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HERE'S A RULE we all know we ought to follow: Do the important things first. You and I know if we’re doing something of secondary importance while we still have something of primary importance to do, we’re essentially wasting our time — even if what we’re doing is constructive, productive, positive, loving, or any other worthwhile description. If it isn’t one of the few things that are important to us, then it’s a waste of time.

Of course that’s a rather extreme and absolute thing to say, and there are always mitigating circumstances and perfectly valid reasons why the rule can’t be followed all the time, but doing important things first is a rule few would argue with.

Important tasks are usually more difficult than unimportant tasks, so we tend to put them off. But listen: That’s because we’re thinking about what it will be like to do the task. And that’s where we go wrong. Don’t think about that. Think about what it will be like to have the task done. There’s a big difference — a difference that can make a difference. It takes your attention off the part you don’t like and puts your focus on something you really want: the result. That subtle difference will make the task more appealing, so you’ll be less likely to put it off.

Instead of looking at the bills to be paid and thinking about all the time and frustration and neck-hurting hassle, imagine the feeling you’ll get when you finish, when all the bills are stacked up there, paid, stamped and ready to mail. What a great feeling! Keep that image in mind when you look at the stack of bills. You’ll get to it sooner.

And when you get to something sooner, you suffer less because you spend less psychological effort avoiding the task. You get to spend more of your time on the other side — satisfied that the job is finished.

That’s it. It’s a simple change that makes things better. Vividly anticipate the completion of important tasks and you will get more of them done.

This is a chapter from Principles For Personal Growth.

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Feel Less Negative Emotion By Becoming Uncertain

COVER YOUR LEFT EYE, put your face close to the screen, and look at the X below. As you slowly pull your face away from the screen, at some point the 0 will disappear. Or cover your right eye and look at the 0, and pull away, and the X will disappear.

X ...................................................................................O

You have a blind spot in each eye where the bundles of nerve fibers go back into your brain. But notice something: You don’t see the blind spot. It doesn’t show up like a dark, empty spot. Your brain fills in the emptiness.

In a similar way, when there is information you don’t know, your brain fills it in, giving you the feeling that nothing is missing. In other words, when you feel certain, it doesn’t really mean much. Your feeling of certainty doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to your actual correctness or knowledge. Your brain produces a feeling of certainty at the drop of a hat because it’s wired up to do so.

All human brains tend to jump to conclusions and then feel certain about those conclusions, so it pays to be somewhat skeptical of your own mind. That may seem like a negative goal, but it isn’t. Feeling certain has caused more problems for people than skepticism ever did.

For example, when you’re arguing with your spouse, the thing that keeps the anger intense is that you’re both certain you’re right. If each of you had a little more skepticism about your own ability to remember and reason, it would be easier to work out your differences.

To take another example, depressed people would get depressed less often if they became more skeptical of the pessimistic assumptions they make. The feeling of certainty depressed people have about their own pessimistic view of the world does them harm.

Don’t place much importance in your feelings of certainty. Be skeptical. Recognize you have blind spots and act accordingly. You’ll be saner if you do.

This is a chapter from the book Self-Help Stuff That Works.

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Embracing the Painful Beauty of Competition

I’VE ALWAYS HAD a distaste for competition. I never liked the feeling of trying to outdo another person. But competition is a fact of life, from the lowliest worm to the executive on Wall Street. Competition is like gravity. We may not like it, but there it is anyway, having its effect on our lives, regardless of what we may think about it. There’s nothing nasty about it — gravity doesn’t care whether you hurt yourself when you fall or not.

If you have two organisms competing for a limited resource, say, a lion and a hyena competing for the carcass of a gazelle, if the lion doesn’t want to compete or feels competition is wrong, then the hyena will eat and the lion will go hungry. If this goes on, the lion will die of starvation and the hyena will have many offspring. Nature is not being cruel. Competition is the way of the world. It’s the way life on this planet became so complex and beautiful and amazing. It’s the way your incredible brain evolved. Ultimately, competition is good. It makes things better. It forces improvement.

I’m a writer. There are places that pay for writing. And there are other writers in the world who would prefer that the money paid for that skill go into their bank accounts rather than mine. The money can’t really go to every writer’s bank account. There’s a selection going on. Certain things will be selected for and certain things will be selected against. It is a competition, whether I want to acknowledge that fact or not. And, of course, the ones who compete the best will always out-compete the ones who don’t compete as well (or at all).

Competition can be an ugly affair, typified by the presidential elections with all the mudslinging and back-stabbing. Although that’s obviously competition, so is what goes on at the Olympics.

The presidential elections are ugly, but the Olympics are beautiful — whether you win or lose, you can still shake the hand of your competitor in friendship. You can compete with honor. You can compete for noble reasons. You can compete for the sake of others or for a cause you believe in. The spirit of the Games raises competition to the elevated place it should hold.

Consider it in this light and you can learn to appreciate competition. It’s important because you must either compete well, or those dreams you have will not happen. Whatever your job, this is true. If you’ve had, like me, a distaste for competition, start changing your attitude. Learn to appreciate and even like competition, because the truth is, if you can compete well, you can fulfill your desires. If you can’t or don’t compete well, or if you don’t “play the game” at all, someone else will get the raise or promotion or position, someone else’s view will hold the floor, someone else’s vision will be realized, and your dreams will become pipe dreams. It’s up to you. You can compete, play well, and know you’ve done your best, or not. It’s your call.

Excerpted from the book, Principles For Personal Growth.

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Feel good more often and become more effective with your actions. Check it out on Amazon: Self-Help Stuff That Works.

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