In the summers, when I was a kid, I used to gather blueberries on the north shore of Massachusetts, on Cape Ann.
Like the person in this photo, I was a big fan of “one for the pot, five for me”-style gathering. But there was always enough, when I’d eaten my fill, to make blueberry pie or muffins with my Grandma Laura, who didn’t let anyone but me in her kitchen.
That happy memory is my entire experience of what used to be a common human activity: gathering! So why am I so sure that you should never gather your thoughts??!
Another Family “Gathering” Story
When she was 44 and I was 19, my Mom suffered a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, which is similar to a stroke in its effects. She spent three weeks (or was it months??) in a coma, and then lived a full life—with 9 grandchildren—to age 80.
One of her enduring frustrations, however, was her difficulty with finding words and making her thoughts clear.
So for 36 years, I got to watch someone struggle to gather her thoughts. And I got to observe that the harder she struggled, the harder it was for her to grasp the thoughts and words she wanted.
At the time, I vowed that I would never chase a word or thought. This attitude has served me well now that I’m older and have my own word-finding challenges, because:
- there are always other ways to make your point (so don’t chase a thought);
- there are always other words that can express it well (so don’t chase words); and, most importantly,
- when you chase a word or thought, your’e actually chasing it away.
So What Should You Do Instead of Gather Your Thoughts?
Basically, get out of your own way!
Think about it like this:
When you’re talking to a friend, or a group of friends, you never gather your thoughts. You just talk! That’s because you don’t have to plan what you’re going to say. You know that whatever you say is going to be just fine, because…these are your FRIENDS.
It’s usually just at WORK that barriers to the smooth flow of thoughts go up.
And what are those barriers? They’re admonishments like,
- Don’t make a mistake!
- Don’t sound stupid!
- What if I say something wrong?
- What if someone knows more than me?
Trying to speak around thoughts like these is the rough equivalent of trying to sneak around a bear that’s gathering the same blueberries you’re after! (There’s a 1948 book about this dilemma, Blueberries for Sal.) The bear—or in our case, the fear—takes up so much space that your thoughts all scatter and you feel like you have to go looking for them.
But you don’t!
Organize Your Thoughts, Don’t Gather Them!
Next time your thoughts are scattered to the four winds, try this simple method for getting them back. (HINT: This approach works best if you practice it for 15 seconds every morning!)
1. Ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing I have to say?,” then say it.
2. While you’re saying that thing, let a few supporting thoughts float up in your mind, and say them. DO NOT fight, critique, search for, argue about, or judge these supporting thoughts; understand that whatever you say—yes, even at work—is going to be just fine, because you’ve spent years developing skills, insights, and experience that your brain is eager to retrieve and share!
3. And finally, if this feels useful, repeat the first thing you said so that your listener(s) will remember it.
This simple approach to organizing your thoughts (a/k/a the Instant Speech format) helps you get right to the most important point…expand on it briefly…and then stop talking—which is the desired effect in situations that already feel intimidating.
So next time you’re tempted to cast a wide net and sweep a bunch of thoughts into it, remember:
- You don’t have to go looking for what you already own: your thoughts!
- You don’t have to “interrogate” (question) the ideas that come most easily to mind; and
- You don’t have to fight any bears to get to the blueberries.
Just start with your key message, say a few things about it, and then stop.
And later, maybe there’ll be pie!