Learning from Life and Leadership

Getting More By Going Slower: The Power of Disfluency

We like things that are easy. Our minds like to conserve energy for more important things.

The problem comes when we encounter information. The more information we have, the less we can think . (Having choices is fun. Choosing is agonizing.) We feel like the mythical Tantalus who was punished by being submerged up to his neck in water with food hanging above his head just out of reach. He could not drink or eat, even though both were plentiful.

Technology is our power and our crutch. Phones, tablets, and laptops are ubiquitous. The grease the path so that we don’t have to use our minds. Elementary school children ask school offices to use the phones but then ask, “do you know my phone number?” The number is stored in “favorites” but not accessible to memory.

I have presented lectures and materials to college students. As I talk, they typed. They capture the information but don’t learn the lesson. (I know because I asked their opinion of something I said. They had to go back and read it off the screen but did not give an insight.)

It is too easy. We need to make it harder. That’s where the concept of disfluency comes in.

Fluency is about ease and speed. A person “fluent” in a language does not labor to speak and understand it. When a person is “disfluent” their natural way of mental processing gets interrupted.

My introduction to disfluency came in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He details a Cincinnati school that was the worst in the state. So in true modern fashion, the answer was simple. Throw technology at it. Data by the reams sizzled on memory chips and accumulated on hard drives. Parents received reports and teachers could pour over scores, means, and averages. Armed with this array of technology, it would seem it should solve the problem. It didn’t. Only when teachers wrote out data (by hand) on an index card for each child did things change. They slowed down long enough to see patterns.

Disfluency changes speed to absorb information rather than going fast enough to gather it. We have outpaced our brains.

Princeton University studies show that students who took notes on laptops collected twice as much information as their slower handwriting peers. At test time, it was different. Those who took notes by hand scored twice as well as the technological gatherers.

What does disfluency mean to you?

You have to decide whether having the information is more important. If you want to learn, slow down. Take a different approach. I discovered this by accident. I eat at a restaurant with a sign I have always seen but never read. One day, I saw it on the other side of the glass. The letters were backward. It intrigued me, and I started to make it out. Only by looking at the backward sign did I pay attention to the message on the front.

I am far from a Luddite who despises technology, but I have learned to use disfluency to learn and do more. I have gone back to paper for some things.

Use Paper to Take Notes

I have a Bible study program that lets me cut and paste lines of notes. I tried it for a while and did not get anything out of it. I had information without understanding. When I took out a legal pad and pen and took notes on the same material, I captured less and understood more.

Use Paper to Make Lists

Powerful computer programs track of my tasks and projects. I am glad to be able to capture the information. I need it. When it comes to my daily plan, I write down my top three things to do today in a paper notebook and keep a sidebar of all the things I need to pay attention in the week. My college-ruined scrawl fills the handwritten page. It takes longer to make the lists, but I do more than when I look at a list of 100 projects and my 97 next actions. Paring it down and just writing down with a ball point pen on paper focuses my mind.

Use Paper to Think Through Projects and Problems

I use an outliner program to create outlines. When I get stuck, I resort to the yellow pad and a pen. I can outline, scratch out, mark up, etc. without much effort. As my brain pours it out, thoughts come together that don’t occur to me while I am tapping away.

When you feel confused, turn away from the screen and get the paper and start writing. The process of slowing down will focus your mind and sharpen thinking.

How could disfluency help you?


What Are You Doing Here?

Western society is transient. We ask kids question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” A man once asked me, “what is your ambition for the future?”
Life tugs at our heart to “be” somewhere else rather than where we “are.”
In John 11, Jesus finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Lazarus, his good friend, is sick. Everyone assumes he will rush southward to Bethany to heal his friend. Jesus remains there. (Many have decided that’s because he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead.) There’s a simpler answer. When he was at a place, Jesus did what he could while he was there. He was not looking forward but looking now.
Paul, the apostle to the world, had global plans. He was the consummate itinerate preacher moving from place to place. He never “plowed another man’s field.” Sometimes he had “wasted time” such as a prison stint at Philippi. He was busy, and now some trumped-up charge landed him in a dark jail hands and feet in stocks with back cramping. There was work do to…somewhere. The somewhere was in that jail at that time. An earthquake shook open wooden doors and clicked open locks. No one moved with all the doors open. It was Paul’s chance to escape, but standing there in front of him was a jailer panicked with terror for the life he would lose for his failures. It was this man that was Paul’s focus.
Too many times we make plans for the future. What would you do if you had more time, more money, more talent? Instead, what can do you do today, in the place you are, with the people around you? The greatest opportunities are not “there and then” but “here and now.”

