1 Big Idea to Think About

  • We live in a world designed to keep us distracted and engaged in what others want us to do. We often forget that we have the agency, a space to choose, what decision we want to make and the type of life we want to live. We can take that space back, but we must be intentional about it. 

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Choose one of the suggestions from this episode, or implement one of your own that will allow you to be reminded of your agency and your power to choose.
    • Create a choice journal (19:52)
    • Create a ‘pause button’ ritual (20:38)
    • Engage in a role reversal decision-making process (21:13)
    • Set up intention anchors (21:41)
    • Practice choice visualization (22:16)
    • Develop a decision delay technique

1 Question to Ask

  •  How can I reclaim what have I lost to the convenience of the digital world?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Gift from the Sea (1:42)
  • Finding a new rhythm with “creative pauses”(4:12)
  • The gap between stimulus and response (6:14)
  • Rediscovering the space to choose in the modern world (14:44)
  • How you can recapture your right to choose (19:29)
  • The choice journal (19:52)
  • Create a ‘pause button’ ritual (20:38)
  • Engage in a role reversal decision-making process (21:13)
  • Set up intention anchors (21:41)
  • Practice choice visualization (22:16)
  • Develop a decision delay technique (22:57)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome back, everybody. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. I’m the author of two New York Times bestselling books, Essentialism and Effortless, and I am here with you on this journey to learn, to see if we can’t figure out better, sometimes easier strategies to be able to live our highest point of contribution. 

In today’s episode, I want to share with you a simple idea that gets lost in the noise and the reactivity in the hooked culture in which we live. By the end of this episode, you will feel empowered to be able to take control of more of the things you can control, rather than being a bit in the code of somebody else’s design. Let’s get to it. 

Remember that if you want to get more from this episode, share what you learned with somebody else within the next 20, 40, 48 hours. It might be something that I share directly or, better still, something that has come to you, a new idea or a new moment of guidance. Share that, be truthful about it, and see where it leads you.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an acclaimed American author, and an aviator in her own right. She was the wife of the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Born in 1906, she gained recognition for her contributions to aviation, to literature, and she became a licensed pilot under the guidance of her husband, Charles Lindbergh. She was a navigator and radio operator. She took time. One of her most notable contributions to aviation was her participation in survey flights to chart potential air routes for commercial airlines. In 1933, she and Charles flew a Lockheed Sirius aircraft on a five-month, 30,000-mile journey from Africa to South America to explore and map potential transatlantic flight paths. So, this expedition alone was crucial to the development of commercial air travel routes. She was the first woman to receive the US National Geographic Society’s gold medal, and she was also a notable author. 

Tragically, Charles and Anne’s life was marked by the infamous kidnapping and murder of their son in 1932, a case that shocked the world. But despite this, Anne continued to inspire through her writings on life, love, and the importance of solitude. In fact, it was in just such a period of writing and reflection that she crafted the book that perhaps she is best known for: Gift From the Sea

It was during a time on Captiva Island. She was surrounded by the serene beauty of the sea as she contemplated life’s complexities, seeking simplicity and balance through all of that. This tranquil setting inspired her to pen these marvelous meditations, comparing the shells on the beach to stages of life and relationships. It’s a book that blends self-reflection and universal truths, and it’s inspired readers, for now, almost 70 years. It remains a relevant testament to finding one’s inner solitude amidst the chaos of this world. 

In the opening pages of this classic book, you can read the following: “Even those whose lives had appeared to be ticking imperturbably under their smiling clock faces were often trying like me,” that is, like Anne, “to evolve another rhythm, with more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to their individual needs and new and more alive relationships, in themselves as well as others.”

I read that recently, and those words really stood out on the page; that description that everyone she was speaking to seemed, under the surface at the very least, to want a different rhythm of life and that the rhythm of that life should have more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to our individual needs, one where we had new and more alive relationships. 

Doesn’t that name something for you? It does for me. Doesn’t that speak to something of the unnatural digital rhythms that seem not only to enable our life of commotion but increasingly to make us adjust to it like we’re the weakest link in the great digital system around us? I love, almost like a thesis statement of Gift From the Sea, this idea that we need to create within us a space, nurture a space between us and all of that chaos and commotion outside, and that we can do that, that it is within the range of human capability to be able to expand that internal space, that internal sense of timelessness, of agency, of choice. 

Now, let me shift to a completely different story, and I’ll tie them together before we’re done. This is from the final section, the final chapter of 7 Habits by Stephen Covey. He writes the following: “I would like to share with you a personal story which I feel contains the essence of this book. In doing so, it is my hope that you will relate to the underlying principles it contains.”

