You define who you want to be [by the choices you make] in the little details of your life. —Ingrid Betancourt1
It seems everyone has ideas about who they are. Then our behavior tells us, “Maybe you’re not that,” and we’re disappointed in ourselves. Maybe embarrassed.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
All of us are subject to occasional, unseemly outbursts, bad moods, and negative emotions like anger, greed, cowardice, jealousy, and resentment. Sometimes they cause us to do things we don’t intend to do—or keep from doing things we want to do, and we regret them. Sometimes we tell lies— little white ones and big ones too. Our appetites seem to have a will of their own, and not just for food. Yet, if asked about our values, we claim many of the virtues, like generosity, kindness, patience, and fairness, and get all huffy if told that’s not how we’re behaving. These situations can undermine our feelings of integrity and make us unhappy with ourselves.
The purpose of this book is to help you act from choice—to make and follow through with choices that reflect your intentions. The foundational choice is whether to act according to your intentions or let your emotional and mindless impulses turn into actions that violate your values.
Years of study, work with coaching clients, observation of colleagues and friends, and personal experience have convinced me that we’re defined by the values and behaviors we consciously choose to manifest, so long as we’re trying to act accordingly. I mean that in spite of our unwanted thoughts and behaviors, we actually are who we choose to be if we’re really working at it. For me that means making a real effort to restrain unwanted impulses, and continuing to feel dismayed when they break through, leading to actions that contradict our values and intentions.
Ultimately, how we are is the measure of who we are. But I believe that any assessment of how we are must take into account the effort we make to be how we mean to be.
Self-management seems a challenge for almost everyone. How about you? I guess that you may have picked up this book because you’re frustrated by some inability to manage yourself consistently, and you want to do better.
Act from Choice will give you tools for managing your emotions, your habits, and yourself so you can be how you mean to be. The tools you’ll find here will help you interrupt unwanted habits and emotions, choose what to do, and act more consistently with your values and intentions rather than give in to unwanted impulses.
The phrase to be how you mean to be has specific meaning for me. First the goal is about how you mean to be, not how anyone else thinks you should be. To be refers to the qualities you display when relating to other people, to the situations you face, and to you and your life. It refers to qualities such as patience, discipline, determination, courage, compassion, open-mindedness, and more—whatever you’ve chosen for yourself. Finally, being how you mean to be says there’s a commitment to follow through with your intentions so that you have the right to claim the values you’ve chosen.
I use the word mean intentionally. Some are confused by my use of mean rather than want. I interpret want to be an expression of emotion, like desire or aspiration. I feel there’s little commitment implied by want. Mean adds to want or aspiration a commitment to put forth effort in order to achieve what is wanted.
My self-management goals are grounded in meaning to live with integrity, which, for me, means that my values, intentions, and actions are consistent with and complementary to each other, and I can trust the promises I make to myself. Of course, your motivations for reading this book may be very different and much more specific. Perhaps you want to relate better with the people who are important to you; to gain better control of a difficult, habitual emotion; to sustain an exercise program; to stick to your diet; or to stop procrastinating.
If your goals are about managing behaviors you feel are inconsequential, my comments about values and integrity may seem too grand, and not relevant to your issue. You may question whether dieting, stopping procrastination, and exercising regularly have anything to do with values and integrity. But it turns out that discipline requires motivation, which we can boost by including in our goals explicit understanding of how we want to feel about ourselves. Think of a time when you did something that was difficult to do. Remember how proud you felt, and for good reason. The point is that your feelings about success or failure are not abstract. They are also about what you’ve demonstrated about yourself, to yourself.
In contrast, if you feel bad when you succumb to temptation and break your diet, procrastinate, or stop exercising, isn’t there an underlying feeling that you’re not as good or as disciplined as you want to be and think you should be? If so, those feelings come from a sense that you haven’t lived up to your standards about how you want to be in the world.
I believe we achieve our goals more consistently when we recognize how our performance expresses our values and demonstrates who and how we’ve chosen to be. In Part II, I’ll show you how to use your values to increase your motivation, whether you’re trying to stay on a diet or be more patient with your family.
Regardless of how you want to improve your self-management, your behavior and effort are what count. It’s what you do and how you work at being the person you mean to be that’s important. No good purpose is served in claiming to be kind, compassionate, generous, or disciplined if you’re habitually unkind, judgmental, stingy, or unreliable, and you aren’t doing something about it.
