What are Acronyms Again?

When I ask people how they would like to ‘be better’ and amazing number say they would like to improve their memory. In general this is an attention issue not a memory issue (see my post on Mindfulness for some help with this) but I will keep adding mini posts to help those who are similarly afflicted.

So what are acronyms again? I often think that people need a memory aids to remember what memory aids are! Acronyms are commonly used by students and teachers alike but they are often not nearly as effective as they could be because no one ever seems to teach how to create them in the first place.

Acronyms are easy for anyone who has written, probably in their formative years, an acrostic poem (although technically these are backronyms), as the principle is exactly the same: It is a word that has a ‘second layer’ that has more information. When I say it is a word, it doesn’t have to be a real one. Confused? Here are some examples:

Describe

Explain the consequences

Listen to the response

Agree options

Contract for success

Thank them

DELACT – A method of giving feedback (sorry to whoever invented this I can’t find a reference).

Situation

Task

Action

Result

STAR – The stages that need to be included when responding to questions in a competency based assessment.

So with this in mind what are they key components of an acronym:

  1. They need to be a relatively small amount of information to be retained (to be most effective)
  2. Each letter should be the first letter of the key word in the sentence/concept you want to retain
  3. The letter (and therefore the word they represent) need to not be easily substituted with other similar or related words or other words with the same first letter when the order is important – meaning should be clear.
  4. Each word or sentence that is represented by a letter needs to be fairly close in terms of relative importance (you aren’t throwing in letters just to make a funny word)

With these rules in mind how do the examples above do? Have a look now and evaluate them before reading on.

So what did you think? Let’s take DELACT, which isn’t bad. Once you understand the meaning behind it becomes clear that it is very important to remember to ‘Thank them’ at the end (i.e. it is as important as the others). It doesn’t matter that it isn’t a real word, in fact in some ways this may make it more memorable (you can’t substitute with another word with the same meaning). There are two letters that do concern me in this acronym – E: Explain the consequences. The reason for this is that the E is for ‘explain’, if you only remember the ‘E’ and therefore only the ‘Explain’ would you explain the reasons for your belief, or the explain the options or explain the theory of relativity? You get the idea. What would be a better letter? C. This is the more key concept, if you remember that the next stage is about Consequences you are more likely to remember that you need to explain them than visa versa. The next one that could cause concern is agree options. Why because the A leads the mind to Agree, in my mind at least I would be thinking about agreeing a way (singular) forward. This stage of the process is actually about creating options to choose from and then narrow down (Contract for success). So ‘O’ would be a better way forward, we then know that the stage is about creating option, there is a slight danger that we might think this is about presenting ultimatums but if we have our fundamental approach right this acronym should just be about remembering the recommended order of events. What are we left with ‘DCLOCT’. Now we know why that wouldn’t work – hard to remember because it is hard to pronounce. We can compromise with DELOCT.

This may seem like a lot of work for an acronym but there are some consequences I have experienced of getting it wrong (or not very right) such as:

1) The learner trying to remember the process, to remember the word, to remember the process: “I know we start be describing the Issue, and the Consequences, but that isn’t a word, I think we explain the consequences, that’s It! DELACT, so then we must  Listen, I think”. So this only really helps in that it makes the whole thing memorable (if confusing) but it not the speedy result that acronyms promise.

2) Substituting different word that confirms pre-existing beliefs, so A becomes acknowledge their feelings because I am a great believer in ‘that sort of thing’. All of a sudden we have very different approach I am acknowledging their feelings and then moving straight into contracting the outcome I want. I have gone from being very collaborative to dictatorial whilst superficially nodding and saying “Hmmm I understand”. This is in fact the exact opposite of what we were going for.

3) SHIFTY might be great and funny for remembering the neighbourhood watch code (very memorable because it fits) but you could spend a lot of time trying to rem,ember the last two eventually realising it was ‘That’s it, Your done’. You added it on the end just to make it fit. There is a balance between making it memorable and meaningless.

The above confusions are possible  no matter how good the acronym but I strongly believe that this can be significantly reduced by refining and using the best acronym possible (spend enough time on it and it will itself become very memorable). What you are aiming for is to improve the means of recalling something better that without the acronym. Even average acronyms can do this but poor acronyms can actually hinder recall.

