much time we spend trying to figure out what the other is doing and thinking.

I see it from him all the time, watching whatever I’m doing, or what Ashley is doing with curiosity in his expression. He’s a smart guy, and like a lot of other dogs I’ve known is either psychic to some degree or just picks up on instinctual signals, so he knows in advance when we’re going to take a walk. Of course, he knows when we go to the fridge or certain cabinets, we’re likely getting some food. A whole lot of the rest of the time, though, he looks like he’s wondering what we’re up to.

We play a lot. He likes toys, and a lot of our play involves them. Sometimes he’ll come up to me with a toy, but once he gives it to me, he acts uninterested in it. I don’t know why he does that for sure, but I like to think he’s giving me something he knows he has fun with, and he thinks I’ll have fun with it too.

I’ll never really know why he behaves in certain ways. Smart as he is, he’ll never know why I do everything. Our brains are different, our worldviews worlds apart. But even though we will always see the world differently and we will never totally understand each other, that hasn’t kept us from sharing fun and won’t keep us from taking care of each other.

(Even though I can’t tell what’s going on in his mind, don’t think I’m presuming too much by saying he takes care of me. He most certainly does.)

So that’s one lesson my dog taught me. Whether he meant to or not, he’s helped me see how this dynamic holds true in interactions with other people, too.

There was a time when I got worked up wondering why people behaved the way they did. Working with the public, there were numerous occasions each day for people to act curiously. Particularly when another person’s actions affected me negatively, I’d try to figure out why. Worse, sometimes I’d make assumptions, believing I had an understanding of their mindset.

That was a frustrating, less rewarding time.

The truth, as my dog has helped me see, is I don’t and never will truly comprehend all the experiences, emotions, thoughts, and motivations that lie behind other people’s actions. What he’s also helped me realize is it doesn’t matter at all whether I do.

Oh, I absolutely do advocate for understanding. The more we know about each other, the better we all are. I love learning about other people, and strongly believe the more I know about someone, the better we can relate and help each other. Communication is a wonderful and necessary thing.

I also believe, however, that I don’t HAVE to know why someone does something in order to react positively, with consideration, respect, and a desire for mutual benefit.

I’ve mostly stopped trying to figure out why my best bud does things that seem weird. Likewise, I try not to spend energy analyzing why people act the way they do. That energy, seems to me, is better used ensuring we share good times together.

 

What I Don’t Know About the Fleeting Importance of Important Events

I had a fantastic Valentine’s Day this year. That makes about 10 years of great Valentine’s Days, thanks to my luck finding and being with an incredible, loving woman. This year we both had the whole day off, so we enjoyed a peaceful morning, shared gifts, went to a movie, and had a delicious meal at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Ben Thanh.

While the rest of the movie-going country was checking out Deadpool, we celebrated the holiday and the 80s by going to a 30th anniversary showing of Pretty in Pink. It was a fun experience, and I really enjoyed seeing the movie in the theater. Pretty in Pink has never been my favorite John Hughes teen movie. It is a good movie, and I like it just fine, but if I were to rank his teen films from the 80s on my personal enjoyment scale, I think it comes in last.*

Thinking about the movie this morning, I felt it odd that the prom (should it be The Prom?) was represented as such an important event. Granted, I’m not a high school student, and as a movie directed at that market, The Prom might seem to be an obvious touchpoint for the filmmakers to hold up for their audience, but the presentation of the dance as a critical life event is bewildering. Especially in this story, with these characters.

I mean, Molly Ringwald‘s character, Andie, an otherwise demonstrably independent and strong non-conformist, appears to regard attending the prom as an idyllic objective. Even though nothing goes well on her date with Blane as she stands her ground as an independent thinker all night, all Blane has to do is (somewhat desperately) ask her to prom and she immediately, gleefully throws herself at him.

Iona, Andie’s boss at the record store and an even more obvious non-conformist, also romanticizes The Prom. Not only does she become wistful recalling her high school experience, but she tells a cautionary tale about a classmate who didn’t attend prom and ever since has recurring periods of dread that something is missing in her life.

The thing is, that’s not the way I recall the senior prom. Not now, and I sincerely don’t recollect holding it in such high regard even when I was in high school. Did you?

Maybe it is different for some folks. Certainly others were more invested in prom and similar social gatherings than I, just as I’m sure there were concerts and other experiences I expected to be totally life-changing that many other people easily overlooked. I can’t think of any, though. And that’s the thing. It’s not about The Prom, per se. It’s that most of the events in our lives we anticipate as being monumental and ultra-important turn out… not.

I came to this realization way back when I was a young adult. Perhaps you did too. It’s still a truth worth revisiting every now and then as anxiety about impending activities can still pop up for many of us time and again.

In five years, is that Big Deal still going to be such a big deal?

Without doubt, there are experiences that stick with us. Some crucial events really do make us who we are. There are moments we each revisit recognizing their immense importance. What I’ve found, though, in my life, is it less often the major ceremonies and more often the unplanned, serendipitous encounters that wind up mattering the most.

Even if we expect the grandest possible outcome, setting high expectations on singular events might not be completely realistic . Or healthy.

These points are effectively illustrated in, interestingly enough, another John Hughes movie — a whole franchise of them, actually. In National Lampoon’s Vacation, a father’s overwhelming drive to achieve a perfect family vacation (The Vacation) results in a series of mishaps and tragedies. After the calamities escalate, the dad eventually realizes his absurd determination to create an ideal experience and the stress associated with it has caused the opposite of his intention.

