“Love to stay and talk, but – wow! – I’m running reeeeeally late – maybe next time!”
Ever notice this perverse trend that makes a Badge of Honor out of having no time?
Anyone with sufficiently poor organizational skills can pull it off in a snap.
Not that this “sorry – gotta rush!” brownie point might ever be recognized for what it really is. An inability to budget time sufficiently. An inability to say no.
Being swamped with obligations and competing interests is, in this particular version of “real life”, a sign of climbing the ladder. Of becoming a bigger cheese. Of just being too indispensable to actually connect with the here and now.
To have an actual life.
Anyone with a sufficient lack of know-how can, in this world of alternate facts, roll their work into the prefect wave and surf Life Beach in the full sunlit spray of illusory relevance and value.
This is real work. Entirely different from some Geek’s obsessive tooling over obscure minutiae. Entirely different from the shallow prattle of Party People.
This is no game.
We’re talking about a very intense form of self-sacrifice through a programme of really – really – busy work.
If there’s one thing that scares many of us more than anything else, it’s boredom.
We must keep busy.
We wake up and immediately start burying our feelings of disappointment and inadequacy under critically important agendas.
Fires to fight.
Doors to open.
Delights to pluck from the tree of life.
We catch up with the latest news. The latest movie. The latest episode of our programme . The next level of our game. The latest technology. The latest gossip. The latest Trump dump.
The more we increase the pace, the harder boredom snaps at our heels.
Yet, despite all of this catching up, two simple truths dangle just beyond our noses:
– boredom is built into everything we do; and – the nemesis of boredom is not work; it is attentiveness.
Jeremy Gardner of Body Mind Vortex and I recently sat down to discuss the subject of finding your focus through everyday mindfulness, an approach I have been exploring with my coaching clients over the past few years. Here’s the video of that conversation. If you would like to download an audio version of this and other talks, visit the Body Mind Vortex website.
Talking to a friend, you describe a great idea you’ve just had. You’ve got it down in crystalline detail. You know what’s involved, what’s going to happen, and how great you’ll feel when it’s done – even better than you’re feeling right now.
Then nothing happens.
One thing gets in the way, then another. Your friends’ interest fades. Family stops asking. Bit by bit, you watch with waning interest as your great idea slowly deflates into the sunset …
What went wrong?
You had a laser-sharp image of what you really, really wanted. You stayed positive – really, really positive. And you focused on it every available minute you had – even as it collapsed from view.
What more could you have done?
A Jordanian client of mine once paraphrased an old Persian proverb that perhaps you’ve heard before: “Believe in God all you want: you still got to tie up your own camel.”
Here’s a simple “camel-tying” formula you can try for yourself next time you want to realize a great idea:
Imagine what you want to accomplish, the outcome it will produce for you, and how you’re going to feel once it’s done: This is the step you’ve already proved yourself in. Done really well all on it’s own, you’re pretty well guaranteed not to achieve your great idea.
Identify what you can do to achieve this outcome: Let’s take an example. Say you wanted to socialize with Susan and Fred once a month. This step might be as simple as tweaking your idea from “I want to get together with Susan and Fred once a month” to “I want to organize getting together with Susan and Fred once a month”.You might find it even more helpful to ask yourself a question aimed at getting yourself into action. Something along the line of “How can I get together with Susan and Fred once an month?”
Create a simple plan to get things going: This could could be as simple as coming up with a process. Like setting up a recurring date, time and place with Susan and Fred to get together. Maybe backed up with an email reminder. It might involve making a commitment – the more public the better – to call Susan and Fred once a month. Maybe devising an “if/then” scenario would be helpful to give yourself a default way of handling a situation likely to reoccur. For example, “if I feel like getting together with Susan and Fred then I’ll send them a text”.
To keep yourself on track, here are three points to keep in mind when giving this approach a go:
Follow the steps outlined above in their given order. Finishing off with a detailed visualization of what you want to accomplish is perhaps the most effective way to ensure you’re not going to follow through on taking action toward realizing your great idea.
