Do you know how your thermostat works? Many people think they do, but I'm not so sure. Too many of them do things that tell me they really don't. To describe it in its most basic parts, your thermostat is a simple on/off switch artfully connected to a thermometer.
When you pull the cover off an older thermostat, you'll probably see a coil of metal that looks like a spring with a glass capsule with a ball of mercury inside on top. Inside the capsule there are also pins connected to wires out it's back. The thermometer is the metal coil. It's made out of one kind of metal on one side and different kind of metal on the other.
As the coil gets hotter or colder the two metals expand and contract different amounts, so the coil itself starts to unwind or rewind a little bit. This changes the tilt of the glass capsule which is the switch part. When the capsule tilts far enough back, the mercury ball rolls, flows over the pins, the switch turns on and your heater or air conditioner starts.
As the system runs and your room gets warmer or cooler, the thermometer coil unwinds or rewinds a little bit again and eventually the capsule tilts the other way, the mercury ball rolls to the other side and the switch turns off and the heat or air conditioning stops.
Sounds pretty simple, so what do I frequently see people doing that tells me they don't really get it? When they come into a room that hasn't had the A/C or heat on for a while, they immediately and dramatically push the thermostat setting way up or way down as if the thermostat is a gas pedal or a faucet. It's not. It's either on or off. The only thing they succeed in doing is making the system run a lot longer and then make it too hot or too cold. It doesn't make it run any faster. It doesn't work that way.
I've brought this up because understanding the loops and cycles in our lives makes it a lot easier to make things work more like you want them to or to make them easier to get along with. Loops and cycles are all about feedback. Something gets communicated from one part of the system to another and this makes something happen which communicates something back to other parts of the system again.
One of the problems with communication in a system is that when one part of the system puts something out there, it doesn't necessarily mean the other parts are getting it or that they will react “appropriately.” We often have problems with both. We don't hear or receive what we need to or we do something that doesn't work or can't help.
This brings me to the biggest loop in your life: The Change Loop, which you can see in the diagram below. It has four parts: Awareness, Thinking, Choice and Action. These roughly correspond to the parts of your thermostat and equipment it's connected to. Awareness is like the thermometer coil which “hears” the temperature. The coil also does the system's Thinking as it unwinds or rewinds. The mercury switch makes the Choices and the HVAC unit does the Action part of heating or cooling.
Let's take a better look at these four parts of the loop in turn.
Awareness is at the top of the loop for the simple reason that without it the rest of the loop is meaningless. If you aren't aware of something you can't think about, make choices with it in mind or take action to do anything with it or about it. You're out of the loop and it can seem like things happen out of nowhere or for no reason at all. It's just fate, karma or your bad luck. If some part of your life is here, it's time to start looking inside yourself and all around you harder as well as ask yourself some good questions.
What else can help improve awareness? Slowing down. Getting a better night's sleep. Eating a little better. Getting a bit more exercise. Paying real attention to how tense and stressed you feel. In other words taking better care of yourself. I'd recommend sitting with yourself and really listening to your body. Take up meditation. Make the time and do some journaling, too. Get some stuff out of your head and on paper in front of you.
A new happier life starts with awareness.
Being aware of something gives you the option to consider what it means. That meaning develops into your thinking about what you can do with or about it. You can play a variety of potential choices out in you mind, but to do it effectively you need to paint a realistic picture.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Dr. Christian Conte frequently talks about aligning ourselves with reality instead of living in “Cartoon World.” Cartoon World is a place of “shoulds” as in “They should do this.” or “They shouldn't do that.” It's a land where everything should go my way, be done my way, constantly meet my standards and have my approval. You're constantly judging everything in Cartoon World.
Cartoon World is also a place brightly colored by your feelings. Your judgments might be black and white but the things around you are colored by your feelings, and your feelings are out of proportion to the situation a lot of the time. Your highly colored feelings lead to highly colored language. You tend to distort and exaggerate what's actually there and what it realistically means.
When you turn the real world into a cartoon world, you cut yourself off from real possibilities. Often this happens simply because you're so preoccupied with painting your colorful picture that you don't or can't notice other useful things. Your lack of peace becomes your lack of possibilities.
How do you get out of Cartoon World? You might notice the intensity of your negative feelings. You might notice how judgmental you're being. You might notice the reactions of the people around you. In short, you become aware of something being off or out of place.
