In the Groove

Having managed to survive what just might have been the worst month I’ve ever had, I have a couple of things to report about habits and knowing what you want. (To fill in the blanks first, I was over-prescribed an antiarrhythmic medication that has a number of debilitating side-effects and a half-life of 58 days—which means that although I stopped taking it five and a half weeks ago, I still have a few more weeks to go before half of it is out of my system.)

Here’s what I’ve observed during the past couple of months.

The Value of a Compelling Habit

Last year, I wrote about the two sets of four things that I aim to do every day—things I want to do. They can’t be strung together into a routine, so for quite a while I attempted to get them done by putting them on my to-do list. But, as I wrote:

In the moment, at any given time, the unconscious part of the brain, which is focused on immediate gratification, can almost always find something more interesting or enjoyable for me to do.

I solved the problem by rewarding myself with a small star sticker on the calendar in my bathroom each time I completed the four things. My goal was to earn both stars every day. I see this calendar whenever I leave the bathroom, since it hangs above the light switch. Observing the day-by-day accumulation of stars was very satisfying.  And I found that my self-talk, which had been encouraging me to delay or blow off one or more of the activities, turned into a cheerleader encouraging me to do them so I could get the star sticker.

This system has been in place for a while and had been quite successful until this past September, when I stopped being physically able to do two of the things (walking and stretching) twice a day. For a while I just lowered my sights and aimed for one star sticker a day. But more often than not, I couldn’t even aim that high.

But I have been very gradually feeling better and stronger the longer I’m off the medication. And I noticed that the calendar—with or without star stickers—has become a cue for me to resume those activities, which I have now been able to do for 10 consecutive days.

It doesn’t matter whether I look at each of the four things as a separate habit or at the group of them as a single habit. They are united by the star stickers on the calendar as well as in my mind. And not only does doing them make me feel better, resuming doing them is an indicator—in multiple ways—that I am better.

Although I hadn’t been doing the four things regularly for two and a half months, as soon as I was able to do so I got right back on track and my self-talk got right back in line. That’s because this set of habits is very compelling for me. I really, really want to do them. And I did them long enough in the past to create a well-defined track or groove that was easy for me to find and get back into.

The takeaway is that creating a groove is the most important part of developing a habit. If there’s something you want to do every day, first create a groove for doing it once or twice a week. If there’s something you want to do multiple times a day, first create a groove for doing it once a day.

If you try to be perfect out of the gate and fail (which is the most likely outcome), you’ll never gain any traction. You’ll have to continually keep starting over. But if you have a groove, even if it isn’t all you want it to be, it will be so much easier for you to find your place when you lose it. And you will lose it. That’s the nature of things.

The Value of Identifying What’s Most Important to You

There’s a little bit of irony in the fact that I identified vitality as the thing that’s most important to me two months before I was diagnosed last year with multiple heart conditions, including one that results in fatigue and decreased energy. On top of that, one of the most prominent side effects of the antiarrhythmic drug I took recently is insomnia. This is not a recipe for vitality.

But the fact that I can’t have the level of vitality I used to have and that I would much prefer to have doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to me. I haven’t decided to replace it with something else because my circumstances have changed. I’m clear that no matter what, vitality is still what I’m aiming for. That means I have to determine the best actions to take so I can achieve the highest level of vitality possible at any given time.

That makes it hard to feel defeated or powerless. My personal agency may be limited, but I can identify the agency I do have, the actions I can take, the difference I can make. In fact, aiming for as much vitality as I can get makes decision-making a breeze. Instead of basing decisions on what I should do or what I would prefer to do, I simply ask myself if doing or not doing something is likely to increase or decrease my vitality.

The takeaway here is that you may not be in a position to achieve as much of what’s important to you as you would like to achieve. That doesn’t mean you should write it off. (It doesn’t actually mean anything at all.) Don’t sell out. Don’t give up. Don’t let it go. Go after as much of it as you can get at this particular point in time!

5 Reasons to Study the Enneagram

We move through this world under the impression—some would say the illusion—that we’re consciously choosing all of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But most of the time we’re operating on autopilot, stuck on the hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, in spite of our best intentions.