As you’ll discover from reading this book, many obstacles stand between each of us and being how we mean to be, the biggest of which are internally generated. It’s impossible to act perfectly all the time. But making the effort to improve and manage oneself should count for a great deal. Better performance can be a source of great satisfaction, reinforcing feelings that we are who we mean to be at root, even though we sometimes fail.
You think it should be so @#$@#$! easy to be how you mean to be. You
intend to act or think a certain way, but you don’t. Your behavior and the results are regrettable, though not all the time by any means. Most of the time, you’re a master of self-management. But there are times when you fail. You keep trying not to react the way you do, and you make some progress, but still you continue to embarrass yourself by what you say, do, or find yourself thinking. You may have thoughts and attitudes that embarrass you, even though no one but you knows about them—prejudice, hatred, and lust are favorites. Maybe you wonder how you can be who you think you are, harbor such thoughts, and be so unable to follow through with your intentions. Maybe you accuse yourself of being weak, a phony, or of not trying hard enough.
It’s natural to want to be able to manage yourself, but self-management is unnatural. It’s harder than we think it should be because it’s not only about you. There are two actors involved: you and your subconscious. Regrettable behavior happens when you and your subconscious disagree about what you should do, and yoursubconsciouswinsthebattle.
The human subconscious is like a separate being that lives inside us.2 It has its own ideas about how to interpret what’s going on around us and what we should do about it, and does its best to make us do what it thinks is right, never mind what we think. It doesn’t want you trying to manage yourself.
For convenience and effect, I and others talk about the subconscious as if it were an independent person, like a so-called homunculus living within us. In fact, as the therapist and author Timothy Stokes writes in this book, What Freud Didn’t Know, we habitually experience automatic processes—scripts, he calls them— that are “activated without purposeful conscious effort and with limited conscious oversight …. when conditions beckon them, not [because] we call upon them.” Moreover, as Stokes observes, the subconscious is not hidden from us because we’ve repressed it, as Freud believed. It’s hidden from us because that’s how our brains are constructed: it’s simply how we’re all made.
Part of the subconscious is devoted to looking for threats and opportunities.3 It scans the environment constantly. Its interpretations of what it finds, and its notions of how we should react produce the impulses we feel. Those impulses are right nearly all the time. But sometimes they are not what we would choose, and they produce regrettable consequences when they turn into action.
The subconscious’s interpretations of what it finds, and its decisions about what to do in reaction, are like computer programs. Even though the programs are lodged in our subconscious, are uniquely ours, and influence our actions, we didn’t create them. We didn’t even get a chance to vote on them. They were developed automatically by the brain, often at a very early age, based on the way our personality traits—influenced by our genetics— affected the way we reacted to what we experienced.4
Today those “programs” are set in motion automatically and subconsciously without any intent on our part. Moreover, the subconscious creates the impulse and emotions you feel before you’re even aware of what it found—whether it’s a person it decides is dangerous, a pretty picture it wants you to buy, or a bag of chocolate chip cookies it wants you to eat.5
You and everyone else are sure that’s not what happens. You’re probably certain you’re in charge, that you see something, evaluate it, and only then decide what to do—and that’s pretty much what most of the scientific community argued as late as the early 1980s. But the scientific research findings are incontrovertible: the brain perceives, judges, and tries to get you to react before you’re aware of what it (and then you) is reacting to. You need to understand this in order to know what you’re up against when you try to manage your impulses, and it’s only fair to factor those realities in when you find yourself judging yourself. You’ll read about the science describing the influence of the subconscious on your behavior in Part I, Unwanted Habits: What We Do and Why We Keep Doing It.
Recent discoveries about the role of the subconscious are so significant and so different from previous understandings and intuitions about behavior that they’ve even sparked renewed debate about free will.6 The scientific research says that the subconscious does what it does independently of consciousness. The decisions the subconscious makes are based on interpretations and automatic reactions that it creates without our input, and then it tries to get us to enforce its decisions. The no free will folks say that if all that is true, the subconscious does it all, and we don’t have free will.
But we’ve all experienced becoming aware of unwanted, possibly unsavory, or dangerous impulses and choosing to do something different instead.7 As a result, I’m with those who say that whether or not we have free will, we seem to have at least some free won’t, the ability to block our impulses and decide what to do instead.8 Nevertheless, though we recognize that we can manage our impulses to some degree, we want to be more effective and consistent at doing it. The Act from Choice Method will teach you how.
