Marginalia: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”

Marginalia is a regular series on Toward Vandalia in which I review the books I’m reading and unpack their most valuable lessons.

Today I’m looking at No One Understands You And What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. She first slipped onto my radar in a recap of the 2015 99U Conference, where she was presenting the findings from this book. Her other articles on 99U – where she writes about leadership and communication – are a good sample of both her writing style and unique insight.

With No One Understands You And What To Do About It, Halvorson manages to turn the same trick that David McRaney executed exceptionally with You Are Not So Smart – she makes issues of psychology not only approachable and digestable but also funny.

Here she is talking about the fact that mature-faced people are statistically more likely to be found guilty (92%) than baby-faced people (45%) in incidents that appear to be intentional:

… If someone with a delightfully babyish face, like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Mark Hamill, ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think he or she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

The book is divided into four sections that first get to the root of all this misunderstanding between people then delve into the lenses that affect how we see the world and how personality alters those lenses. The last section brings it all together and offers a workable strategy for being better understood as well as better understanding others.

In Part One, Halvorson reminds us that we are essentially unknowable (since nobody can plug directly into our brains) – a problem for those of us who believe we can be analyzed objectively and that others see us the way we see ourselves (or want to be seen). Not only can nobody see us this way (by rule!) but no two people are likely to see us in the same (if objectively incorrect) way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the people you would like to get to know you probably aren’t bothering – their attention is limited and so they use shortcuts to assign attributes to you.

This is complicated by cognitive dissonance and the primacy effect, which cause people to put you in the box they expect you to fit into and to assume that you will never change from their first impression of you, respectively.

Oh, and everybody thinks they’re better than you.

Generally speaking, other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.

However, perception can be “hacked” if you understand how it works. The process is carried out in two phases.

Phase 1 mostly occurs automatically, which could be good or bad depending on the moment.

A person’s “typical” behavior will change as a function of where he or she is, whom the person is with, and what he or she is trying to do.

Unfortunately, most people will stop mentally bothering with you at Phase 1 meaning that if you didn’t make a good first impression, you now have your work cut out for you.

This is overcome by getting people to shift into Phase 2 perception. In this phase they will take more time to analyze your behavior in context and attempt to construct a more accurate perception of you and your being. Granted, this takes more time and energy so most people won’t bother – and if you stuffed up in Phase 1, they’ll be less inclined to see the investment of added mental energy as being worth it.

You’ve experienced this yourself if you ever met somebody when they were having a bad day and wrote them off as being a grumpy / stern / serious / unpleasant person. Maybe you didn’t bother with them for a while after that until an unavoidable situation (perhaps a long car ride where there was no escape!) forced you to consider them again. Whether or not they really were a grumpy person, your perception was most likely refined for accuracy as a result of the extra consideration on your part.

Part Two gets into the three lenses that shape the way we all make the above perceptions.

The Trust Lens

This one is rather straightforward: people will assess whether or not they can trust you. They do this by looking for the answer to two questions about you:

  1. Are you a friend or an enemy?
  2. Are you capable of acting on your good or bad intentions?

Halvorson points out that both are important to consider:

The second question is just as important as the first, because if the answer to the second one is no, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.

The answers to these questions are sussed out from the warmth and competence we display. Halvorson provides strategies for conveying both, including classics like maintaining eye contact and exercising will power. As she says:

Don’t advertise your personal demons.

The Power Lens

Halvorson offers some uplifting encouragement for dealing with powerful people:

It’s not so much that [powerful people] think they are better than you as it is they simply do not think about you at all.


Powerful people don’t have a lot of time and are less willing to spend that time on you unless you can prove your value. This is rather straightforward and recalls age-old advice for establishing job security: make yourself indispensable.

The Ego Lens

This final lens is perhaps the trickiest of all, as it’s all about self-preservation for the perceiver.

… The ego lens… has a single mission. In this case, it’s to see things in such a way that the perceiver comes out on top.

The perceiver pulls this off in one of four fascinating ways that seem ripped from the script of Mean Girls:

  1. They will convince themselves that they and their people are better than you and your people.
  2. They will decide that you are both similar and can thus share in any victories.
  3. They will determine that you aren’t actually competing for anything they want, so: no harm, no foul.
  4. If none of the above are possible, they will avoid you or attempt to destroy you.