So here is how to get your acronyms right – SKIM:

  • Small amount of info
  • Key words only
  • Importance of each word is similar
  • Meanings are clear/hard to Misinterpret

Ok so they aren’t the best sentences in the world but it obeys the rule. The truth is you are probably better off creating few acronyms with these rules in front of you and checking each one off. Once you have done this enough you won’t need the list anymore. Practice is the best memory aid.

The Application of Mindfulness

This is a very popular topic at the moment however there is also a lot of confusion for three reasons:

  • Most people know there is some sort of ‘spiritual‘ link
  • But much of the recent attention is from scientific circles
  • Common usage of the word just means pay attention/don’t forget

So I thought I would help to summarise its usefulness and application without getting too caught up in the spiritual/scientific debate.

What is it?

Essentially mindfulness is the awareness of what you are doing or what is going on, either in thought or action. So far, so simple right? Well let me give you a few examples of mindlessness (the polar opposite of mindfulness) and let’s see how many you are guilty of:

  • Driving somewhere familiar and forgetting how you got there
  • Going into a room and forgetting why you are there
  • Re-reading the same sentence (or chapter!) in a book over and over
  • Losing track of your train of thought
  • Missing what someone has said to you because you ‘zoned out’

Why do these constitute mindlessness? Because you have lost track of the process as you are performing it. Being fully mindful means being simultaneously aware of the process and its context – holding both in a delicate balance. As you read this consider how much of your day you are either on autopilot or caught up in the detail – you will start to realise what an immense achievement staying mindful is, even for a moment.

Zen (Chan in Chinese traditions) Buddhism uses the idea of Koans – stories/poems that enable someone to become enlightened by pondering them. One such story told of a meditation student too ‘stupid’ (sic) to understand the instructions and aims of meditation. So his master gave him a very simple instruction – to sweep the yard.  As he swept he was to pay attention to what he was doing. To hold a ‘gentle concentration’ of every part of the act of the sweeping, the sound the feel, the interaction of the brush and the ground the movement of his body … you get the picture. Holding all of this in his attention, without wavering but without become over-focussed, the student, as the story goes, achieved enlightenment this way.

The Applications

Creating Habits: Leo Babauta (amongst others) of Zen Habits  talks about the transformational nature of habit creation (as opposed to willpower, for instance). How is this best done? By noticing which mindless acts lead to actions you would rather not take. Think about how many times you grab the high sugar/fat/carb snack either because you haven’t thought to prepare or you somehow always get stuck somewhere with out food or maybe just because its there (why is it there?). Another example would be expenditures – advertisers know that we tend to be easily convinced by clever sounding advertisements (“inspired by the science of genes” – so is spiderman but I won’t go to marvel comics for haircare advice) or by needs we are told we have got (anyone own a pair of expensive running shoes – go here) but not if we are aware of what we are doing whilst we hand over the peice of plastic that actually represents many hours of hard work to earn the money.

Continuous Improvement: Much like Leo’s approach above but on an organisational scale. There are a number of instances of big mistakes in organisation because small ones were made along the way. The Deepwater Horizon, has a lot to teach us there, both in noticing issues and doing something as a result. But even more insidious is the spiralling costs that companies experience as they grow, in certain aspects of their production (dis-economies of scale). These tend to be things like error rates, quality issues and lack of individual ownership. Imagine a workforce of mindful employees whose every tooling or keystroke was exactly the right level of quality (because they balanced the quality of the task with the need for efficiency). Far fetched? Difficult certainly. What about a work-forced that never made an unnoticed mistake. I will paraphrase an issue I have heard many times before:
‘I was looking for the letter X in some numbers because I was told it might happen and that this was bad.’
‘So why didn’t you say something when the number stopped?’
‘Because I didn’t see an ‘x”
Perhaps, in carrying out their tasks employees could simultaneously consider the action they were performing and the purpose it served. This would hand problem solving back to the people who carry it out and probably banish ‘motivational’ initiatives for ever (mindful problems solvers don’t have a chance to get bored).

