Google any term relating to paying off your student loans and you’ll come up with millions and millions of excellent articles and content on everything you can ever want to know on student loans. There will be articles on even the most arcane aspects of student loan rules (trust me, I do this for a living, and you’d be surprised).
Yet, I’m willing to bet an expensive latte that your biggest problem when it comes to paying off your student loans (other than having the moolah, of course), is not a lack of knowledge.
Chances are, it’s more likely to be the sense of drag, anxiety and overwhelm that seems to pervade many aspects of just living these days. Whether it’s dealing with always-on technology, the endless and all-consuming news feeds, or constant demands at work or at home, it seems to be getting more and more difficult to muster the energy to just get through each day, leave alone tackle and succeeding at tough challenges.
While most current approaches focus on reducing stress and anxiety as the solution to these problems, a fresh new voice is calling for an increase in our innate power to act on our own behalf, as the answer.
In The Power of Agency, two practicing psychologists from Boston suggest that the secret to conquering our sense of helplessness and overwhelm lies more in developing our power of agency rather than focusing on reducing stress or anxiety. After all, when we take action, we’re actually impacting the very things that will influence our progress towards our goals.
As an added bonus, the very act of moving forward will also tend to reduce anxiety and stress. In contrast merely reducing stress or anxiety acts at best as a temporary band-aid, and won’t do anything to get us closer to what we so badly desire.
How can you build this power of agency? The book lays out seven simple but powerful ways to significantly enhance your powers in this domain.
The seven secrets of high agency.
The first rule to increase agency is succinctly expressed by the adage: garbage in, garbage out.
What you allow into your mind is what drives the quality of what comes out. Specifically, it’s not just the quality – what really nails the coffin is the quantity of information that we let into our brains.
Constant input from smart phones, a noisy and stressful environment, even the hassle of dealing with call center options and health insurance forms: each overwhelms the delicate wetware between our ears, leaving us feeling dis-empowered and overwhelmed.
To take charge, ruthlessly reduce the quantity and quality of stuff that barrages your mind everyday: find every way possible to reduce input from technology.
But most importantly, when you’re dealing with complex and challenging matters like your student loans or finances – make sure you step into a space of silence and focus, and an uplifted mood. Seek and allow only the information you need for your task, work in a place close to nature, and immerse yourself in the present task, even embracing boredom and difficulty when it arrives unasked.
Associate with positive people:
For the physiological impact some negative people can have on you, they might as well have actually passed on a virus to you: the impact is just as real, and just as bad.
To successfully tackle and achieve big and challenging goals, the company you keep is a vital factor: and it works both ways. You have a choice here – every time and everywhere possible, take an active role in choosing who you associate with, and who you spend time with. Doing this can leave you feeling immensely empowered, and you’ll see a clear uptick in the positive actions you take towards your goals.
Associate with people who are the kind of people you want to be.
How about the ones in your orbit you can’t do anything about? Your co-workers or family members that just suck your energy dry? Develop selective attention deficit when you have to deal with them, and keep those interactions minimal.
Get to associate with a diverse set of people, seek positivity in your associates and exercise good relationship hygiene in all your dealings. Have healthy boundaries, develop awareness of your own reaction to others and their moods, and build in buffers, safeguards and retreats to recoup your sense of wellness after an adverse hit.
Respect your body:
The authors take an expansive and wide-ranging view of what it means to respect your body. It seems obvious – if you want to express your fullest and greatest powers of acting on your own behalf, it follows naturally that you must keep this self – physical, mental and emotional, in peak condition.
It’s also vitally important to develop an internal awareness of your body. Interestingly, one of the biggest insights I picked up from this book was that when you’re feeling helpless and down – in other words, when your power of agency is at its worst, simple physical movement can do wonders to restore your sense of agency and optimism. When feeling down, simply move, and the rest will take care of itself.
A few more power tips: make time to be in nature every single day. Take a stand – literally! Stand up often at work. Movement of even the smallest kind has immense value – even fidgeting is great, and helps shake your brain cells free!
Be a learning machine:
Few of us get by without having our plan turned upside down and handed to us. Adversity hits us in big and small ways, and negative outcomes sometimes feel more like the norm than the exception.
To develop a healthy power of agency, the secret is to become a learning machine. Look at every “negative” outcome as the result of an experiment you designed. What went differently than you expected?
