Whatever you’re doing this Friday, wherever you’re going or whatever box you’re checking, I invite you to take a moment, just now, and stop doing it at all.
My coach introduced me to a leadership tool called the ACT matrix, adopted from a psychotherapy discipline called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. We were discussing a specific situation in which I, despite my intention to be open, vulnerable and inspirational, found myself arguing an irrelevant point to the death after the person I was talking to challenged me ("how dare they challenge me, the smartest guy in the room?" my ego said. "I'll show them how right I am." and I was off debating the specific words that were said, to the death, rather than actually solving the problem).
We plotted the scenario on the matrix above, which immediately brought consciousness to a situation in which I had previously been acting automatically. Like magic, just by seeing the machinery that was running my behavior its effect lessened and I was able to address the situation more consciously.
Here's how you use it.
First, notice yourself. The specific thoughts you're thinking or actions you're taking. In my case it was arguing a stupid point that was irrelevant to, and actually distracting from, my goals in the conversation.
Then, plot the action or thought on the graph above based on whether you're in your head or in the world, and whether you're leaning in or out of your experience.
Actions will be plotted on the right side, and thoughts on the left.
"Towards moves" (how you are being when you're fully open to all experience of the world) plotted on the top and "away moves" (how you are being when you're protecting yourself, acting out of a need to look good or avoid being hurt) plotted on the bottom.
Using the matrix, objectively outline the machinery driving the situation.
Hooks drive egoic behaviors; values & purpose drive conscious behaviors. Reductively, if you're on the bottom, you're thinking/acting out of ego, if you're on the top, out of consciousness.
Inner states drive actions, so to change your action you must create a new inner state.
In my case, the first step was to recognize that my ego’s need to be viewed as smart had been hooked when I was challenged. Once I noticed that it was a triggered automatic reaction, it was easier to simply stop arguing, re-presence myself to my commitments, and lean into the situation with my full self.
It's really quite remarkable how plotting your thought=>action pattern on the graph can objectify the process, demystify it a bit, and effectively unhook you from unhelpful patterns and facilitate conscious behavior.
Pick a challenging situation in which you recently found yourself. A situation that mattered to your business or your life.
What's going on inside you during that situation (bottom left)?
When you get hooked or start pushing away that feeling, what do you do (bottom right)?
What are the impacts of that behavior? Short term / long term?
What would you do if you had acted in the way you would have liked to (top right)?
What would the impacts of that behavior be? Short term / long term?
What values would that behavior represent (top left)?
Much better than doing all that work (and more effective in the long run) is letting go of ego defenses in the first place. Better to develop the habits that will support you in becoming a conscious leader beforehand, so that by the time you get triggered it's second nature to breathe, hit the reset button and open yourself to your purpose and the world.
We often relate to our habits as a black box of personality, but they're changeable with effort. And like anything else, there's an optimal way to change a habit and a whole bunch of hard(er) ways. Enter Chris Sparks, executive coach and former World Poker Tour pro, who broke down how habits work on Twitter, including a number of really insightful nuggets like:
Conscious action is only the tip of the iceberg. 45% of reported (!) actions are performed automatically, below the surface of consciousness. We call these habits.
We infer our values, beliefs, and personality traits from our past actions. Our identity is constructed from this (unreliable) historical record. What we did yesterday shapes who we think we are today.
No habit occurs in a vacuum. Actions taken today alter the likelihood of all future actions. If I eat a cookie today, I become more likely to eat a cookie each time I find myself in a similar context. Every action feeds back into the system, echoing into eternity.
Everything we can possibly do to help our people, our companies and ourselves happens in the present moment. But acting in accordance with our deepest purpose mustn't always require conscious effort and a matrix. Every time we act consciously, generating our actions from our deepest purpose, it reinforces a habit which makes doing so progressively easier in all future moments.
Create your habits consciously, and watch life change.
Once, as I hesitated to move on a project, a mentor of mine told me not to "wait until all the lights are green without leaving the garage." He also told me that "you can't steer a parked car." He liked cars, but he was also right.
As humans our tendency to want to know the result of our efforts before we begin is perhaps the leading cause of unfulfilled promise. I was excited to read this week about a great related case study. Brandon Stanton started taking pictures of people and posting them online with little strategy apart from a desire to take pictures for a living. He didn't architect a way to do that, he just started taking pictures. I won't spoil the process, but in the midst of taking pictures, in the midst of acting, inspiration struck and he now runs a photoblog called Humans of New York that reaches 30mm people across the globe.
Do the work, and inspiration will come. Wait, and inspiration will too.
In addition to daily meditation, one of the most profoundly impactful habits I've run across is called "Morning Pages," which is adopted from The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron.
TL;DR: every morning first thing, write, with a pen and paper, three full pages. Don't worry about what you write, just don't stop until you've filled three pages.
If you simply stop reading and do this for a month, you’ll be stunned by the results to your creative output.
It functions in two ways: First, as a sort of release valve for all the random mental crap I wake up with. I can get that out of my head and find some peace to start my day. And second, it teaches you to rest on the page, or to become comfortable creating when you don't yet know what you're creating. It's practicing driving the car when you can't even see the traffic lights.
Since starting the practice I've been more productive than I can remember.
A reader sent me a link to an article this week (thank you, John!), in which I found a kindred spirit. Former Lieutenant Governor of Washington State and rising political star Cyrus Habib decided to step away and join the Society of Jesus, the largest order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church.
Why? Why step away when you're winning the game? People have asked me a version of the same question, but I like Cyrus's answer:
"It's like the reward for winning the pie-eating competition is just more pie."
I don't see myself joining a religious order anytime soon, but I get the logic. Life is too short, and the sacrifices required are too steep, to dedicate ones life to pursuing the mirage of "Success."
We are only here once, and there is too much important work that needs doing.
If not you, who?
If not now, when?
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