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Self-Management November 24, 2006

Posted by Johan in Learning, Raves, Self-Management.

Mindhacks has an interesting post up on how Skinner was not a fascist, which deserves to be said in itself… But the really interesting bit is the article that is linked: Skinner as a Self-Manager, by Robert Epstein.

Self-management, for those unfamiliar with the Psychobabble, is basically how you get yourself to achieve your goals. If your goal is to write an essay, self-management would involve setting aside time to write, ensuring that your topic is appropriate, and so forth. By extension, self-management is the stuff that productivity websites like Lifehacker are concerned with. And it turns out that decades before GTD reared its ugly head, Skinner was already on it:

“a few examples and a brief analysis can’t begin to capture how pervasive self-management was in his life. It was much more than a few gizmos and timers. It was what many would call an attitude. He managed his own behavior almost continuously. When I was in graduate school, a fellow student mentioned that Fred seemed to dispose of envelopes and junk mail in an especially efficient way. I had never noticed this before, but it was true. When he opened his mail in the morning, he usually positioned his chair and trash can so that the very slightest flick of his wrist did the job. This was no accident, and it was part of the reason he was able to reply to virtually every letter he ever received, even until the end (Vargas, 1990).” (Epstein, 1997, p. 547)

More specifically:

“Fred kept lists of things to do, because people who keep lists of things to do do more things. He made schedules for himself to keep himself on track. We all use daily and weekly schedules, but Fred made longterm schedules as well —even 10- and 20-year schedules (Skinner, 1979, 1983b). “ (Epstein, 1997, p. 554)

“He knew that the best ideas are often fleeting, so he developed special ways to capture them. He kept a notebook or a tape recorder by his bed and by his pool, for example. He knew that writing was a delicate and easily disrupted activity, so he took pains to shelter it from disruptions. He built special shelves so that his dictionaries and other reference books were always at arm’s reach. He used his writing desk for serious writing only; he answered letters and paid bills elsewhere.” (Epstein 1997, 554)

Skinner was proud of his self-management skills, as he considered them a direct application of Behaviourism. And of course, this could be related to other scientific paradigms:

“Freud was unable to stop smoking cigars, up to 25 a day, though smoking must have been obviously related to the heavy ‘‘catarrh’’ he suffered from most of his life, as well as to the protracted cancer of the jaw in his last years . . . an astonishing lack of self-understanding or self-control. Was he not bothered by it, or did much of his theory spring from the need to acknowledge that the habit was ‘‘bigger than he was’’?
(Epstein, 1980, p. 341)

Of course, poking fun a psychoanalysis is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. A final quote sums up the core of Skinner’s self-management:

“Fred’s most important self-management practice is implied in his writings but is nowhere clearly stated. He always spent a few minutes each day, often scattered throughout the day, searching for and analyzing variables of which his behavior seemed to be a function. It is not enough to live your life, he told me; you also need to analyze it and make changes in it frequently and regularly.” (Epstein, 1997, p. 559)

On reading Epstein’s article, you do not get the impression that this was an ascethic, disciplinarian lifestyle that Skinner imposed on himself. Self-management was a source of joy, a constant pet project that was carried out because it was a positive reinforcer, not a negative one.

I believe that this kind of constant, critical re-evaluation of your lifestyle is crucial, if you aim to achieve anything beyond the norm. Epstein goes as far as suggesting that this self-management skill was the crucial factor that enabled Skinner to achieve as much as he did. I’m not sure about that, but it’s nevertheless inspiring to see that at the base of it, it may not be just an abstract “genius” quality that separates those who achieve something from those who don’t. There is a method here, and it can be applied to just about anyone.

I will outline my own self-management attempts in a future post.

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