The Butterfly Effect, Dispositional Mindfulness, and Achieving Your Goals.

Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash

One of my favorite theorists is Edward Lorenz. A mathematician and meteorologist, Lorenz taught at MIT and was a pioneer in chaos theory, he also coined the notion of “the butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect is built around the idea that small perturbations or disturbances can trigger major circumstances. In this case, imagine the gently sweeping wings of a butterfly in Indonesia causing a small ripple in the air near the equator. The small ripple influences a pocket of warm air which combines with an area of low pressure. As the pressure drops slightly it interacts with an ocean current and creates a more intensive vortex of air as it travels across the Pacific Ocean. As the vortex interacts with the jet stream, it intensifies into a larger ridge of low pressure which eventually combines with warm tropical air and triggers thunderstorms in the southern United States. As the storms collide with cooler, dry air coming from Canada, instability in the atmosphere causes an outbreak of tornados in the Ohio Valley — and it all started with a butterfly near Makassar.

Now think about all of the things that happen to you on any given day. You wake up ready to tackle the day. If you’re lucky, you woke up feeling good, got some exercise, and everything was falling into place — the kids were ready on time, you were actually running early, and you had fruit and yogurt in the fridge for a change. You are anticipating getting to work early, and already have your sights set on the end of the day. You’ve looked at your calendar and have a few meetings, but there should be no surprises.

The day is going well so far, you check your email and there is a bill that’s due and money is a little tight, but you’ll manage. When the day is done you’re already planning on getting back home to catch up on some personal projects like writing an article, enrolling in a class on line, going for a run, spending quality time with your kids, reading, or working on that book that you’re going to finish some day.

While your morning is moving along, in a house on the other side of town one of your coworkers kids is sick and can’t go to school. Finding no one to watch the child, your co-worker takes a personal day and will not be coming into work.

A day earlier, your supervisor’s boss, a vice-president, just finished reading a book on “Change Management” and took pages of notes with the intention of improving productivity and efficiency in the workplace. Full of enthusiasm, she calls all of the managers into her office, including your supervisor, and foists upon them a PowerPoint presentation full of new directives. Already overwhelmed and suffering the effects of too little sleep, your supervisor comes into work ready to clear her schedule.

Emailing your absent co-worker and you first thing in the morning, your supervisor calls an emergency meeting to check the status of some current projects and springs upon you several new forms that you have to fill out with goals and initiatives that need to be tracked as part of the vice-president’s directives the day before. In the absence of your co-worker, you are asked to look into the status of his projects, which takes you an hour to find.

Another co-worker is upset at her supervisor over the forms she has to fill out and has come into your office to vent. Standing at first, she sits down in the chair across from your desk to voice her complaints, as you are a supportive person, you listen, and another hour passes. Suddenly your expectations for the day are wavering, you have to fill out the new forms for your boss, and you go into a different co-worker’s office to vent for a half an hour. In the meantime, a few friends in the office go out to lunch and don’t ask you to join them, your feelings are a little hurt so you just go grab some food and eat at your desk.

Now you’re way behind and not in a good place. Your positive attitude has transitioned into a negative place. There were no major disasters today, but several unexpected surprises that got you off track. You start to think that things are running just fine the way they are at your office, but sometimes it seems that management is out of touch. New initiatives are constantly thrust on you, and management doesn’t understand that the business runs because you and your co-workers are professionals who make sure things get done. You’re just trying to do your job and get along.

Suddenly, you’re in a mood. You’re going to end up staying at work for an extra hour just to get the essentials done and off of your ever expanding to-do list. Your supervisor sends you an email asking you to re-do the forms you completed over again because she didn’t like the way you listed your goals for the quarter. You know in the big picture none of this will matter because the forms will be scrapped and replaced in a few months like they always are.

It’s clear that you’re already going to start tomorrow behind. Exhausted, you think to yourself, what a bad day, everyone at work is upset and nothing worked out as you expected when you came in this morning. Emotionally spent, you head home.

When you get home all you want to do is relax. That article you were going to work on is going to have to wait and there is no way you have the energy to run. You plug the kids into their iPads and pour a glass of wine. You’re not happy about your job and you don’t even try to work on any of the projects you were excited about when you woke up in the morning.

For many of us, this is a typical story. Our dispositions are particularly vulnerable to their own kind of butterfly effect. Like the butterfly’s wings in Indonesia, the little things set us on a path to negativity — this can work in a positive way as well, but it’s the bad days that zap our motivation and prevent us from accomplishing what we want to do for our own personal growth. The extra task at work, the unexpected meeting, the perceived slight of not being asked to lunch, the co-worker reinforcing our negative perceptions. The negatives cascade and gain momentum — things get off track.

Sadly, it is the negative days that can prevent us from growing and accomplishing our own personal goals. The very tasks that can give you freedom to choose what you want to do for a living — taking classes, writing business plans, creating a new blog, finishing a new book, polishing up your LinkedIn profile or CV, are the things that often get pushed aside when you’re too emotionally spent from a hard day at work.

None of these negative states are easy to turn around — yet every self help book you look at proclaims that you just have to think positive and everything will be okay. You feel worse because the self improvement articles seem trite and as shallow as the mindless tasks at work. Even the self-help gurus can’t help you, plus you just dropped another $9 at Amazon for a feel-good book that made you feel worse. You see an article that updates Jeff Bezos’s status as the wealthiest man in the world. You remember the email you received this morning for the bill that is due. Goddammit. We’ve all been there.

Just like the personal improvement articles that promise more than they deliver, there are no easy answers. Lately I’ve been exploring the notion of dispositional mindfulness and I think that it is a useful concept. In my interpretation, the awareness of our emotions and how they impact our actions is important, yet this in itself is not a new concept. Old ideas of emotional or contextual intelligence are well-worn concepts that have been around for decades, but they miss a key point, they don’t stress mindfulness — they’re impersonal. Mindfulness speaks of personal reflection, and when we reflect upon our days or why we are feeling the way we are at any given time it can be a big help.

As an instructor, I have been talking to my students quite a bit about dispositional mindfulness because I think introspection is useful to everyone. I like to have students complete sentences such as “I’ve done poorly on my test because…” or “I am not in a good place today because…,” or it’s more positive antipode, “I am optimistic today because…” I really think that teaching people to reflect is important.

Beyond my classroom I find that it can be helpful for all of us to take stock of why we are feeling the way we are instead of simply proclaiming, “This day sucks and I am overwhelmed.” Spending a few minutes to introspect often reveals an inventory of events that makes me conclude that it really was a bad day. Earlier in the week I started to laugh while I was compiling a long list of the day’s negatives and concluded with, “then I dropped my phone and it shattered!” True story. The point is that it is better to understand that we’re not just depressed or in a general funk but to identify some of the triggers — this keeps us aware of what little things inform our disposition at any given time.

To accomplish our goals and move forward we need to be persistent. Life’s path is full of pitfalls and when you lose your way it’s important to know the reasons why. In order to celebrate the little accomplishments and move forward, you have to deconstruct the emotional butterfly effect and identify the things that set you off. Dispositional mindfulness manifested through personal reflection can help prevent us from feeling overwhelmed and can keep us on track to accomplish our goals.

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