Being like gravity

Gravity is massively underrated.

We take it for granted, as we well should. It doesn’t give us any reason not to. We don’t encounter situations where it varies from our expectation.

Gravity’s consistency makes life easier because we build it into our model of life. We don’t have to worry “Will gravity be working today when I to head into town?”

It’s defined by its consistency. It’s always on.

When we do our work, when we live our lives, we can choose, to be more like gravity.

This doesn’t mean that we become unchanging robots – but that we understand the power of consistency. It’s knowing that the “always on” aspects of ourselves define us.

It’s our consistent action, traits and behaviours which make us who we are.

No one remembers occasional brilliance when it’s wrapped in the behaviour of a consistent arsehole.

Understanding that we’re defined by our most consistent qualities can be a powerful focussing force. Like gravity, it can help to keep our feet on the ground.

Who you are when you’re stressed

Stress gets a bad rap, but it’s just our body’s way of marshalling resources so that we can better tackle something we care about.

Having said that, it can have a huge impact on almost every aspect of our person:

  • how we act
  • how we feel
  • how we move
  • how we communicate
  • how we sleep

and even

  • how we look

It can also impact any or all of these areas before we’re even aware that we’re feeling stressed.

Maybe our pace quickens and we frown more or we talk faster and become dismissive.

Whatever the specific impact, it affects each of us differently and not always in the most flattering ways.

It’s worth getting to know our stressed selves and learning how to recognise them when they arrive.

I guarantee that our families, co-workers and friends could all describe the stressed versions of us in fine detail – so it’s pretty daft that sometimes we’re the only ones who can’t spot them.

This recognition is important for two key reasons:

  1. Recognising our stressed selves might be the first sign that we’re under pressure. That our bodies is responding to something important that we’re not yet consciously aware of.
  2. Our stressed selves might not be the most caring, compassionate version of ourselves, and we might want to reign them in before they wrecks havoc on our relationships.

Stress can be a positive force for getting stuff done and helping us to tackle the life’s big challenges. But we need to make sure that the person stress can turn us into doesn’t go on a bridge-burning campaign which sabotages everything outside of the task we’re focussed on.

Why everyone else looks unreasonable

“Wow, he’s being a dick” is my particular shorthand for “That gentleman is behaving a little unreasonably”.

But when we see someone acting in a way which seems unreasonable, it’s important that we remember that we don’t have the full picture.

Their behaviour might be inappropriate for the current circumstances, but that doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable.

Our behaviours have many components, two of which are: root causes and triggers.

The problem is that we often see what triggers other people’s unreasonable behaviour, but not the root cause, which gives it context.

When we see someone drop a box of eggs in the supermarket and burst into tears, it looks unreasonable. The behaviour (crying) is disproportionate to the trigger (breaking a box of eggs). But if that person had suffered a personal tragedy (root cause) earlier in the day, then the crying might suddenly look both appropriate and justified.

We all think we’re reasonable, and that it’s just other people who aren’t. That’s because we have access to our own root causes – the events and history which place our behaviour in context – but everyone else’s are hidden from us. And ours are hidden from other people.

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept behaviour from others which is rude, harmful or insincere, but it’s worth understanding that from their point of view, it might be reasonable.

The powerful influence of environment

I’m really, only productive when there are too many things to do.

It forces me to schedule, prioritise and then hustle to get it all done in the allotted time.

I list out all the candidate activities and then choose from that list the things I will do. Some get done, some move to tomorrow, some end up on the scrap heap – sacrificed to the productivity gods.

But I need the pressure of too much to get anywhere near that optimal level of activity.

If I have only a few things to do, they expand like gas to fill the available space. Less urgency = less productivity (for me anyway).

To be clear – this isn’t just about work. This is also about making time for the things I really want to do, like hanging out with my kids.

While I still want to be productive when there’s less pressure, the difference isn’t the intention, it’s the environment.

