Think of a time you reacted blindly. Did it go well?
How do you feel about leaders who react without thinking or intuition?
You don’t want to react blindly—the opposite of leadership, since it means you’re reacting to someone else, or unpredictable events in your environment, which I call blowing in the breeze.
Most people understand the term “reactive” vaguely, so they can’t do much about it. I find visualizing complex ideas helps me understand them.
Context: at any moment many things in your environment, body, and mind call for your attention and create motivations. You feel hunger and thirst, your boss yells at you, your kids yell for your attention, you remember you have to do your taxes, you want to go to the gym, and so on.
Motivations have different properties. The relevant one for us now is the motivation’s intensity—how strongly it motivates you to act.
Visualizing your motivations’ intensity
Imagine you listed all the emotions you felt at a given moment, rated how intense each felt, and graphed them by intensity. You’d get a graph like this, showing only a dozen or so motivations.
This graph implies at this moment you feel strongly motivated to walk your dog, about half as strong that you want to go to the gym and respond to your boss yelling, and mildly bored or affected by that pain in your knee.
The intensities change every moment, so soon after, they might look like this.
in which the intensities all changed, if you didn’t notice, which is why I didn’t order them by intensity. Specifically, it shows you later don’t feel as strongly that you feel motivated to walk the dog. Maybe Rover stopped nagging you and went to lie down.
So taking time into account and not labeling each emotion, your emotions look like this.
Visualizing awareness and reactivity
Your body signals to you that it wants water through thirst, but you don’t feel thirsty non-stop. Sometimes you don’t feel thirsty at all—then the motivation is below your threshold of conscious awareness. You could become conscious of you thirst by noticing dryness in your mouth, seeing a glass of water, my writing about it, or other environmental cues.
At any moment, you notice some motivations and don’t notice others, which I illustrate like this of a person consciously aware of and reacting to three motivations—going to the gym, walking the dog, and working on a report due.
Notice that in this case three motivations tower over all the rest. You could imagine that if at that moment the person’s partner is nagging them to get in better shape, the dog is barking, and the report is due in an hour, their mind will put everything else in the background. You don’t always have only a few things more intense than everything else. When you don’t, your threshold picks up more motivations.
The graph shows what happens a lot when you don’t have a few urgent things: your threshold for awareness of your motivations lowers, so you pick up on more motivations. It shows someone consciously aware of eight motivations, giving them greater freedom to choose among them if they conflict.
Even improving that awareness doesn’t help if a motivation of low intensity is still very important. People who are busy all the time with urgent things may never get to important things. If they’re lucky, the urgent things are also the important things, but you can’t count on that. People who live their whole lives that way look back at times like retirement and wonder if they achieved anything important.
The beginning of freedom and escape from reactivity
A major step away from reactivity and toward freedom starts by recognizing the difference between awareness and reacting. You probably did, though not everyone does. You can be aware of something without feeling compelled to act on it.
The next three graphs show what happens when you separate awareness from feeling compelled to act on something. The first graph shows the thresholds as distinct.
Why do I say this distinction create freedom? Because it enables you to be aware of something without acting on it, as the next graph shows. Separating awareness of motivations from compulsion to act on them lets you separate them. Then you can choose more thoughtfully what you act on.
Raising your threshold for what you have to act on comes with practice. I consider it a skill. The next graph shows someone with the freedom to choose what to act on thoughtfully, not out of blind compulsion.
This graph illustrates increasing awareness—lowering the threshold of what you consciously observe. Compared to the graph above, it shows someone aware of more motivations, meaning more freedom to choose how to behave.
The lower you can move your awareness threshold and the higher you move your threshold where you feel compelled to respond, the freer you are to act among more diverse choices and the more likely you can act one what is important to you, not just what it urgent or what motivation feels intense. Who wouldn’t prefer living like the graph below compared to all the above?
I call this mental freedom.
Follow the rest of this post tomorrow, “Visualizing reactivity and freedom, part 2: how to improve“
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On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees