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

Running Your Personal Squirrel Cage

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

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

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