Everyday Awareness

by Emmett J. Stanton

"This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival."
—Jelaluddin Rumi

Perhaps Rumi had it easy with only one guest per day, but for me, there’s “a new arrival” after every experience of the day. Sometimes it’s anger at my neighbor screaming at 4 in the morning. Sometimes it’s frustration at the client who doesn’t understand what (I think) is plainly in front of them. Sometimes it’s anxiety over my commute and that one person doing something inexplicable on the bus.

If you’re at all like me, you have a similar reaction to these kinds of stressors: you’re distracted, you’re out of your wheelhouse, and you spiral down the rabbit hole of “this happens every time I….” or “why didn’t I say…”. Recovering quickly from these kinds of un-centering events is called mental agility, and it’s a skill you can build using Kintla’s ARRC model:

  • Enhance your Awareness around stressors,

  • Regulate your reactions to those stressors,

  • Reflect on your experiences, and

  • Change behaviors to improve future outcomes

Today, let’s talk about how ARRC can help improve your mental agility. ARRC is designed to help you recognize, label, and accept your individual reactions to stressors, both emotional and physical, and then act on them in alignment with your values. Each of these steps can help you enhance your ARRC toolkit.

Recognizing and labeling your emotions and responses following a given stressor is a key piece to building Awareness (that’s the ‘A’ of ARRC). For some, this comes more naturally, but for many of us (myself included) Awareness can be the hardest part of ARRC. How do you recognize the change in your emotions in the heat of the moment? How do you gain the self-awareness to label that emotion or reaction? As the jumping-off point, finding ways that help you gain awareness is critical.

I’ve taken to incorporating moments of Awareness throughout the day. During a meeting, after checking off an agenda item, I’ll take 10 seconds to ask myself how I feel about that action item and note whether I’m stressed or relaxed. What is my physical reaction? Am I verging on sleep? Am I verging on an outburst? Am I jogging my leg? Are my hands looking for something to do?

I’ll even write down my emotional reaction to an action item. This gives me some forewarning about how I might feel while developing next steps. Selecting a word of your choice to label your thoughts, emotions, and physical responses is a great way of mastering your reaction to stress. It keeps you aware of your physical and emotional response to that task 
and provides an early warning system for behaviors that are likely to emerge. More simply, naming an emotion helps you surface it and address it. (1)

Just as there are some supremely self-aware people, constantly conscious of their emotions, there are also people for whom “naming” goes a long way toward accepting thoughts and feelings. But for the rest of us (myself included) it takes a little more work. Accepting a negative reaction can force me to acknowledge weaknesses I don’t particularly care to think about. This is where a little reminder about neurobiology can go a long way.

Once you have named an emotion, it is easier to accept your responses and manage them. This is especially true when stress is involved. Basically, neurobiological reactions to stressors are unavoidable. Ignoring or pushing though them isn’t self-improvement. If you’re feeling something, there’s a reason for it. Denying it or distracting yourself from it won't make it go away. Instead, use acceptance to remain aware of your emotions as you start a task, and think of your reaction, be it physical or emotional, as one part of that task. (2)

Another element important to handling stress and creating harmony in your life involves aligning with your core values. Understanding your values and checking your plans and commitments against them helps keep actions in line with your beliefs about what is important and increases the probability that you will follow through on your decisions. Committing to do something that goes against what you really believe sets up a conflict in your life, which may increase, stress and undermine motivation.

I’ll close with a suggested ARRC template to take into your workplace, or your life in general. I find that it helps to set a calendar reminder to run through these steps twice each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

  1. Build Awareness: Ask “How do I feel about each task on my to-do list?” Then, write your reaction next to each item. It doesn’t matter if your reaction doesn’t make sense to everyone else; these are YOUR labels.

  2. After running down the list, take a moment to Regulate yourself. Breathe in to a count of five and breathe out to a count of ten. Do this three times.

  3. Reflect on each of your reactions to your to-do list. Are any tasks evoking the same negative or positive response? If so, bunch those items together; items that trigger similar reactions can be tackled as a group.

  4. Change your approach to tasks that stress you out. Try a different format. Try a different tool. Try a different time of day. Do what you can, within limits, to find a way to reduce the stress you are experiencing around these “hot” items.

References

Susan David and Christine Congleton. Emotional Agility: How effective leaders manage their thoughts and feelings. Harvard Business Review, November, 2013.

Adam Waytz and Malia Mason. Your Brain at work: What neuroscience can teach us about management. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2013.