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7 Mental Habits That Work Really Well—Until They Get In Your Way

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Something I discuss often with my coaching clients is how certain mindsets and habits work really well until they become the very things that get in your way. A huge part of next-level performance and well-being is becoming aware of this paradox. This way, you can rely on these qualities when they are helpful, and leave them behind when they are not. Wisdom is knowing when to do what.

Grit 

Passion, perseverance, and persistence are all hugely beneficial habits. The ability to grind and hang in there when the going gets tough is key to performance and a life well lived. That said, sometimes the right thing to do is to quit. As David Epstein pointed out in his book Range, if we rely too heavily on grit, we forfeit the opportunity to try other approaches or activities that might be a better fit for us.

Trying Really Hard

A precondition for flow—the experience of being in the zone, completely absorbed in what you are doing; be it in sport, writing, art, conversation, sex, meditation, or public speaking—is to release from trying. As you approach potential peak moments, trying too hard is associated with choking. That said, for many endeavors, in order to reach a level where flow is even a possibility, you have to try really hard and practice often. In other words, trying hard is a habit that gets you you where you want to go until it becomes a barrier. (Also: be careful of trying not to try; this is a trap!)

Routines

The research on routines is clear. They are indeed effective. They help you activate when you’re feeling lowautomate decisions so you don’t burn willpower, and prime your mind-body system to more easily groove into the task at hand. If you work out every morning, you don’t have to think about working out, you just do it. And, if you’re like most people, you feel much better afterward, regardless of how you were feeling before.

Yet there is a danger in becoming overly attached to your routine. If for whatever reason you can’t stick to it—you’re traveling, your special coffee shop closes, whatever elixir you order from your favorite podcast’s advertising goes out of business, your schedule changes and with it some of your daily habits—you won’t know what to do. It’s like a Zen Koan: The first rule of routines is to develop one and stick with it. The second rule is to cultivate the capacity to easily let go of it.

Self-Discipline

Similar to grit, nudging yourself to do the hard thing when it is the right thing is a superpower—until what you need is a break. Unrelenting self-discipline takes you to the top of your game. But, without caution, it is a habit that can also take you down a steep slope toward burnout.

Strength

Be it of body or mind, strength, the capacity to remain solid amidst a storm, is advantageous. If you’re always going with the flow you’ll go wherever the flow takes you. However, there are times that call for adaptation. If in these times you cannot adapt, you suffer. Or worse, you get selected out. It is true that flexibility without strength is instability, but strength without flexibility is rigidity. And being rigid is neither fun nor particularly effective.

Measurement and Tracking

If you are relying on any kind of real-time measurement device (e.g., pedometers, heart-rate monitors, GPS data, productivity tools) you can run into two problems:

  1. What happens if they stop working?
  2. Similar to trying really hard (see above) these technologies can sometimes prevent you from realizing a breakthrough performance.

While the first point is self-explanatory, the second one requires a bit more detail. If you are primed to run the best race of your life or have the best writing day of your career, but your GPS watch says you are going too fast or your word-counter says you’ve exceeded your daily target by two standard deviations, then you run the risk of pulling back on the pace or stopping too soon. You get in the way of your big day. On the flip-side, if you feel like crap, then regardless of what your measurement tracker says you should probably slow down or stop altogether, lest you push yourself into an injury.

Measurement and tracking are a great habit—until they prevent you from listening to your own mind-body system. Remember, measurement and tracking are secondary outputs. The purest and most accurate indicator is how you feel, at least once you’ve learned to listen to your mind-body. As I’ve written before, measurement and tracking are great while you learn to listen, but you’ve got to be willing to leave these tools behind, at least occasionally, once you have.

Freedom

If too much reliance on routine can be problematic, then so, too, can too much freedom. The psychologist, philosopher, and sociologist Erich Fromm, one of the last true polymaths, wrote often about the difference between negative freedom and positive freedom. Negative freedom is freedom from constraints. Positive freedom is freedom to express yourself as you want. Just about everyone thinks of freedom as unequivocally good, but, according to Fromm, this isn’t always so. While positive freedom is wonderful, negative freedom is often associated with anxiety, insecurity, and depression.

One problem with the current ethos of heroic individualism is that it fails to separate negative freedom from positive freedom, and instead unquestionably celebrates both. It also fails to separate productive constraints from unproductive ones, looking down upon them all. The result is that while many people benefit from being freer than ever, they also carry the cost of having more anxiety than ever.

An extreme example is someone struggling with alcoholism. Though this person may find alcoholics anonymous to be effective, they choose not to go consistently because they want to be free of religion and what they view as the too-paternalistic nature of the program. They free themselves from AA but the rest of their life suffers, and they become far less free as a result. Not all freedom is created equal. Constraints aren’t always good, but they aren’t always bad either. Sometimes we need to sacrifice some freedoms in order to achieve others.

Brad

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