Be prepared to deal with interference from your “What the Hell” perfectionist. We all have one, and they sound something like this: “It’s January 31st and I forgot to call Susan and Fred! Why do I always stink at stuff like this? What the Hell: I’m not even going to bother trying to call them any more!”Moments like this offer a great opportunity to practice your “if/then” scenario-making. If you have a thought like this then what will you do :)?
Use practical rather than moral judgments when facing unexpected events. Like forgetting to call Susan and Fred, for example. This is also useful in the case of unwelcome feedback, like hearing yourself say :Why do I always stink at stuff like this?”.Moral judgments – identifying events and feedback as “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “success” or “failure” – do not help us identify and act on what next needs doing to achieve our great idea. Identifying the practical specifics of what’s working and what could be improved upon does.
All the best with achieving your coming year’s batch of great ideas – I look forward to hearing how you get along and answering any questions you might have!
This article was inspired by two sources: a call from Global News researching how people can follow through on New Years resolutions, and friend of mine facing her own “Susan and Fred” New Years commitment challenge. If you’re interested in some of the science behind this article, check out Gabriele Oettingen’s Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation (2014). Happy 2015!
When we experience stress in our lives, our repertoire of actions tend to favor habitual reactions over considered responses. At the same time, our ways of thinking can narrow. Instead of meeting new challenges with open curiosity, we can increasingly want to get to the point, call a spade a spade, and get over it. When this happens, open-ended inquiries such as “What’s going on?” are replaced by leading questions like “What’s wrong?”
In stressful personal relationships, the first – and often only – question that often comes up is short and far from sweet: “What’s wrong with you?” If our stress is connected to our own actions – or lack thereof – this question can ricochet back on ourselves. “What’s wrong with me?” is probably one of the most counterproductive questions we can ask of ourselves. On one hand, it leads to an inhibiting cycle of self-abusive labeling along the lines of “I’m stupid / incompetent / lazy / bad / …”. On the other, it wastes valuable time and energy that could be better spent developing constructive solutions.
Layers of Blame
We are particularly susceptible to focusing on our own personality flaws when we find ourselves facing key life challenges – the loss of a job, the end of a close relationship, a breech of trust or values. And when we’re facing this kind of transition for the first time, the detrimental impact of focusing on flaws inhibits both our level of determination and sense of ability to act effectively.
One example where this effect might most easily be seen is in the layers of blame that build up between young adults and their parents when unfamiliar challenges arise for the first time.
Young adults who stumble in the process of moving out from the structured worlds of school, family and peers can find themselves facing a whole range of new challenges simultaneously. The resulting turn of their critical eye inwards can have a quick and devastating effect on their motivation, self-esteem and relationships with others.
In turn, parents of these young adults often find themselves following a similar path of self-blame. An initial “Where did I go wrong?” spawns litanies of self-incrimination around parenting choices and early family experiences. These self-accusations then alternate with equally unhelpful critiques aimed squarely at their distressed daughter or son; explosions of frustration leading to fresh layers of guilty self-recrimination.
Each of us has within ourselves the ability to break this unproductive habit of finger-pointing. One particularly effect approach involves letting go of our need to be an expert and instead become a facilitator. Posing open-ended questions, either to ourselves or others, can be a great way to start. Our focus shifts to appreciating what we do rather than asking leading questions intent on characterizing what we are. Facilitators ask questions like: “What positive personal skills and strengths are available right now?” “How might current resources like time and money be used more effectively?” “Where can we get help to build motivation, plan actions and provide accountability?”
Questions along this line open the way to options and opportunities that remain obscured as long as we stay stuck in habitual patterns of thinking. They are starting points for transforming difficult and painful experiences into positive, enriching occasions recognizing the inevitability and opportunities setbacks – big or small – offer for working more effectively both in ourselves and with others.
Following this new approach, we – and our relationship with others – change. No longer feeling the need to be experts on ourselves and others, we become facilitators connecting directly to the full range of unique abilities, constructive impulses and productive aims waiting to be discovered within each one of us.
