If you don’t have resources for self-awareness, you don’t have resources for anything

I had a call with a member of the Thinking Lab the other day. He was concerned that he was reverting to some old behavior. He had changed jobs, and as a result he was very busy ramping up his knowledge and activity in the new position.

He said it had occurred to him that he needed the self-awareness tools he had learned, which made a huge difference in his motivation, effectiveness, and clarity. But he felt like he didn’t have time to use them. He was scheduled without breaks from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

He noticed that old ways seemed to be taking over–he was functioning more on a secondhanded premise and a duty premise. He was feeling pressured to go along with other people rather than stick to his independent judgment. He was “having to” just do the work, no matter what. He was concerned about this–when would the old duty premises and secondhandedness go away?

Two points are needed to put this in perspective: First, this is a common problem, not idiosyncratic to him. Second, it is a sign of success in his changing his premises that he could be this self-aware of the meta-problem.

Having said that, there is a mistaken assumption here–the idea that eventually he will never be pulled to go by duty or to go along with what others think. These are default conditions–and they will always be default conditions. This is not because people are inherently bad, or there is something wrong with him, or it’s impossible to change your premises. This is because, it’s not the action that is a problem per se, it’s that you make the decision to take the action that is a problem.

When you go by duty, you do something because you feel you have to, without having addressed contrary motivation. For example, you clear your email because you can’t stand all of those unread messages piling up–you just feel you have to, even though maybe you’re worried this will mess up your creative work. You shut out that feeling and “just do it.”

If you hold the context and address the contrary motivation, you can then find a step to take that does not require shutting down your mind. Sometimes it is exactly the same step you would have taken. For example, although email is a creativity killer, so is total distraction. Sometimes I make a conscious decision to clear email before creative work, because it’s clear that I won’t be able to concentrate anyway. There is a world of difference in how events unfold when you take an action by conscious choice rather than you are driven to take the same action. The only difference is whether you took the time to actively assess the conflict, or you short-circuited the process and chose based on the strongest feeling.

Similarly, sometimes you go along with another person’s opinion, and sometimes you won’t. The error of secondhandedness is taking the other person’s opinions as the standard, rather than making an objective decision yourself. Going along with the other person is one of the options that you validly should consider when you are engaged in some cooperative activity. If you are passive, it is often the choice, because the other person has been working to persuade you–to activate all of the reasons for going along. If you have not taken the time to activate the full context, of course you will go along with him.

In other words, if you are not self-aware, you will wind up making choices based on duty or secondhandedness, just by the logic of the situation.

Which brings us back to the presenting problem: My client felt he was too busy to take the time to make the decisions in a self-aware way.

Actually, there are three legitimate reasons you might feel you can’t take the steps to be self-aware: you’re overloaded, you’re tired, or you’re tense.

Self-awareness uses specific mental resources.

First of all, it takes mental “crow” space. If you are so overloaded you can’t think straight, you simply do not have the mental capacity for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental capacity for whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to reduce the overload. Here, paper is your friend: make a list, do thinking on paper, organize your ideas. Do something to get the ideas out of your head and in front of you in writing so that you can get an overview and think about issues in crow-friendly bites.

Once you’ve cleared your crow, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Second, it takes energy to be self-aware. If you are tired, you will find the prospect of initiating self-awareness to be exhausting. You simply do not have the mental energy for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental energy for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to refuel. Music and mild exercise are your friends here: Making music, listening to music, taking a brisk walk–these can re-energize you. If these don’t do the trick, you may literally need sleep.

Once you’ve regained your energy, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Third, it takes access to your subconscious to be self-aware. If you are tense, or feeling pressured, you are suppressing feelings. Tensing your body is how you block awareness of feelings and other distractions. Saying “no, I can’t think about that” is the mental equivalent. If you are tensed up or feeling pressured, you simply do not have the free access to your subconscious databanks that you need for self-awareness. On the other hand, you don’t have the free access to your subconscious databanks for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to undo the tension. For this, I use the Alexander Technique and breathing techniques. Stretching and body relaxation techniques can also help. If these don’t do the trick, you may need a bath or a massage.

Once you’ve regained free access to your subconscious, you will instantly become overloaded. Nobody tenses up to keep distractions at bay unless there are a lot of distractions. Some of them are likely emotionally charged. Your best option is to do some kind of core dump of the issues on your mind. If they are emotional, you may need to do some introspection to turn the feelings into words in order to get back to a neutral state.

Once you are in a neutral state, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

The bottom line: there will be times that you don’t have the mental resources for self-awareness. Treat this as a huge warning bell. It means you don’t have the mental resources for any significant work. Your urgent need is to regain the mental resources.

This fact–that you have been overloaded, fatigued, or pressured by the task–then needs to be factored into your choice of next step. This means that you have been working at the limits of your capacity. That is a prescription for struggle. You probably need to adjust your plan so that you can put in a sustainable effort. The way to do that is to make a self-aware choice of what your priority is right now.

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