Don’t start your journey until AFTER you have made sure your elephant knows where it is supposed to take you (working draft)

As human beings who sleep, wake up, do stuff, then go back to sleep, we all share a common dilemma: How do we make sure we don’t end the day feeling like it was a day wasted?  I developed AFTER as a cuing mechanism I use at the start of my day to make sure I am in the right state of mind and thinking about the right things to make good use of the day. AFTER clears a path for my elephant and increases the likelihood that some of what my elephant does later in the day will be aligned with something I care about.

A stands for Anchoring – By anchoring I mean remembering what is truly resonant and important to you. In a life full of distractions, unpredictable demands from others and challenges that require persistent effort, it can be easy to get lost along the way or give up on achieving something that it is important for you to achieve. When you start to feel as though you are drifting from task to task rather than moving with intention this is a great time to anchor your actions to the people, things and ideas you care about. Your anchor may be a value. I often come back to the value of “growth” as an anchor that helps me see the meaning in the coming day, even when that day is full of challenges. Your anchor may be a specific person or people whose interest you serve. Considering how my actions for the day will serve the interests of my wife and sons helps me decide which of my actions are higher and lower priority, especially since my career entails a lot of time away from them.

F stands for Framing – By framing, I mean articulating a perspective that gives clarity and shape to the decisions and actions you’ll need to make that day. I sometimes frame my day with a statement that clarifies what I should and should not focus on or do. Before a day of consulting or facilitating I often tell myself “My role today is to listen to people’s stories rather than telling my own,” or “Even if the people I am working with become agitated or distracted, I will remain calm, focused and curious.” Framing can also take the shape of a question that guides my attention to a goal and the path to that goal, such as “What do I want my customer to be thinking and feeling at the end of the meeting?” or “What opportunities will I have to cue a breakthrough in the discussion?” Reflecting on these kinds of framing statements and questions often enables me to be more focused on what is happening within and around me and how to keep things moving toward my desired outcome for the day.

T stands for Triggering – While framing is about cuing your attention and thinking, triggering is about cuing mental and physical states that are conducive to success. When I was a competitive tennis player, I happened upon a novel way of getting myself ready to serve. Through many years of practice, I had developed the ability to hit several different serves with different speeds, spins and angles. I had also learned through many years of experience that it was very difficult to consciously control the physical techniques involved in producing these different serves. These serves seemed to just happen automatically under certain mental and physical conditions.  What I needed was a way to trigger those conditions so that these serves would happen more often.  Through experimentation and repetition, I eventually discovered a combination of physical and mental routines that increased the likelihood of great serves.  The first was a fairly common discovery. I needed to relax and let go of as much physical tension as possible so that I could create more whip.  Closing my eyes and taking a deep breath triggered this. Next, I needed to create intentionality around what kind of serve I was going to hit.  Through a process of trial and error with imagery, a mental routine emerged that enabled me to have confidence that I could produce the right serve at the right time. I found that if I waited for a moment with my eyes closed an arrow would emerge in my mind.  The vector of the arrow corresponded roughly with the spin and vector of the serve.  Rather than trying to physically control these factors, I just waited calmly for an arrow to appear.  Then, I hit the serve that I had mentally associated with that arrow. Taking a deep breath, closing my eyes and waiting for the arrow to appear increased my sense of calm and it also led to better service selection. This set of physical and mental routines triggered successful serving for me.

In my work as a consultant, I also use triggering techniques to prepare myself mentally and physically to take the right actions during the day ready for the day. As I did when serving, I use deep breathing to cue a relatively relaxed physical state that is easier to maintain throughout the day helping me to stay calm and focused on the people I am with and what we are trying to achieve. I also often create a mental roadmap as a triggering device that is somewhat analogous to the arrows I used to trigger the right kind of serve.  When I start the day by creating a roadmap, I don’t have to worry much about forcing the day toward the desired destination. When I encounter certain milestones during a conversation or routine, that milestone reminds me of what comes next so that I can step back for a moment and sense where to go next in order to move things in toward the desired destination.

You can use different triggers to induce different physical and mental states depending on the situation and goal. For example, during graduate school I did a lot of the research and writing for my thesis in a specific coffee shop. At some point, I realized that sitting in that coffee shop made it easier for me to focus. I had spent so much time reading and writing there that I had come to associate coffee shops in general but that chain in particular with reading and writing. As a mobile professional, this is a pretty handy association (and a pretty solid business strategy for a coffee chain as well). Wherever I go in the world when I feel a need to sit and focus, I can usually find one of this chain’s shops or a similar shop where I find it easy to sit down and get something done.

E stands for engaging.

R stands for routinizing.

This is part intention and part discovery

Each of us has some natural candidates for ideas, people or images that we can use as anchors. The sensible place to start when searching for an anchor is your real life. Your elephant can serve as a guide. Where does your mind naturally drift to when you are alone?  Who do you think about? What dreams or goals come back to you out-of-the-blue even when you haven’t taken action on them in a while. Paradoxically, while your anchors may be consistent over many years or even decades, you don’t always “feel” their importance. This is where your rider can help you to remember through conscious repetition. When you think you have identified your anchors, create a routine to come back to them as a part of a morning or mid-day routine. Taking the time to remember your anchors may distract you momentarily from the task at hand, but returning to the task after you have remembered your anchors can help you engage on what you need to get done. Your anchors provide an answer to the question: “Why am I doing this?”  When you have an answer to the WHY question, it is easier to focus on finding the right frame of reference on WHAT you need to do and HOW you want to do it.

For information on applications of the Nudge concept, see:

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness is a book written by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, first published in 2008.

From Freakonomics Radio, How to Save $32 Million in One Hour (Ep. 397) interview with Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services (and author of “The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter”)


For information on Goldsmith’s Triggers concept, see:

“So the decision-control process is essentially a rapid mental check where commanders ask themselves: Why am I doing this? What’s my goal? How does this link up with what I’m trying to achieve? And they then ask themselves: What do I expect to happen? And then finally: How does the benefit justify the risk? When commanders were using this process, we measured the latency between the time it took to make a decision and action it, and there was no increase. So it didn’t slow down decision-making. So that was really good. But what we also found was it increased their levels of situational awareness quite significantly.” -Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Chief Fire Officer of West Sussex Fire and Rescue Services (and author of “The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter”) explaining an application of “behavioral nudges” to help firefighters make better field decisions.

For more information on more comprehensive programs in self-management for peak performance, see Jim Loehr’s books: 

The Power of Full Engagement

Stress for Success

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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