How do you start changing your thinking habits? You can start by paying attention to the language you're using. Is it fairly plain, simple, straightforward and factual? Does it express a lot of judgments and opinions? Toning your language down is a good place to start. Work on asking better questions to consider your options and think about what's really going on and what's encouraging people to do what they're doing or that's keeping the situation the way it is. Consider what role you play and how you contribute.
Remember people make poor or silly choices for all the same reasons you do. They're too busy. They're not paying attention. They're stressed out, frustrated or angry. The have different priorities. They simply disagree with you for reasons that are at least as valid as your own. Very few people actually choose to make things go wrong on purpose. You'll be best served by assuming they have “positive intent” until you have very clear evidence to the contrary.
What else can help you think more clearly? I've found thinking about the evidence I have helps. How good is it? How much do I have? Do I have enough? What more do I want or need? How else can I think about it? What story am I really telling myself with it? Keeping my feelings in check helps a lot, too. You can be aware of your feelings and still hold them back enough to channel their energy into constructive thinking. You can also bring to mind how much trouble running off half cocked or in full berserker mode has gotten you. Finally, learn and practice some good everyday logic. Alan Jacobs has a great little book on how to think. Mark Manson also has many useful things to consider about yourself and living life in a messed up world. You can also checkout the dirty dozen of bad thinking on this site.
A new happier life grows with clear thinking.
How do you make choices? What goes into making one? I think it goes something like this: something caught your attention or came back to mind, you have some feelings about it (good or bad), some thoughts quickly come to mind, you might then “think about it” for a few moments or a few minutes and then take one action or another. It was in the moment you stopped thinking and started doing that your choice was made. What happened in that moment?
You might think that if it was a “real choice,” an “important choice,” you weighed things out and “rationally” or deliberately picked one alternative over another. Sometimes you may actually do that, but most of the time you act on impulse. In other words, you act on a feeling, but there's plenty of research to show that even when you're being your most rational and deliberate, you're still acting on your feelings. People who have damage to particular parts of their brains that would ordinarily allow them to be aware of feelings, lose the ability to choose anything at all.
So, what's hidden in the feelings that allow you, help you or “make” you choose? Your values, your priorities, your commitments are all in there. The sensibilities you've honed over the years are in there. If you've aged some of your negative feelings like a not so fine wine, you're in trouble. If you've been careless and let you inner two year old run the show for way too long, you're in trouble. If having to think about things too hard or for too long make you angry or antsy you're in trouble.
If you've left the garden of your feelings alone and allowed weeds to grow, the shrubs to lose shape and left most of the fruit to rot on the ground, you shouldn't be surprised that the rest of your life gets messy when things get hard and real choices need to be made. Just like your thinking needs to stay tuned up, your feelings need to be cultivated. They need to be attended to and balanced. You need to pay attention to what you allow grow around them. Bitterness, resentment and contempt can poison the ground they grow in. Unresolved trauma can just about sterilize the soil completely. Grief, sadness and depression will shade out the flowering plants and anxiety will freeze most of the buds.
You need to know your feelings. Your feeling and your thinking are meant to work together. There's a real beauty called happiness available to you when they do. When either side is out of balance the other side suffers for it, and it continues to make things worse. How do you start working on your garden? How do you work on getting a better balance? It can start with watching what thoughts are “flowering” in your head. That means make a choice that when a toxic thought “blooms,” and you notice it, you take the time to recognize it for what it is. You can also take the time to replace it with something better suited to the moment. You can replace it with something that is real world not cartoon world. This takes us back to paying attention to the language you use to describe and think about things. This really helps you weed your garden and get your feelings and thinking back into better working order.
It may seem we've gotten well away from choice and values, but it's really in the garden of your feelings, where thoughts first bloom, that the values that create your choices grow. Your values aren't simply the things you name and say they are. They're actually in the things that you do. They're one of the fruits of your garden. It's tough to grow good fruit in a bad garden. If there are a few values you really want to make a commitment to, if there are choices you need to make and stick to, start paying attention to how you feel and how it tends you make you think.
A new happier life takes shape with consistent healthy choices, rooted in values supported by healthy thoughts and feelings.
Action is where we make life happen or fail to. For me, and a lot of you, procrastination and perfectionism have played their role. Feeling stuck and without any good choice has played an even bigger role. What is it that keeps you doing the same old stuff with the same old people? How do you stay in one small little place chronically less than satisfied with life?