Teamwork: This is an interesting one. Presumably teamwork can be done in both a mindless and mindful way although it is hard to imagine the former (blindly offering to help when more subtle signal indicate it is not required?). But I can offer two potential benefits of the purposefully mindful approach: Firstly when you interact socially you have few pre-programmes responses (‘How are you?’, ‘Fine’) which serve to grease the social wheels but don’t really achieve anything and certainly don’t develop relationships. Noticing when these need a slight revision requires a greater sense of awareness. Secondly, based on a study with an orchestra, it seems that even when an outcome or achievement requires working together paying attention to what you are doing helps it achieve a greater whole. In this case case making subtle conscious changes to how each person played the piece of music led to a better overall experience for those involved and those listening.

Learning: Author Ellen Langer has written extensively on the topic of mindfulness and more specifically difference between mindful and mindless learning. It isn’t too far a stretch looking at the above examples to understand how paying attention to what you are doing helps you do learn it better. Langer has some additional points to make and my favourite is that in the west we tend to place an emphasis on ‘getting it’ i.e. getting to the point of knowing all you need to know or mastering a skill. Both for my own learning and as a learning professional I have often found this a major obstacle. How many times have you given a book or new subject a few chapters or minutes and declared ‘I’m not getting this’. Ask yourself this: is anything worthy of learning going to be that easy to grasp? If you need to ‘get it’ before you value it doesn’t that condemn you to learn from experiences and ideas that are only just a few steps ahead of what you already know. I ask my learners to try to be content with ‘grasping’ an ‘in-road’ only. I try to convince them to be safe in the the knowledge that if they continue down that road they will learn more than getting to the first junction and deciding that is there destination.

Practising Mindfulness

Mindfulness is not just something that you can decide to do and it happens completely (see Learning above). Unfortunately I would argue that much of life asks you to be mindless and so in most of us it is an underdeveloped muscle. This means that if you want to be a ‘mindful leader‘ you will probably need to start training you brain in more general mindfulness first. Below are three methods, of increasing difficulty, which are aimed at beginners but might be useful ‘bolt on’ practices to those who are already quite accomplished.

Mindful tasks: This is the absolute basics and not mindfulness in the truest sense but in terms of process or activity improvement is a good start. Simply start, on any activity, by imagining that you are explaining the process to yourself or a third party. It will force you to ask questions of yourself. For example, ‘I am starting the letter like that because…’, or ‘I am taking this approach because…’. If ever you can’t finish a similar statement in reference to what you are doing, then ask yourself why. I find this works very well for DIY and stops me make some stupid painful errors.

Mindful development: I often ask those who are trying to make a significant change in how they work to keep a journal. This journal has a focus (although the content isn’t exclusive to that focus – that wouldn’t be mindful). Whilst keeping this journal they are to notice anything that happens that is ‘interesting’ and relates vaguely to what they are trying to achieve. Once they have noted it then, or later, they can reflect on its significance. Those with a penchant for problem solving see this subsequent rumination as the source of learning, in fact it is the dedication to ‘noticing the interesting’ that improves their practice the most.

Mindful mind: To avoid writing an entire treatise on the performance/business/personal benefits of meditation I will keep this quite simple. Pick something and pay attention it. I may have got this from another Zen Koan, but I think of the mental practice like this: Hold a small object like a coin in your fist with palm face down. Now open your hand. Unless your palm is very sticky the coin will fall. So, unless you apply pressure or concentration you will lose the coin. This might already sound like a metaphor for mindfulness but this is actually ‘concentration’. Now take the coin and hold it out in front of you with palm face up. Opening will not make the object fall, your hand ‘gently holds’ the coin so long as it remains palm up. This is mindfulness. Your focus can be anything you like but the simpler the better. Most people begin training their brain by paying attention to their breath. Those same ‘most people’ will find their mind wanders quite easily, the trick here is not to get too caught up in the wandering or beat yourself up over it, but just gently come back to the focus of your attention. And repeat.

Further reading:

Mindfulness or Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer

Mindfulness and Mastery in the Workplace by Saki F Santorelli

Mindful Experiential Learning by Bauback Yeganeh

Mindfulness In Plain English by Ven. Henepola Gunaratana

What is wrong with self-help books?