Must, Should, Could and Do: 4 Words to Sort Your Life

Life’s phone keeps ringing, like the telemarketer at dinner time. Many opportunities, requests, and demands come to your life. PTA meeting notices come home in backpacks. Dinner invitations arrive in the mail. Friends say, “can you help me out with this small thing?” Most of what arrives on our plate is a matter of volume, not importance. A few “little things” snowball into an avalanche that sweeps you away.

Some believe they are Superman, able to vault any challenge and give unlimited time. It does not take long before you realize there is more to do than there is “you” to do it. Others let things fall through the cracks. People get disappointed or angry when you don’t respond after saying yes.

Before you say “yes” or “no,” ask three questions.

What do I need to do? Some demands in life are uniquely yours. No one can take them off your shoulders. You are responsible for your child. You are the one married to your spouse. You may find yourself in the position of needing to care for an aging parent, and no one else is around. Some responsibilities in life belong to you. What individual responsibilities do you have that you will answer to God for one day?

Could I do it? Many things we could do, but it would not propel us toward our goals. A group asks you to serve (or chair) a committee. Your child’s teacher calls and needs someone to coordinate school parties this year? Can you do it? You get an invitation to a gathering your “need” to attend. Do you go? Because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Does it take you away from something more important? Remember that every yes is in someway a no to something else. Will it take more time than you have? Does it help you become what you want to be in life? The lists of “could’s” is lengthy.

Should I do it? This question is the sticking point with many. Are you the right person to do this? Can someone else do this as well? If I did it, what would the tradeoff be? I have learned I am not a mechanic. (Every time I fix something I cut a part of my body.) I am not an accountant. I don’t know much about investments. I could learn, or I can let those who are better help me. While there are many things you could do, there are many fewer things you should do.

Will I do it? I have my share of orphaned projects. I look at them every week on my projects list. I look and do nothing. I tell myself “one day” but one day never comes. For many things, I came to a simple conclusion. It was either not worth doing, or someone else could do it better. In fact, sometimes letting someone help me gave them an opportunity to grow.

Your list of things to do never goes away. In fact, it tends to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. Decide if you will. If it fits your skill set and will make a difference to you, then what are you waiting for?

The Best Answer Is…

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.
-Rudyard Kipling-

Someone commented, “When I was in my 20’s, I knew all the answers. When I got to my 60’s, I had nothing but questions.” That statement rings true for many people

Answers are vapors, specters which evaporate under the heat of daily living. Instead of answers, we need something else—a quiver of great questions.
Questions open windows to new opportunities, new thoughts, unexplored ideas. Some, when asked, make me squirm in my skin. Others rupture with wisdom and counsel not attained without letting out of its cage.
Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher had students discover truth through asking questions. Today, the Socratic method employs questions to unpack truths buried under notions.
Most questions are not of intuitive thinking. We learn from others great questions. Over time, I have found sources of great questions. Let me share a few (and the sources, when known).
When something bad happens, Michael Hyatt counseled:
“What does this experience make possible?”
When confused or uncertain, ask:
What one thing, if I did it right now, would change the situation?
Sometimes it is issues with other people. Bill McCartney, a long-time coach of the University of Colorado football team asked the question:
Can you help me understand what it is like to be you?
When you are ready to act, stop and ask:
What’s missing? (Especially if everyone is sure)
When you are looking to change jobs, ask:
Am I running toward something, or running away from something?
When you tighten from worry or anxiety, stop and ask yourself:
Is this useful?
When you are making a decision, ask four questions.
What is the worst that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we don’t do this?
What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do this?
It is only by asking mediocre questions do you get mediocre answers. If you ask penetrating questions, you get profound insights. If you ask no questions, you get no answers.
What’s your best question?

