The Exhilaration and Angst of an Agile Mind

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Each year I pick a word -- a theme to guide my year. Do you do this too? Rather than a specific resolution, I feel like the Word of the Year creates kind of a soundtrack for my life, something I can tune in to for reminders or guidance, all year long, no matter the situation.

About five years ago I chose patience and got a lot of practice. I ended up waiting for everything that year. And, I did experience some real growth and awareness -- which is ultimately what I'm going for -- but it wasn't easy. I've worked with kindness, connection, and about 15 other words by now.

This year, I'm going with agility . Physically, working to improve my balance and flexibility, yes. But, I’m thinking the real growth will be on a more spiritual, mental, emotional level. I want to be more responsive rather than reactive, able to adapt when required, more flexible and creative in my thinking and parenting and business-ing. I want to flow easier into change rather than worrying about it or needing to micromanage every shifting detail.

I'm not good at any of this—not even close. But, I am becoming more aware. There are times, like when dinner plans change at the last minute, or a meeting is canceled, that I'm good. It doesn't ruffle me. Often, I appreciate the open time. Other situations have me coming unglued. In those moments—thank you, tweenage daughter—I’m clear, a little more mental agility and a little less freakout would serve me better.

Trusting that your children love you, allows you to do the “parent things” that may sometimes make them dislike you for a while.

Already this word is giving me a workout. My plans for the week, blew up Sunday night. And my schedule is changing hour to hour. The call I was waiting for never came through, the carpool times changed, husband’s work schedule shifted, dog needed an extra walk, a work meeting was called unexpectedly, a health matter had me visiting a relative in the hospital in the middle of the day, a meeting was canceled – whew and it’s still early.

All these changes have meant much flexing. I don't love it. But I am learning and taking baby steps to become more agile.

Years ago I interviewed Wilma Koutstaal, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of The Agile Mind . A flexible mindset, she says, allows us to live in a place of greater openness and possibility, rather than repetitive and rigid thought patterns and behaviors. When we become agile thinkers, we can adapt in ways that can increase our resilience and opportunities.

We are able to respond to different situations and responsibilities in a way that will help us be more successful. Agile thinking doesn’t mean we are always changing or adapting. Sometimes, staying the course or approaching it with a more rigid mindset, serves us. But an agile mind means we can make those adjustments, move around in our thoughts, and change our behaviors and approaches to ideally suit each situation. This opens up all kinds of possibilities and it is an interesting and exhilarating way to live. Sometimes, it's also hard.

Debra Messing (mom of son Roman): “The priority shift is a relief. There are so many things that used to monopolize my time and my energy that I realize now, in the face of being a mother, are just completely irrelevant.”

Just a week in, I’ve had two occasions where I felt like I was leaping from a plane, unsure of when the parachute would open. Scary. But, also enlivening.

Here are some practices I'm using to become a little more agile in my thinking. They might work for you too.

Challenge your thoughts. Right now, my daughter is teaching me a whole lot about this one. Seems like she challenges (in a remarkably persuasive and intelligent way) my every idea or suggestion. But, she's also reminded me that it's worthwhile to look at other things from a different perspective, too. What if, for example, there was a more efficient way to manage the proposal process? Could writing for a different genre be a way to improve my writing skills? Can a fun, passion project also be a revenue stream? Things that I may have not seen in the past are now moving into greater focus in the frame thanks to my deliberate intent to stay open and agile. Not everything I’ve landed on is a good idea. Most aren’t. But a couple have got me thinking and others have steered me in new directions that are kind of interesting. That feels good. Creative.

Try something new. Often, we find what works and stick with it – for years. Even as our marriages and partners age, even as our kids grow, our workplaces shift, and we evolve, we do things the same way. We do what we’ve learned to do, and become reluctant to change even when the thing we’ve always done just doesn't fit anymore. This makes about as much sense as trying to pull on the old jeans we wore in high school. Our approaches, like jeans, can also be too tight (maybe that's just me) and out-of-date.

Time to change and grow just as people and systems and circumstances and perspectives change. So, after challenging your thoughts, play with them. Try a new communication strategy with your teen. Instead of asking your partner “How was work?” yet again, try “Tell me something funny that happened to you today.” Move your desk at work, or take your break at a different time conceptualize a new approach to an accepted system and just start playing with the patterns and thoughts in your life. You might need to make time for it, put it on your to-do list, but the process can also lead to innovation.

Pick your battles. Kids can't absorb too many rules without turning off completely. Forget arguing about little stuff like fashion choices and occasional potty language. Focus on the things that really matter - that means no hitting, rude talk, or lying.

Leave time for unstructured thought. Sitting at my desk all day, structuring articles, researching pitches, sending invoices are all very linear (and necessary) parts of the writing business. But, it's not so great for my creative process. So, I build in time to get up and out of the office and change the way I think about work. I’ll go for a walk and ponder a story I’m writing, or take 20 minutes to do the dishes or other chores and let my subconscious take over, sifting through the more creative challenges while I’m distracted by simple, repetitive tasks. Even five minutes to daydream (no checking the phone) while drinking a cup of coffee can lead to a surprising association or shift.

And shifting between these focused and more abstract thinking styles can make for a more creative and agile mind.