Halvorson uses examples from job interviews with candidates of different sexes, races, and qualifications as compared to the interviewers to demonstrate how this plays out in real life (with or without the interviewer even being aware of it). Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be better looking (or smarter) than your interviewer – especially if they have low self esteem.

Halvorson recommends modesty and affirmation to overcome the trouble inherent to the ego lens.

Part Three shows how perception can be a function of personality. Halvorson examines promotion-focused (risk takers) and prevention-focused (risk averse) personalities and encourages readers to adapt their communication according a person’s dominant personality.

For a promotion-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of potential gains or wins… For a prevention-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of avoiding losses or mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Halvorson’s examination of the secure, anxious and avoidant lenses. I have a tendency to be avoidant, so it was encouraging to see these often-misunderstood traits of mine presented as being very normal.

Herein lies the beauty of books such as this: you go in expecting to learn more about others but you end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Halvorson’s techniques for dealing with avoidant-attached people is, of course, useful for me in my dealings with other avoidant-attached people but it’s most beneficial as a means of understanding how I must be coming across to other people.

In short: be patient with avoidant-attached people and don’t take our stand-offishness personally.

The last section brings all of the above together and presents techniques for forcing the issue of perception when needed, as well as a rather intricate guide to crafting the perfect apology. The book concludes with tips on how to reverse-engineer Halvorson’s guide to being better understood into ways of better understanding others.

No One Understands You And What To Do About It is an easy read but is far from a superficial one. Halvorson has deconstructed a problem central to communication in our hyper-communicative world and offers strategies that can be employed in any aspects of our lives and within any context: home, work, school, the gym – anywhere!

She writes with an assured style and peppers in subtle, wink-wink humor to make sure you’re paying attention. Far from your average management or self-help book (which she notes in the intro she specifically tried to avoid writing), No One Understands You And What To Do About It entertains as much as it informs.

I Felt As If I Was On Solid Ground

I recently received the official word that I have been accepted to complete my PhD at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). This is the happy result of over a year of legwork that included choosing my research topic, composing my research proposal and endearing myself to the faculty by assisting with teaching.

I completed my MBA in Sport Management and Marketing last year (also at UTS) and it wasn’t long after graduation that I realized study is a passion of mine that I wasn’t ready to let go. I reached out to a former professor, Nico, who is one of the world experts in the field I am interested in studying (sport for development) and asked if he wouldn’t mind having a drink to discuss the possibility of doing a PhD under his supervision. Fortunately, he happily agreed and we set a meeting in Manly.

We met on a Friday afternoon just over a year ago. The sun was shining and we enjoyed a cold beer on the wharf as we discussed the future. Nico had sold me on the prospect of further study within moments, confirming that it was everything I thought it was and so much more. I would be able to study, write, pursue my own interests in terms of research, and teach!

We parted after an hour or so and I immediately rang Claire to tell her what I’d discovered. Her advice was simple.

“Well, obviously you’re doing it.”

I watched storm clouds roll in over the harbour as her and I discussed what the next few years would look like. Marriage, honeymoon, kids, and now a thesis. Dr. Greg – and why not?

I stepped onto the ferry just as the storm hit the shoreline. The rain pounded against the windows and the boat pitched more violently than is typical. It was dark and rainy and it seemed as if the entire world was moving around me but for the first time in my thirty years, I felt as if I was on solid ground.

Prioritize And Contextualize Your To-Do List

Rupert has things to do.

An integral part of whatever productivity system you decide to establish is a mechanism for managing all of the tasks that you’ll have on your plate at any one time. Some will call this ‘task management’ and employ any number of synced apps or custom systems to stay across everything. Others will go the pen-and-notecard route. There is no right or wrong method – the best system is the one that works for you. Your to-do list can help relieve the anxiety that sometimes accompanies the juggling of a few things at once… if it is properly maintained, that is.

As with so many elements of enhanced productivity, intentionality is the key to a useful and properly maintained to-do list. You can still use your notecards (or your apps!) but a little forethought will go a long way toward ensuring you make progress on your list no matter your method of recording the tasks before you.

Consider Context

No matter how simple you like to keep things, you’ll find that the expectations placed upon you are different depending on your location at any one moment. That is, your boss probably expects different things from you than your wife does.

