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The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms

Dylan Schleicher

March 08, 2019

Dr. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, Ph.D., examine how we can regain agency and live a more independent, yet connected and fulfilled, life in an age of distraction.

The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms by Dr. Paul Napper, Anthony Rao, Ph.D., St. Martin’s Press, Hardcover, 336 pages, Hardcover, March 2019, ISBN 9781250127570

We live in an age of distraction, in which too many of us feel we are drowning in information overload and digital detritus while going about an otherwise analog existence that comes complete with its own—most likely vastly more important—responsibilities and demands on our attention. But the digital platforms we work and play on are designed to be addictive, and even long-tenured, widely respected journalists in traditional media like David Brooks admit they are, in his words, “losing the attention war.” Those words caught the attention of Paul Napper and Anthony Rao. What he meant when he wrote that was not that the work he produces is losing the war for attention in an increasingly cacophonous 24-hour news cycle, but that he was himself losing the ability to focus, to pay proper attention to the people and tasks actually in front of him at any given moment.

This is a topic that we (as you know if you’ve been following along with our reviews over the past half-decade) have been covering for some time. And you can add one more symptom to the growing list of fallout: our ability to adapt to stress, which lessens our ability to feel in command of, and direct, our very lives. It turns out that being overwhelmed by information overload and the immediacy of our digital communications tools has diminished the agency we feel we have over our daily lives. It makes us passive participants in our lives rather than directors of them. Paul Napper and Anthony Rao, in their new book The Power of Agency, explain why this is such an alarming trend:

 

Agency is all about being active rather than passive, of reacting effectively to immediate situations and planning effectively for your future. When you become too overwhelmed and lose your agency, you can no longer evaluate your circumstances, reflect on the challenges and opportunities you’re confronted with, make creative decisions about how to act, and then act in ways that open up possibilities for a meaningful life on your own terms.

 

Coming from two very different psychological practices, Napper (a management psychology expert) and Rao (a child and family psychologist, and cognitive-behavioral therapist) say that they are encountering patients with increasing levels of anxiety, constant distraction, and now “hear unsettling phrases about a lack of real humanness in people’s lives” at an alarmingly frequency. 

 

In short, individuals’ and families’ lives have become increasingly isolated, overscheduled, and fraught with economic anxiety and worry about how they’re not measuring up or what they’re missing out on.

 

It is an observation backed up by wider evidence. Not only is America already, according to the World Health Organization, the most anxious country on Earth, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have been on the rise since the 1980s, even among children and teenagers. The authors believe these unprecedented levels of anxiety, uncertainty, and overload we are experiencing today has five main causes:

  • Always-on technology
  • Competitiveness stoked by metrics
  • Loss of human connectedness
  • Less physical movement
  • Always working

What they offer to help, the specific “techniques and tools” they suggest, are designed to rebuild agency—something to be accessed regardless of how we are feeling—rather than to reduce anxiety. They are, therefore, more habits to practice and integrate into our lives than hacks to apply to a specific circumstance or emotional state. This proper placement of the cart behind the horse stemmed from a realization that those who expressed greater personal agency (in their respective practices as well as those they heard from as they “conducted in-depth interviews with a diverse group of more than a hundred people across the country”) also had more confidence. The key to their understanding was that they “reported less anxiety and overwhelm, even when they were placed under highly challenging, pressured situations.”

 

It wasn’t just that less anxious people felt more confident but that confidence itself fended off anxiety and moments of overwhelm. … The breakthrough idea we had was this: Instead of trying to lower people’s worry or anxiousness (as many practitioners now do with pills and therapies), we attack it from the other end. We encourage a confidence that could actually help keep stress away. And we do that by figuring out what empowers people, what gives them people greater capacity to cope and adapt, and nurturing that.

 

And that, they have come to believe, is all about the power of agency in our lives. Their Seven Principles for Building Agency are to:

  • Control Stimuli
  • Associate Selectively
  • Move
  • Position Yourself as a Learner
  • Manage Your Emotions and Beliefs
  • Deliberate, Then Act

There is a chapter devoted to each principle. You’ve likely come across many of their suggestions elsewhere, but the combination of, and focus on agency in, their offering them is, I think, enormously helpful. It also tends to avoid extremes, offering what in Buddhist teaching would be called a “Middle Way” toward liberation. So the way to “control stimuli” isn’t to forsake digital technology, but to reacquaint ourselves with the analog environment and communication tools—you know, like conversation—we’ve evolved with.

A big part of that is movement in and exploration of the real world. “To move,” the authors suggest, “means to break the spell of ‘learned helplessness.’” That is, it gives us an easy and natural sense of agency. It also helps break the spell that our screens—especially the 24-hour news cycle and our social media feeds—have over us. The simple act of getting up and taking a walk, suggested in books from Dan Pink’s When to Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, may be all the catalyst you need:

 

Moving reverses the buildup of your body’s stress hormones and is instrumental to the healing process. Even the smallest physical act or change in body position, location (especially to natural settings), and routine can lessen stress, boost your mood, and give you the energy to lift you out of a rut. This is particularly true if you are recovering from a serious condition, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

They discuss the importance of finding one’s “sacred space,” using examples ranging from an urban basketball court, which as author Onaje X. O. Woodbine wrote of his community in Black Gods of the Asphalt “informed the confidence with which we walked and talked,” to the meditative movement of paddleboarding that U.S. Army Delta Force captain Josh Collins credits with helping him recover from traumatic brain injury where more traditional treatments failed, and the “forest therapy” sites springing up all over Japan, which:

 

According to researchers who published their findings in the journal Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine in 2010, “measurements show that forest environments can relieve human psychological tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and moreover, that they can enhance human psychological vigor.” A 2008 study in the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology showed forest visits had measurable immune system benefits that lasted beyond the time spent in the woods.