The way it is now, when you wake up to knowing you’re carrying out an unwanted impulse, you may try to exercise free won’t. But often the impulse slips by your awareness, which is your first line of defense, and it isn’t until you’re well into or have even completed the unwanted action that you realize you’re violating your intentions. The impulse may have been about something as minor as wanting to eat the chocolate chip cookie or as significant as wanting to hit someone. What happens then? You try to enforce your better judgment, invoking willpower to resist the impulse.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the amount of willpower you’re able to invoke at any particular moment is not a measure of character. Willpower is like a muscle: it will be weaker than normal right after you’ve used it a lot—making decisions or doing things you resist, or if you’re simply tired. If you try to use it then to battle an unwanted impulse, it may not be strong enough. Or the impulse could be so powerful, and driven by such strong emotions, that no amount of willpower could overcome it.
Putting it all together, when we attempt to manage unwanted impulses, we’re confronted with four key challenges:
- The first is to break through distraction and become aware of unwanted impulses when they
- Second is to pause in the face of the impulse’s momentum
- Third is to overcome the impulse’s momentum while choosing what to do and imposing our
- Fourth is to deal with the consequences of failure when it happens—to banish guilt and recover the motivation and intention to continue trying to manage the habit after failing to do what we
This book will give you tools to deal with those four challenges. Use it like a handbook. It is divided into three parts. In Part I, Unwanted Habits: What We Do and Why We Keep Doing It, I describe how brains produce unwanted reactive impulses automatically and independently, without our involvement. I will show you what you face when you’re trying to manage yourself—specifically, how and why you experience the impulses you do and why they’re so hard to resist. You’ll learn that you had no role in choosing what you react to and how you react, and therefore have no reason to feel guilty or ashamed of your impulses. Of course, that in no way relieves us of responsibility for managing our impulses to keep them from turning into unwanted actions.
Part II, How to Act from Choice, describes the Act from Choice Method in a linear, step-by-step fashion. Some readers will want to work with the Method as they read through it the first time. Others will want to skim Part II the first time through, and return to work with it later.
The last part of the book, the Resource Companion, contains tools, tips, and ideas for dealing with several specific emotions and situations. Scan its table of contents to find tools that seem relevant to your self-management goals.
About the Method
The Act from Choice Method is a synthesis of practices and ideas from a variety of disciplines and traditions. I’ve added a number of innovations I don’t believe you’ll find elsewhere. There are also some significant changes in emphasis compared to many other approaches to habit management.
Though it is now well known that habitual patterns are acquired by the subconscious through happenstance and without input from us, I believe I place more emphasis than others on the consequences of that fact; I believe we are innocent of our impulses and should not feel guilty about having them, as long as we’re trying to manage them. This is important because of the habit (!), so common in Western cultures, of turning our mistakes and shortcomings into attacks on ourselves. Unwanted impulses are still called sins by many, even when heroic restraint keeps them from turning into action. I believe little is gained by labeling habitual thoughts and impulses acquired through happenstance sin, and that such judgments lead to self-destructive attitudes and denial, making it more difficult to make beneficial changes. Further, such judgments make it harder for each of us to recognize that we are competent, far more than adequate, and worthy of our own respect, dignity, and compassion.
As mentioned previously, one of the greatest challenges of self-management is becoming aware of unwanted impulses soon enough to interfere with them before they turn into regrettable actions. You’ve probably experienced the difference between being angry and being aware that you’re angry. That’s the kind of awareness you need to cultivate in order to manage yourself. When you’re aware of your anger, you can judge and manage your actions. When you’re the anger itself, you’re its victim. Think of awareness of your anger or other emotions, attitudes, moods, and biases as a necessary aspect of being present.
The traditional approach to learning to be present involves mindfulness practices, usually including sitting meditation. The results of meditation practice are extremely durable and effective at improving one’s general mindfulness. Experienced mindfulness practitioners enjoy many rewards from their practice, including being more present to themselves and others, experiencing less stress, having greater tolerance to stress, and improved mood and equanimity. Even so, many find that their unwanted impulses continue to turn into action without triggering their awareness.
