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The Thinking Life by P.M. Forni

If you find yourself getting distracted by “all things digital,” I can relate. When I hear the sound of a text coming in, I respond like one of Pavlov’s dogs. I stop what I’m doing to check it. I also find myself checking email many times throughout the day. And taking a quick moment to check Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media can sometimes stretch to half an hour or more. That’s why I liked the reminders in P.M. Forni’s The Thinking Life: Thrive in the Age of Distraction.

With so much information coming at us, it’s easy to get distracted. We can end up focusing on what’s right in front of us instead of what’s most important to us. But if we really want to make our life meaningful, we have to set aside time to actually think. To discover what we really want and then figure out how to get it, we need to focus…and that requires thought.

Following are my notes from reading The Thinking Life. To get the full benefit, I recommend you get P.M. Forni’s book.

My Notes from The Thinking Life

In this age of digital media, distraction has become a way of life.

What constitutes a good life is not a mystery. “The good life is a life nurtured by a healthy sense of self-worth, brightened by a positive outlook, warmed by a loving family and loyal friends, grounded in congenial and challenging work, and made meaningful by an involvement in something larger than ourselves.”

Bypassing the ever-present temptation to divert and amuse ourselves is the first crucial step toward an engaged and meaningful life.

Stoicism was a school of thinking that flourished in Greece and Rome. Marcus Aurelius believed most of what we say and do is unnecessary and recommended doing few things and doing them well.

Thinking is hard work…which is why so few people do it.

In order to find time to think:
1. Learn to say no. A firm “No” is a form of self-respect.
2. Delegate.
3. Do things right the first time.
4. Schedule your daily think time of 15-30 minutes.
5. Turn “waiting time” into “thinking time.”

The time has come to question the wisdom of spending so much time online, where much of what we do is technology-driven rather than real-need-driven. What are we really accomplishing?

Comprising our faculties of awareness and focus, attention is the very bedrock of thinking. (Epictetus: Attention is a handmaiden to wisdom.) Attention is indispensable to learning.

One reason we pay so little serious attention to the world around us is that there is too much to pay attention to. An information-rich world is a time-poor world.

To improve our attention, we must maintain our psychophysiological system: get enough sleep, maintain a balanced diet, eat healthful snacks for an energy boost, stay hydrated, exercise regularly, and avoid stress.

The principal form that love takes is attention.

Be present in the moment. If you are peeling an apple, peel it well.

Together with willpower, attention is the top building block of the fully engaged life.

The great problem of our times is NOT the need to achieve work/life balance. Work is part of life. As long as we regard work as a burden, it is going to feel like one. When you enter the state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” the burden of work disappears. The bottom line: Concentrate at work, and you will produce better results with less effort.

The good life is a conscious life.

Disconnect from the Internet for 3 hours each day and attend solely to the tasks at hand.

A positive outcome of regular meditation is the sharpening of attention skills.

If you come up short in paying attention to the world around you because you are too focused on yourself, explore the reasons behind that.

When you reflect, you mull over and ponder. You reflect to review the past, take stock of the present, and build a better future. When you fail to reflect on the causes and consequences of your mistakes, you do not learn from them.

Confucius: “A smart man learns by his mistakes; a wise man learns by the mistakes of others.”

When we attempt to control and dominate a conversation, it prevents us from doing 2 smart things: validating others and learning from them. Being listened to is one of the most gratifying forms of validation.

Motto inscribed above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself.”

When the object of your reflection is not the world around you but rather the world inside you, you have crossed into introspection territory.

It is through introspection that we obtain the self-knowledge that allows us to bring positive change to our lives. By engaging in it, you will be able to see when it is not the world that needs to reform, but rather yourself. Do not waste that moment of clarity.

After an extensive study of the world’s religions and philosophical traditions, Martin Seligman and his collaborators identified 6 virtually ubiquitous virtues: wisdom & knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance, and spirituality & transcendence. Seligman listed the strengths that lead to these virtues: love of learning, open-mindedness, social intelligence, bravery, perseverance, honesty, leadership, self-control, and prudence.

Spend time in introspection to build your identity and discover your values.

Lack of self-esteem has been called the problem behind all problems. That may be an exaggeration, but it is often the cause of self-inflicted misery – like making underachieving a way of life in order to avoid failure. A healthy self-image is arguably the most precious of our earthly possessions.

When engaging in introspection:
1. You are not on trial. You want to make introspection a journey of self-knowledge, not a fault-finding mission.
2. You may not find what you’re looking for at first…keep looking.
3. You may not like what you find. Consider it a success if you are able to look at yourself honestly and recognize a fault as easily as you recognize a strength.
4. Resolve to change what you do not like in yourself.
5. Moderation is key – life is meant to be lived, not relentlessly monitored and analyzed.

Self-control is a building block of good character. Other building blocks include caring, justice, responsibility, and trustworthiness.

Self-control is farsighted, informed as it is by a sense of the possible consequences of your actions. It entails forgoing an appealing yet lesser gratification for the sake of a less appealing (in the moment) yet greater one.
If you help others reach their goals, disinterestedly (i.e. without selfish motives) and whenever you can, you will be surprised by the handsome rewards awaiting you.

