Rigidity To Agility
Traditional self-help tends to see change in terms of lofty goals and total transformation, but research actually supports the opposite view: that small, deliberate tweaks infused with your values can make a huge difference in your life. This is especially true when we tweak the routine and habitual parts of life, which, through daily repetition, then afford tremendous leverage for change.
A world-class gymnast makes difficult moves look effortless through her agility and the well-developed muscles of her torso—her core. When something throws her off-balance, her core helps her correct. But to compete at the highest level, she has to keep pushing beyond her comfort zone to attempt increasingly difficult moves. We, too, need to find the perfect balance between challenge and competence so we’re neither complacent nor overwhelmed but are instead excited, enthusiastic, and invigorated by challenges.
The businesswoman Sarah Blakely, the founder of Spanx shapewear and at one time the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, describes how at the dinner table each evening her father would say, “So, tell me how you failed today.” The question wasn’t designed to demoralize her. Instead, her father meant to encourage his children to push the limits; it was okay—even admirable—to stumble when trying something new and difficult.
The ultimate goal of emotional agility is to keep a sense of challenge and growth alive and well throughout your life.
The ancient Greek master of paradox, Heraclitus, said that you can never step into the same river twice, meaning that the world is constantly changing and thus always presenting us with new opportunities and situations. To make the most of it, we must continually break down old categories and formulate new ones. The freshest and most interesting solutions often come when we embrace “the beginner’s mind,” approaching novel experiences with fresh eyes. This is a cornerstone of emotional agility.
A generation or two ago, society was pretty set on what constituted “male activities” and “female activities.” Now, you could get punched in the nose for assuming such a rigid distinction. Similarly, some of us tend to pigeonhole ourselves, failing to recognize our own worth as an individual, seeing ourselves narrowly and exclusively as a rich person, or a fat person, or a geek, or a jock. We learned a long time ago that the self-categorization of “Mr. Johnson’s wife” was a limiting and losing proposition. But so is “CEO,” or “man among men,” or “smartest kid in the class,” or even “Super Bowl quarterback.” Things change. We need flexibility to ensure that we can change too.
Emotional agility means being aware and accepting of all your emotions, even learning from the most difficult ones. It also means getting beyond conditioned or preprogrammed cognitive and emotional responses (your hooks) to live in the moment with a clear reading of present circumstances, respond appropriately, and then act in alignment with your deepest values.
Trying To Unhook: Good News About Bad Moods
While it’s rarely fun to be in a bad mood, and it’s certainly not healthy to constantly stew in negative emotions, here’s what experiences of sadness, anger, guilt, or fear can do:
- Help us form arguments. We’re more likely to use concrete and tangible information, be more attuned to the situation at hand, and be less prone to making judgment errors and distortions, all of which lends an aura of expertise and authority that can make us more persuasive as writers and speakers.
- Improve memory. One study found that shoppers remembered significantly more information about the interior of a store on cold, gloomy days when they were not feeling so exuberant than they did on sunny and warm days when life felt like a breeze. Research also shows that when we’re in a not-so-good mood, we’re less likely to inadvertently corrupt our memories by incorporating later, misleading information.
- Encourage perseverance. After all, when you already feel great, why push yourself? On academic tests, an individual in a more somber mood will try to answer more questions—and get more of them right—than he or she will when feeling cheerful. It might actually be a good idea, then, for your college-bound son or daughter to be in a slight funk when it’s time to take the SAT.
- Make us more polite and attentive. People in less exuberant moments are more cautious and considered, and more likely to engage in nonconscious social mimicry (in which we mirror another person’s gestures and speech without knowing it), a behavior that increases social bonding. When we’re feeling great, we’re much more assertive, which often means we’re focused more on me, me, me and might ignore what others have to offer or are going through.
- Encourage generosity. Those in negative moods pay more attention to fairness, and are more apt to reject unfair offers.
- Make us less prone to confirmation bias. In a study of people with strong political opinions, those who were angry chose to read more articles that disagreed with their positions, instead of practicing confirmation bias, the common tendency to seek out information that supports what we already believe to be true. After exploring these contrary views, they were more willing to change their minds. It seems that anger produces a “nail the opposition” mentality that encourages us to explore what the other guy has to say in order to tear it apart, ironically leaving the door open to being persuaded.
