The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms


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Introducing The Power of Agency, a science-backed approach to living life on your own terms. Agency is the ability to act as an effective agent for yourself—reflecting, making creative choices, and constructing a meaningful life. Grounded in extensive psychological research, The Power of Agency gives you the tools to help alleviate anxiety, manage competing demands and help you live your version of success.

Renowned psychology experts Paul Napper and Anthony Rao will help you break through your state of overwhelm by showing you how to access your personal agency with seven empowering principles: control stimuli, associate selectively, move, position yourself as a learner, manage your emotions and beliefs, check your intuition, deliberate and then act.

Featuring stories of people who have successfully applied these principles to improve their lives, The Power of Agency will give you the insights and skills to build your confidence, conquer challenges, and live more authentically.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250127570
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

PAUL NAPPER leads a management psychology and executive coaching consultancy in Boston. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, universities, and start-ups. He held an academic appointment and advanced fellowship position at Harvard Medical School.

ANTHONY RAO is a cognitive-behavioral psychologist. He maintains a clinical practice, consults, and speaks nationally, appearing regularly as an expert commentator. For over 20 years he was a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Read an Excerpt



* * *


Control Stimuli

Managing your exposure to external stimuli will increase the quality of your thinking, the quality of your judgment, and the quality of your life overall.

* * *

Most of us have had that moment when we're sitting at lunch with a friend and find our fingers reaching for our smartphone or glancing over their shoulder at the baseball game on the TV screen over the bar. And most of us have come to hate these moments, which undermine our human connections and leave us feeling uneasy as a result, but we feel powerless to fight them. There's just too much stuff competing for our attention, everywhere.

New York Times columnist David Brooks touched a nerve with a column on the constant distractions of everyday life. The line that really struck home with us:

I am losing the attention war.

Information overload is the collateral damage of an ongoing war for our attention. We have a whole range of devices and apps designed to be addictive. They, combined with ever-expanding data sources, can help us do our jobs better and enrich our leisure time. But increasingly, all they do is overwhelm us, robbing us of the agency necessary to do what we want to do or need to do.

Fortunately, it's possible to build mental firewalls so that you can focus on what's important, whether that means putting your phone in a drawer in the other room or gently removing yourself from a distracting situation until your immediate goal is achieved. Learning to control environmental stimuli is a great source of agency because it involves us taking an active role in determining what environment is best for us.

Agency Begins with What You Let into Your Mind

Think about what children are like when they're overwhelmed by information. Throw too much at them and they will become hyperactive, explode into sudden silliness or crying, have tantrums, or shut down and emotionally check out. Some kids literally cover their ears and eyes or try to escape from places that overwhelm them.

Adults are generally better at sublimating their sensory overload — at least for a while. We don't throw tantrums (most of the time), but we do show specific signs when we are losing the battle with stimuli. Sensory overload in adults looks like this: tension headaches, sleepless nights, sore and tired eyes, problems concentrating, irritability, anger, loss of temper. Many adults live with some collection of these symptoms every day, powering through with a combination of determination and resignation.

Do you know that little spinning wheel you sometimes see on computers and phones when they're having trouble processing? Many call it the beach ball of death. It means the computer, overwhelmed by too much information, has stalled.

While the human brain seems to have unlimited capacity for information, it, too, has a tipping point. Information overload, which occurs when our brains are taking in too much sensory information at any one moment, is a real state, and one experienced with increasing frequency.

One common example of how we overload our brains with information is multitasking. While Ed prepares breakfast for his son each day, he often finds himself "checking in" to view work emails and (guiltily) social media, going between the toaster, his phone, and stealing glances at a second screen — the television — to get weather, news, and traffic updates before the two of them run out the door. On some mornings, it's expanded to three screens, with Ed's laptop open on the counter to scan a work spreadsheet or something else that he has to deal with at work later that day.

Is Ed's situation unusual? Not as much as you might think. All of us are handing over our attention to devices, sometimes two and three at a time. Ed could put the agency principle of Control Stimuli to good use at the start of his day by being more aware of where he puts his attention, respecting the processing limits of his mind, and taking steps to exert more control over his behavior in the few precious minutes he has with his son during breakfast. The true cost of his habits each morning goes beyond what's happening with the neurons inside Ed's brain. There is the irretrievable cost to the experience of simply being present and enjoying the company of his ten-year-old son at the beginning of each day.

There are people who have learned to block unnecessary stimuli well before their own internal processor breaks down, who protect their memories from getting bogged down and distracted by random messages. They're able to circumvent added stress and focus on what truly matters to them.

Monica is a woman in her late twenties holding down two jobs while trying to get her career off the ground. She told us that her work involves using social media to network several hours a day, and she relishes opportunities to take a break from electronics.