Considering this, context becomes the first consideration in organizing your tasks. Seeing ‘do the laundry’ on my list in between meetings at work is not only futile, but might actually take me out of the zone or cause anxiety as I go through my day looking at that box that I’m incapable of ticking until I get home.

If you can’t do it in your present situation, don’t even include it on the list!

As you may have already deduced, this can be broken down into further sub-levels still. If you float between two sites at work, for instance, there’s no point in worrying about dropping off documents to Mary at Office A while you’re in a meeting at Office B. You’d be dividing your attention for less than no reason.

This context problem can be overcome in many ways, the simplest being to maintain separate lists for each context. A lot of to-do apps will allow you to maintain multiple lists or assign context to tasks, meaning you can keep all of your tasks in once place but still stay focused within your present context.

A particularly intriguing way to manage the specificity of some tasks is to adopt if/then planning of your tasks. This method allows you to frame your tasks within opportunities by phrasing them as “if _____, then I will _____”. Examples might include:

  • If I have ten minutes, then I will email my parents.
  • When this meeting is over, I will grab lunch.
  • When Claire gets home, I will kiss her.

The tasks here – emailing my parents, grabbing lunch, kissing my lady friend – are not left for me to casually skip over with my eyes. Instead, they form a kind of calendar that allows for the fluidity of the day. I don’t know when the meeting will end, but when it does I know my next action. I don’t know when I’ll have ten minutes, but when I do I know how to fill it. In this way you can seize opportunities rather than letting them pass you by.

Make Prioritizing A Priority

Within each context you will want to identify the highest priority items – your next actions. Sometimes productivity can induce a kind of high, but chasing that high by ticking off irrelevant tasks while you put off the most important ones is productivity junk food – you’re consuming empty calories that can’t sustain you and your passions and you will burn out quickly without making any real progress.

Maybe your inbox does need cleared, maybe the trash can does need emptied, maybe you do need to water the plant in the hallway, but if your goal for the day is to work on your novel and all you manage to accomplish is ticking off these three unrelated things are you really being productive?

Depending on who you ask, your priorities for the day should be narrowed down to 1, 3, 5, 10… pick a number, really. The point isn’t really to identify a number – it’s just to establish top priorities of some kind; any kind.

One clever prioritization trick I saw recently was to build levels of emphasis into your to-do list by identifying your top priority for the day, three medium priorities, and five lower priorities before tackling them all in the one day. This is productivity in terms of quantity and quality, helping you move ahead while not letting anything fall through the cracks.

Identifying these priorities can be the bigger problem for some, though. When in the midst of several projects with no deadline, how does one choose what to do next? The Eisenhower Matrix is a handy way to gauge your priorities and – just as important, really – peg the things that are not a priority.

The matrix features four quadrants used to define activities in terms of both importance and urgency. The highest priority items will obviously be those that are both important and urgent (putting out the fire after you blow up the microwave), while those that are neither important or urgent (House of Cards) become the lowest priority. Items that are important but not urgent (reading this blog?) receive consideration alongside those that are urgent but not important (things your boss wants you to do like, now, that you don’t care about). The distinction between urgency and importance is a significant one. Where urgency is the same, it is the difference between, say, what is important to you and what is important to others. Work on the ones that are important to you first (depending on the context – your boss likely won’t agree that reading this blog is more important than filing reports).

However, as I have said before, it’s not neccesary or altogether desirable to eliminate those activities that are neither urgent or important. Being on at all times can burn you out and you’ll need recovery time here and there. It might seem counter-intuitive, but if you have a hard time switching off it might be worthwhile to add leisure to your to-do list. After all, there is a difference between getting sucked into another House of Cards marathon and allocating a specific time slot in which you’re going to watch X number of episodes.

Mind The Cracks

Once you’ve added contexts and prioritization to your task-management system (and doesn’t that just sound so sophisticated?), you will probably find yourself facing a dilemma: what about all those little ticky-tack things that still have to get done but never end up making your ‘priority cutoff’? You don’t want anything to fall through the cracks, after all.

A cornerstone of the GTD system is the “two minute rule”, which dictates that any action that can be completed in two minutes or less is completed then. It’s not filed away, it’s not added to the to-do list and it’s not left for after you’ve read more emails – it’s done then and then, well, it’s done.

