Stop extrapolating your perceptions

That’s a simple stoic exercise that I picked up from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: “Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.”

I bet that you’re extrapolating your perceptions all the time. Let me give you a few examples and tell whether I’m wrong.

  • “House prices will probably keep increasing.”
  • “That person will never change.”
  • “My business will keep growing.”
  • “I will never learn from my mistakes.”
  • “He doesn’t like me.”

We often have these type of thoughts multiple times a day. The root of this problem is our quick judgment.

Humans are very fast thinkers. But how fast do we even think?

Scientists have quantified the speed of light and sound, but when it comes to thoughts, it’s not that easily measured.

Researchers that did experiments with measuring the speed of thought, found the following: Thoughts can be generated and acted upon within 150 milliseconds.

If that’s really true, we’re faster than the load time of Google. The median load time for Google.com on mobile is currently 600 ms.

We’re fast thinkers

But that doesn’t mean we should follow through on every single thought that pops into our mind.

Have you ever tried measuring how many random thoughts that pop up in your mind? Just do a simple experiment. For the rest of the day, be aware of your thoughts.

Don’t follow through. Every time you start thinking about future events or start making mental movies, keep count on a post-it note or small piece of paper.

I did it one day at the office. It looked like this:

23 random thoughts that came out of nowhere. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I have 2300 more thoughts in my subconscious.

But here’s the trick: Don’t follow through on those thoughts. Because if you do, your mind will turn into total chaos.

Instead of making all kinds of mental movies, always stick to first impressions. Never make assumptions. Only look at impressions and don’t think about what everything “means.”

That’s a simple stoic exercise that I picked up from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

“Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.”

That’s how you always stay calm. But sticking with first impressions is very difficult because we’re all impatient. We’re so eager that we immediately make judgments after our first impressions. Can you believe that?

“She didn’t respond to my text. She doesn’t like me anymore.”

Let’s say you make a quick judgment like that — or something similar. Admit it, we all do it! But let’s look at what that means.

So someone doesn’t respond to you right away. Okay. That’s the whole impression — nothing more, nothing less.

You see? The first impression is that you didn’t get a reply. It’s not this: “Why didn’t I hear anything back? She probably doesn’t care about me. Other things are more important to her.”

Two hours later, you get a reply. And what did you do during those two hours?

Correct, eat yourself up from inside. It’s not worth it.

Do your own thing — always

If you want to stop extrapolating, you need to be more stoic. Looking at things for what they are is not that easy. Ryan Holiday, someone who has studied stoicism, and wrote The Obstacle Is The Way, said it best:

“It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear.”

A conflict at work. A dip in your sales. A disagreement with your spouse.

Look at things for what they are. What’s within your control? Is there something you can do right now? Can you make the situation better? Then do it. And do the job well.

If you can’t—do something else.

Have different things in your life that you can give your attention to. For example:

  • Always learn a new skill
  • Get some exercise every day
  • Work on your goals

The point is that you want to be very clear on what you’re doing in your life, at any moment. If I’m asking you, “what are you doing?” You should have a clear answer.

“I’m relaxing,” you might say.

Perfect. You’re doing your own thing. You’re not a slave to your thoughts or other people’s actions.

This is your life. As long as you’re not harming yourself or others, you can do whatever you like!

Just stop thinking about what everything means and start looking at things for what they are.