Psychologist Neil Fiore is a performance and productivity expert whose book, The Now Habit, focuses on procrastination: its challenges, roots and solutions. In the chapter titled, How to Talk to Yourself, Fiore looks at the kind of motivational language we often use with ourselves and the problems it creates. Early on, he writes:
While it is common practice to try to motivate ourselves with statements such as “I have to do it” or “I should do it,” such statements loudly communicate to the mind, “I don’t want to do it, but I must force myself to do it for them.” The inherent self-alienation and subconscious message of such self-talk leads to inner conflict and procrastination.
The self-talk of “should” comes in for particular scrutiny for its detrimental effect in setting self-defeating goals while focusing on the negative aspects of immediate situations:
Repeated throughout your day, “should’s” become a counterproductive chant that programs the mind with the negative subliminal message “I’m bad. Where I am is bad. Life is bad. My level of progress is bad. Nothing is the way it should be.”
Another challenge arises with how we tend to perceive tasks we are about to begin. Focusing on the scale and importance of big projects can lead to particularly unwelcome results. As Fiore tells us, “The bigger and more overwhelming the project seems to you, the greater your tendency to procrastinate. Anxiety will replace the natural tendency toward motivation and curiosity as you overwhelm yourself with all the steps involved and the image of all that’s at stake on this one important project.”
The notion that each one of us has within ourselves multiple brains may, on first read, sound downright odd. My brain: it’s that thinking gizmo that keeps my ears apart, right?
In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt details four completely different brains each of us possess; not all of them residing above the neck. And he follows this up with a second whammy: contrary to Descartes assertion that thinking was his making, contemporary studies suggest that the seat of our true existential horsepower resides well beyond conscious control.
“To understand most important ideas in psychology”, writes Haidt, “you need to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. We assume that there is one person in each body, but in some ways we are each more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job, but who often find themselves working at cross purposes.”
Automatic processing, Haidt reveals, is often more powerful than any conscious effort we might apply. A particularly common example arises when, through conscious mental control, we attempt to change our thoughts by trying “not” to do something:
When controlled processing tries to influence thought (“Don’t think about a white bear!”), it sets up an explicit goal. And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved… Automatic processes continually check: “Am I not thinking about a white bear?” As the act of monitoring for the absence of the thought introduces the thought, the person must try even harder to divert consciousness. Automatic and controlled processes end up working at cross purposes, firing each other up to ever greater exertions. But because controlled processes tire quickly, eventually the inexhaustible automatic processes run unopposed, conjuring up herds of white bears. Thus, the attempt to remove an unpleasant thought can guarantee it a place on your frequent-play list of mental ruminations.
Another area in which our automatic processing plays a much bigger role than we might think is in the way we form judgments; particularly moral judgments (those “good/bad”, “right/wrong” pronouncements our inner critics are particularly fond of). Haidt asks us to consider what actually happens in a moral argument: “Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made.”
If you’d like to find out more, you’re in luck: Jonathan Haidt has made a number of the chapters from The Happiness Hypothesis available as free downloads on his web site. Happy reading!
In his book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secrets & Science of Happiness, Buddhist master and teacher Yongey Mingur Rinpoche tells us in no uncertain terms: “You’re not the limited, anxious person you think you are. Any trained Buddhist teacher can tell you with all the conviction of personal experience that, really, you’re the very heart of compassion, completely aware, and fully capable of achieving the greatest good, not only for yourself, but for everyone and everything you can imagine.”
The true nature of the mind, Rinpoche tells us, is immune to the vagaries of the neuronal sniping and gossip that so often blocks our appreciation of this fundamental vastness, openness and peaceful state. The incessant stream of thoughts and emotions babbling through our minds leaves little space to appreciate, let alone experience, the immeasurable value of these qualities.
With a wry twist, Rinpoche writes that our limited self-image is an example of how the natural mind is capable of producing anything, even ignorance of its own nature. From this perspective, our limited self-image can be appreciated, even be celebrated, as a concrete experience of awareness: “Whenever we feel fear, sadness, jealousy, desire, or any other emotion that contributes to her sense of bone or ability or weakness, we should give ourselves a nice pass on the back. We just experienced the unlimited nature of the mind.” These feelings of limitation, we are told, are habits that can be unlearned through the practice of awareness through mindful meditation.
