For every waking day, different psychological commentators and pundits have unanimously agreed that around 24 gigabytes of data and 100,000 words of information reach the eyes and ears of any human being consistently within any given day; by the time some Americans hit their heads on their pillows, they have seen 5,000 advertisements! This only continues to climb within the current information age for digital natives as technology continues to advance. Much of this digital turbulence and contention for attention negates rest and quiet, and it becomes even more important to trim and package incoming information in a receptive manner rather than passing along raw, unfiltered data in our digital era. Different people with diverse backgrounds typically seek a coach or therapist for three common reasons:
- Feelings of being overwhelmed and challenged with life stressors
- Inability to make life choices and wise decisions
- Being in a “stuck” state that often represents being thwarted in decision-making and adrift
Oftentimes, many report being inundated with an existential dread of anxiety or burgeoning insecurity that competes with an ever-demanding calendar and overly-busied daily schedule alongside a constant flood of emails, skype calls, and streams of interruptions from their devices. Reflections of those that find themselves in this personal tempest of existential dread in anxiety and burgeoning insecurity are ultimately unhappy with their career paths but too overwhelmed to address it and position themselves for a destiny that has been self-determined. One high school senior, under the microscope of an achievement orientation, writes, “Nearly every minute of my day, everything I do isn’t what I care about.” Many term this as the loneliest generation, and this term suggests that these ones are finding fewer opportunities to connect meaningfully with loved ones and are experiencing greater social isolation and disconnection within their stories whereas the spontaneous social moments for enjoyment have gotten rare since everyone seems to be distracted and “going through the motions.” In one form, many are in a race attempting to adapt to the accelerated pace of life with significant consequences on the mind and body. Stress management has been a hyper focus over the last three decades with research on medication, activating a healthier lifestyle, and psychotherapy to get clients and patients back on into their normal baseline of daily functioning. Yet, the bigger issue is a loss of personal agency across the diversity of needs in the human experience.
Psychologists in the field describe agency as a capacity to act in empowered and autonomous ways that essentially contribute to developing an individual’s sense of resiliency when experiencing a negative life event. Identity and agency are both impacted by both fixed and fluid social constructs as gender, race, sexual orientation, culture, life experiences, and socioeconomic status. There are several factors to explore when identifying how to increase personal agency and its influence upon decision-making power within our lives. One of these factors will be controlling our exposure to external stimuli, which ultimately increases the quality of our thought life as well as the quality of our judgement and inner experience overall. David Brooks, a columnist of the New York Times, states that there are constant distractions with everyday life and those in the workplace are constantly “losing the attention war…The information tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there, it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces joy.” There are many apps and devices that are designed to be altogether addictive and war for our attention daily and essentially rob us of what we want to do or need to accomplish. Building mental firewalls around external stimuli will lead to establishing a sense of greater personal agency such that we remove ourselves from distracting situations and pursue our immediate, short-term and long-term goals. Many adults that experience sensory overload and are overwhelmed with information demonstrate specific signs of losing the attention war with external stimuli: they have tension headaches, sore and tired eyes, concentration problems, irritability, anger, and loss of temper. Whether at school, in the workplace, or at home – information overload has a tipping point even though the human brain attests to having an unlimited capacity for storing and receiving information. Remember that incoming data requires much energy to process, and when selectively and carefully chosen – books, films, news articles, music, etc. can elevate and maintain a positive mood overall.
Another factor in developing our personal agency is correlated with movement. Physical movement alongside rest and healthy nutrition, creates synergy and balance between the mind and body – which ultimately increases motivation, strength, and perseverance to move forward into realizing our goals. Much nutrition science research and the benefits of physical movement are well documented across different societal spheres. Healthy measures of movement, rest, and nutrition relate to greater capacities in thinking skills and emotional management. Without movement, our mental health alongside personal agency starts to deteriorate. Those within the health and medical sciences indicate that movement is tied to actively becoming aware of your body, reading its signals, and engaging with it – especially during times when you are feeling mentally stuck. Activating movement is a form of activating your personal agency. Between 1975 and 2010, American homes increased an average size from 1,645 square feet to 2,392 square feet. Naturally, bigger homes give reason for people to remain indoors, cocoon, and stay comfortable and sedentary. By 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the average U.S. child spends more than 7 hours a day on their screens. Researchers from the University of Michigan indicated that children spent only 7 minutes a day outdoors, and outdoor time declined by 50% from 1981 to 2003. Americans are moving less and less, and these trends are alarming when we consider developing personal agency. Movement optimizes the mind’s capacity to receive when we feel mentally stuck and inspires motivation as well as jump-starts the creative flow. Starting small but integrating simple movement exercise programs into your lifestyle can have positive and tremendous outcomes for a balanced fitness with healthy habits that connect with other individuals. Lisa Barrett, of Northeastern University and author of How Emotions are Made describes in dramatic detail how our emotions are influenced by our bodies and indicates that our bodies are the source of our emotional makeup. Healthier bodies lead to emotions that are more positive in nature overall. Sluggishness and immobility lead to passivity, and passivity tends to be an enemy of personal agency.
An additional key factor and touchstone to developing on our personal agency relates to our capacity to learn, and this expands our our context in personal agency. There are a myriad of benefits when reflecting on learning, but we are essentially strengthening our skill to navigate the demands of our environment in meaningful ways, gain confidence about future situations that we may be unfamiliar with, and become more alert and inquisitive about our surroundings overall. Michael Scriven and Richard Paul, two distinct scholars, defined critical thinking as the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication. The frontal cortex of the human brain is seen as responsible for critical thinking, whereas the limbic system is more for reactive and emotional states of functioning. Many more employers and workplaces are requiring critical thinking as an essential skill and work trait that they desire for employees. Developing personal agency through acquisition of knowledge and learning requires a personal drive to learn more and press past the conflict of unpleasant and perplexing feelings of the unknown and ambiguous. Rather than actively judging, use open questioning with inquiry-based careful observations that lead to using your mind to think more about what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and even tasting. Being positioned as a learner will lead to personal agency in better control over strong emotional reactions that could lead to impulsivity, being more calm during conflict, and having improved listening skills with more strength for greater personal aptitude and empathy for others.
Developing personal agency will include two intertwined goals: cultivating the skill and confidence to accomplish good decisions during important seasons in both your work and personal life, and also maintaining discernment and identifying perspective as to what needs to change in order to live a meaningful life in the way that you desire. Be mindful of these paths toward developing greater personal agency:
- Monitor your diet, keep regular exercise regularly, sleep healthily for quality rest, and develop good life habits that are all directly tied to increasing in personal agency.
- Gather around other people that are curious about life and want to continuously learn, ask questions, and seek out alternatively new perspectives with a constant openness about new things.
- Actively reflect on your personal beliefs and raw emotions as they occur in the moment of any given day. Avoidance of strong emotions and feelings restrict getting in touch with your core self and maximizing the life that you want to live. Re-position yourself to get in touch with what you believe and feel in order to experience life.
- Remain radically open to new perspectives and a continuous flow of new information but also use your intuition through quiet personal reflection to know what is best for you and what you desire as you are also open to others.
- Use a decision-making matrix with reason and deliberation over emotion and passion when making important decisions, but never lose the sight of your passions. Determine and locate passions to help steer your own path of life with reasons.
- Diligently become aware of what you consistently give your attention to as moments of distraction lead to minutes, hours, and days of missed opportunities for experiencing a focused-driven life of rich, lasting, fulfilling, and long-lasting purpose and meaning.
- Minimize time spent with those that are inauthentically ingratiating your efforts but surround yourself with the company of good people that support your personal aspirations and challenge you to consistently become a better individual.