Once, I stood and looked out a window down onto a city street. I watched lazily as cars, bikers and people all milled about, going about their various tasks. But then, something caught my eye.
I noticed a woman who, as she came to a stop at a sign, kept one hand on the wheel, while with the other, she buckled her seat belt. This was not the first time I’d seen this and the other times I did, I’d assumed that people who would only buckle themselves up after they started driving were few and far between.
But after seeing this woman, I began to wonder if this might be a common habit for more people than I first thought.
This behavior, while obviously not serious offense (at least in slow, mild conditions) is emblematic of an trap we can all fall into without realizing it.
This is the trap of doing what’s convenient over what’s important.
In the example above, most likely the woman was late for something and so decided to begin driving her car, and then put on her seat belt. While it turned out to be a harmless decision, the habit it reinforces can be dangerous.
If we begin to put convenience before importance, simply because it’s easier, then one day, that’ll hurt us.
Now before we can tell if we’re falling into this trap, we need to zero in on two things.
How we respond to stress
The guiding principle behind this discussion is the truth that if we practice being mindful of what’s small in our lives, we will have ingrained habits which will see us through when the big moments come.
So let’s begin by examining how to find what’s important…
All too often, we can get hypnotized by the addictive hum of constant action. Completing one thing, then moving on to the next in an endless succession of tasks to accomplish. I call this “Next thing-ism”. When we’re in this mode, it’s particularly easily to lose sight of what our bigger priorities are.
It sounds silly, but it’s true. Switching our minds to autopilot and just doing the next thing, while useful sometimes, can be a surefire way to lose our bearings.
So to reorient ourselves we first must jump off the hamster wheel. Shifting back from a ‘human doing’, to a ‘human being’.
Unless accustomed to it, stopping like this can feel quite uncomfortable. But once the discomfort clears, a deep peace can be found.
And inside this peace, you are now able to investigate the hidden decision drivers beneath the surface.
Here’s two ways to you started:
1. Ask yourself “What do I really want here?”
We are all driven by emotional needs, most of which are unconscious. But we’ll never find them unless we stop long enough to actually feel them. So once you settle, simply sit with this question and see what happens. The first answers you think of are probably going be tactical (e.g “I want to do my thing” or “I want to fix this problem” etc.) The deeper answers that come to mind are most likely going to be emotional needs (e.g. “I want to feel accepted” or “I want to feel needed” etc.) Do not judge anything you may feel. Merely witness it.
2. Ask yourself “Is what I’m doing the best way to get what I want?”
Once you have a better grasp on what might be driving you, then you can move on to figuring out if you’re meeting this need wholesomely. In other words, is what you’re doing the best way to accomplish your (true) goal?
Say for example, you realize that you’re always striving to be the person everybody turns to to solve problems. You are the problem-solver. Underneath that, you see that you might be attempting to be the problem solver because of a need for connection or recognition. Now you can see if your behavior is the best way to fulfill that need.
Asking these 2 questions is a great way of discovering what our emotional priorities are. And as emotional priorities drive our lives, being aware and present to them is critical for a healthy life.
The second part of this equation is discovering what our habitual response to stress is…
This is how we behave when we are pressured to act. How do we do it? Some people rush (like me). Others, clam up. Some might become aggressive. To find out what you do, pause (yes, pause again!) and recall a time when you were pretty fired up. Try to recall what emotion was propelling you. The drive to escape? To attack? To freeze?
Deep down, you probably already know what you do under pressure. The key here is to shine light that habit and see if it’s serving you.
(feel free to come back and finish this article in 10 years by the way! Doing deep psychological work like this takes both time and endurance)
Once you have a clearer picture of your patterns when stressed, we can put it all together! You know a little bit better what’s emotionally driving you and now you know how you react when the sh!t hits the fan.
The next step is to create a simple yet extraordinarily powerful 8 letter word: protocol.
Create a protocol for yourself so that you have something to hold onto when you get squeezed by life. This is what will prevent you from taking shortcuts for the sake of convenience. In tough moments, you can fall back on these protocols and use them to help you stay tethered to what ultimately matters in your situation.
These protocols don’t need to be complex. Far from it!
The simpler, the better.
Nobody remembers much when they’re stressed anyway, particularly not tips for being your best self.
An example of a protocol for when you’re rushing, might be:
1. Take 2 breaths
2. Remember what the long-term goal is
3. Do the next productive thing
It can be anything really, so long as you commit to following it when pressured to fall into the old responses again.
Be diligent with your protocol; it’s not easy to re-write scripts you’ve practiced for years, but persist! Even if you fall down in the mud, sit up (maybe laugh a little) then try again.
Remember, if it was easy to know what’s really driving you, to make sure you’re pursuing the most wholesome way of getting there and to follow your protocol when all you want to do is resort to comfortable old patterns, then road-rage would be a thing of the past!
So next time you’re pressured, try to buckle your “seat belt”, before you start “driving”, make sure you’re aware of where you’re really headed and take the next productive step in that direction.
Here’s a set of practical challenges that you can do today, to improve the items discussed in this article:
- Set a theme for your day. Simply setting a clear and conscious intention for your day gives you a north star to orient to. This can be a more practical step to building the habit of building awareness of the higher goals you have. Especially if you aren’t quite clear on what your “highest” goal in life is just yet, simply focusing on a daily theme will help you practice aligning with something you’re working toward.
- See if you can forecast a stress response from yourself earlier and earlier in advance. The sooner you realize you’re headed for one of your old habits, the better chance you have of redirecting that momentum. The key is to recognize the symptoms sooner. Soon enough, you’ll be able to act productively to what you normally would have reacted poorly to. And the only way to get better at this skill is by practicing it. So start today!
Written by Judah Beck