In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, health psychologist and lecturer Kelly McGonigal looks at the effects of negative self-talk, anxiety and guilt on our willpower. Stress from these, it turns out, sets us up to crave relief in exactly the activities our bad feelings originate. As McGonigal writes, “Wanting to feel better is a healthy survival mechanism, as built into our human nature as the instinct to flee danger. But where we turn for relief matters. The promise of reward … does not always mean that we will feel good. More often, the things we turn to for relief end up turning on us.”
Know anyone who, in times of stress, turns to eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the web, or playing video games? These are the exactly the kinds of come-back-to-bite-you sources of relief McGonigal means.
Negative self-talk, McGonigal tells us, is an essential cog in the mental machinery that leads us to repeat activities and habits we’d much rather leave behind. A particularly nefarious twist on this self-defeating cycle comes with the belief many of us hold that we need our critical self talk to keep ourselves motivated. If you’re someone who believes you’re less likely to get anything done if you’re not hard on yourself, McGonigal has a surprise for you:
If you think that the key to greater willpower is being harder on yourself, you are not alone. But you are wrong. Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power.
McGonigal tells us that one way to break this self-defeating cycle is to pay special attention to how you handle a willpower failure. “Crucially, it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there is no way out except to keep going.” Developing skills and strategies to overcome the guilt and self recrimination that comes with negative self-talk offers an effective exit ramp from this negative cycle to paths; an exit ramp to more preferable self-talk habits – and results.
How to manage our conflicting thoughts, beliefs and goals?
The question’s been with us from at least the time of Homer. In tethering Ulysses to his mast so as to hear the song of the Sirens and live to tell the tale, Homer gave us one of our oldest examples of strategic action being taken in the face of an impending willpower meltdown. The idea that our ability to overcome our inner battles is a matter of having the right stuff – the guts, gumption and get-up-and-go to get things done – remains powerful today. How to self-manage? To follow in Homer’s footsteps: it’s a matter of willpower.
A second approach to our self-management challenge comes to us from a century or two after Homer, when Siddhārtha Gautama identified our inner dialogue as the key impediment to a very different kind of problem: leading a suffering-free life. Rather than striving to bolster bull-headed resolve, the Buddhist tradition offers practices for taming that constant stream of inner observations, commentaries and judgments clouding our attention to the here and now. Meditation – the practice of choice in this approach – begins with a simple premise: we already have within ourselves all it takes to lead a life of full-hearted compassion and contentment every single moment of every single day. It’s a matter of awareness.
Having an informed appreciation of where our conflicting thought, beliefs and goals originate – knowledge of our innate constitution – is a third approach that has been advanced over the centuries from the likes of Plato and Ovid through to Montaigne and Freud. Basic to this self-knowledge is the insight that we host within ourselves a bevy of semi-autonomous agents, each with its individual priorities and agendas.
Plato used the metaphor of a chariot drawn by two horses to represent his concept of the self: the noble steed on the right being the epitome of honour, modesty and self-control; the crooked nag on the left given to wild boasts, indecency and base desires. Similarly, Freud’s model described the ongoing tension between the id (the desirous self), the ego (the rational self) and the superego (the conscientious self) – each part entangled in a non-stop contest to hold sway over the others.
Recent research in neuroscience and psychology confirms that we do indeed have within ourselves multiple systems for assessing and responding to the challenges we face, some of which inevitably clash from time to time. How, according to this approach, do we begin coming to grips with our inner dissension? It’s a matter of knowledge.
Language has been put forward as yet a fourth approach pointing to the inner conflicts created by our own contradictory beliefs, rationalizations, goals and habits as sources of our inner discontent. As social animals, we share common perspectives and frames of reference with our families, friends, communities and cultures. We strive, as far as possible, to “make sense” and “be understood”, or even to be “normal”. At the same time, we can entertain ideas and intentions that transgress the bounds of our commonalities – indeed our culture itself will inevitably include contradictory beliefs, tenets and values that we must each work out for ourselves.