Emotional agility means having any number of troubling thoughts or emotions and still managing to act in a way that serves how you most want to live. That’s what it means to step out and off the hook.
See yourself as being in it for the long haul and on a path of continuous growth. Absolutist statements drawn from old stories (“I’m bad at public speaking” or “I suck at sports”) are just those—stories. They are not your destiny.
In Zen Buddhism it’s common practice to contemplate paradoxes such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” There are probably paradoxes from your own life that you could chew on in a Zenlike fashion: You may love and loathe your hometown, your family, or your body. You can feel that you’re both the victim and the person responsible for a relationship breakdown. Embracing and accepting these seeming contradictions improves your tolerance for uncertainty.
Give a laugh
Humor can be a stepping-out practice because it forces you to see new possibilities. As long as you aren’t using humor to mask genuine pain (bottling), finding something funny about yourself or your circumstances can help you accept and then create distance from it.
Change your point of view
Try to consider your problem from the perspective of someone else—your dentist, perhaps, your child, or even your dog.
Call it out
Anytime you get hooked, identify that thought for what it is (a thought) and that emotion for what it is (an emotion). You can do this by introducing the language “I’m having the thought that . . .” or “I am having the emotion that . . .” Remember you have no obligation to accept your thoughts’ or emotions’ opinions, much less act on their advice. (This, by the way, is my go-to stepping-out hack. It’s easy to do on the fly or when you’re in the midst of a difficult interaction.)
Talk to yourself in the third person
This strategy allows you to transcend your egocentric viewpoint and regulate your reaction
We may not be able to switch our behavior simply by checking a box, but we can still apply the concept of choice architecture to our own lives. In doing so, we prime ourselves to form the good habits that will bring us closer to our goals.
Here are some more tweaks you can make to alter the architecture of your choices.
Switch up your environment so that when you’re hungry, tired, stressed, or rushed, the choice most aligned with your values is also the easiest.
Let’s say that you want to drop a few pounds. Studies show that people tend to eat 90 to 97 percent of what is on their plate, regardless of the size of the plate. So use smaller plates. Based on that math, a plate that’s 10 percent smaller should reduce food intake by 10 percent
Add a new behavior onto an existing habit.
Want to create opportunities for more face-to-face time with your team at work? Make your daily mid-afternoon coffee run a group effort and use it as quality connecting time.
You ease the creation of a new behavior by piggybacking it on an existing habit, meaning you don’t have to make a major adjustment to your routine.
Anticipate obstacles and prepare for them with “if-then” strategies.
Let’s say you’ve had a fight with your boyfriend and want to smooth things over. You know you both have a tendency to lose your temper when things get tense, but that yelling at each other makes you both miserable, and you sometimes say things you regret. You want to resolve the situation, not continue as you have in the past.
Before you even talk to your boyfriend, you can commit to the idea that if he raises Explosive Topic X, then you’ll hear him out with an open mind.
The obstacle course
Offset a positive vision with thoughts of potential challenges.
It’s important to believe that you can achieve your goal, but you also need to pay attention to the obstacles most likely to get in the way. This is called mental contrasting.
In a recent study on healthful eating and exercise, people who practiced this mental contrasting were working out twice as long each week and eating considerably more vegetables four months down the road than those in the control group. Mental contrasting has been shown to help people recover more quickly from chronic back pain, find more satisfaction in relationships, get better grades, and better manage workplace stress.
A mind that is open to growth and change is a hub from which values and goals can be brought to life and realized. There is tremendous empowerment in appointing yourself the agent of your life—in taking ownership of your own development, career, creative spirit, work, and connections.
Tweaking your mindset, motivation, and habits is about turning your heart toward the fluidity of the world, rather than planting your feet on its stability. It’s bringing a playful sense of curiosity, experimentation, and what-ifs to bear in the service of living. It’s setting aside ideas about “what you will become” (results, goals, and outcomes) and engaging freely with the process and journey, taking life moment by moment, habit by habit, and one step at a time.