For slightly more involved tasks that aren’t especially important, one clever idea is to maintain a separate to-do list containing these tasks. Anytime you find yourself with a few minutes to kill and no prioritized task that can be completed in that window, pull out this list and tick something off.

Move Forward, Not Sideways

The intent of all of these ideas is to keep you moving forward rather than treading water. It can be easy to fall into the trap of being busy but not making progress and life is too short.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably not accomplish everything you add to your to-do list, and that’s okay. Prioritizing your list keeps the most important next actions at the top and allows everything else to kind of naturally fall off the bottom over time. The daily review that prioritization requires ensures that you won’t waste your time and energy on things that you just clearly didn’t value in the first place.

By renewing your commitment to progress each day you will find yourself moving confidently forward, one ticked box at a time.

Build A Custom ‘Inflow’ To Stay On Top Of Things

Rupert has a lot to process.

The internet is full of interesting things (including this blog!). So many interesting things, in fact, that the line between staying informed and falling into a bottomless pit of distraction is sometimes difficult to distinguish. How can you stay on top of the things that matter most to you and avoid the distraction trap? By establishing your own custom ‘inflow’ of content that presents content only from trusted sources.

The methods that I’m presenting today are my own so my usual disclaimer applies: this is what works for me – your mileage may vary. That said, my aim is to highlight the logic of the very practical nuts and bolts of my own system so that you can design a system that suits your own needs.

Read on! Unless you want to save this article to Pocket and read it later, that is.

Setting Up Your Source(s)

As I mentioned last week, a productivity system is only as effective as its inbox. After all, if items are not being input into the system, where are they going? The ‘inflow’ is the step before the inbox – it is the fishing net with which you catch items that you might want in your inbox and also the sifter with which you uncover the nuggets that will enter your system.

In the same way that you’ll want to minimize your inboxes, I would recommend also that you minimize the sources from which you catch content. I have three main sources that I monitor regularly:

It is incredibly rare that I would discover content outside of these three sources and usually doing so is a happy accident (for example: an interesting article shared by a friend on Facebook who doesn’t usually share such things). In a constantly buzzing world, how can this be? How am I not missing something?

The key to my system is intentional design. There are no redundancies (so I’m not following a site on Twitter and also subscribing to their RSS feed, except as noted below) and all of my bases are covered. Speaking generally, the way that I allocate sources to either Feedly or Twitter breaks down like this:

  • Sites on my RSS reader (Feedly) are sites that post valuable enough content that I don’t want to miss anything. Feedly shows me everything that’s new since I last checked, so missing things doesn’t happen unless I intentionally skip ahead.
  • Twitter is where I go for breaking news. Here I follow newspapers and specific organizations (such as my favorite sports teams). I’m not on Twitter often enough to read everything, so I would miss things if it were my only source of content. I don’t tend to miss the big picture in terms of current events, as the bigger stories continue to appear often enough that I’ll eventually see them.
  • The only time I would follow a source on both Twitter and Feedly would be where the site adds value on Twitter (usually through curated links and retweets) but I don’t want to miss any of their regular content. Ghostbusters taught us that crossing the streams is bad (except when it’s good) and that advice holds true here.

Downcast, meanwhile, updates my podcasts and downloads episodes automatically. It’s low maintenance in that way – even syncing across your devices – and you’ll always have the latest episodes ready to go.

This intentional design allows me to trust my system and thus I minimize my fear of missing out (FOMO – a concept I’ll be exploring in greater detail in an upcoming post). I’m not seeing anything I don’t want to see and I’m not missing anything I’m not willing to miss.

Consuming Your Content

Once you’ve cast your net, it’s time to mine out the nuggets: those bits of content that you actually want to consume.

If I only check Feedly once a day I usually find anywhere between 150 to 200 articles to browse. Of these I will actually want to read roughly one from five, so that would be 30 to 40 on any given day. Depending on my schedule and the length of those articles, it’s not reasonable that I’ll read everything at that moment. I may never get around to reading some of them. The GTD two-minute rule comes in handy in these situations: short articles that can be read in a few minutes or less are usually read right away as is anything ‘breaking’ that would lose relevance over time. Everything else gets saved to my read-it-later app, Pocket.

