Authored By: Alex Neagoe
If you think your dad was obsessed with the appearance of his front lawn, you clearly didn’t know mine.
As a business owner of a mid-sized irrigation company, he spent many nights and weekends manicuring our grass. If we had lived in an HOA, we would have won lawn of the month every single time. Even with all the hard work to maintain the curb appeal, come early summer, weeds would routinely pop up near the tree line. As a bored, small child I decided one day to help my father remove some of the weeds and as I began to pull, he stopped me and said, “Alex, if you don’t pull out the root, you will never solve the problem.” At that age, you never realize the impact words will have on you, but it is from that seeminglyinsignificant interaction I learned one of life’s most important lessons.
It’s a bad habit that everyone falls victim to – avoiding our true problems by creating subpar excuses and short-term solutions. We just continue to mow over the weeds and allow them to grow, eventually leading to a complete take over of the lawn, leaving us with the expensive consequence of accepting failure and starting all over again. Imagine the lawn as your business or your department and the weeds are your problems. How many times have you just mowed over the problems with short-term solutions and lacked the accountability to get your hands dirty and pull at the root?
You live in a fast paced world that influences you to act quickly without much thought, leading to surface level corrections. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need to think fast and impose a “good enough solution,” but if that is all you’re doing, the challenges you face will just reappear like a recurring childhood nightmare. Take my student fighter pilot who experienced an engine failure on a sortie (one mission or attack by a single plane). The band aid solution for that is to immediately pull back on the stick and gain precious elevation. Gaining elevation gives you time to resolve the problem, but without a deep dive into the engine failure checklist, that pilot would have faced life-threatening consequences. Talk about a high-pressure situation where a decision needs to be made quickly, BUT also effectively!
It is a misconception that doing things quickly will result in getting more done; in reality the opposite happens since you are trading indissoluble results for short-term comfort. It is easier to just mow over the weeds pretending you have green grass than it is to get your hands dirty extracting the roots and waiting for new growth. In the long run, the commitment to slow thinking leading to long-term solutions is your best bet in saving time, energy and money.
The brain is composed of various regions that communicate with one another via pathways and signals. Two of the more commonly known areas are the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is the emotional control center, whereas the prefrontal cortex is in charge of moral judgment and decision making.Proper communication allows for the cortex to reason with the amygdala and provide a person with the chance to act soundly when faced with an external (i.e. hydroplaning on a highway) or internal (i.e. self-doubt) threat.
One of the most common causes of impaired connectivity or miscommunication between those areas is excess stress, also known as an amygdala hijacking. The emotional control center becomes impulsive. It makes a decision to act before the prefrontal cortex can bring logic to the situation. The amygdala cannot delineate between a physical or emotional threat, meaning it doesn’t require a fire starting in the break room for you to make poor decisions, sometimes it can be missing an important deadline or losing a large project to a competitor.
When you are under stress the best way to avoid mowing over the weeds is encouraging yourself to think slower. In times of stress people turn on the turbo and make decisions that damage future growth potential. If you are consistently reacting to correct old decisions you will never get the opportunity to play offense and be proactive about the future. Thinking slowly gives you the chance to focus on your current and future problems and move on from the past because success does not lie in the rear view mirror.
To neutralize your amygdala from hijacking your decisions, it is important to quickly kick your prefrontal cortex into gear by slowing down your stress response. A simple tool that you can use anywhere, anytime is the Resetting Routine. The three step approach neutralizes your fight-or-flight response by activating systems in charge of your rest and digest.
The Resetting Routine
2. Diaphragmatic Breaths
3. Cue Word
The first step (Self-Awareness) is the hardest part for anyone who is new to the Resetting Routine. It is impossible to stop reactionary decisions if you are unaware of your stress. The very first thing you need to do is start becoming aware of your psychological indicators following your amygdala’s detection of a threat. My indicators are a hot face, sweaty palms and a clenched jaw. For others it can be shaking hands, tensed shoulders, burning eyes, or restless foot tapping. If you can detect your earliest indicators, you can get ahead of your decisions before you get behind them.
The second step, diaphragmatic breathing (DB) goes beyond just taking a few simple breaths. When you watch your baby or dog sleep, you will notice that their belly expands big and wide with every breath and as adults we very rarely put in that amount of effort into our oxygen intake. Diaphragmatic breathing requires you to breathe slowly through your nose and deeply into your belly. If you were to put a hand on your chest and on your stomach, the hand on your stomach should be moving more.
When you breathe slow and low you are activating a nerve that starts in your brain stem and trickles down underneath the diaphragm by the stomach and pancreas, the vagus nerve (no, not that fun place in Nevada). This nerve controls your rest and digest, giving your prefrontal cortex the time to respond to the amygdala’s emotional reaction to stimulus.
Taking 3-5 breaths that includes a 4 second inhale and 5 second exhale can engage the vagus nerve and activate your rest and digest, enabling you to think slower and find solutions that lead to long-term relief.
Now that your physical state is neutralized, it is time to alter your counterproductive thoughts into something more productive. In times of stress it is common to have self-talk that only debilitates your ability to be logical. Something I often say to myself when under stress is, “this is impossible,” or I push it off to the side and ignore my stressors saying, “I’ll get to this a little later.” Those types of responses are common, but it is our job to change what we say to ourselves so we can make the best decision, even if it is not the easiest. Step 3 (Cue Words) is all about replacing old, reactive thoughts with new, revitalizing ones that generate a proactive stance. A better response I could give in the face of stress is, “Find the root.”
When I worked with fighter pilots, the type of counterproductive thoughts they had were not always “negative,” sometimes their self-talk was just off topic or distracting to the task at hand. If a pilot was thinking about his mistake during ground operations while trying to respond to an emergency procedure (EP) in the air, he or she may miss important information that leads to a build up of other EP’s further into the flight. Counterproductive thoughts can derail your confidence or distract you from pulling the root of your problem.
Common thought replacements I have heard from the cockpit to the boardroom are:
“I’ve failed anyway, what does it matter.” —> “Bring your best.”
“I am going to fail because they pulled my original flight plan.” —> “Be agile.”
“What’s the point.” —> “Better than yesterday.”
“We can’t meet all these demands on time.” —> “Priorities first.”
“I am overworked and stretched too thin.” —> “Boundaries.”
As you can see, rephrasing does not have to be some long, “touchy-feely,” paragraph. It is just a word or short phrase that reestablishes confidence and redirects your attention to finding a lasting solution.
It is always going to be easier to ignore your problems or come up with lackluster approaches. It is hard to investigate an effective solution because it will require you to break the habit of constantly working at hyperspeed. Slow thinking will require conscious discipline and the resetting routine will need to be practiced consistently to see maximized results.
My dad might have enjoyed spending hours in the yard pulling at weeds, but as a business owner he has had to spend a significant amount of time playing defense on problems he didn’t necessarily want to entertain. As a leader of a project, small group, department or company you will have to take extra steps and time to correctly diagnose the root-cause and, at times, use more resources to extract the problem. Although a tiring process, the benefit of fixing a problem the first time around will always outweigh the con of mowing over the issue.