What concepts and structures do you draw upon to formulate your thoughts and justify your actions? The references you use to frame your world make all the difference: it’s a matter of language.
4 Paths – Which to Follow?
We can all too easily see ourselves as living in an either/or universe. Either it’s this or it’s that. When coming to grips with our inner conflicts, is it a matter of willpower, awareness, knowledge or language? If we take a step back, we can reformulate this question: What if it’s a matter of willpower and awareness and knowledge and language – and perhaps who-knows-what-else to boot?
The longevity of willpower, awareness, knowledge and language as ways to manage ourselves in times of stress suggests that each, in its own way, offers a particular advantage for moving forward. One possibility might be that each is best suited to a particular context or set of circumstances. Could the inner-dialogue challenges faced in mid-action – as in the case of Ulysses – be sufficiently different from the demands interrupting a Buddhist initiate on the path to developing awareness to merit its own management strategy? Might someone dealing with an unwelcome reaction from beyond the depths of conscious control possibly benefit from yet another approach? And what about a person juggling the pros and cons of conflicting values and frames of reference to achieve a sound and balanced judgement?
Rather than looking for a one-size-fits-all solution, perhaps the first step in managing our conflicting thoughts, beliefs and goals might come in considering the contexts in which inner challenges arise – and the assumptions we hold about them. Perhaps, by reconsidering how we handle inner conflict, we can discover a pathway to self-appreciation on a whole new level.
For many of us, one of the more challenging tasks we face comes in communicating constructively with those we care about after they’ve said or done something we find offensive. A trusted colleague who cavalierly blows off a critical business commitment. A close friend who spills personal confidences in front of casual acquaintances. Your spouse booking you for social engagements without checking in first. A family member who broadsides you with blistering character judgments.
In situations like these, immediate reactions vary. We might take the “eye for an eye” approach and go for the jugular. Or maybe we close down and withdraw, leaving the injury simmering in a spite-filled afterlife of its own. Or perhaps we’re more inclined to turn on the deep freeze and deliver an icy evaluation specifying the offender’s flaws, shortcomings and deficiencies in crystalline detail. Unfortunately, all these strategies are pretty well guaranteed to drive a wedge between the two of you: one of you is going to be the winner; the other the loser. Worse, not one of these reactions comes close as an effective approach for leading positive change in others.
We give ourselves a tremendous advantage in responding to difficult situations when we remember that our ultimate goal isn’t to exact revenge, it’s to inspire change. One of the most effective ways to inspire change is to provide opportunities for those around you to directly experience the skills and behaviours you’d like to see them practicing. “Be” – to paraphrase the bumper sticker – “the change you want”.
Think of this approach as a twist on the age-old “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Behavioural research and day-to-day experience show consistent results. When we expect cooperation from someone we ourselves are unwilling to support, the results will be spectacularly unproductive. Anticipating reciprocation from someone who has recently benefited from our own attentive cooperation stands a significantly better chance of success.
Perhaps the most basic way to successfully leading change in others is to be clear in ourselves on the destination we’re doing the leading towards. What specifically is the outcome we want this process of change to produce?
Identifying the positive results we want can be surprisingly difficult. We can be so busy expressing our emotional response that we lose focus of the underlying principle or value we believe has been violated. Even when we stop and shift our focus, expressing our expectations clearly and coherently can be a daunting task. We find ourselves pointing fingers at others for not living up to standards which we ourselves are incapable of putting into words.
Check out for yourself how clear you really are on your expectations of others. Think of a recent experience in which someone close to you failed to live up to your expectations, either in words or action. Sit down and write one sentence clearly stating the basic, uncontroversial principle or value you hold that was breached: the fundamental principle or value you want to ensure is respected in the future. And beware of taking the shortcut of doing this exercise in your head: our imagination is superbly adept at convincing us we’re able to do things that are not necessarily so.
Give yourself the time to find the right words and you’ve got the beginning of what might just turn out to be a truly transformational conversation.