The Act from Choice Method introduced in this book uses an approach I call targeted mindfulness. As the name implies, its aim is to train the subconscious to look for and make us aware of specific unwanted impulses soon enough that we can intervene and choose our reactions. The tools that make up the Act from Choice Method are simple to use. They’re effective for people with or without experience with mindfulness practices; they are not time consuming, and they are effective right away. You don’t have to use them for months or even weeks to get significant benefit from them. They are useful on their own, and also as adjuncts to traditional mindfulness practices.
The benefits of traditional mindfulness training and practice are truly vast. Targeted mindfulness practices have quite limited and different objectives and are no substitute for a regular meditation practice. Nevertheless, many people, those with and without mindfulness training, will find targeted mindfulness to be effective in helping them become aware of their habitual patterns sooner than they otherwise would—thereby making them more successful at managing unwanted habits.
Targeted mindfulness practices rely on the human brain’s innate ability to wake us up and bring us to awareness when something important is happening. But we have to train it so that it knows to do it specifically when we want it to. The main targeted mindfulness technique used in the Act from Choice Method is an imaginary lookout I call a Sentinel. It is an extremely effective technique for calling attention to things we want to be sure to become aware of.
The Sentinel technique is a synthesis of elements from a variety of sources. It relies on the general idea of mind protection and protector principle, which are found in Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices; traditional memory-training techniques that use the brain’s well-known faculty of storing information associatively; and the brain’s own error detection and alarm mechanisms that let us know when intention and action don’t match. (If any of that sounds like Greek, don’t worry. There’s a lot of explanation coming.)
You’ll find additional techniques for cultivating awareness in everyday situations in the Resource Companion at the end of this book. They can be very effective whether used as standalone practices for those who have no experience of mindfulness practice, or as informal supplementary practices for experienced mindfulness practitioners.
Suggestions for Working with This Book
This is a big book, and there’s a lot in it. In fact, it’s three books. Readers will have their own way of approaching it. Not everyone will want to read every word or even go front to back. Some will be fascinated by Part I, which describes the way our brains work, and will want to read every word; others will want to get right to the Act from Choice Method itself, or see what might be of interest in the Resource Companion at the end. Still others will want to pick up parts at random. I say hooray to all of you. It is a handbook. Use it like one.
Here are some suggestions about how you might want to approach the book, especially if you like to pick and choose.
To get a good sense of the book you could go from this Introduction directly to the Afterword, and then review the Expanded Table of Contents to see what tempts you.
To get a sense of Part I read Chapter 12, “Putting It All Together.” In my view, the most important thing to get from Part I is an understanding of how much influence the subconscious has over our impulses and behavior. That view will likely convince you that impulses are created innocently, and we’re up against a lot when we try to manage ourselves. If you want to get high points about how our brains produce unwanted reactions—including our individual reactive styles—you could read Chapters 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11.
Read Chapter 13, “Introduction to the Act from Choice Method,” to get just that—an introduction and overview of the Method. To get a good sample of how the Method works, read the first half of Chapter 21, which contains a detailed description of how to work with it. The second half of that chapter is about managing habits of resistance and avoidance, habits like procrastination.
If your interest is primarily in targeted mindfulness, discussed earlier in this Introduction, read Chapter 19, “A Is for Awareness,” which discusses the Sentinel in detail and also the technique Ask the Second Question. You might also be interested in some of the material in the Resource Companion at the end of the book, in particular the sections on Slogans, Mantras, and Aphorisms and Developing Awareness.
Motivation is essential to effecting changes in behavior and attitudes. Chapter 16, “M Is for Motivation,” could serve as a standalone method for undertaking anything you find difficult or tend to resist doing.
Have at this book in any way that suits you. It’s yours. Use it in the way that best serves your interests and needs.
Please keep in mind that this book is meant to help readers manage habits that are subclinical. It is not suitable for diagnosing psychological problems or disease. Most important, if your behavior is at all dangerous to yourself or others, if it is so durable and disturbing that it keeps you from feeling fully functional, or if you are addicted to substances or behaviors that interfere with your happiness or livelihood, seek licensed professional help, and rely on their recommendation as to whether you should work with the techniques in this book.
My goal is to teach you how to use your insights and innate skills to identify and manage the habits that cause you to do things that run counter to your best intentions and conflict with how you mean to be—habits that make you unhappy with yourself, as a result. There is theory here, but more important, there are techniques—practices you can use to manage yourself and your emotions so you can be how you mean to be.