On Impulse Control

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I was recently re-reading Mark Forster’s helpfully-titled book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play and – as you often find on re-visiting books – noticed a point that hadn’t particularly struck me before. The book as a whole is very good at getting inside the psychology of procrastination, of what’s going on when we resist doing things that feel a bit too hard. The particular issue that caught my attention this time is when you’re getting down to something and your brain suddenly pops up with something else that needs your attention.

It may be a valid issue, and it may even be urgent, but the point is that it is a distraction mechanism. If it didn’t genuinely deserve attention, it wouldn’t work to derail you, of course. But as it is valid, it’s all to easy to follow the impulse, and come up for air 45 minutes later having made no progress on what you set out to do, but having dealt with all kinds of other things that, while useful in their way, haven’t helped the big thing that needs doing. Work as work-avoidance keeps your conscience quiet, but is still, ultimately, a form of procrastination.

Forster’s suggestion for dealing with these self-generated interruptions is to consciously label each as ‘impulse’ as soon as you notice it. This labelling device gives you back control so that you can dismiss the distraction and get back to the task in hand. It sounds simple, but it’s actually a pretty good method to rebuild focus if you’ve been getting into the habit of faffing around.

Now the reason I’m writing about this here is that I have now noticed a similar thing happening in the choral rehearsal when I’m out coaching. We’ll be dealing with a particular issue (rhythmic characterisation, vocal colour, coordination of word sounds, whatever), and someone will pop their hand up and come out with a completely unrelated rehearsal issue.

Just occasionally, this is a real show-stopper, and we have to put our main focus aside and deal with it. If it’s something that will prevent the main goal from being achievable, for example. Things like, ‘Can I sit down as I’m about to faint,’ would come in this category.

But usually these are perfectly valid, possibly even urgent points, but essentially distractions from the task in hand. So my usual response is to ask whoever raises the issue to hold the thought for future reference while get on and deal with whatever we were dealing with. Which I guess is a polite way of labelling something as an impulse.

There are two things that these impulses tell me about the group I’m working with. One is about how they feel about the main goal we’re working on. Impulses emerge in response to resistance – and you feel resistance to things that you know you ought to be working on, but somehow can’t bring yourself to. It’s not necessarily that the task is hard itself, but it may make you face something about yourself that you’d rather not think about. But when you actually deal with whatever it may be, you feel astonishingly good about yourself – not just for getting the thing dealt with, but for facing and getting the better of your inner demons (and however trivial they may be, inner demons are always intimidating).

So, impulse responses during rehearsal or coaching tell me that this is hard for the ensemble in some way, but that they will feel good once we’ve cracked it. It tells me we’re on the case with something that matters.

The other thing that impulses tell me is about the general level of task focus the group has. If a lot of impulses emerge, this tells me that the rehearsals are typically quite welcoming to them; that they are indulged. People’s brains have learned that they can deflect difficult work by flagging up other valid issues and their director will let them. If the director is in the habit of keeping to their main agenda without being diverted by these impulses, there’s no encouragement to generate more.

You’ll never get rid of them completely, especially with a rehearsal/coaching style like mine that encourages dialogue, but if you make a point of only responding substantively to dialogue related to the main agenda, you increase the group’s capacity for focus. And this in turn means that when you do meet the now infrequent impulse-interruptions, they tell you a lot more clearly about the group’s relationship with the task in hand.

And I wrote this with only one significant moment of impulse (the desire to check my email, which I resisted because I was writing about this, but might not have done otherwise). Mark Forster would be proud of me.

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