It’s All About Conditioning

When I was young and heard the word “conditioning,” my thoughts immediately went to football. I associated conditioning with getting in shape. That meant sprints, weights and various drills repeated over and over to ready my body for the physical demands that were to come on Friday nights in the fall.

Now I hear “conditioning” and think about the automatic responses I have to so many things in life. You have them, too. The automatic responses we all encounter come from repeated exposure to certain stimuli. For example:

  • Red light means stop.
  • Green light means go.
  • Someone makes an offer we don’t want but we still say, “No thanks,” even though we might not be thankful for the offer.

If you believe you’re in total control of your daily decisions I have some bad news for you – you aren’t. Psychologists estimate the automatic responses within our subconscious drive 85%-95% of our behavior. In other words, you’re consciously, thoughtfully, deciding what to do maybe 10%-15% of the time.

But, there’s hope! When you start to understand this you can begin to make different choices. You may not catch yourself in the moment but even dissecting your thoughts and behavior afterwards can be beneficial.

Here’s a personal example. I have a reminder on my phone that pops up every morning that reads, “I will approach everything with a positive attitude and I will learn from every situation.” It’s a reminder to maintain a positive attitude about whatever I may encounter. However, if I realize after the fact that my attitude was bad (frustrated driving to work, impatient waiting in line, snapped at Jane), that little mantra reminds me that I can still try to figure out what led to my less than positive attitude or behavior.

I can’t change the past but sometimes saying I’m sorry and acknowledging I could have behaved better goes a long way. Dale Carnegie understood this when he wrote, “When you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” More recently, social psychologists like Robert Cialdini show that admitting weakness (saying “sorry” fits the bill) can actually help you because you’re viewed as being trustworthy.

As you learn to reflect and admit mistakes you’ll become more aware the next time you find yourself in a situation where your attitude needs adjustment in the moment.

And then there’s responsibility. A great way to think about responsibility is “the ability to respond.” Your response doesn’t have to be automatic; it can be thoughtful and purposeful.

Conditioning isn’t all bad. It helped me get ready for football and lots of other sports. It also helps each of us navigate our days without having to expend an inordinate amount of time and energy on every little decision.

However, not all routines and responses are good. We can become oblivious to bad patterns we’ve developed over the years and that’s where we need to choose to incorporate some responsibility. This week see if you can catch yourself in the moment and try to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. If you miss opportunities in the moment don’t worry because at some point during the day you can take a few moments to reflect. Ben Franklin said, “Three things are hard; diamond, steel and to know ones self.” In the long run knowing yourself will be worth far more than diamonds or steel.

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