Do we live the life we choose?

On automaticity, urgent vs. important activities and finitude of existence.

Drawing by Zuzanna Jura

Would it help us realize that the life we live “expands to fill the time available for its completion,” as the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson said?
What if our lives expand with the activities we choose without much awareness? What if those urgent actions with a deadline pretend to be important but are not? What is the result of postponing important activities indefinitely?
I was fortunate to gather a group of distinguished subject matter experts. Here is what they have to say on the topic.

How can you describe the way we live our lives?

Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 habits of highly effective people”:

“Today we come across an individual who behaves like an automaton, who does not know or understand himself, and the only person that he knows is the person that he is supposed to be, whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech, whose synthetic smile has replaced genuine laughter, and whose sense of dull despair has taken the place of genuine pain. Two statements may be said concerning this individual. One is that he suffers from defects of spontaneity and individuality which may seem to be incurable. At the same time it may be said of him he does not differ essentially from the millions of the rest of us who walk upon this earth.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Our character, basically, is a composite of our habits. “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny,” the maxim goes. Habits are powerful factors in our lives. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character and produce our effectiveness… or ineffectiveness.”

Daniel Wegner, coauthor of “The Illusion of Conscious Will”:

“Does consciousness cause action? Many people think that even asking this question is absurd. How could consciousness not cause what we do? Every few moments of every day, we think about doing something and then do it. We think of moving a finger and then do it, we think of going to the store for milk and do it, we think of looking away from this page — and then do it. It certainly doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw the obvious conclusion from a lifelong accumulation of such examples: consciousness is an active force, an engine of will.

The mind has been known to play tricks, though. Could this be one? What if our minds keep showing us the same set of appearances, leading to an impression of conscious will again and again, but never revealing to us how our actions are actually caused? One way this could happen is if both the thought about action and the action itself are caused by unperceived forces of mind: you think of doing X and then do X — not because conscious thinking causes doing, but because other mental processes (that are not consciously perceived) cause both the thinking and the doing.”

Modified by D. Wegner

John Bargh, author of “Before you know it”:

“Most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance-is a difficult one for people to accept.

Just as automatic mechanical devices free us from having to attend to and intervene in order for the desired effect to occur, automatic mental processes free one’s limited conscious attentional capacity from tasks in which they are no longer needed. Many writers have pointed out how impossible it would be to function effectively if conscious, controlled, and aware mental processing had to deal with every aspect of life, from perceptual comprehension of the environment (both physical and social) to choosing and guiding every action and response to the environment.

These processes also become automated, but because we did not start out intending to make them that way, we are not aware that they have been and so, when that process operates automatically in that situation, we aren’t aware of it.

This is how goals and motives can eventually become automatically activated by situations. For a given individual, his or her motivations (e.g., to gain the love and respect of one’s parents) are represented in memory at the most abstract level of an organized hierarchy, followed by the vanous goals one can pursue to satisfy those motivations e.g. to be a success, to become a lawyer, to have a family.

Each of these motivations is associated with goals that will fulfill it, and these goals in turn have associated with them the various plans and strategies that can be used to attain the goals (e.g., study hard). These plans are in turn linked to specific behaviors by which the plan is carried out.

However, an individual’s motivations are chronic and enduring over time. And thus, because of the stability over time of one’s motivations, in many situations a given individual will frequently and consistently pursue the same goal. If the same goal is pursued within the same situation, then conscious choice eventually drops out of the selection of what goal to pursue-the situational features themselves directly put the goal into operation.”

All we ever wanted was everything
All we ever got was cold
Get up, eat jelly
Sandwich bars, and barbed wire
Squash every week into a day, Bauhaus

Is there a pattern for choosing one activity over another?

John Kabat-Zinn, author of “Full catastrophe living”:

“We are apt to get so caught up in the urgency of everything we have to do, and so caught up in our heads and in what we think is important, that it is easy to fall into a state of chronic tension, anxiety, and perpetual distraction that continually drives our lives and easily becomes our default mode of operating, our autopilot.”

Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 habits of highly effective people”:

“It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in an activity trap, in the busyness of life, to work harder and harder at climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall. It is possible to be busy — very busy — without being very effective.

Some people are literally beaten up by problems all day every day. The only relief they have is in escaping to the not important, not urgent activities of Quadrant IV. So when you look at their total matrix, 90 percent of their time is in Quadrant I and most of the remaining 10 percent is in Quadrant IV, with only negligible attention paid to Quadrants II and III. That’s how people who manage their lives by crisis live.”

Eisenhower matrix

Oliver Burkeman, author of “Four thousand weeks”:

“Despite my thinking of myself as the kind of person who got things done, it grew painfully clear that the things I got done most diligently were the unimportant ones, while the important ones got postponed — either forever or until an imminent deadline forced me to complete them, to a mediocre standard and in a stressful rush. One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.

Recently, as the gig economy has grown, busyness has been rebranded as ‘hustle’ — relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media. In reality, though, it’s the same old problem, pushed to an extreme: the pressure to fit ever-increasing quantities of activity into a stubbornly non-increasing quantity of daily time.

But now here we get to the heart of things, to a feeling that goes deeper, and that’s harder to put into words: the sense that despite all this activity, even the relatively privileged among us rarely get round to doing the right things. We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, even if we can’t say exactly what they are — yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead.

Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer — as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution — instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.”

… Day after day, love turns grey
Like the skin of a dying man

… And night after night, we pretend it’s all right
But I have grown older
And you have grown colder
And nothing is very much fun anymore, Pink Floyd

What could help?

Robert Commodari, author of “Better than you think”:

“HOW IS IT POSSIBLE that we live life at ninety miles an hour but never seem to get to where we want to be? Why do we have more material goods, more access to information, more ways to interact than ever before, yet still feel unfulfilled? Why are we better off than any society in history yet often feel tapped out, unmotivated, overworked, and unsatisfied? Each of those questions has the same answer: We are not practicing awareness.

That statement seems pretty simple on the surface, but to practice awareness, you have to stop: stop running from one activity to the next; stop comparing yourself to everyone else; stop trying to be who others think you should be. When you stop all of these things, you give yourself space to quiet your mind, reflect on your experiences, and get to know yourself better. And when you know yourself better, you can identify what you want out of life and pursue it, which leads to a more fulfilled life.”

Ruth Baer, author of “Practicing happiness”:

“Developing such awareness takes gentle but firm persistence, as the mind quite naturally acquires most skills by making most of our behaviours automatic and habitual. Habits are normally so useful: if we still had to think deeply about how to balance when we walk or how to keep an automobile in the correct part of the highway, we’d have little energy or mental space to think of anything else. But habits are hungry: any behaviour we repeat more than once is fair game — a suitable candidate for becoming a habit.

This is not itself a problem. What is a problem is that the part of the mind that is freed up when actions become habitual typically is not then employed to appreciate the present moment or think great or creative thoughts; rather it drifts off into daydreams, brooding about the past or worrying about the future, ruminating about our unsolvable problems or those of others, or trying to work out the meaning of life. When your mind wanders about in this way, happiness seems to elude you, and if you then turn your attention to why you feel less happy than you’d like to, this can make you feel even worse.

So you distract yourself as best you can, and postpone happiness for another day, without realising that it was right in front of you all along. It turned out that while you were searching for the meaning of life, you missed the experience of being alive.”

Z. Segal, M. Williams, J. Teasdale authors of “Mindfulness based cognitive therapy”:

“We can learn to switch out of automatic pilot by bringing our awareness to the present moment. When we do this, we start to see that we have a choice, and this is often the first step in taking care of ourselves.

We can think of mindfulness training as a way to teach individuals how to become more aware of their mode of mind (“mental gear”) at any moment, and the skills to disengage from unhelpful modes of mind and to engage more helpful modes. We might describe this as learning to shift mental gears. In practice, this task often comes down to recognizing two main modes in which the mind operates, and learning the skills to move from one to the other. These two modes are known as “doing” and “being.”

The full richness of the mode of “being” is not easily conveyed in words — its flavor is best appreciated directly, experientially. In many ways, it is the opposite of the driven–doing mode. The driven–doing mode is goal-oriented, motivated to reduce the gap between how things are and how we think we need them to be; our attention is narrowly focused on these discrepancies between actual and desired states. By contrast, the being mode is not devoted to achieving particular goals. In this mode, there is no need to emphasize discrepancy-based processing or constantly to monitor and evaluate (“How am I doing in meeting my goals?”). Instead, the focus of the being mode is “accepting” and “allowing” what is, without any immediate pressure to change it.”

How would it help if we realized our life is finite?

Seneca, author of “On the shortness of life”:

“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”

Oliver Burkeman, author of “Four thousand weeks”:

“Rather than taking ownership of our lives, we seek out distractions, or lose ourselves in busyness and the daily grind, so as to try to forget our real predicament. Or we try to avoid the intimidating responsibility of having to decide what to do with our finite time by telling ourselves that we don’t get to choose at all — that we must get married, or remain in a soul-destroying job, or anything else, simply because it’s the done thing. Or, we embark on the futile attempt to ‘get everything done’, which is really another way of trying to evade the responsibility of deciding what to do with your finite time — because if you actually could get everything done, you’d never have to choose among mutually exclusive possibilities. Life is usually more comfortable when you spend it avoiding the truth in this fashion. But it’s a stultifying, deadly sort of comfort. It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.

Procrastination of some kind is inevitable: indeed, at any given moment, you’ll be procrastinating on almost everything, and by the end of your life, you’ll have got round to doing virtually none of the things you theoretically could have done. So the point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most.

The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things. A large proportion of them don’t. They make matters worse. Most productivity experts act merely as enablers of our time troubles, by offering ways to keep on believing it might be possible to get everything done.

It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives.” O. Burkeman

Marcel Proust, author of “In search of lost time”:

“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it — our life — hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly. But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X., making a trip to India. The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.” M. Proust

I’m happy with how I gathered so many valid comments on “the unbearable automaticity of living,” as Bargh put it. I’m not much of a writer myself, and I hope all these quotes make a logical flow for the reader.

Regarding mindfulness: I am a big fan and like to see it as a means to handle a few challenges we face. The automaticity of living our lives is one of them. The other is thinking, which will be my next piece’s primary focus.

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Wojciech Jura

Wojciech Jura

49 Followers

I coach on Coach.me and via zoom on www.wojciechjura.com. I cover Positive Productivity — my clients get more productive with respect to mindful well-being.