This is important because our environment plays a huge role in our behaviour. Our behaviour is not just a product of what we want to do, it’s also a function of the world around us.

In fact, the psychologist Kurt Lewin even proposed an equation for explaining this:

B = f(P, E)

– where behaviour (B) is a function of the person (P) and their environment (E).

To understand how influential the environment is, consider the following:

When US servicemen were returning from Vietnam in the early 70s, it turned out that about 40% of them had tried heroin while on deployment. More startling, was that 15% of servicemen were actually addicted to heroin on their return.

That sounds insane and ridiculous, right? If you’re interested you can read about it on CNN or the excellent NPR report.

Of those who were addicted, all but 5% were able to overcome their addiction without relapse within the year. To understand just how staggering that is, consider that the typical relapse rate for heroin addicts in the US at the time was about 90%.

It was later discovered that the primary difference between the two was the environmental change. The soldiers were now completely removed from the environment in which they had used heroin. Few, or none of previous cues, prompts or triggers associated with using were present.

Unfortunately for the US addicts, the same level of environmental change wasn’t there when they wanted to quit. They still lived in same place, kept the same friends, the same job, the same pressures, triggers and prompts. With all those environmental factors remaining the same, 90% of them relapsed into use.

This illustrates just how powerful environmental factors can be in determining what we actually do – irrespective of what we want to do.

So coming back to the original challenge – how do I maintain productivity even when the to do list isn’t overwhelming?

Well in this case the behaviour (being productive) is more difficult to maintain because the environment has shifted (there isn’t as much super-urgent stuff to do).

Rather than fight Lewin’s equation, I seek to reset the balance by restoring the strongest influence – the environment. I put more things into the to-do list – frivolous things, even – that force me to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Sometimes, it’s only when I see “piss about on twitter” as an option for my time and attention that I see what a ridiculous waste of time it is – cutting quickly to the chase.

Whether you’re seeking to maintain a behaviour or unseat one entirely – don’t forget the powerful influence of the environment.

B=f(P,E) can either be the albatross around your neck or a lifeline – the difference is whether or not you’re paying attention to it.

Walking the line


Yesterday was difficult.

I kept catching myself being closed, tight, petty.

I kept letting myself feel hassled by my kids instead of having constructive interactions with them.

Most of the friction was time-based. It was almost entirely around deadlines I had in my head (which were largely self-imposed and imaginary). And because my kids couldn’t see those deadlines, all they experienced was some madman hassling them to get their shoes on faster.

I’m trying to get better at these interactions. I’m trying to be more present and more aware.

But as I become more aware of my behaviour, of my outlook, of my emotions, I realise just how much I suck at it. And that surprises me (and not in a good way), because this is something I thought this was something I was pretty good at.

And what’s most frustrating? All this was foretold.

Ask anyone about what it’s like to develop greater awareness of yourself and they’ll say

“awareness won’t make you feel enlightened, it will make you realise just how far you have to go.”

Actually it’s worse than that. It’s hard not to feel like you’re going backwards.

It feels like there are two potential realities:

“Has the awareness made me worse?”

This is what it feels like.


“Have the scales been knocked from my eyes?”

This would be more helpful, but how do you know when it’s one and not the other?

Once you’re aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect (or you’ve watched an episode of Britain’s Got Talent), you know that people’s perceptions of their own abilities are often radically divorced from reality.

If my awareness was actually making things better, it’s just that for me it FEELS worse – then that’s ok.

What’s not ok, is me thinking that I’m getting better, but the awareness is actually MAKING me worse.

With only a single data point for reference (my own experience) and all the bias of a personal, subjective perspective, it’s tough to tell.

How do you get to the truth of the situation?

Is it about asking other people? Is it about trusting in what “they” said?

It’s difficult to let go of the notion that you may just be bullshitting yourself, but I suspect that just being aware of that possibility goes some way towards keeping you honest.

We all have to walk a fine line between self delusion and ignorance – and half the battle may just be in knowing there is a line somewhere under our feet.