The Enneagram provides a window into our habits of thinking, feeling and behaving. The result is that the more we know, the less we’re at the effect of the programs that are usually running us.

As a system for describing our basic temperament or personality, the Enneagram is comprehensive, multifaceted, and accurate. It requires a bit of effort to fully grasp, so if you’re wondering why you should bother–what’s in it for you–here are five good reasons to learn more about the Enneagram:

1. You’ll Be Able to Let Yourself Off the Hook.

A surprising amount of what we perceive of as our own individual quirks, flaws, and shortcomings are not the result of our upbringing or personal experiences—or the fact that we’re stubborn, wrongheaded, or lack any semblance of willpower. It’s just the way we’re wired. That means we don’t need to continue expending time and energy trying to figure out why we’re that way or attempting to fix ourselves. The Enneagram offers a short-cut to self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is very powerful ground to stand on.

2. Other People Will Make You Less Crazy.

Even when you don’t know what someone else’s type is, just being aware of the fundamentally different perspectives and attitudes of each type can be eye-opening. That awareness makes it a lot easier to cut the other people in your life some slack and stop expecting them to be who they’re not. It also makes it less likely they’ll be able to push your buttons as often and as easily. Our differences don’t always have to be frustrating or divisive. They can be a source of humor and even a way to connect.

3. You Can Stop Banging Your Head Against the Wall.

Do you ever feel like your life is the one Narcotics Anonymous was referring to when they defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results? If so, take heart. The Enneagram explains how we get into our particular ruts of behaving, thinking, and feeling—and then offers a range of alternatives to try out from among the other types. Knowing your type is also extremely helpful—maybe even essential—if you are in the process of attempting to change your behavior.

4. It’ll Make You Smarter, Improve Your Memory and Mood, and Keep Your Brain Healthy.

Learning about the Enneagram may not add measurable points to your I.Q., but brains crave challenge and stimulation in order to maintain their plasticity. Learning something new actually changes your brain physically by not only increasing synaptic connections, but also growing new neurons—no matter how old you are. That’s one of the main ways to keep your mind sharp and flexible and your memory intact. These neuronal interconnections in our brains affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings on a daily basis. You can definitely nurture your neurons by learning about the Enneagram.

5. It Has What You’re Looking For.

On the psychological level, the Enneagram is a great tool for anyone who’s on a journey of personal exploration or wants to change old, outmoded patterns of behavior. On the interpersonal level, it can help you deepen your relationship with your partner or develop clearer communication with friends and family members. At work, it can help you get along better with your co-workers, understand your boss, and become more effective. What you take from it depends on how you come at it and what it is you’re looking for.

I learned about the Enneagram 20 years ago when I was working as a substance abuse counselor and trained to become a Certified Enneagram Instructor. Not only did the Enneagram help me get a handle on some of my own automatic (System 1) behavior, it was the single most effective tool I ever found for working with my clients.

The work I do now is based on the most recent understanding of the mind and brain that neuroscience and psychology can provide. And once again I have found the Enneagram to be an invaluable tool, in this case for identifying my clients’ automatic behavior and tendencies.

Many of us want to increase our self-awareness, but we can’t pay attention to everything. The Enneagram points us in a direction that allows us to see how we tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways and in negative and sometimes destructive ways. It’s one way to find out some of what’s in our particular mental model. Since the contents of our mental model are not directly accessible, I see the Enneagram as a short-cut to self-awareness.

E Is for Enneagram

enneagram_small

The Enneagram is a straightforward, yet rich and complex system that describes our individual strengths and weaknesses, deeper-level motivations, and most importantly, the compulsions that often rule our lives. Although we’re wired to operate under the impression that we’re consciously choosing what we do, most of the time we’re at the effect of unconscious impulses. We’re living our lives on autopilot; asleep at the wheel, doing the same things over and over again, expecting different outcomes.

As I wrote in A Is for Autopilot:

Estimates are that close to 80% or more of what we do every day we do on autopilot, which means without conscious intention or volition. It’s not just what we do, either. The majority of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are the result of automatic brain processes.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman says:

Our brains run mostly on autopilot, and the conscious mind has little access to the giant and mysterious factory that runs below it.