The moment you replace the need to be right with a sense of open curiosity, the world opens up to your ability to act. With this sense of curiosity in place, recognize what your own secret key to learning is, and deploy that heavily in your day-to-day.
Whether you learn best in a classroom or self-study format, by doing something, through imagination and play, or simply by observing or learning from others, leverage your secret learning strength to extract every last ounce of value from your life. Doing so will put you squarely in the driver’s seat as an agent of change in your own goals.
Manage emotions and beliefs:
Being stable and grounded is key to finding and strengthening your power of agency, and we can do that only if we are able to effectively manage our emotions and beliefs. How do we better do that? It’s amazing how taking a second to give a name to what you’re feeling in the moment can restore a sense of balance even in the most heated moments.
Another key insight is that emotions are driven by our beliefs about things: so if we want to better understand and manage emotions, it’s a rewarding exercise to plumb a little deeper into what beliefs are causing these emotions to boil to the surface.
And having become learners from superpower #4, we can always examine whether these beliefs are still serving us well, or if it’s now time to gracefully discard them in favor of something more constructive. Speaking of beliefs, perhaps the most important belief of all is the one that puts us squarely in control of our actions: what better definition of agency than the power to act in our own interests?
Start believing in your ability to direct your own destiny.
Check your intuition
Intuition is a dicey superpower: on the one hand, we all know stories of people who listened to some “sixth sense” and had truly surprising things happen to them – perhaps a missed flight that led to a fortuitous and career-changing chance meeting at the airport.
On the other hand, we’re being bombarded with new research everyday that shows how flawed our brains can be, and that to trust “gut sense” would be stupidity. What’s a body to do? The trick to know when to trust your intuition lies in understanding the three types of intuition, and knowing when to rely on each.
Ordinary intuition is the type that surfaces as a “gut feel” – perhaps the sense not to trust someone you just met. If you practice paying attention to your body’s signals, ordinary intuition can become quite a powerful source of information on when to move ahead with a proposed action and when not to.
A second type of intuition the authors term “strategic intuition”, comes into play when you’ve given your thinking mind all the information you possibly can, and then you let it slide aside while your subconscious mind takes it all in while you “sleep on” a big decision. This is a great tool to use when you have to make big, strategic decisions, and a combination of logic and emotion must play into the decision to make it a good one.
The last and most intriguing type of intuition is called expert intuition. This comes into play most often with highly trained experts, such as emergency response teams, intelligence officers, master chess players and the like. You’ll be able to access this if you’ve developed a level of mastery in any area of life.
What’s the implication of all this stuff about intuition? Allow yourself to access it by quieting your mind, developing calmness, and using mindfulness techniques. Of course, an intuition is only a hypothesis, so always balance and test it out by using the analytical portion of your mind.
Deliberate, then act
So far we talked about putting gates to your mind, taking care of your body, learning, associating with uplifting people, and listening to your intuition (or not). Where does this lead us? How does it all come together?
All of this comes together in the final super-power which is to:
Have a clear, well-defined process to deliberate on your decisions, that leverages both analysis and intuition. Then move forward with confidence to overcome the challenges that inevitably arise, resting firm in the knowledge that you’ve maximized all the power of agency at your command to propel yourself forward.
Isn’t this just motherhood and apple pie? Not by a long shot.
The reason this guidance has power, is that it forces you to separate the thinking from the doing. Most importantly, it also asks that you set out a clear process for how you will go about deciding and acting, before you actually start doing anything.
The core secret behind this super-power is a skill called meta-cognition, which simply means the ability to think about how we think. If you develop this skill, which you do by having this deliberate process we just described, then each time you go through it, your mind gets a little jolt of insight, a little “aha!” moment when it learns something new about your learning.
These little aha moments add up from a trickle into a roaring cascade of increasingly better practices, decisions and intentional and purposeful action, all easily accessible to you by the simple practice of paying a little more attention to how you do what you do and why.
What are you going to do with your super-powers?
There you have it. In a world where dealing with money, and debt tends to leave us feeling anxious, impotent, hopeless and fearful, slowly inculcating these habits will instill a powerful sense of agency, a ‘can-do’ spirit. The deep well from which this spirit grows is what we need to first recognize, nurture and grow to take on and successfully conquer big and scary financial challenges.
Which power are you going to build first?
Reference: The Power of Agency, by Paul Napper, Psy. D., and Anthony Rao, Ph.D.