The Space between Stimulus and Response: Part 1
On pushing just a LITTLE bit harder
Between Stimulus and Response There Is a Space. In That Space Is Our Power To Choose Our Response
— Viktor Frankl (Sort of)
The theme of pushing through life’s small challenges keeps making its way back into my day to day. There are many moments every day where we are presented with choices between things like “allow the distraction to happen” and “I’ll just keep doing this a little longer”, “One more cookie" and “I’ll just drink a glass of water”. Not quite the two wolves within us, not quite the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other, more like a pitched battle between our own internal sloth and beaver. Right now I have a sloth on steroids and a beaver that’s hibernating. The thing about the choices we make in those moments is that not only do they strengthen the winner, they weaken the loser. There’s a sense that this is a key lesson for me to learn in order to thrive.
Roadtrip. We listened to “6:20 Man” by David Baldacci on our way out of Loveland, much of the trip out to Eugene, OR. I had seen it in an Estes Park bookstore - Macdonald Book Shop is small but mighty - at the end of a drive with friends up Fall River Road through the clouds. The book was OK, serving the purpose of taking our minds off of miles of smoky Southern Idaho. After that we were up for something a little more thoughtful and Minette had expressed interest in reading “Organize Tomorrow Today” as I had raved about it, so we queued that up on her Audible.
We fought through some technical issues between Audible, Instagram surfing, CarPlay, and a balky Subaru system (as someone who spent most of their software career in embedded systems I feel qualified enough to say that it needs work, and behaves like something that was contracted out to some software shop in the 2nd world that churns out code as fast as it churns through employees), but eventually got it playing.
Win Your Fight-Thrus. The authors introduce the concept of ‘Fight-Thrus’ as the small internal battles we need to wage with ourselves to take a new habit from the honeymoon phase through to it becoming second nature.
And the first few days, it might even be easy. After that first vigorous workout in your new routine, you might say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I can do this. I'm ready for the challenge.”
But all honeymoons eventually come to an end, and the day-to-day reality sets in.
On day three or day eight or day eighteen, you'll meet one of the constant stream of obstacles that will test your resolve. You'll be presented with many different versions of the same question.
Will you take the easier route and go back to "normal," or will you win your "fight thru"?
This is the point where "I can do this" turns into "This is harder than I thought," or, "Is it really going to matter if I miss a day?" To make it through to the third phase, when the habit becomes second nature, you need to be able to win two or three of these important fight-thru battles with yourself.
— Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life, by Dr. Jason Selk and Tom Bartow
Minette quite rightly pointed out that the book is full of masculine energy with its sports analogies. If the word “fight” feels a little too masculine, we’re talking about the “to put forth a determined effort” definition of the word.
The authors note that allowing small failures slowly erodes self-confidence, mental strength. By waging and winning these small battles we improve our sense of ourselves. Self-confidence - not the outward facing bravado rather the inward-looking ability to count on ourselves - is a throughline in the book. You can also see it in this quote from another favorite, Atomic Habits:
… it's not always about what happens during the workout. It's about being the type of person who doesn't miss workouts. It’s easy to train when you feel good, but it's crucial to show up when you don't feel like it – even if you do less than you hope. Going to the gym for five minutes may not improve your performance, but it reaffirms your identity.
— James Clear, ATOMIC HABITS
The space between stimulus and response. According to the book our job is first to recognize that we’re in a fight-thru situation (the stimulus part of the equation). In the space before the response they suggest the following technique:
Bring emotion into the equation by asking 2 questions: “How will I feel if I win this fight-thru?” and “How will I feel if I lose this fight-thru?”.
Perform a “life projection” visualization. For around 30 seconds, think in detail about where you think your life will be in 5 years if you’re able to make this change and consistently win your fight-thrus. Do the same for if you allow yourself to lose for 5 years.
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Pizza in Hines. We’re at a hotel in Hines, Oregon, which appears to only be there because it’s a waypoint between Bend and I84/Boise for folks traveling East/West. This is underscored by the presence of a Tesla supercharger station in a field beside the Rite Aid. It’s Sunday afternoon, most things are closed, and dinner options are scant. The eventual choice of pizza is a pattern that plays out often in my life: kvetsch about it, order the yummy thing and eat it all, feel guilty about it. There’s a bit of codependence in there as well where Minette and I amplify each other’s weaknesses around food. Each step of that food choice points out places where I’m not fighting through. There were much healthier choices still available in our cooler, I could have chosen something healthier from the restaurant, I could have just outright skipped dinner (a la Jocko Willink’s advice that if there aren’t good choices, just don’t eat), I could have only eaten a portion of the pizza and thrown the rest away, and so on. The problem isn’t so much that one meal, rather that a scenario similar to this plays out daily for me.
I’ve struggled before when I think about abstinence when it comes to certain foods. Abstaining from alcohol has worked well for me (6 years free!), but food not so much. I knew that I could never have alcohol in moderation: I have a similar issue with food but I haven’t had success keeping away from the problematic stuff. It keeps finding its way back into my diet in progressively larger amounts.
Fighting through - the choice to snack at all, the choice of the carbohydrate-laden snack, the choice about the amount of said snack - may be the long term solution that will help most. In the long term, having the self-confidence and mental fortitude to make the right choices about food daily will serve me better than almost any other improvement I can make. I can make a fast happen - no choices there at all - but the minute to minute of a normal day presents too many yummy options and decisions.
Overwhelm. It’s after our trip and I’m standing in our garage in utter overwhelm. My thinking when I went out there was to unpack the two remaining bikes that were still boxed up after our move. After standing there for several minutes looking at piles of boxes, tools, packing materials, 20 potential mini-projects, and several yet-to-be-started larger projects my mind got fuzzy and it was time to run away to food or TV or both. I have the type of mind that sees all the things at once. I reminded myself that this was what the fight through was all about and proceeded to pick one of the bike boxes and unpack it, ignoring everything else. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s easy to say “Brad, you know enough to break these things down into manageable pieces first”, but the real fight through came from constantly moving past the overwhelm.
Focus. As I write this I’m fighting through distractions. My attempts at 90-minute deep work blocks are a constant battle against reddit & hurricane Ian updates, snacks, trying to figure out how to build the essay into something coherent, and my brain drifting away from something difficult. In so many ways this is akin to meditating, where I need to constantly coax my focus back to the task at hand.
Wellbeing is realized by small steps. But it’s no small thing.
— Zeno of Citium
Therapy is pointing out that I always had these problems - there’s even emotion writing that. I was able to circumvent them through commitments that forced my hand - jobs, Ironman races, house moves, etc., but mostly I just chose to do the fun things. It’s also showing my a lack of confidence that has been further eroded by not winning these little battles in the space between stimulus and response.
In Part 2 of this series we’ll take a look at mindful approaches and somatic experiencing for living and thriving in that space, and cook up a new experiment to run on myself. In the meantime, leave me a comment about your techniques or battles between stimulus and response.