Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 42;   October 17, 2001: Running Your Personal Squirrel Cage

Running Your Personal Squirrel Cage

by

As Glen rounded the corner behind the old oak, entering the last mile of his morning run, he suddenly realized that he was thinking about picking up the dry cleaning tomorrow and changing his medical appointment. Physically, he was jogging in a park, but mentally, he was running in a squirrel cage. How does this happen? What can we do about it?
A squirrel running a cage

Have you ever noticed yourself running in a mental squirrel cage? A squirrel cage is a rotating toy for small caged animals — hamsters, mice, and squirrels. They climb aboard, and as they run the cage spins. They run, but they get nowhere.

When your mind runs in its squirrel cage, it too runs but gets nowhere. Pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow, call the doctor to change my appointment, get the lawn mower fixed, return Philippe's call, call Josh's teacher about his homework load, make reservations for vacation, pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow, call the doctor…over and over, but none of it is getting done. Each item in the list is a rung in your mental squirrel cage.

If this sounds familiar, think of the personal cost. Running the cage prevents you from being fully present with the people and things you love — your morning jog, your loved ones, the books you like to read, or even this article. Running the cage keeps you from focusing fully on what's happening right now.

To learn how often this happens for you, carry a pen and notebook or index card for a few days — everywhere. When you notice that you're in the squirrel cage, record the time and a few of the items you remember. If you're a habitual cage runner, you'll soon know it.

Running your personal squirrel
cage prevents you from being
fully present with the people
and things you love
To spend less time aboard your squirrel cage, deal with the items that you run over and over in your mind. Eventually, you'll find methods that work for you — meanwhile, here are some to get you started.

Make a catalog of the rungs of your cage
Whenever you recognize that you're in the cage, make notes of any of the items you can remember. You can't deal with them unless you know what they are.
Recognize the hidden cost of procrastination
When we delay dealing with minor tasks, they become available to serve as rungs in the squirrel cage. Procrastination thus drains our energy and blurs our focus. Next time you're considering postponing something, remember the squirrel cage.
Make conscious choices
Once you know what items make up your personal squirrel cage, you can choose, for each one, whether you'll take action, or keep it in the squirrel cage. If you can't act right then, pick a date. If you choose consciously, you'll most likely choose to act rather than keep it in the cage.

After a while, you might notice a time that you aren't running in your squirrel cage. Congratulate yourself. Celebrate your progress in some concrete way that you really enjoy. See "Celebrate!," Point Lookout for February 21, 2001, for some ideas. Go to top Top  Next issue: First Aid for Painful Meetings  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenpMMlAUAmfIEgOhqLner@ChacWmUGUPeSADJNpiqWoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A wrecked boatShould I Keep Bailing or Start Plugging the Leaks?
When we're flooded with problems, and the rowboat is taking on water, we tend to bail with buckets, rather than take time out to plug the leaks. Here are some tips for dealing with floods of problems.
Jack-in-the-boxNo Surprises
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
An air traffic controller using a display system at an Air Route Traffic Control CenterRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: I
Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
A 1928 Ford Model A Business CoupeClueless on the Concept
When a team member seems not to understand something basic and important, setting him or her straight risks embarrassment and humiliation. It's even worse when the person attempting the "straightening" is wrong, too. How can we deal with people we believe are clueless on the concept?
Rapids in a northern streamThe Risks of Too Many Projects: I
Some organizations try to run too many development projects at once. Whether developing new offerings, or working to improve the organization itself, taking on too many projects can defocus the organization and depress performance.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenqDJRmWiCZzBrqMkbner@ChacspcndqdbXugKQvzboCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.