When you look outward at the world—or even inward at yourself—you see things not as they are but as you are. You view the world through your own set of filters, biases, opinions, judgments, personal experiences, and temperament. You act and react as you do—and not as someone else might—because you’re looking out from within your own model of the world. Your model of the world influences what you pay attention to, how you interpret and react to events, the meaning you assign to them, and most of what you think, feel, do, and say. When it comes to trying to change the status quo, your preexisting model of the world is your most formidable obstacle.

In order to create and sustain positive change, you have to change your model of the world. But how can you change something you can’t see—the very lens you see through?

That’s where the Enneagram comes in. It offers each of us a window into our particular model of the world so we can develop the self-awareness that’s essential for creating change.

The Enneagram is the most practical and accurate tool I’ve found for describing our basic temperament or personality, and therefore our habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. (Other typing systems include the MBTI, OCEAN [a/k/a Big Five], DISC, and Social Styles.) The Enneagram is comprehensive and multifaceted, so it requires some effort to fully grasp. But it’s worth it. When you identify your type, you may find that the Enneagram knows you better than you knew yourself. It isn’t the personality equivalent of a Theory of Everything, but it gives you a place to look, a way to pay attention to what you’re doing, thinking, and feeling.

In a Nutshell

Enneagram is a Greek word that means nine points. The Enneagram symbol is composed of a triangle and a hexad within a circle. The triangle connects points 3, 6, and 9. The hexad connects points 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and 8.

The 9 points represent 9 basic, or core, personality types, each of which has a unique perspective and approach to life. We tend to polarize near one of those points, as a result we overdevelop some areas and underdevelop others. That polarization strongly affects how and what we perceive of the world around us—and how we respond to what we perceive. Our perceptions and responses become so much a part of us that they occur automatically, without any conscious thought.

alphabet-changeOne way to think about the Enneagram is that each point represents a particular kind of imbalance. (It’s easier to spot imbalances in others than it is to recognize them in ourselves. So it can be tempting to “helpfully” point out those imbalances to friends, family members, and co-workers. It is also tempting to stereotype people because categorizing is an automatic process of the brain.)

The Enneagram can make you more aware of your particular autopilot behavior. It can show you how you tend to operate, in both positive and constructive ways, as well as in negative and sometimes destructive ways. Your core personality type doesn’t change over the course of a lifetime, but as you become aware of your tendencies and imbalances, you gain the ability to moderate them. You’re no longer run by them.

Some people believe that being typed diminishes them somehow, that typing puts them into a box. But typing doesn’t put people into boxes; it identifies aspects of the boxes we’re already in. It points out what’s inside the box and what’s outside, both of which are equally important.

The Nine Types

Very briefly, these are the nine types:

Type 1: The Good Person, the Achiever, the Reformer, the Perfectionist. Principled and responsible, but can also be rule-bound and critical.

Type 2: The Helper, the Giver, the People Pleaser, the Partner. Compassionate and altruistic, but can also be co-dependent and manipulative.

Type 3: The Performer, the Succeeder, the Motivator, and the Status Seeker. Self-assured and accomplished, but can also be competitive and performance-driven.

Type 4: The Individualist, the Tragic Romantic, the Artist, the Sensitive Person. Creative and inspiring, but can also be overly dramatic and fault-finding.

Type 5: The Observer, the Investigator, the Knowledge-Seeker, the Thinker. Perceptive and curious, but can also be cold and detached.

Type 6: The Loyalist, the Questioner, the Guardian, the Devil’s Advocate. Organized and hard-working, but can also be indecisive and overly-vigilant.

Type 7: The Adventurer, the Epicure, the Generalist, the Enthusiast. Cheerful and multi-talented, but can also be acquisitive and thrill-seeking.

Type 8: The Challenger, the Confronter, the Leader, the Asserter. Courageous and magnanimous, but can also be combative and domineering.

Type 9: The Peacemaker, the Preservationist, the Mediator, the Universalist. Deeply receptive and serene, but can also be disengaged and inattentive.

When it comes to creating change, the greatest benefit of learning about your Enneagram type is discovering how you repeatedly get in your own way. Without that knowledge, your efforts are likely to lead to frustration more often than to success.

