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Joe Eames for Thinkster

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You Can't Hit and Think at the Same Time

A famous baseball-related quote is often attributed to Yogi Berra: "You can't think and hit at the same time". This quote refers to the act of swinging at a baseball. At the professional level, a baseball's travel time from the pitcher's mound to home plate is just 400 milliseconds. Think about how fast that is. The nuance of how to correctly strike at that baseball requires processing all the possibilities and choosing the appropriate timing and placement of the bat in just 400 milliseconds.

With so much going on, the opportunity for what we often refer to as "conscious thought" is eliminated in swinging at a baseball. There's just no time to look at the ball and make a reasoned decision on how and when to hit. The batter must rely on years and years of practice and habit. Of thousands of iterations of doing the same thing over and over, making imperceptible improvements each time.

Now you are probably not a professional baseball player. You're probably a developer, or manager, or aspiring developer, or an admin, or an astronaut (ok, you're probably not an astronaut, but if you are, please please please hit reply and say hi). So your success doesn't depend on hitting a 90mph fastball.

So what is your moment of "hitting"? We all face these moments. Most likely they are emotional in nature. It could be a boss yelling at you in a meeting. It could be a significant other who is angry at you for something. It could be a child not listening to what you say, a coworker criticizing you in front of your peers, or a friend making an unacceptable comment.

No matter what the event is, you know the moment. Because you react. You face this moment, and you respond by attacking back, or shutting down or doing something else. You aren't thinking anymore. You're just reacting. Afterward, you face the shame of having behaved in a way you know you didn't want to. Once again you didn't stick up for yourself in front of the rest of your team, or you didn't correct a fundamental misconception about you, or you lashed out and hurt the other person when you didn't want to. And now you're beating yourself up. Wondering why you can't be more calm/strong/unflappable/whatever.

Why in the moment couldn't you act rationally like you wanted to?

Because you can't hit and think at the same time.

So how can you fix this? Is it hopeless? Will you always yell at your child whenever they accidentally spill their milk on your dress? Will you always fight with your significant other whenever they forget to do something they promise? Will you always shut down when your boss yells and end up hating your job for the next two weeks?

How can you change? How can you be who you want to be in the moment?

The same way a baseball player learns to hit a 90mph fastball: by understanding that you have to practice and accept marginal, even imperceptible improvement.

There are some great ways to work on making those changes you want to make. First, anticipate the moment. Look for the signs that it's going to come. A meal with a toddler means the chance of spilled milk is high. A teenager coming home from school means a conversation about grades is likely. You didn't make your deadline, your boss is possibly going to call you into her office. You arrive home and forgot to pick up dinner. Prepare yourself. Visualize how you will act if the moment arises. The more you do this, the more the habit can build.

Second, do objective retrospectives. After the moment, after you calm your emotions, maybe the next day, or even next week, look at how you behaved, and pick apart what went well, and what didn't. Do it objectively, without judgment. Like you're analyzing an Olympic figure skating routine or doing a code review. Don't judge yourself, judge your performance.

Third, be radically accepting. You aren't perfect. You never will be. Find the improvements. Realize how it could be so much worse. The truth is on an absolute scale you're probably doing a really good job, you just want to do better. Simply accept the reality of the past.


Photos by Derek Howard

Finally, never give in to hopelessness. You are incredible. You can change. You can grow. As a human, your brain is an amazing, miraculous organ. It grows and gets stronger and creates new connections all the time. And the harder something is, the harder you work, the more your brain is changing and improving. It just takes work and patience.

So what is your moment? What are you doing when you try to "hit and think at the same time?" 

Happy Coding!

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