Pocket saves my content to a master reading list (in the order in which I save them) so that I can read them at a time of my choosing. Pocket offers a few advanced features:

  • A night mode theme with serif text that makes reading on a tablet (which is my standard device for consuming text content) a lot easier on my eyes.
  • Heaps of sharing functionality – including all major social media platforms and email.
  • Cloud storage, so my list of articles can be pulled up on any of my devices or with any web browser.

Feedly also carries these functions on board but everything comes together a little better in Pocket. Additionally, Pocket plays nicely with Twitter. I can save links within tweets straight to Pocket and when I read the link later, the original tweet is displayed at the top, making retweeting or favoriting a breeze if I end up finding the content valuable and/or worth sharing.

Pocket, then, operates as a landing place for both Feedly and Twitter – almost qualifying as an inbox in my system. However, only the best content makes it to the real inbox: Evernote.

Only The Best Survive

Once I’ve read an article, one of two things will happen to it:

  • I will tick it as ‘read’ in Pocket and it will disappear to the archive.
  • I will find it valuable enough to archive for potential reference in the future and it will be saved to Evernote.

Evernote is my big fat online filing cabinet that (yes, I’m about to tease again) I will explore in greater detail in an upcoming post. Once I’ve sent an article to Evernote, it lands in one of my system’s true inboxes and from here it will be actioned. Most of the time it simply gets filed away so I know I have a copy of it somewhere. Yes, Pocket also archives my articles but Pocket archives a link that may eventually die while Evernote archives the actual text. In this way the content can never be lost, even if the site where it was featured eventually dies or the link changes.

Occasionally an article will contain an ‘action’, like a piece of software I might want to check out or a recipe I might want to (*cough* have my fiancée *cough*) whip up. In these instances, it actually gets added to my to-do list and categorized appropriately. If content is too good to file away and forget in the short-term, I take notes in the moment and link the notes to the article within Evernote. In a way Evernote acts like my own personal internet (and has accordingly fewer trolls).

Whatever You Do, Be Intentional

Again, you don’t have to incorporate my system exactly as I have described it. My hope is that you’ll be able to read between the lines and build your own system around an intentional plan that will eliminate FOMO and reduce the time you would normally spend aimlessly wandering the internet in search of content. There are other apps that perform similar functions as the ones I use, but I know what works for me and that’s what I’ve shared.

When you’ve built up your RSS and/or social feeds to the point that you get all of the content you want without visiting any other site, you’ll know you’ve built a durable inflow that will keep you informed on the things that matter most to you. If anxiety lingers, look for the cracks (or redundancies) in your system that make you feel as though you’re missing out. Your inflow may need this occasional massaging but a few minutes organizing things every few weeks is far preferable to countless wasted minutes spent wandering the wasteland of the internet at large.

Coping With Ignorance, Better Brainstorming, A Ticking Clock

Rupert is reading 'Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles'

This weekend: cope with not being the smartest person in the room, execute better (and less painful) group brainstorming sessions and get served constant reminders of your mortality (in the name of wasting less time, naturally).

7 Tips for Working With People Who Are Smarter Than You (via)

We’re not always going to be the expert, so how do we deal with our relative ignorance? As this great piece points out, the kicker doesn’t show up to training camp to compete for the starting quarterback position – instead, he focuses on his specialization. Another gem: consider the alternative of being surrounded with genius. Yeah, not as good. Working with those who are smarter than us is a proven avenue for personal development, so don’t be intimidated if you’re not the smartest guy or gal in the room.

The Myth of the Brainstorming Session (via)

It’s no secret that brainstorming as it was initially conceived is next-to-impossible to actually pull off – new ideas are scary and even those of us who embrace failure may not prefer to put possible failure on public display. Here, then, is an alternative proposal for a group approach to creative thinking – one that begins with the individual, allows for incubation and doesn’t get in a hurry.

Motivation Shows Your Life Ticking Away to Fight Procrastination

This isn’t really a read but I thought it interesting all the same (seeing as we’re all trying to make the most of our time). Motivation is a Chrome browser extension that shows your exact age (to a frighteningly precise decimal point) when you open a new tab. Morbid? Maybe. But if you were opening that new tab in search of a distraction, maybe you’ll think again.

ToVa Rewind:

You Need  A System To Convert Inputs Into Outputs
You Can’t Create A New World Until You Handle This One

Rupert is reading: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie, Jr.

Have a great weekend!