 

Finding time and impetus to move can be especially problematic for those of us who work desk jobs, but simple solutions like walking meetings, standing desktops, taking the stairs rather than the elevator, and setting a timer that reminds you to stand up and move every thirty minutes can help—sometimes dramatically. Even that last, simple intervention turns out to have huge benefits, as a 2017 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that the correlation between prolonged periods of sitting and premature death lessened in “people who had interrupted their sitting, even very briefly, every thirty minutes.” Even people who are prone to fidgeting are at an advantage, so perhaps begin encouraging your kids to fidget more instead of scolding them for it.

The principle of associating selectively, similarly, does not mean that you need to go to extremes to cut out friends and loved ones dealing with health issues or personal struggles, but it might mean that you associate less with those that live an unhealthy lifestyle or struggling to maintain a healthy outlook on life. The authors share a story of a woman experiencing growth and fulfillment, even excitement, at work at a time her fiancé had been out of work for nearly a year. As he retreated into video games and marijuana use that “could no longer be described as recreational,” and began to act in a way that made it clear he resented her success—and potentially sought to undermine it, she took a weekend to step back from the situation and decided that only by moving out, removing herself from the pessimism and negativity she experienced living with him, was she going to be able to regain her own confidence and agency. It also, ultimately, saved the relationship.

Of course, there are times when it is important to lean in with positive cues and social referencing in a stressful situation, to giving those around you emotional and social cues to provide a sense that everything is going to be okay. Here the authors share the story of a New England school headmaster who, in the days following the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, noticed that others were watching him more closely for emotional cues. In those emotionally trying times:

 

[H]e made a point of looking everyone in the eye when talking and always speaking in measured, calm, and reassuring voice during that stressful time. He knew that as headmaster, using social referencing in this way would make his school’s students, staff, and parents feel securer. He saw his job as a steadying influence. When possible, he stood closer to others—and often used that as a way to reduce the anxiety that had built up. A handshake or even a hand on someone’s shoulder, he says, made a difference.

 

More than simply removing negative influences in our lives, the authors discuss the importance of expanding beyond the inner ring we associate with most to consider the worlds we occupy beyond it: our communities, church, or athletic center, even our softball team or corner pub (something those of us in Milwaukee are perhaps rightly stereotyped for). Those worlds, how we’re connected to them, and how closely we’re connected to them, also affect our quality of life and sense of agency. It is usually how much time and effort you put into something that determines how much you get out of it, and the relationships and communities you involve yourself in are perhaps the most intimate and important examples of that in life.

Just as vital is how we interact. Referencing research done by Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation, they suggest digital communications—especially social media—not only affects “how we relate to others, it changes how we relate to ourselves,” and how much “This can have a seriously negative affect on your level of agency.” They tell the story of Jamal, a naturally shy and introverted high-school student, whose good looks and athletic ability have nonetheless landed him in the “popular group,” with all the social pressure that comes with it. There are times when that pressure is too much, and he retreats to the bathroom to scroll through Instagram and Twitter as a distraction, not realizing the staged and idealized versions of people’s lives he finds there are most likely only going to add to the feeling that he’s not measuring up. Here, again, the answer is as simple as focusing on analog activities, as simple as focusing on your own breathing rather than turning to social media.

Throughout it all, The Power of Agency is all about how to make decisions—even simple, small, incremental decisions—when “Decision fatigue has become a growing problem” in a world of growing complexity, in which a “cacophony of different voices and opinions in the virtual public square exist today” can drown out our own thoughts at every turn and swipe.

The importance of metacognition, or being able to think about our own thinking, is one crucial aid. We must continue to challenge ourselves internally, to question our own beliefs and examine our own emotions, as much as we filter in the influence from the outside world. This is something that we’ve been warned is more difficult in an environment increasingly dictated by algorithms, but we can improve our critical thinking skills. We simply have to accept that our own “beliefs and emotions aren’t reality,” and be able to recognize them in order to assess and, perhaps, when necessary, overcome them. And this applies not only our own beliefs and emotions, but those being exhibited, pitched, and pushed around us. As Napper and Rao write:

 

Beliefs, like emotions, are best when not fixed, but rather when they are allowed to evolve.

 

That doesn’t end when you hit a certain age—whether it be 12, 18, 40, or 65. We are always works in progress. One key trait of individuals with a greater sense of agency express is a greater understanding of their internal lives:

 

They distinguish their beliefs from the core principles and values they hold. They allow their beliefs to evolve as they learn. They are comfortable with ambiguity. They stay open to questioning their beliefs on a regular basis, understanding that both beliefs and their emotions are cognitions separate from who they really are deep inside.

 

I’ve jumped around quite a bit here, perhaps because I am a bit overwhelmed and distracted myself, but I hope I’m imparting some of the authors key points clearly. And I aim to put some of what I’ve learned in The Power of Agency into practice, to gain more agency and confidence, to be more fully the person I wish to be for myself, toward my wife and children, in my community, and in the world.

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