Your success in life depends on how well you develop your personal agency.
Feeling stuck, aimless, or thwarted? Struggling to make decisions? When we wrote our article What Is Self-Agency And Why It’s Important, our aim was to introduce you to the phenomenon known as self-agency and why the lack of which is likely why you are feeling overwhelmed by life. We even provided some quick tips on how you can improve your sense of agency.
As a brief summary, self-agency, also known as “personal agency” in psychology, is a term used to describe the feeling of being in control of your actions and their consequences. It is the power and ability to filter out unwanted noise, find emotional and physical balance, think more clearly, and advocate for yourself.
Your success in life is predicated on you having high levels of agency, which of course begs the question: How do you get more personal agency?
In this article, we outline in more detail eight steps for improving your personal agency so that you can put yourself on a more powerful path in your relationships, your career, your personal projects, or in life in general.
1. Control Your External Stimuli
A starting point of developing personal agency begins is identifying the things from your environment that you let into your mind. People who lack agency tend to be easily distracted by various external stimuli.
For example, numerous studies show that having a phone present while you work not only hijacks your attention by distracting you, but it also hinders your capacity to think properly.
Conversely, getting up and going for a walk outside is a simple but effective way to refocus your mind so that you can concentrate better later.
The idea is to filter out external stimuli as much as possible so that your brain doesn’t have to.
Improve your sense of agency by finding a quiet and screen-free spaces that you can escape to when feeling overstimulated. Popular options include turning off your phone notifications while at work, spending time in nature, and avoiding eating in loud places.
Look at the objects on your desk, walls, floor, computer desktop, and in your internet browser. How many of them do you really need everyday? Declutter and clean your workplace of all the unnecessary junk so that your mind can focus on the things that matter.
As for distractions from sound, a good pair of earplugs or earphones is all many people need to quiet the outside world. See if they work for you, too.
2. Be Selective With Who You Associate With
It’s difficult to not be affected by the energy of the people around us. It’s easy to “catch” their emotions, so to speak, and our brain tends to synch up with the people we associate with.
This makes setting boundaries with difficult or toxic people, disentangling yourself from negative online interactions, and being more conscious of how you might be vulnerable to “groupthink” very important. Do everything you can to not succumb to the pressures of having to behave or think in ways that go against your values.
Bathe in an energy of positivity by surrounding yourself with family, friends, and communities who respect you, nurture your talents and push you to reach your full potential, affirm your values, and give you a reality check when you behave badly or get stuck in negative thinking.
You will notice a big improvement in your state of mind and physical health — two critical building blocks of agency –from such positive social interactions.
Take steps to identify and get rid of anyone who undermines your goals, accomplishments and happiness. Don’t be too nice — saying “Go Away!” might not be enough, so you’ll have to be firm with them.
Set boundaries and stick with them for the long-haul. Toxic people will try to use any weakness (chinks in your armor) to sneak back into your life, so don’t waver.
Seek out positive social interactions by getting involved with your community through volunteering or just chatting with your neighbors or local shop owners.
3. Get Up And Stretch, Walk, Or Run – Just Move!
There is a close relationship between motion (bodily movement) and emotion (feelings). Physical movement helps put your body and mind into balance, providing you with greater motivation, strength, vitality, and endurance.
You don’t need a doctor to tell you that sitting for long periods of time is bad for your health, so much so that numerous scientific studies have shown that even short breaks from concentrated periods of inactivity — getting up to stretch, walk around the block, run etc. — can do wonders for both your physical health and mood.
Regular exercise can also lead to greater self-control and a strengthening of your ability to defer gratification, which is key to agency. It’s no coincidence that you can’t spell ‘emotion’ without ‘motion’.
Remind yourself to check up on your mood by setting a timer to go off every hour or so. If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, simply get up and move your body.
One of my favorite activities is doing ten to 20 push-ups or squats every hour. Not only will doing this get the blood flowing to the brain, but it will also help you build and strengthen your muscles overtime.
