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Putting Your Brain to Work, The Human Note, & The Limits of Self-Criticism

Putting Your Brain to Work

Resource: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
Description: David Allen’s infamous GTD system for managing the things that demand our attention


The best planner in the world is your brain.

Planning is simply the process of taking what your brain already knows how to do and being more explicit and deliberate in your approach.

The Brain’s Natural Planning Process:
1) Identify Purpose
2) Envision Outcome
3) Brainstorm
4) Organizing
5) Identifying Next Actions


“THE KEY INGREDIENTS of relaxed control are (1) clearly defined outcomes (projects) and the next actions required to move them toward closure, and (2) reminders placed in a trusted system that is reviewed regularly. This is what I call horizontal focus. Although it may seem simple, the actual application of the process can create profound results. “

“Horizontal focus is all you’ll need in most situations, most of the time. Sometimes, however, you may need greater rigor and focus to get a project or situation under control, to identify a solution, or to ensure that all the right steps have been determined. This is where vertical focus comes in. Knowing how to think productively in this more vertical way and how to integrate the results into your personal system is the second powerful behavior set needed for knowledge work. “

“The goal is to get projects and situations sufficiently clear and under control to get them off your mind, and not to lose any potentially useful ideas. “

“In my experience, when people do more planning, informally and naturally, they relieve a great deal of stress and obtain better results. “

“The most experienced planner in the world is your brain. “

“You’re already familiar with the most brilliant and creative planner in the world: your brain. You yourself are actually a planning machine. You’re planning when you get dressed, eat lunch, go to the store, or simply talk. “

“Although the process may seem somewhat random, a quite complex series of steps has to occur before your brain can make anything happen physically. Your mind goes through five steps to accomplish virtually any task: 1  |  Defining purpose and principles 2  |  Outcome visioning 3  |  Brainstorming 4  |  Organizing 5  |  Identifying next actions “

“The key to intelligent thought is more intelligent thinking. “

“These five phases of project planning occur naturally for everything you accomplish during the day. It’s how you create things—dinner, a relaxing evening, a new product, or a new company. You have an urge to make something happen; you image the outcome; you generate ideas that might be relevant; you sort those into a structure; and you define a physical activity that would begin to make it a reality. And you do all of that naturally, without giving it much thought. “

The Human Note

Resource: ‘Men are not piano keys’ Jordan Peterson on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground
Description: Reflections on various aspects of life from the writings of Dostoevsky


Man is not reasonable. Satisfying his desires will not make him more sane. You can provide a person with every thrill, with every form of pleasure and comfort, and man would rebel against it by introducing some element of chaos or insanity or discontent. Being unsatisfied is what satisfies us.


“What makes you think that if you had everything you asked for that that would satisfy you ? What if being dissatisfied is part of what satisfies you? What if the fact that you have to have limits and need them and that there’s an element of insanity in the world and that there’s an element of insecurity and vulnerability? What if that’s what you need? What if it’s what you want? What if that’s what gives your life meaning? going to be like a lion after he’s eaten a zebra and do nothing but sleep it hardly constitutes the appropriate human paradise. What makes people think that merely providing economic security would be sufficient? Who wants that? It’s what you offer a cow in its pen so that it remains calm and fat. It’s not something for human beings…”

The Limits of Self-criticism

Resource: Against Self-Criticism: Adam Phillips on How Our Internal Critics Enslave Us, the Stockholm Syndrome of the Superego, and the Power of Multiple Interpretations
Description: Maria Popova shares insights from Adam Phillips on the limits of self-criticism


Overinterpretation is the process of always looking for or being open to more vantage points from which s single thing can be viewed. We overinterpret things when we entertain many mental models and metaphors and when we refuse to settle for one way of looking at it.

Underinterpretation is the process of overestimating the value of a single mental model. According to Phillips, the common problem that unites tragic heroes is their tendency to make a god out of a single interpretation.

The voice of self-criticism, while essential for self-correction and self-improvement, is also one that tends towards underinterpretation.

If we questioned or scrutinized our voice of self-criticism as much as we would another person, we would be far more skeptical of what it has to say.