An Ancient Story Applied to Modern Life

Aesop was the blind storyteller of Galatia. Why fables? Some believe it was due to the Galatian audience. They were so dull-witted they would only listen to talking animals. Someone also had to tell them “the moral of the story.” (Both of those assumptions are assertions without definite proof, but they are interesting.)
Aesop gets credit for over 600 fables but one stands out—the tortoise and the hare. It is a simple story with an ageless lesson: slow and steady wins the race. We all know it but few of us realize its true genius.
Put another way, Aesop’s fable is a simple formula.
Consistency over Time gives growth.
This principle gets every Olympic gold medal winner on the platform. Every Pulitzer prize winning author puts books on the shelf with it.
Is it true? Think about it:
  • If you eat a candy bar every day, you gain weight.
  • If you exercise every day, you get stronger.
  • If you read something every day, you get more educated.
We recognize its power but ignore its potential. Most of us want to change our lives. Yet, we want that growth to take place both without pain and the results must be immediate. Neither of those conditions lead to life-altering change.
  • If you want to grow closer to God, read your Bible daily. Consistency over time gives growth.
  • If you want to be healthier eat healthier every day and do some kind of exercise every day. Consistency over time gives growth.
  • If you want to learn a new language, practice every day. Consistency over time gives growth.
The examples go on and on. If there is anything you want to grow in your life, you have to put in the time every day to make it happen.
Overnight change does not happen. It is the fodder of late-night cable TV charlatans. If you want to move forward in your life, slow and steady does win the race.
What do you need to do to improve your life? Do it consistently over a long period of time, and you will reach it.

Thanks for Nothing

Tommy Allsup died on January 11, 2017. His name is unfamiliar to most. The rock-and-roll guitarist for Buddy Holly’s band should have died on February 3, 1959.
That was the date “the music died” (chronicled by Don McLean’s 1970 hit, American Pie). The small plane had too many would-be passengers than seats. So, a coin flip decided who went and who stayed.

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Get Uncomfortable to Stay Alive

I am writing this post from a room in a motel in Managua, Nicaragua.

It is not my own room. The shower has no hot water so shaving is difficult. Don’t even think about putting paper down the commode. (I won’t go into the mechanics or alternatives.)

Each year I come to Nicaragua as part of a Health Talents International team on a mobile medical mission trip. I come for a particular reason. My church supports a program that feeds hungry children in four locations. I come to see and then report.

The trip is difficult for many reasons besides cold water, beans and rice for every meal or a different bed. It’s January and it’s hot.

I come to help people. I fit eyeglasses on people who cannot see well. Great doctors give examinations and write prescriptions that are filled by exceptional pharmacists. Dentists extract teeth in chairs made of plywood. All of this happens out of suitcases and in less than professional environments. We help hundreds in a few days.

Then we go home to warm beds, hot water, working plumbing, and loving families.

It is difficult, so why go?

One obvious reason is altruistic—to help people who need the help. Something in all of us yearns to make a difference in the life of someone else, someone who has no way of returning the favor. I can think of no better place to do that than where I am.

A not so obvious reason is what it does to me in a different way. It refreshes me. In no possible universe can you say hard work in dirty areas is refreshing. Yet, the refreshment comes only through that discomfort. I get to experience life in a different vein, see through different eyes, and feel with a different heart. I see things inside of me that are masked by technology and suburbia. I come because in the discomfort of the place, I find peace in my soul. That only happens when you become uncomfortable.

Some people jump out of perfectly good airplane. Others fish, hunt, camp, or sail. All are perfectly acceptable was of getting just uncomfortable enough to make you think.

I like mine. I look into the eyes of worried parents with hurting children. I see children devour food that kids back home twist their faces into a displeasured distortion. I see people standing in heat rather than complaining about how hot or cold they are. I get the change to make some small difference by being God’s representative to them (a role that none of us deserve but are called to do).

I get to be uncomfortable and I get a chance to grow. What about you?

Up, Out or Old: Three Ways to Know You Are Grown Up

shutterstock_399109597When you are young, people tell you how much you are growing up. They meet you as a child, then again in adolescence, and again as a young adult. Each time, they comment on how much you change.

When you get to a certain age, people expect you to be grown-up. No one  knows what that means (and it is irrelevant what they think it means). However, some people get stuck in adolescence. They are in the mid-30’s and acting like 16 years old.

So how do you know your growing up?

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I’m Bored:  Three Blessings of Boredom


lightstock_231852_full_robert_taylorAre you bored?

We hate boredom. We find anything to fill the time. How many pounds accumulate due to mindless eating due to boredom pack? How many hours get wasted in front of mediocre TV shows? How much trouble have teens found just to “have something to do”?

Do you remember when you were not bored? Mothers once shooed their children outside to beat summer boredom. What happened with nothing to do?

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