The Lever #024: The Baader Meinhof Principle
Read Time: 5.8 minutes
Welcome to issue No. 24 of The Lever
Everything you start becomes an open loop, slowly spinning until the task is complete.
Ever notice how once you've noticed an obscure or unfamiliar concept, word, or thing, that you start to see it everywhere?
So did Terry Mullen in the 90's, and he is responsible for inadvertently crowdsourcing the name of this unique phenomenon.
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The Good, Baad, and Ugly
The Baader-Meinhof Group, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), was a left-wing extremist terrorist organization active in West Germany during the 1970s and early 1980s.
The group was founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, whose goal was to overthrow the capitalist system and establish a socialist state.
The group's attacks were primarily directed against the German state, as well as the United States and other Western countries, whom they saw as imperialistic and oppressive. They were responsible for a number of high-profile attacks, including the kidnapping and murder of the head of the German Employers' Association, and the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane in 1977.
The German government implemented strict counterterrorism measures, including the use of surveillance and wiretapping, as well as the establishment of special police units to deal with the threat. This hit the group hard in the 1980s, with many members arrested or killed in shootouts with police.
The Baader-Meinhof Group officially disbanded in 1998, but its legacy continues to be felt in Germany and other countries, as a symbol of left-wing extremism and domestic terrorism.
But what does this terrorist group that you've probably never heard about have to do with productivity?
The Baader-Meinhof Principle
In 1994 a reader of the St Paul Pioneer Press wrote into the paper with an observation.
Mullen had heard the name "Baader-Meinhof" for the first time while reading an article in a local magazine about a group of left-wing German terrorists. Later that day, he heard the name again on the radio, and then a third time when a friend mentioned it in passing.
He was struck by the fact that he had never heard the name before, and now it seemed to be everywhere. Mullen described his experience in the letter and asked if this phenomenon had a name.
Another reader wrote in a few days later and suggested that the name "Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon" should be adopted, as it seemed appropriate given the situation.
The name caught on and, ironically, has become an example of the very thing it subscribes. The term is now well known and often used to describe noticing something that was previously obscure.
The Frequency Illusion
The phenomenon is also described as the Frequency Illusion, and works based on the cognitive bias of selective attention.
Your mind takes in an estimated 11 million bits of information every second, but can only consciously process around 50 bits per second. This means that the brain has to selectively attend to and filter out a vast amount of information in order to focus on the most important stimuli at any given moment.
Selective attention serves to filter out distracting or irrelevant stimuli so the brain can focus on the most important information in the environment. Remember, your brain hasn't changed much in the last few thousand years, and is primarily focused on keeping you alive.
Think gorillas, not Chevy Silverado's.
The filter allows for effective decision-making, problem-solving, and task performance, as it enables the brain to allocate its limited cognitive resources to the most pressing demands. Without selective attention, the brain would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information it receives, and would struggle to function effectively in complex and dynamic environments.
Speaking of Gorillas…
One of the most famous studies around selective attention was conducted in 1995 by Chun and Potter (around the same time the term was coined).
They asked participants to focus on a specific task - counting the number of times a particular word was used in a text.
The people became so fixated on finding that word that they didn't notice the gorilla walking across the screen. The study suggests that selective attention can influence what we perceive and remember, which can contribute to the frequency illusion.
Selective Attention Applied
Being able to harness the power of selective attention is a shortcut into a deep focused state. This will allow you to:
• Filter out distractions
• Prioritize important information
• Effectively manage your workload
This lets you optimize your cognitive resources so you finish your tasks and progress your goals more effectively.
Here are three main tactics to help you access selective attention:
1. Set and review goals
It starts with having clear goals, but also needs you to review those goals frequently to keep them top of mind.
Keeping a list of your goals alongside your 7 to do lists means you can quickly review them every morning when you start your day.
Remind yourself of the goal, and why it is important to you.
Keep your eye on the prize.
2. Use effective prioritization
Proper task selection is a key way to ensure you are working on the right things that move your goals forward.
Don't let tasks happen to you; actively choose them with intention.
If you are wondering what your top priority is in the moment, ask yourself:
"If I got only one thing done today, what would that have to be in order to consider the day a success?"
Do that thing.
3. Minimize distractions
Remember this is about focusing your attention.
Reduce or eliminate external prompts that will pull your attention away from the task at hand.
Notifications, noises, visual indicators. Anything that you can turn off, turn off.
You are programmed to respond to new cues in your environment.
Minimize those cues to maximize your focus.
4. Time blocking and batching
An effective time blocking strategy is the best way to focus your attention on a specific task.
Choose a start time. Then choose a task.
Now determine an end time, based on the estimated amount of time it will take you to complete that task.
(hint - remember Parkinson's Law? If you give yourself less time, it will take less time)
A task can be a single big thing, like writing a paper.
Or it can be a series of smaller, similar activities batched together.
Like responding to emails, or sending DM's.
Minimize the cognitive penalty that comes from switching between tasks.
5. Physical priming
These are support functions, but a healthy body supports a healthy mind.
Make time for each. Support your cognitive function.
The more you focus your attention on achieving your goals, the more you will notice ways to support those goals.
Your attention is one of the only things you can truly control.
Make the best use of it as possible.
Chun, M. M., & Potter, M. C. (1995). A two-stage model for multiple target detection in rapid serial visual presentation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 21(1), 109–127. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-1518.104.22.168
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