Patience is a form of self-control. You are patient when you stop resenting reality for not conforming to your desires. Patience is the ability to relax, having realized that disruption, disappointment, nuisance, uncertainty, sickness, hardship, and adversity are not tears in the fabric of reality, but part of the fabric itself. Remember that “this too shall pass.”

One word of warning: Don’t mistake inertia for patience. The former is a form of weakness, is passive, and lets you accept what you should not. The latter is a form of strength; it is active and enables you to accept what you should.

Buddha: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

To use James Allen’s metaphor, our thoughts crystallize into habits and our habits solidify into circumstances.

As the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus observed two thousand years ago: It is not things in themselves that disturb us, but rather what we think of them.

Asking not whether your day is going to be good, but rather in what ways it is going to be good is Positivity 101. Positivity comprises gratitude for the past, acceptance of the present, and anticipation of a fulfilling future. Being a positive thinker does not mean going through life in a Pollyanna-ish state of mind, unwilling to face its harsh realities. Positive thinking is about acceptance rather than denial. It has the effect of making you do something more constructive than complaining – namely, to engage in introspection to find out what the problem is and how to solve it.

How to become and remain positive:
1. Develop a reasonably high sense of self-worth. Thinking of yourself as an essentially decent, caring, competent, and accomplished person will allow you to feel you deserve the good things that come your way. It will also make you confident that you can rebound from setbacks.
2. Monitor your thoughts in the course of your day. If your inner negativism is on the upswing, stop and reframe your concerns in a positive way.
3. Draw inspiration from positive thinkers you know.
4. Exercise and eat healthful meals.
5. Keep acting positively, even if your will to be positive is flagging. The feeling will follow.

Worrying is irrational and unproductive. The most common forms of worrying are filtering (ignoring the positive aspects in any situation and focusing on the negative ones), overgeneralizing, and catastrophizing (being inclined to expect the worst).

To limit the impact of worrying:
1. Train yourself to separate the things you can control from the things you can’t.
2. Remember that all the turmoil you are experiencing is only in your mind.
3. Keep in mind that very often what you have been worrying about will not happen.
4. Force yourself to pay less attention to how you are feeling and more to what you are doing.

Since worrying is about the future, it makes sense to minimize its impact by being fully present. Meditation can help.

Attitude is destiny. Although neither attitude nor relationships alone will be enough to guarantee a happy life, together they are a realistic prescription for coping and thriving.

Proactivity is a wise way of being in the world. You are proactive when you are predisposed to intervene as early as possible in any given set of circumstances so that you have the best chances to make them work in your favor.

The opposite of the proactive mind is the reactive one, which finds the resolve to act only after problems have taken root and sometimes become intractable. (Being proactive is Habit #1 in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.)

Each decision you make counts because it shapes the course of your life, because it opens some possibilities and closes others, and because it can result in added happiness, misery, or both.

The quality of our lives depends upon the quality of our decision making, and the quality of our decision making depends upon the quality of our thinking.

Suggestions for making good decisions:
1. Make your decision conscious.
2. Gather as much information as you can.
3. Make a list of possible options.
4. Narrow your options down to two, and then pick the one that dovetails most harmoniously with your plans for your immediate and long-range future.
5. Put in place an implementation plan.
6. Think rationally, ethically, critically, and creatively.

Suggestions for training to become an outstanding thinker:
1. Believe in yourself and in your cognitive and creative abilities.
2. Start looking at innovations in all sorts of fields and studying the process from idea to realization that brought them into being.
3. Keep paying attention to the world around you. Question what you see and identify needs and problems to which you can apply your creative skills. You do not need to create something completely new – you can be creative by making something better.
4. Ask “Why?” and keep asking. Then you can think about the “How.”
5. Connect things that are not generally connected.
6. Keep your curiosity and enthusiasm alive and healthy.
7. Flexibility is the handmaiden of creativity. Rely on objective data, but trust your intuition as well. Remain serious about your goals, but let yourself have fun along the way.
8. Choose a congenial spot or activity that can help you ease into reflection. For some people it’s the anonymity of a coffee shop, for others it’s communing with nature at a wood picnic table in a park, and for still others it may be to walk and think. Try out different alternatives before choosing one that works best for you.
Think what could result from a national effort to make outstanding thinking a school subject.

Remember that some things are under our control, and some things aren’t. A sizable amount of our soul’s turmoil comes from our constant attempts at controlling what we can’t.

Suffering is always a test. It is a test of our fortitude and resilience when we are the ones who suffer and a test of our compassion when it is others who do.

The thoughtful take genuine pleasure in making others feel good about themselves. They are validators. Thoughtfulness always lessons someone’s life burden.

Why you should think before speaking (or e-mailing, posting, tweeting, or texting):
1. To make sure you don’t let impulse or temper get the best of you and cause you to say something you’re going to regret.
2. To do justice to what you are discussing and confer respect upon yourself and others.
3. To give clarity a chance to blossom.
4. To make sure that what you are going to say is appropriate (and not hurtful).
5. To make sure when you’re ready to speak, you are prepared and poised.

In addition to considering the effects our words have upon others, we should also consider the effects of our self-talk.

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