You can still be productive and get tasks done while on the move. Having issues at work? Discussing them in a walking meeting may help mitigate conflicts. Talking to nanny or making plans over the phone? Do it while walking around the block.
4. Become A Learner To Develop A Growth Mindset
A love for learning is a key trait of people with high levels of agency. These individuals are always looking for ways to learn more and become better learners by adopting a more open approach to everything in life.
Becoming a learner involves nurturing your curiosity by opening yourself up to explore new ideas, skills, places, and people. Just because the world is a big place doesn’t mean you have to think and play small.
For most people, practicing a growth mindset — that is, recognizing that you are a work in progress, capable of learning and changing — doesn’t come easy, but doing so can help overcome the fear of failure or judgment that learning new things often induces.
If you are struggling with perfectionism, mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce self-judgment, while cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques can help put mistakes into perspective.
Explore new ideas by taking classes or joining groups that cover topics you might be interested in.
Be curious, and open yourself up to learning from other people. Ask them open-ended questions, listen to gain an understanding of what they are saying, and avoid any quick judgments.
Get into the habit of exploring your world kinetically (through your hands or body) more often, and spend some time playing or using your imagination.
5. Manage Your Emotions And Beliefs
Humans are creatures of habit, and most people live an unconscious life by letting their unconscious thoughts and limiting beliefs define their world.
We often don’t realize that these unconscious beliefs are negative — no one wants to be with me because I’m too ugly, I’m too old and dumb to learn a new job skill, etc. — and stop us from even trying certain things.
Being driven by unconscious negative emotions like fear, worry, or sadness can lower our energy and make us feel overwhelmed or hopeless, undermining our self-agency.
The key to navigating life with greater agency and confidence is to increase your awareness of how your emotions and beliefs drive your thinking and influence your actions.
It takes some effort to uncover these inner thoughts and emotions, name them, and let them go, but being more self-reflective slows down your thinking process and allows you to practice more self-control, which helps build greater agency.
Try to catch yourself the next time you feel sad or angry. Rather than automatically accepting or dwelling on the harmful emotion like you usually do, take a pause to question it.
Ask yourself why you are feeling this way. Are you pressuring yourself too much? Are your beliefs in alignment with your expectation, or do they need adjustment?
Slow your thinking down by taking yourself to a quiet place, and then take slow deep breaths to let go of the tension building up in your muscles.
Consistently performing these simple tasks will help you relax and make you more self-aware, enhancing your sense of agency by putting you more in control of what you feel and think.
6. Listen To Your Intuition
Considered our sixth sense, intuition is a very powerful tool that, when properly developed, can be depended on everyday. Consider it your sea of deep inner knowledge resulting from millions of data points that your brain has observed throughout your life.
Most of us are familiar with the visceral, gut feelings about people, things or situations. Examples include feeling like you’re being watched and, after turning, finding someone actually staring at you; thinking about someone you haven’t been in contact with for a while only to have that person give you a call on that same day; and sensing that your new boss is bad news only to have your fears confirmed.
When used wisely, our intuition can increase your agency by tremendously boosting your creativity and helping you make important decisions.
Getting better at using intuition to help make decisions requires being able to quiet your mind, having a greater awareness of what you’re thinking and feeling, and listening to your body.
Recognize when your intuition speaks. When you get a hunch, a thought, or physical sensations such as goose bumps, discomfort in your gut, or a feeling of relief, don’t dismiss them. Instead, take the time to listen, and ask yourself why you are thinking or feeling this way.
In fact, devote some time every day – multiple times a day, if necessary – to consciously put your intuition at center stage. This is especially important when you have to make an important decision.
Intuitive messages are subtle and can disappear from your conscious mind very quickly, so try to record them as soon as they occur. Carry a physical or digital notepad wherever you go to jot down any flashes of intuition.
If you have more time, journal writing is an even more effective way to communicate with your intuition and capture its wisdom.