For more information about the Enneagram, visit ninepaths.com.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

W Is for Writing

Writing is such an effective tool for change that I use it in all of my classes and workshops. It can help you clarify intentions or goals and assist you in staying on track. It’s also extremely useful for helping you calm down, focus, and develop clarity about troubling or difficult issues.

The pen compels lucidity. —Robert Stone, novelist

The catch is that in order to get the best results, you need to be clear from the outset about what you want from your writing. You could just fill page after page in a notebook (something I did for quite a few years until I chucked the lot), but after you’re finished you may not be any clearer than you were to begin with. You might even be more confused.

Starting out with a question or prompt, maybe just a keyword or key phrase, can allow you to access some of the thoughts that may be swimming below the surface. Using a multi-part exercise can help you get even deeper and reap greater rewards.

The two basic approaches to writing—flow writing and deliberate writing—involve using the two different parts of the brain (System 1 and System 2). The problem with completely unstructured writing is that it can muddle these two approaches so that you don’t get the full benefit of either.

Flow Writing:
Making Use of Associative Thinking

The unconscious (System 1) excels in associative thinking. It detects patterns and connects dots quicker than the conscious part of your brain (System 2) can. It’s a fast processor that sometimes sacrifices accuracy for speed. But it also has access to lots of information the conscious brain isn’t aware of.

Flow writing, which is also called free writing, is non-linear, non-rational, and non-logical. You put your pen to paper and write quickly, letting the words “flow” without censoring or editing them. You don’t stop to think about what you’re writing. The best way to free your mind for flow writing is to set a page limit or use a timer.

Flow writing is a good choice if you’re not entirely sure what the problem is. If you have a lot of thoughts swirling around in your head, you can get them down on paper and take a look at them. But even with flow writing, you’ll get better results if you begin with a specific question, prompt, or keyword.

Deliberate Writing:
Making Use of Logical, Linear Thinking

The conscious part of the brain is rational, logical, and linear. It operates at a much slower—more deliberate—speed than the unconscious. A good way to engage conscious thinking is to respond to a series of questions or prompts. While flow-writing casts a wide net in search of answers or information, deliberate writing narrows the search.

This 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise is an example of using deliberate thinking to gain clarity. You proceed through the sequence of questions or statements with the intention of reaching some resolution.

Integrated Writing:
Making Use of Both Kinds of Thinking

Sometimes flow writing or deliberate writing alone is sufficient, but integrating them can be much more powerful. Integrated writing is synergistic rather than additive, which means the whole (the result) is greater than the sum of the parts you used to get there. A few examples of integrated writing include:

10 minutes of flow writing (System 1 associative thinking) followed by writing the answers to a series of questions (System 2 logical, linear thinking). You can create your own set of questions or use the ones in the 8 Step Problem-Solving exercise.

Write Your Way Out of the Story. For instructions scroll to Antidote #3 in this post on rumination.

Go Deeper: This is a 4-part exercise that’s best to do in one sitting. Begin by writing a question at the top of a blank page and then flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Next, reread what you wrote (engaging System 2), select a sentence or phrase, and write it at the top of another blank page. Flow write in response to this sentence or phrase for 8-12 minutes. Finally, reread both pieces (System 2), find a question—either one you asked in your writing or one that occurs to you after reading—write it at the top of a blank page, and flow write in response to it for 8-12 minutes. Then reread all three pieces and write a one-paragraph summary (System 2).

No matter which type of writing you decide to use, remember to have an intention. Be clear about what you’re doing and what you want to get out of your writing.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Even if writing doesn’t come naturally to you or seems like punishment, if you want to create habits that serve you, follow through on your goals and intentions, and develop your self-awareness, it’s worth exploring and experimenting with it.

As with any tool you want to master, regular practice makes all the difference. When you set and keep the same general time and place to write, you encourage (or prime) your brain to respond.

When you go into a restaurant, your brain is focused on deciding what to eat. When you get into your car, your brain is focused on driving. This is one of those obvious things you probably don’t really think about it. When you go into the restaurant, your brain is not focused on driving because it isn’t presented with environmental cues related to driving.