There are still some places that are free from digital noise. Monica told us that she has started visiting a church daily to grab some peace and quiet between shifts. "Quiet and calm are commodities," Monica said. "I can go in there for a few minutes during my lunch break and recharge. The quiet allows me to think, to be alone with my own thoughts."

* * *

Use Your Agency: Take yourself to quiet and screen-free spaces.

* * *

Incoming Data Takes a Lot of Energy to Process

External stimulation takes many forms and isn't inherently bad. In its best forms — great books, films, music, for example — it can inspire, teach, and motivate us. It can be the fuel that moves us closer to our desired goals. It can help us survive and adapt to change. It can come in forms that provide us better data to do our jobs more effectively, or find a good restaurant, or it can provide us with important downtime. When controlled and chosen selectively, it doesn't tire us out — and, in fact, it can help us elevate and maintain a more positive mood.

But external stimulation has to be controlled, particularly at times when 1) you have to get something done or 2) you're overwhelmed. And fortunately, even in this age when entire business plans are built around creating addictive stimuli, you can actually learn to control them.

You may have noticed some colleagues who are good at controlling stimuli. We know one such person, Deborah, a highly energetic Fortune 500 marketing executive with a particularly good reputation for her strategic thinking and her personal warmth. Both, in fact, result from a decision early in her career to actively shape the ways she receives and processes information.

Deborah told us that it took years of hard work and trial and error to figure out how to intentionally make best use of the volumes of data and stimuli coming her way. Her abilities in this regard have increased her productivity and, more importantly, made her work more meaningful and impactful and made her a particularly helpful colleague because she rarely seems overwhelmed or stressed.

Like most of us, Deborah has a large number of interactions with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders each day. They come in many forms. Emails. Texts. Voice mails. Skype. Slack.

Deborah has figured out something many of us have not — because there's no way to respond effectively to every single request or query, or to process all the information we receive, or determine how much of it is actually useful, we have to take steps to reduce it.

* * *

Use Your Agency: Think about how you can get incoming information packaged and trimmed before it gets to you.

* * *

So how does she do it? She communicates to her team the importance of presenting information in digested form.

"I am not interested in receiving a raw data dump from others," she told us. "This helps to keep my head uncluttered. I don't allow information in unless it's absolutely needed, and I let people know this."

Her approach is surprisingly straightforward. "I enlist the support of others to help me," she says. "I tell people up front what I need and what I don't need." This has made her a better leader. "I ask people to go out and learn a subject and to bring me the learnings they have distilled down. I want to know what they think — then I can ask them probing questions to help me learn as well. My approach keeps me from micromanaging, which would pile anxiety back onto my colleagues. And it gives them a chance to learn even more."

Putting this strategy into practice is simple, to a degree, but Deborah says it requires her to be vigilant and disciplined in insisting that her team follow her communication style, because with so much information coming in, it's easy for her colleagues to backslide. Deborah says that she provides reminders regularly, such as at the start of meetings.

Best of all, her method has begun to filter down to the way her team communicates with each other. "This method has caught on, though, and others are using it," she adds. Now the whole team works to better package and trim information instead of just passing along unfiltered data.

The Problem: We Are Blind to the Volume of Stimulation We're Surrounded By

One estimate showed that 34 gigabytes of data and one hundred thousand words of information reach the average person's eyes and ears each waking day. By the time your head hits the pillow tonight, you will have been pitched five thousand ads. As outlandish as this may sound, exposure to data continues to climb every few months as technology advances.

Surprisingly, many people have become inured to the digital turbulence around them, unless you sit them down in a quiet moment, as we have, and ask in detail about their daily habits.

Lynn is a single mom with two young boys who felt that the start of the new school year was going pretty well. We asked her for details. Upon giving it further thought, her face changed. "The mornings are actually tough going," she said. There wasn't enough time to get herself and her family dressed and fed in time for work and school.

Lynn saw her hectic mornings as a time management problem, but as we heard more, it was evident that the problem had more to do with information management. Jason, her oldest at seven and a half, "just stares off into space most mornings and won't eat breakfast — or sometimes he'll just engage in nonstop chatter." Oliver, her youngest, is six and is more focused and feels almost overly compliant and solicitous. Comparing them, Lynn wondered if Jason has an attention deficit problem.

But after some questioning, we learned an important bit of data: There is a small TV perched upon Lynn's kitchen counter. Further, in the mornings, it is always on, tuned to one of those fast-paced morning shows, with their mix of cheery banter and disturbing news items. Further, she sometimes gives the kids her iPad as a reward for good table manners. Finally, Lynn, often stressed at the prospect of being late to work, not to mention the constant patter from the TV, will add to the stimuli by venting her stress or staring at the clock and sighing.

The children are surrounded by stressful stimuli. One copes by zoning out, the other by becoming overly compliant. As Lynn adds to that stress herself, the whole environment becomes self-reinforcing. We suggested that she begin by turning off the TV and putting away the devices and allowing herself enough time to avoid stressing about being late.

