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Freedom: The Time Between Action and Reaction

I used to suffer from a very bad habit that I had convinced myself was one of my strongest traits: I was quick to respond.

Not just in the moment with a friend--popping off with a clever comeback in record time--but in my quick turnaround to emails, grading of papers, and answers to questions I would have been far better off sitting on for a beat.

But as I saw it, responding quickly proved that I was engaged, listening, and not wasting a second of anyone's time. And so I found myself prioritizing quick responses to any and all situations.

In times of crisis, it can feel as if there is no time to delay reacting. Quick responses feel essential. And while it's true, some situations require quick reactions, by and large, we allow the crisis to cut out the vital time and space between action and reaction. We begin to function solely in a reactionary mode. And yet, I'd argue that those who feel the need to react quickly in a crisis also feel the need to respond quickly when there is no crisis.

This is to say--crisis or no crisis--there is so much to be gained in the time between action and reaction. The time after we receive an ask, action, or accusation, and the time before we react, respond, or retort holds the keys to so much of what we crave. So how do we capture that time, hold it, value it, and not squander it too quickly just to present a response?

Well, for starters...

Watch for the Pattern

When it comes to how we respond to things, there is a bit of auto-pilot that kicks in. Some are quick to say no. Others--like myself--are quick to say yes. Even the speed at which they respond with yes or no is a pattern unto itself. It's important to recognize your own pattern. When presented with an action, what is your immediate reaction? And how immediate is your immediate?

For me, there was always the need to hurry. And I felt that deep within my chest. The idea that someone was sitting around waiting on me to respond made my heart flutter with anxiety, and I would rush to respond just to relieve myself from that feeling. And even though I might not be totally happy with my response, at least I (momentarily) got rid of that discomfort. Discomfort that had nothing to do with what was being asked of me and everything to do with worry that I was making anyone wait or letting anyone down.

Now, knowing this about myself has been the key to my freedom. Because I now know to expect that feeling of panic, that concern for other people's expectations, that worry that I will let someone down. And because I'm ready for that feeling, I don't work so hard to squash it. And that helps because the next thing I need to do is....

Sit with the Scenarios

For so long, I felt there was really only one option, which was pre-determined. This meant that my happiness, or value, rested on picking the correct option. I either do or I don't. I either accept or reject. But nothing in life is that binary. There are limitless possibilities, reactions, and options that only become clear to us when we take the time to try on all the possible scenarios.

I recently had a student call me to ask whether she should take a promotion she had been offered. She seemed so worried about saying no to the opportunity, but she just wasn't excited to say yes. Beyond that, she felt urgency to respond quickly.

"What if," I suggested, "you consider a third scenario?"

"There's a third option?" she asked after a long pause.

"And a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth," I said. "You've only been presented one. Maybe it's not the one you want."

She called the next day to say, "You know, I had convinced myself that accepting that promotion was the only option. And not only that, that it was somehow the right option. But I just didn't feel excited about it."

"So what did you decide?" I probed.

"Well, the minute you said there were other options, I realized I hadn't given a single thought to what I wanted; I had only focused on responding to what they wanted. So I decided I actually don't want to work for the organization anymore. I turned down the promotion and I'm quietly searching for a new role at another organization."

I congratulated her on her decision, and asked one final question. "What did you learn about yourself while you were thinking through your response?"

She laughed. "I had convinced myself that how quickly I responded was somehow more important than what I responded with."

In her realization that when was pressing on her harder than what, she learned the big truth that...

Good opportunities aren't time sensitive

For a long time I had convinced myself that every worthy opportunity was a ticking time bomb, and if I didn't jump to detonate, I'd not only miss my chance, but my lack of timeliness would be catastrophic.

But no truly good opportunity comes with undue pressure for you to act quickly. Sure, a job offer might ask for a response, but even then, they aren't asking for it in the moment (and for the love of god, don't answer them in the moment!). And yes, a marriage proposal might get awkward if you don't say "yes" somewhat quickly. But if your ability to respond quickly is the only thing that allows the opportunity to exist, then that's not an opportunity you want. A low stakes example: My favorite clothing store sends an email every day telling me, This sale won't last long! A higher stakes example: I was once asked to be a speaker for an organization that told me, If you can't do it now, we won't be asking you in the future.

If there's one thing people have a super complicated relationship with, it's time. Not only do we complain that we never have enough of it, but we are extremely uncomfortable if we have an excess of it. For most, time is only valuable if it's productive. The problem is, most people don't properly define productivity.

Because if they did, they would realize the most productive time they spend is the time right before they act.


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