Another reason for developing a writing practice is that the real benefits of writing are cumulative. They are gained over time, not as the result of any individual exercise or piece of writing.


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.

P Is for Perseverance

A common explanation for the failure to accomplish something, reach a goal, or change a habit is a lack of willpower (or self-control). If only you had more willpower you could resist temptation, whatever form it might take: a piece of chocolate cake, binge-watching a favorite TV show, surfing the internet, adding unnecessary items to your wardrobe, or even just staying up late when you have an important meeting in the morning.

Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much. —John Ortberg

It seems like common sense that if you had the ability to say no in the face of temptation, you wouldn’t be in whatever pickle you might be in.

And there’s a bit of truth underlying that belief. Willpower can be both useful and powerful. And yes, some people appear to have more willpower, at least in some situations, than other people. But willpower is an unreliable resource that can be easily exhausted. You can benefit from developing more of it, but it’s not the most effective tool in the behavior-change box.

Don’t Crash and Burn

When you’re bursting with willpower, you feel like you’re faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It feels great in the moment, but the moment doesn’t last. You may find yourself burning out before you get very far and end up abandoning your entire project. If at first you don’t succeed, you might decide it’s not meant to be or not worth the effort. Why bother? Just go with the flow. Or you might chalk it up to being weak, not wanting it enough, or lacking discipline.

It’s important to remember that the unconscious part of your brain has a bias for immediate gratification, which means you do, too. So after the initial burst of energy is gone it’s natural to find yourself distracted, derailed, or maybe even down for the count.

Worse, you may think what happened means something about you or your ability to follow through, which is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy because multiple failed attempts actually train your brain to not take you seriously. That means your next attempt will be even harder to follow through with than the last one was.

If  you recall the story of The Tortoise and the Hare from Aesop’s Fables, you’ll remember the moral of that adventure was slow and steady wins the race.

You could compare the unconscious part of your brain, which is extremely fast and processes 11 million bits of information at a time, to the hare. The conscious part of your brain, which is responsible for exerting willpower and self-control among other things, is like the tortoise. It’s much slower and more deliberate, and it processes only 40 bits of information at a time.

Change the Default

Repetition and perseverance, not willpower and self-control, are the keys to changing your behavior and accomplishing your goals. Repetition means doing the same thing over and over again until it becomes your brain’s default response. Perseverance means steadily moving toward your desired outcome regardless of setbacks or obstacles, adjusting course as you go, and taking in at least some of the scenery. Just keep moving at a steady pace until you get where you want to go.

You don’t need to chastise yourself if you get off track. You don’t need to make up excuses. All you have to do is pick up where you left off and keep going.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. —William E. Hickson

It’s amazing how much time and mental effort we put into berating ourselves or trying to figure out what’s wrong with us when we don’t behave according to our own expectations when, much of the time, it’s simply due to the way we’re wired. It would be far more effective to recognize that until we convince it otherwise, our brain is going to keep on correcting us back to our previous path. So falling off the horse is just part of the process. The important thing is to get back up there.

Perseverance isn’t the same as dogged persistence. Sometimes there’s a good reason to stop attempting to do something or at least reassess. On the one hand, you’re more likely to persevere if you’re committed to what you’re trying to accomplish and clear about your desired outcome. On the other hand, that commitment and clarity can help you recognize you aren’t really headed where you want to go—or maybe that you’ve bitten off too big a chunk and need to scale back.

If you want to make any change to your status quo, you have to convince your brain to go along with the plan, and that won’t happen overnight. Getting your brain to accept a change in the status quo as the new normal, for example, requires changing your mental model. That’s probably going to take a lot more perseverance than you’d like or that you expect. You might be tempted to give up when the results don’t come quickly, but that would be a mistake.

Perseverance isn’t flashy or sexy or stylish. It’s often linked with discipline and endurance and sounds like something that’s good for you or that builds character. But it’s the key to creating sustained change. And if you develop the habit of perseverance, you can still use willpower but you won’t need to rely on it to power yourself through. That means your brain will be working for you, rather than against you.

In the realm of ideas everything depends on enthusiasm… in the real world all rests on perseverance. —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

That’s why I call perseverance magic!


Part of the series A-Z: An Alphabet of Change.