“Some years ago, our family took a sabbatical leave from the university where I taught so that I could write. We lived for a full year in Lai on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Shortly after getting settled, we developed a living and working routine which was not only very productive but extremely pleasant. After an early morning run on the beach, we would send two of our children, barefoot and in shorts, to school. I went to an isolated building next to the cane fields, where I had an office to do my writing. It was very quiet, very beautiful, very serene, no phone, no meetings, no pressing engagements.”

“My office was on the outside edge of a college, and one day, as I was wandering, I came across a book that drew my interest. As I opened it, my eyes fell upon a single paragraph that powerfully influenced the rest of my life. I read the paragraph over and over again. It basically contained the simple idea that there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space. I can hardly describe the effect that that idea had on my mind.” 

“Although I had been nurtured in the philosophy of self-determinism. The way the idea was phrased, a gap between stimulus and response, hit me with fresh, almost unbelievable force. It was almost like knowing it for the first time, like an inward revolution, an idea whose time had come. I reflected on it again and again, and it began to have a powerful effect on my paradigm of life. It was as if I had become an observer of my own participation.” 

“I began to stand in that gap and to look outside. I reveled in the inward sense of freedom to choose my response, even to become the stimulus, or at least to influence it, even to reverse it.”

Elsewhere, Stephen has written that he tried to find that book again when he went back to the library to read more of it and to be able to give a citation for other people, to be able to read more about this idea that had been so transformative to him. So that left within me a question, just the periphery of my mind, to wonder if I could ever find that book, if I could ever read it and have, for myself and for other people, an opportunity to relive the experience that was so transformative to Stephen. Again, that idea that the space between stimulus and response and that in that space is our freedom to choose, and that in our ability to choose we can find all of our growth, all of our freedom. So it is. 

When I had the opportunity not very long ago to speak with A. Roger Merrill, that’s his name, Mr. A. Roger Merrill. I put this question to him. Roger Merrill and Rebecca Merrill, among other things, were the co-authors of the book that came after The 7 Habits. First Things First. They were co-authors with Stephen. If anybody were to know whether this conundrum had been solved, if they ever did get to define or to go back and find, not where the quote came from, necessarily, but the idea that spawned this idea so clearly, it would be him. I asked him, and at first, he just couldn’t remember. He’s 78 now, and I know as I get told it’s harder to remember as the years go by, but he said that it was just on the tip of his tongue and that he would send it to me later, which he did. 

The quote that forms the core of ‘Be Proactive,’ which is the foundation of all the seven habits for those who are serious readers and implementers of those ideas, doesn’t exist anywhere but in the 7 Habits. There is no quote that you can cite, but the book that generated the eureka that Stephen put into that language is Gift From the Sea

Think of what a beautiful revelation that is, this shared appreciation for the inner space where personal growth and freedom are cultivated, this beautiful comparison a generation later, where Stephen and his wife Sandra and their children are spending this time in Hawaii on a beach, every day, learning and growing at exactly the same kind of environment that Anne Morrow Lindbergh was in when she wrote these ideas.

There’s a lot to be said here, and there’s a great gift in knowing this connection because now we can go back and read all of the context, all the additional light and language that Anne offered that helped to formulate this simple idea. There is a space. There is a space between all the chaos out there, all the commotion, all the noise. There is a space between that and the choices we make. It is a treatise, an inspirational attempt to re-enthrone that idea within us. That we get to choose, that we are agents, that we have agency is the most marvelous thing to remember, and we need to remember it because, my goodness, that device in your hand, in my hand, whatever it is, it’s not a phone. I’ve said elsewhere that it is rather a three trillion dollar military-grade, distraction-producing, space-space-shrinking machine, and we are no match for it. 

But maybe on the last point, I’m wrong. Maybe it’s true that we’re no match for it if we just go along, if we don’t conjure and nurture our sense of space that we are not simply the weakest link, the node that can be manipulated in the great digital system that seems to map and engulf the world and our lives. If we can suddenly see ourselves outside of the system, suddenly reawaken our sense of choice. We get to choose our response even to this tremendously. How would you say? System that has been built not for our personal advantage or sense of agency. I’m not sure it’s ideal, but I’ve come to hate my phone really and seriously. The more I think of it, the more I think of what I have traded off since smartphones made the unholy pact with social media and an app interface.

Sometimes, I ask people, when I’m giving keynotes, to think about what we have gained since that time, more than ten years, at the time of this recording; what did we gain? And people will say at first, “Well, we’ve gained accessibility and information.” 

And then I asked the second question, “Well, what did we give up?” 