You might have noticed I didn't ask “Why?” You might also have just automatically turned those two questions into a similar why question. I didn't ask why for for a few reasons. Why is where you speculate, rationalize, make excuses and justify. It keeps you stuck. How and what work by taking you to a place of some potential understanding and to a place you can make new choices and experiment with new actions.
So, is there anything in general that keeps you stuck? How do you keep living with a significant measure of unhappiness or unsatisfactoriness? It has to do with habits and familiarity. It goes something like this: You have a limited amount of good emotional energy to work with at any given time. You also have a limited amount of working memory that controls the number of things you can keep track of at the same time. Whenever you are doing something fairly new, whenever you are in a relatively unfamiliar situation, you use more emotional energy and more mental resources.
Too much is made of the “fear of the unknown.” That may play more of a role for those of us who are on the anxious side, but the bigger problem is just how much emotional energy and how many mental resources are needed for or used by you doing things that aren't part of a set of well honed habits. You experience this in a few different ways. You might feel tired more quickly. You might feel stressed. You might feel agitated, anxious or some form of angry. You might feel like you don't want to do things or that you want to put them off. Unless something offsets these kinds of feelings in a big way, you'll readily opt for the familiar. It is so much easier. It may not make you happy, but familiar is at least in some sense so much more “comfortable.”
There's a formula below to use to think about what it takes to keep moving forward and for living in change. It's not complicated. Start with how dissatisfied are you at the moment? How clear is your vision or goal? How are your first steps at creating change going? Are you honestly taking any? How strongly is your body and the less conscious parts of your mind resisting or pushing back? How about the people and the world around you? Are they pushing back? How hard? Combined, these four things determine your success.
Dissatisfaction, vision and first step success multiplied together need to be big enough to overcome your system's resistance. The first three don't just add together. If one or more is low or zero, it greatly reduces the effect of the others. You can have a magnificent idyllic vision of your future. You might even have done a few things to make it happen, but without a good measure of dissatisfaction, you won't keep moving or move consistently. Resistance will keep winning in the end.
You might be seriously unhappy, but you don't have a clear vision or you're depressed and your vision is negative. Resistance wins again. Maybe your dissatisfaction is high, and you have a pretty good vision, but your first steps aren't taken or don't go very well. Not only is first steps low, but resistance goes up and wins.
If this is starting to sound bleak, it's not. It tells you what you need to watch out for and what you need to do to succeed. Are you getting more comfortable? Is dissatisfaction going down? You might need to consistently remind yourself about where you've come from or what you don't want to fall back into to get it back up enough.
You can also keep your vision consistently in mind. Remind yourself of it frequently. Think about it. Spend time imagining yourself enjoying it. Make it as real as you can. Put pictures of it on the fridge or the bathroom mirror. Keep one in your pocket. Make one the wallpaper on your phone or computer. Keeping your vision in mind frequently has the added benefit of making it feel more familiar, so it not only draws you forward, it feels more comfortable and reduces resistance. That's a double win.
Finally, pay attention to your first steps. Make a lot of them simple and small. Celebrate your successes and go over the failures to learn from them. Tweak your plans. Adjust your short term goals. Anticipate doing better and being successful. Find at least a little something to do everyday. Jame's Clear talks a lot about just being 1% better every day. BJ Fogg works on tiny habits to build an even bigger habit of moving forward and building your success. If you're really struggling, make the time to do some real self-care today. Just stop sitting there.
If your vision is effectively non-existent, develop a short term one for creating one. Start thinking about and paying more attention to what means the most to you and go from there. What keeps getting your attention? Also, take better care of the basics: eat a little better, sleep a little better and get a little more exercise. Find one or two little things to do every day to make your life (and the lives of those around you) a little better.
A new happier life moves forward with committed, principled action.
Putting It All Back Together
If you lack awareness, you can't think about and choose useful actions. You're at the mercy of the all the people and things around you. If you think inappropriately or ineffectively, you make more poor choices (or none at all). You wind up communicating useless or counterproductive things back to everybody and everything through your actions. This usually means your own choices come back to haunt you. If this is combined with an ongoing lack of awareness and more bad thinking, you'll blame others, or life, for what are ultimately the fruits of your own behavior. You're also likely to continue to make poor choices, do more of the wrong things, and on and on it will go.
The bottom line: Pay more and better attention to what's going on, work on thinking more clearly, choose deliberately and act with at least some of the potential consequences in mind. Remember that part of what will come back to you will be a result of what you choose to do. In order to make the change loop work for you, you have to work all of its parts together.
Your happiness is waiting.