So what is one to do? Live in the present. Make the most of each moment, and maybe expect great things to result from them. I don’t know about prom, but try treating each day as if it’s a big deal. It might turn out to be.

*Opinions differ, but I believe Hughes and director Howard Deutch did a better job telling the same story a year later with Some Kind of Wonderful.

What I Don’t Know About Duckies and Distractions

Productivity is important to me. I think it’s because I know my time is limited, and I want to make some impact while I’m around. So I generally intend to make smart use of my time, get good things accomplished, move forward in one way or another.

I’ve been working to develop better habits to help with my focus, but, you know, sometimes things come up that interrupt my flow. Not that I’ve ever wanted to be all work and no play — far from it! — but I can’t help feeling some personal disappointment when I know I’ve wasted time.

It’s not always easy to be aware of distractions or just how much time they can take up. One nudge off course can lead to lots of twists and turns before you get back on the right path. So being cognizant of what you’ve spent time on is the first step to finding your way back.

For me, one of the worst distractions is social media. Facebook, specifically. I know I’m not alone. I’ll decide to check in, see what’s happening, find out if anyone’s tried to contact me, and if I’m not careful I’ll wind up scrolling and scrolling through my news feed mindlessly, letting precious minutes add up to precious hours. Now, I’m not a Facebook hater. If I was, there’d be no problem. I believe there are benefits to social media, not least of which is being in touch with good people. Most days I see or read something that improves my life in at least a small way. To get to those gold nuggets, though, I do find myself sifting through a lot of silt.

While I’m not always happy that I let myself get detoured so easily, I am happy to know what it is that distracts me. Because I know it’s something totally under my control. I allow things to distract me; I can choose not to let them as well.

I know people have lots of suggestions to solve my particular issue. Delete the Facebook app! Set a timer! Unfollow people and pages that clog up your feed! Just don’t use it at all! At one time or another I’ve either considered all these options or actually done them. What’s worked the best for me, though, is listening to Ernie.

When I was a young dad I was lucky to enjoy a good bit of children’s music. I think a lot of folks are familiar with the Rubber Duckie song from Sesame Street. If you aren’t, it’s been around since 1970 (I just found out it was even nominated for a Grammy in 1971!) and is sung by Ernie to his favorite bathtub toy. In the late 80s a new song debuted on Sesame Street with a pretty good message:

“Put down the duckie” started popping up in my head when I caught myself wasting time on something a couple months ago. I’m not sure exactly what brought it to mind. It may have been because I got sets of rubber duckies for my co-managers for Christmas. What I found, though, is that it helped. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but for me, having a mantra, if you will, silly as it is, that I actually said out loud, got me back on track with a smile.

Social media isn’t the only duckie I have to set aside for a while in order to get things done. With all the good new comic related TV shows, TV has become a real temptation these days. Sometimes I don’t realize something’s a duckie until it takes up a certain amount of time. It’s a challenge, since I’m also working on being more present and giving people more focused attention. Whatever distractions you find impeding your productivity, maybe Hoots the owl’s advice will work for you, too. You don’t have to totally eliminate entertainment or non-productive stuff from your life. Just put it down until you meet whatever goals you have set for yourself.

 

What I Don’t Know About Big Changes Resulting from Small Decisions

Remember when Buckaroo Banzai drove through the mountain? He explained how the solid parts of matter — the atoms, quarks, neutrons — only make up a fraction of what people consider to be the whole thing, and that most of a thing is empty space. That’s how I’ve often looked at our lives. Sometimes it seems like life is a series of a small number of significant moments upon and around which the rest of our time hangs. When we look back, sometimes the most important  things we do or that happen to us occur without fanfare or invitation. Choices made without much thought, decisions we expect to be small, made on the spot, wind up leading to consequences broader and with greater impact than expected.

Take this one, for instance: I was paying my phone bill a few months back when it occurred to me that dang phone service was costing me too much. I investigated options through my carrier to see if there were changes I could make to my plan to lower the bill. There weren’t, really. No biggie. It had been my choice to sign up with the plan and get the phone I have; I couldn’t be upset the company was charging me the rate I’d agreed on. What did bother me, though, was how little I was getting in return for paying one of my largest month bills. Again, no one’s fault but mine.

“I’m paying over a hundred dollars a month just to be able to scroll through Facebook wherever I am?” Seriously, I said it out loud to myself. That’s when I decided to make sure to get a better return on my phone investment.

Thinking how I could make better use of the tool the phone is supposed to be, I recalled educational apps and podcasts I’d accessed in the past. What could I do with the phone, how could I use it to be an asset rather than a liability? I started with the TED app.

The very next day, while eating lunch in the break room at work, I watched TED Talks. One of them was Shawn Achor’s “The Happy Secret to Better Work.” I was inspired by his talk to check out his book, The Happiness Advantage. I was impressed enough, I bought the book. Then I read it. Then it changed my life.

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Not the same way The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai changed my life, but it made an impact, pretty much right away, on my behavior at work. What I read and learned from The Happiness Advantage set me to explore other books and resources related to positive psychology. I instituted new habits, and, yes, found myself to be happier. Not only at work, but also at home and in all aspects of my life.

I have plenty more to say about The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, and the pursuit of self-improvement. The point I wanted to make here, though, is it was a small, simple change because of a brief moment of realization that brought about major adjustments in my life. Take care with your moments. Consider your choices carefully. Don’t be surprised, either, if something great comes around when you don’t expect it.