Monday, May 26, 2008

Attitude Management

As I often do, I want to talk about habits of focus.

Today I'm thinking about the effects of focusing on the past and on other things that you can't control, and how that affects your attitude.

We have come to where we are in our lives--wherever that may be--as a result of many factors. Some of the factors may have been our choices, other things may have been due to the choices of others; some may not have been choices at all but accidents of fate.

It is worth understanding the past inasmuch as it gives us information about how to proceed into the future. As Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." For this reason it is important to understand the factors that affect us--especially the responses and feedback we get from our professors. But beyond using information from the past to guide us into the future, we want to get our attention off the past as much as possible. And especially we want to get our attention off the things that upset us.

We want to know about the past, so that we can make good decisions for the future. We don't want our focus on the past to disrupt our present.

In particular, I'm thinking about focusing on negative things. I don't know about you, and I won't invite you to test this--because I don't want to prompt anyone to enter a negative emotional state--but when I think about times when I have been treated poorly and unjustly, I get upset--even about things that happened many years ago. By focusing on past hurts, I can feel the pain even today.

Again, I don't know about you, but in the long run I work better when I'm happy and optimistic and operating from a place of interest. I can generate spurts of effort fueled by anger, but they tend to leave me exhausted and unhappy.

I think a key role in attitude management--especially in avoiding the emotional downs that come with focusing on bad experiences from your past--is to keep looking at the future and asking what are you going to do next? What kinds of action can you take in the face of past wrongs? How can you use the options that are open to you to move forward and succeed in your project? The focus on the future, and on the goal of completing your project has an implicitly optimistic underpinning: it looks towards a future that you hope for.

A similar focus issue, which plays an equally important role in attitude management, is to keep you focus on the things that you can do, and to try to build from them.

Recently I have been working with a writer who has been working on the dissertation for over a decade--well over a decade, really. Our correspondence is filled with rehearsal of past problems, of personal weaknesses, of excuses for what can't be done, and for what was once wanted. But none of that material helps the dissertation move forward. I am tempted to write "You write beautiful, long, eloquent excuses for why you can't do the work; if you were to spend as much effort, and write a third as much on the things you're telling me you can't do, you would make far more progress."

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