Know Your Potential Enemy: The Four Primary Sources of Stimuli

Stimuli can be anything that is registered by your senses. For the purposes of bolstering agency, there are four primary sources you'll need to recognize and pay attention to that cover most of the bases.

Baseline stimulation. This is the everyday stimuli that comes from where you live and work, from interacting with your family and engaging in social relationships — the so-called tasks of daily living. You may not think of your daily interactions and activities as sources of stimulation, but to the brain they are. Much of it — such as interactions with people you love or respect — often invigorates and motivates you, but as in the case of Lynn's effect on her children, baseline stimulation can turn toxic at times. For this reason, assess the amount of positive and negative stimulation you experience in your recurring day-to-day routines.

Background stimuli. This includes all things like ambient noise, music, lighting, vibrations, and crowding. Sometimes background stimuli can be pleasant, like rain hitting a skylight. Positive sources can stimulate thinking and creativity; for example, some surgeons play classical music in the background of the operating theater. But negative background stimuli, especially when excessive, causes stress and fatigue; behind the scenes, the brain has been working nonstop to block out or adjust to the sensory assaults. Compared to baseline stimulation, background stimuli are less obvious and sometimes nearly invisible, but their cumulative effects are considerable and negative. You might think of them as a kind of sensory pollution. Homes and offices are bombarded by new technologies that bring with them a cacophony of simulated voices, beeps, pings, and alarms, while outdoor sources of noise range from your neighbors' leaf blower to the beep-beep of a backing up trash truck.

High levels of noise, heat, and lighting can all negatively impact mental performance. And noise has been shown to release the stress hormone cortisol. Research indicates that excessive cortisol impairs the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that helps you regulate executive functions — your ability to plan, reason, and control impulses). These functions are essential to many of the practices that promote agency, as we will show you in later chapters.

* * *

Use Your Agency: Cut down background noise where you can in your environment.

* * *

Complex systems. These are largely technology driven. Examples include such things as navigating the world of health-care plans, banking and insurance options, and even dealing with your cable TV remote control. Again, you may not think of such things as stimuli, but your brain does. Anyone who needs a phone number changed or wants to dispute a cable bill or address a health-care benefit has quickly learned that the process can be anything but straightforward. What might have taken five minutes and a single call to a live person twenty years ago now involves multiple calls, automated menus, and spreadsheet comparisons, all of which require time and mental focus.

You've probably noticed by now that frustration with complex systems can make you frustrated to the point of anger! Beneath the frustration, anger, and alienation one feels is a brain experiencing too much information and having a hard time processing and digesting it.

Carlos is a bank manager in South Carolina who knows all too well how complex systems are affecting his job and his customers. His bank has been growing, and it's been developing more products and financial services that it promotes online. This has made it harder and more confusing to navigate the bank's website. His customers are pushing back, wanting simple products and an easy- to-use interface without continually being marketed to. He said, "I get it. They want to do their banking and move on with their lives."

Digital stimuli. Digital stimulation is primarily carried into our brains visually via screens, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, TVs, and, very soon, virtual reality devices.

In children and teens, where screen exposure is likely to affect developing brains and sensory systems, researchers have reported alarming concerns. These include delayed language development and problems with executive functions, insomnia, poor posture, vision problems like myopia, obesity, cardiovascular disease, social aggression, depression, and anxiety.

* * *

Anthony's Notes from the Office: The Accidental Cell Phone Vacation

A sixteen-year-old patient told me he dropped and broke his smartphone while getting off an airplane. He was en route to visit family in the Middle East.

His parents decided not to replace the phone until he got back to the States after the summer. Six weeks later, he was sitting in my office with his parents to talk about the start of his junior year. To the surprise of all, he hadn't asked to have the phone replaced.

He admitted he really didn't miss having it. That led to a discussion about the pressures of social media — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and the constant volley of texts he normally received. He said it stressed him out because it was hard keeping up with everyone and everything. He also recognized that this upcoming academic year would be a challenge and he'd need to stay focused on school if he was going to have a shot at a decent college. He looked relieved not to have the burden of the technology. In time, he'd get another phone, but he was experiencing a different life without it. He joked that it must have been fate or divine intervention that made him drop the phone because he doubted he would have made the decision to forgo the phone on his own.


Excerpted from "The Power Of Agency"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Anthony Rao and Paul Napper.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


WHAT YOU'LL LEARN: The Seven Principles
GETTING STARTED: Agency Practices Inventory

The Principle: Control Stimuli
The Principle: Associate Selectively
The Principle: Move
The Principle: Position Yourself as a Learner
The Principle: Manage Your Emotions and Beliefs
The Principle: Check Your Intuition
The Principle: Deliberate, Then Act


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