“We tend to go far beyond the self-corrective lucidity necessary for improving our shortcomings, instead berating and belittling ourselves for our foibles with a special kind of masochism.” -Maria Popova

“Love and hate — a too simple, or too familiar, vocabulary, and so never quite the right names for what we might want to say — are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; and they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them, and vice versa. And given that these contradictory feelings are our ‘common source’ they enter into everything we do. They are the medium in which we do everything. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognize that someone or something has become significant to us… Where there is devotion there is always protest… where there is trust there is suspicion.” -Adam Phillips

“Nothing makes us more critical, more confounded — more suspicious, or appalled, or even mildly amused — than the suggestion that we should drop all this relentless criticism; that we should be less impressed by it. Or at least that self-criticism should cease to have the hold over us that it does.” -Adam Phillips

“But this self-critical part of ourselves…is “strikingly unimaginative” — a relentless complainer whose repertoire of tirades is so redundant as to become, to any objective observer, risible and tragic at the same time.” -Maria Popova

“Were we to meet this figure socially, as it were, this accusatory character, this internal critic, we would think there was something wrong with him. He would just be boring and cruel. We might think that something terrible had happened to him. That he was living in the aftermath, in the fallout of some catastrophe. And we would be right.”  -Adam Phillips

“We consent to the superego’s interpretation; we believe our self-reproaches are true; we are overimpressed without noticing that that is what we are being.” -Adam Phillips

“You can only understand anything that matters — dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature — by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses. Overinterpretation here means not settling for one interpretation, however apparently compelling it is. Indeed, the implication is — and here is Freud’s ongoing suspicion, or ambivalence, about psychoanalysis — that the more persuasive, the more compelling, the more authoritative, the interpretation is, the less credible it is, or should be. The interpretation might be the violent attempt to presume to set a limit where no limit can be set.” -Adam Phillips

“What Phillips is advocating isn’t the wholesale relinquishing of interpretation but the psychological hygiene of inviting multiple interpretations as a way of countering the artificial authority of the superego and loosening its tyrannical grip on our experience of ourselves.” -Maria Popova

“Authority wants to replace the world with itself. Overinterpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; it means assuming that to believe one interpretation is to radically misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and indeed interpretation itself.” -Adam Phillips

“Tragic heroes always underinterpret, are always emperors of one idea.” -Adam Phillips

“The superego is the sovereign interpreter… [It] tells us what we take to be the truth about ourselves. Self-criticism, that is to say, is an unforbidden pleasure. We seem to relish the way it makes us suffer [and] take it for granted that each day will bring its necessary quotient of self-disappointment. That every day we will fail to be as good as we should be; but without our being given the resources, the language, to wonder who or what is setting the pace; or where these rather punishing standards come from.”  -Adam Phillips

“Conscience … it is the part of our mind that makes us lose our minds; the moralist that prevents us from evolving a personal, more complex and subtle morality; that prevents us from finding, by experiment, what may be the limits of our being. So when Richard III says, in the final act of his own play, “O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”, a radical alternative is being proposed. That conscience makes cowards of us all because it is itself cowardly. We believe in, we identify with, this starkly condemnatory and punitively forbidding part of ourselves; and yet this supposedly authoritative part of ourselves is itself a coward.” -Adam Phillips

“How has it come about that we are so bewitched by our self-hatred, so impressed and credulous in the face of our self-criticism, as unimaginative as it usually is? And why is it akin to a judgement without a jury? A jury, after all, represents some kind of consensus as an alternative to autocracy… We need to be able to tell the difference between useful forms of responsibility taken for acts committed, and the evasions of self-contempt… This doesn’t mean that no one is ever culpable; it means that culpability will always be more complicated than it looks; guilt is always underinterpreted… Self-criticism, when it isn’t useful in the way any self-correcting approach can be, is self-hypnosis. It is judgement as spell, or curse, not as conversation; it is an order, not a negotiation; it is dogma, not overinterpretation.” -Adam Phillips

“Our self-criticism, to be sure, couldn’t be entirely eradicated — nor should it, for it is our most essential route-recalculating tool for navigating life. But by nurturing our capacity for multiple interpretations, self-criticism can become “less jaded and jading, more imaginative and less spiteful.” -Maria Popova


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