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What’s a uniquely human ability? We are very likely the only animals on the planet that can create a space between stimulus and response. Actually I don’t know if this can be proven, but it most certainly is a major aspect of being human.

Human beings have the ability to choose what their response will be for any given stimulus, and yes even fight or flight ones like the response to being burnt. But a focus on extreme life or death responses is not helpful for what I’m pointing to here. I’m talking about the everyday “normal” stimuli that we are exposed to.

Every one of us has the ability to consider an incoming stimulus (something happens), think about it (make it mean something) and then respond (take some action or ignore the stimulus).

Creating that space is for many of us a lost art. Of course we can’t consider every possible stimulus that we receive in any given day, but there are many that do deserve this space, this consideration, because our response will either work to build our relationships and the life that we want …. or not.

A practiced consideration of what is happening around us, and to us will afford us the ability to assess the appropriate response for a positive life experience or a negative life experience. For the most part, I’m speaking here of a cumulative life experience.

Think about this in your average day. You’re late for work and your 7 year old is nagging you about being poked by the 10 year old and you explode. No space.

You’re driving to work and someone cuts you off and you explode. No space.

You’re being interviewed for a job and you cut the interviewer off even before she finishes asking you the question. No space.

In each example there is an unintended consequence. A price will be paid.

I love the last example. Have you ever noticed people who are uncomfortable with silence? All you have to do is be silent and they will talk themselves into a corner, out of a job, or (you) under the table. That’s a good sign of someone who has completely lost the art of creating this space between stimulus and response.

Creating this space is a great practice in the practice of your life. When people speak to you take a couple seconds before responding to really consider what they are saying or asking, and then respond. Your response is then more likely to be aligned with your goals, and commitments. Maybe even compassion.

Now this will be no benefit to you unless you develop an associated practice of choosing meaning and assessing situations and character. I’ll post on these at another time, but for now consider that when you create the space you must use that space (time) to choose what meaning you attribute to what someone says, and/or assess a situation.

This meaning you choose, or assessment you make is always within the context of what your goals are and how the person or situation in front of you fits in.

For now just think about the space. Where in your life would you benefit from a practice of creating that space?

So with my “Getting things done (not)” as the background, I write about how “clutter” affects me.

Like our hero in this April 17th 2008 post, in the process of doing one task I find myself distracted by another. Does this happen to you? On the way to look for a folder or file, I notice that the apt is untidy, or there is a bill that needs to be paid yesterday, or there is the business card of someone that I need to call, or I see a book on the sofa that I promised myself to finish by the weekend.

Most times I would react to the distraction, which often would lead to another distraction and I would find myself feeling overwhelmed, doing a lot of “stuff” and yet, by the end of the day, not making any meaningful progress towards any of the things that really matter. This I notice is what “clutter” in my physical environment does to me.

Clutter in your physical surroundings could well be an indication of what your mind is like. For me I see scary parallels. For example, I notice my habit to not make decisions with the physical stuff around me. I would leave things on the table, desk, credenza to be negotiated with at some other time …just not now. This reflects what often goes on in my head. I tend to leave stuff ruminating around in there to confront me at the most inopportune times, particularly when I’m in the middle of doing something else.

Presto! Here’s a great recipe for overwhelm. Here’s one of those killer habits that have a profound influence on the quality of my life … every day!

I also notice that having a cluttered workspace means that I have to work around the clutter. It manages me. It is difficult to remain on track with one task without being distracted by something in the clutter that is not yet done.

So where to begin?

One thing at a time my friend. But really: develop a practice of focusing on one thing at a time. Make a game of it by going for the small victories. I find that focusing on one thing and getting that done does two things for me. First it builds a culture of winning, especially when you make a game of the (small things first) that you focus on. And second, I find that I am slowly putting my world and my mind in order.

Now for this to remain a victory you’ll find that you must develop a system to keep the order in place. Remember winning in life is about the practices you follow in life. Nothing stays in place without energy to keep it there. Good systems are the inanimate team players (robots) in your life that free your mind to focus on the fun creative stuff. Developing and improving your systems create the space for you to focus on what’s really important to you.