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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

Separate Your Tasks

In their book, "The Courage to be Disliked" authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga introduce the reader to Adlerian Psychology. This school of thought, named after its founder Alfred Adler, is less well known that Freudian and Jungian psychology but is every bit as profound.

One of the core ideas underpinning Adlerian psychology is known as the "separation of tasks." Much of Adler's work focused on the role that interpersonal relationships play in our suffering. Within these relationships—be they professional, parental, spousal, friendly, etc—Adler noted that we often fail to draw clear lines between tasks that are our responsibility and those that are not.

This failure to separate tasks works both ways. We allow others to interfere in our tasks when we let external forces make our decision for us:

  • We choose our college based on familial expectations;

  • We choose whether or not to pursue that new project based on our spouse's opinion;

  • We hold back on delivering tough feedback for fear of hurting our coworker's feelings.

Conversely, we often interfere in the tasks of others:

  • We try and convince our partner that they need to change a bad habit;

  • We pressure our kids to play the sports we think they ought to play;

  • We offer unsolicited advice to a friend on their fashion sense or lack thereof.

Adler would see all of the above examples as illustrations of not knowing where our responsibility begins and ends.

Arguably, the most pernicious form of this failure to separate tasks has to do with our tendency to fret over the impression we are making on others. Consider public speaking as an example. Ultimately, the act of giving a presentation can be divided into two tasks:

  • Task 1—Deliver the presentation: Research, write, rehearse, and present the material.

  • Task 2—Receive the presentation: Listen and respond to the material.

Note that the second part of task number 2 (respond to the material) is the audience's task, not ours. Yet how much of our strife over public speaking is due precisely to worrying about how the audience will respond? Will they be riveted? Inspired? Entertained? Confused? Bored? Disdainful?

We have a natural preference for a positive response but here's the thing—that's not our task. Our task is to work hard, to do our best to deliver value, to make a contribution.

It is solely the task of the audience to receive the material and respond to it. And as soon as we start fretting about how exactly they are going to respond, we have crossed the line into someone else's responsibility.

The next time you're feeling a sense of angst, look deep enough and you'll likely find that you're failing to separate tasks.

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