Their answers are almost hilarious in their poignancy, “Well, we gave up freedom, connection with the people closest to us, control of our lives,” We gave up, not to put too fine a point on it, what Morrow is seeking. We gave up what she’s describing here. Go back to the phrase “to evolve another rhythm with more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to our individual needs and new and more alive relationships.”

That’s what we gave up, and that’s what makes me so angry. And I have to use that word because while people like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, people like you, people like me are seeking to evolve another rhythm, other people have been trying to act upon us to rest our lives to their rhythm, perhaps with no creative pauses. What if we could make the phones buzz? I mean, literally physically moving their pockets in their hands. What if we could create a notification that flashes in front of them and has a noise to it? When all of those things, they don’t allow us to adjust our lives to our individual needs. Instead, they draw us into a more and more manipulated algorithm, keeping us locked and hooked. 

I once coached a man who was trying to start a bakery but instead spent 20 to 25 hours a week on Instagram looking at other people’s photos of their bakeries. I once coached a woman who kept her phone under her pillow at night so that if anyone emailed or texted, she would wake up, respond, and then go back to bed.

Do these human behaviors seem normal? Do they seem like conscious, intentional choices, or do they seem more like the behaviors someone else has chosen for them? Well, that’s the heart of it. We can make a different choice. We can wake up, look at the system, and step apart from it. That’s the hope and promise of Gift From the Sea. We can stand apart. We can develop our sense of agency again, our sense of choice. We can choose to cultivate a life that isn’t like the life that’s been cultivated and fed to us. 

Let me suggest in closing a few ideas. Don’t do all of them, do one of them, or choose none of these, but something else that feels realistic and real to you in support of a kind of rhythm and sense of life and creativity, with pauses and more alive relationships. Here’s one you could implement a choice journal. So, just in a small notebook, throughout the day you jot down moments when you made a conscious choice to engage or disengage with something, so that allows you to note the outcome and how it made you feel. So this practice not only encourages mindfulness about your decision-making but also highlights your agency in navigating those distractions and over time, reviewing that journal can provide insights into patterns and empower you to make more deliberate choices. Might suggest that you keep this choice journal for one full day or for a whole week. Perhaps that’s enough. Try to increase your sense of agency in the world.

You could create a ‘pause button’ ritual. I say ‘pause button’ in inverted commas because you could designate a small object, a token. You know it’s symbolically a pause button. You carry it with you; you place it where you often work or spend time so that when you encounter a decision point or feel overwhelmed by distractions you physically hold, that tangible token encourages you to stop and think, making you more conscious of your choices, rather than just reacting impulsively to stimuli. 

You could engage in a role reversal in your decision making, occasionally choose to approach the decision from the perspective of someone you admire, or a role model, someone preferably, who seems more peaceful and centered, more conscious and intentional in the way they make choices, and simply to ask well, what would that person do in this decision? Oh, what would that person do in this situation?

Another idea is to set up intention anchors. It is to identify specific routine activities. It could be unlocking your front door, it could be even starting your computer, but it’s a cue to set or recall a daily intention related to your decision making. For example, when you turn on your computer, you might set the intention to only use technology purposefully that day. So, these anchors serve as regular reminders of your agency and the power of choice, integrating intentionality into your daily life.

You could practice choice visualization. Spend a few minutes each day visualizing different choices you might face, along with their potential outcomes. You can imagine yourself handling these situations with composure and making decisions that align with your highest values, your highest goals, and aspirations. This mental visualization can prepare you for the real-life choices more confidently and with greater awareness, reducing the likelihood of being swayed by distractions or pressures or just reactively, impulsively doing whatever sparks you in the moment. 

And finally, you could develop a decision delay technique so that when you’re faced with non-urgent decisions, especially those that could lead to distraction or derail your focus, you implement a deliberate delay. For instance, if you’re tempted to check social media or purchase something impulsively, you tell yourself you’ll revisit the decision in an hour or at the end of the day. So, this technique helps to break the cycle of immediate ratification and allows you to evaluate the choice more objectively, often leading to more controlled and conscious decision-making.

These are just some ideas. What I hope is that you’ll pick one of them that seems most relevant to you now, or perhaps you’ll be able to pause and return and replay this episode and go through all of the options together at your pace, not rushing to implement any of them, or better than any of the above, or perhaps something that grows out of doing what I’ve just described, is that some other idea will spark your imagination, something else that feels relevant to you right now, in your situation, to help you evolve, with more creative pauses in it, more adjustment to your individual needs, more alive relationships with yourself and with others. 

Thank you, really, thank you for listening. What sparked in your imagination, what did your conscience counsel you to do, and who is somebody that you can share this insight and this episode with so that you can continue the conversation now that the conversation has come to a close? Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time.