May 31, 2012

3 Principles of doing what works

There is a great power in focusing on doing what works in many of life's contexts. Doing what works is about finding out what is useful or helpful and applying that in order to make progress in the desired direction. Put differently it means that when you try to accomplish something you pay careful attention to what is working, or has worked before in a comparable situation, and do more of that. While it sounds simple and logical to just find out what works and to more of it actually isn't always that straightforward. In this post I explain that what works is often not so easy to recognize: The invisibility of what works. And I have written a post in which I mention 6 critical reflections on the importance of doing what works. Having said this, though, I repeat that doing what works is an powerful approach in many contexts. Here are three principles that may be useful in doing what works (of which at least one is not too well-known):
  1. Doing more of what works of what you have already been doing: this is the principle which is intuitively easiest to understand and apply for most people. It requires you to carefully reflect on your experiences, to identify what has previously helped you in situation comparable to your current situation and to do more of that. A great thing about having identified in your own experience something which is helpful to you is that it supports your sense of autonomy and competence (which is a basic need people have).
  2. Systematically trying out new things you have not tried before:  If you narrow your focus to only your own experience you may miss out on things that would been very useful had you tried them.  So to broaden one's perspective it is often wise to be open to try out new things which appear to be effective in situations comparable to your situation. You may come across these new things through advice from other people, things you read in books or articles, things you saw other people do, things you come across in a training course, etc. It may be useful to ask yourself two questions when considering such new things: 1) does it seem logical that it would work in my situation?, 2) is there any evidence that it actually works?
  3. Systematically leaving out things in order to identify what works: Instead of only keeping adding things that appear to work it is also wise to systematically experiment with leaving things out. The logic behind this is as follows. Dealing with everyday problems and goals is always complex and often confusing. As a rule, we do not do just one thing which can be easily evaluated. We usually do many things at the same time. For instance, when your presentation went well, was it because of the nice suite you wore, was it because of the way you had organized your Powerpoint slides, was it because of the questions you asked to the audience, was it because you included a nice humoristic cartoon, was it because of the fact that you had kept your presentation nice and brief, etc. Or was it some specific combination of these things? To which degree did each of these ingredients help? Or were some of them actually counterproductive? Only by experimenting with leaving out some of the ingredients can we learn more about what specifically contributed to the effectivess of the whole. 

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