What is wrong with self-help books?

OK. Let me get this out the way I do not hate all self-help books, in fact I like several that I have read and I’m quite sure my critics could easily dismiss this blog as being of the self-help genre. The fact that I like a few self-help books for the millions that exist is hardly a ringing endorsement of the industry (accepting that I might not have read every single one). And I fully support the concept of self-help books. The idea of someone writing something that helps other people to do something better or overcome an obstacle in their lives is highly laudable.

So what is wrong with them?

Over-promise. I suspect in most cases the authors are very well meaning and want to share their insight (we’ll get to that later) so that others can realise the remarkable transformations that can be achieved with ‘positive thinking’ or whatever. Somewhere along the way however it became a business (the moment they walked into a publishers?) and then in come the ‘sellers’. They want and need to market the book so that it sells as many copies as possible. They will get hundreds of books in their inboxes and very few have genuine potential. So like the American Idol or X-factor business model they do whatever they can to shift stock as quickly as possible (ongoing book promotion costs money) and nothing to sustain sales or build the skill or reputation of the author. If people buy something for the wrong reasons they have still bought it and somebody somewhere still makes money.

Recommendation: Treat every new idea with optimistic cynicism look for the evidence on both sides with an open mind and assume that there are lots of things you don’t know about life and the universe – then give it a damn hard stare.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: NOT ALL PUBLISHERS ARE COLD, UNFEELING PROFIT MONKEYS.

Lack of perspective. I almost wrote ‘unscientific’ for this point but actually it is fine to be unscientific, western science has its flaws and if we were all being scientific all the time there would be no stories. Stories are good. The real issue is people presenting their experience as fact. The classic example is the numerous books about having the right mindset and curing your otherwise incurable disease. Now the truth is that optimism does seem to enhance your health and increase your longevity. But once you have cancer (or other equally horrible condition) you have every right to be pissed off and not feel guilty about it. The simple fact is that lots of people who are extremely miserable about their disease survive because modern (western) medicine is very, very clever. I do believe people should ‘stay positive’ but they should also be allowed a full range of emotions and actually be equipped with the tools to achieve sustainable positivity despite the inevitable ups and downs (thanks to my sister who has worked in palliative care for that insight). Just because blindly failing to acknowledge how serious something is and having relatives around you that refuse to discuss death worked for one person, doesn’t mean that it will help someone else (although it is book-worthy).

Recommendation: Take most self-help books as representations of a personal experience and look to yourself for your truth. I have heard people say “well, they can’t all be true” except that they can, but just not all for the same person.

Focussing on money. Money is not inherently evil. It is currency and a means to trade skills and expertise for the life you want. In my view too many books seek to define success for others as being of monetary value. I was once on workshop when someone got very annoyed that he was being taught methods of increasing ‘success’. He got frustrated because he was looking for emotional contentment and a life of freedom and not for financial security. The facilitator did well to reassure him that success could be whatever he wanted. I suspect I would have fallen into the moral high-ground trap of pointing out that the only person in the room who had explicitly linked success and money was the protester himself. In reality who could blame him, how often in the west to do we hear the word ‘success’ and it doesn’t mean ‘money’?

Recommendation: Make your own definition of success. In fact just doing that delivers success for many people (or they realise they already have it.

A book isn’t a person. So perhaps I am now stating the obvious. Even more obvious when you consider I am a corporate coach/trainer. But I am a great believer that the agility of our self-talk, our internal dialogue, can only really be matched by another human being. I have come across lots of books that have made me think but I assimilated their concepts in to my pre-existing view of the world. It was rare for a book to directly challenge that. People on the other hand (the ones that are good at it) can keep up with whatever self-deluding beliefs you have (particularly if they don’t share them)  and ‘thrust and parry’ to the point that you are left with the concepts that help and support what you want to achieve in life but have reconciled the one that don’t to the bin of ‘how things used to be’.

Recommendation: To make the most of self-help books, allow others’ experiences (this works for biographies too by the way) to question assumptions you have about the way the world is, or should be.