When It’s Good To Externalise

I’m forever banging on about “not externalising”. And I’m usually right to do so. It usually isn’t good to externalise – to blame events, other people or circumstances for your results. This is bad. It’s a victim mindset and leads to even more bad results. Internalising is the thing to do – asking yourself what you can do to feel better/get a better result – whatever it is that’s bugging you.  

But there is one situation when externalising is precisely the approach to take.  It’s actually a different kind of externalisation. It’s not about blaming something or someone else. In this case, by externalisation I mean simply yanking something out of your brain to work on it, rather than trying to do all the heavy lifting inside your head.  

You see the problem is that we humans are surprisingly rubbish at working stuff out in our heads. Our thoughts and feelings bounce around like so many careering pinballs setting off flashing lights and buzzers in a blinding cacophony that seldom seems to yield an optimal solution.

So we need to get the issue out of our heads. We need to externalise.  

There are two ways.

Firstly, write it down.

Whatever the problem may be. A number of years ago when I was still employed someone asked me if I’d like to be put forward for a job in another company. It was a senior position. I kicked it around in my head for days and days and couldn’t get a clear view on what I thought. There were pros and cons. My gut feeling was to go for it, but I held back. There must have been a reason. After about a week, and after being chased, I wrote it issue down… “Should I go for this job?” and I then compiled a list of pros and cons. The pros column had one entry. I was shocked. One entry. The cons column had about eight or ten. It was a no brainer. (Ha!) Maybe quite literally: I didn’t need my brain to work out the answer. In fact, my brain was hindering me.

OK, so far so obvious.

But the point is that this writing-issues-down thing is also called keeping a journal. Not a diary. But a journal where issues are worked on, problems solved, decisions made. We are much better at solving problems when they are outside of us. When we have externalised them.

Secondly, we can externalise our issue by speaking about them.

Have you ever come up with the answer to something just by talking to someone about it – even if they don’t actually say anything? In fact it is better if you can choose someone who will not try to give you the answer, but instead will prompt and assist until you get there yourself. So avoid the “well this is what I’d do if I were you…”-types, (that’s most men out of the running!)

This second approach is, of course, the basis of coaching. Sometimes I help my clients just by being there and gently and infrequently guiding the conversation. It took me a while to get used to that, initially being of the male disposition of I-must-be-the-omnipotent-oracle. As if.

So, if you find your mind invaded my persistent thoughts about an issue that never seem to reduce down to a simple solution, externalise the problem. Write it down or talk to a well-chosen listener.

Personally, I’d start with writing it down, in a journal. You will find, in time, that “journaling” becomes a natural activity that you quickly turn to whenever you sense one of those persistent and difficult issues is brewing in your brain. Keeping a journal clarifies thinking quickly and effectively. You can then simply look at the answer you have come up with and get on with doing what you need to do, instead of playing endless pinball with your thoughts and emotions.

As I’ve said many times before, the human brain is absolutely magical but it is not always easy to use and there is no user guide. So, maybe consider this post another page in your personal My Brain – User Guide, entitled “How to deal with issues that stubbornly don’t resolve in my head – EXTERNALISE.”

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2 Responses to When It’s Good To Externalise

  1. Dave Verburg November 28, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    I have recently started keeping a journal and it has helped me a lot and sometimes you’re right Mark it is as simple as a pros and cons list. Other times it’s a stream of consciousness the very act of which allows your brain to dump its stuff on paper so it can make sense. Another good article!

    • Mark Nugent November 28, 2011 at 9:15 am #

      Thanks Dave. It really is a good practice to develop. And it is that – a practrice – something we do. Not so much a habit which implies thougthlessness. A practice allows for improvement. Journaling gets easier and produces better results with practice.

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