Finally, trust yourself. The more faith you have in your intuition, the better results you will get.
7. Be Deliberate With Your Thoughts And Actions
People with low agency experience common impediments when trying to make sound decisions, and these may include procrastination, obsessing over details, or worrying. They may even lack confidence and be risk-averse, or their thinking may be so fast that they act on impulse.
However, major life situations like where to move or how to advance your career require us to be deliberate with our choices and actions. It is possible to blunder you way into a good situation, but why take that unnecessary risk?
Put yourself in an environment that’s conducive to reflection and exploration, and make sure that your emotions are calm and that you give yourself enough time to carefully think things through. This will help ensure that your thoughts are not driven by strong emotions or biases, which is crucial to making a good decision.
To be deliberate with your decisions and actions, find a quiet and safe place that calms your emotions and easily induces self-reflection. Give yourself enough time for exploration.
Then, focus on the issue at hand to clarify your primary objective and what is at stake. Ask open-ended questions and gather any pertinent facts that you consider useful.
Following this up by drafting a plan based on the options you came up with, putting your thoughts and decisions into writing. The plan should simplify your options and incorporate the most important facts.
Finally, give your mind a break and allow any intuition to take center stage. Set your plan aside and come back to it a while later to reassess it, making changes as necessary.
8. Improve Your Sense Of Agency With A Positive Mindset
People tend to attribute positive actions and outcomes to themselves, while distancing themselves from bad actions and outcomes. However, having a high level of personal agency not only means feeling in control your actions, but also taking responsibility and being accountable for their consequences.
It is easy to be cheerful when everything is going well in life, but it’s when you encounter unexpected setbacks and difficulties that you show to yourself and to the world what you are really made of.
Developing a positive attitude can help you improve your sense of agency. When you think positive thoughts, you stop your mind (conscious or subconscious) from entertaining any negative thoughts or doubts that might undermine the feeling of control you have over yourself, your actions, and your endeavors.
Amazing things will happen in your life when you learn how to think positive and get used to thinking positively. Your body and brain actually begin to flow freely with endorphins (our feel-good hormones), which will make you feel happier and lighter, as if operating in a constant state of euphoria..
You’ll also experience a major boost in confidence and feel more capable of taking on new assignments and challenges that you previously thought impossible.
When you identify and challenge your limiting beliefs, the massive brakes that have prevented you from living life to the fullest lose their hold, and you experience growth like you never imagined.
Essentially, the profound effect positive thinking will have on your sense of agency will allow you to change your entire life for the better.
The first step to becoming happy is deciding to be happy. You have the power and control to determine your own happiness, so take your first step today to develop positive thinking and a positive attitude toward yourself, the people around you, and your life.
Your mind is optimized to only focus on one thought at a time, so make sure it’s focused on uplifting thoughts until they become regular recurring thoughts.
When a negative event occurs, remember to respond to it rather than react. The former is deliberate, while the latter is impulsive.
It’s how you respond to life’s situations that truly determines the outcome. Don’t get upset and blame someone else for what has happened. Always look for the positive response or optimistic lesson from the undesired event, and assume control by asking yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?”
Positive affirmations have worked well for me over the years. By simply repeating positive phrases about yourself and what you want in life, you encourage a positive attitude by conditioning the mind to get rid of negative thoughts.
Whenever I have a setback, I always tell myself that “all things are leading to my success, happiness and wealth, and that “by day and by night, I am being prospered in all my ways, desires and interests.”
What are the limiting-beliefs and negative thoughts getting in the way of your happiness and success? Identify them and write down a list of positive affirmations that expunge them from your thought process.
For example, if you have low confidence, repeat to yourself on a regular basis “I am courageous. I am willing to act and face my fears.”
I also find inspirational quotes and messages to be a great source of motivation, helping me induce positive thoughts during times of struggle and hardship. Find some people you admire and aspire to be, and search for some of their most inspirational quotes to read to yourself when times are good or bad.