“How Can I Manage by Behavior?”

Have you ever compared life to a maze? You know, the kind of maze with countless dead-ends and trails that keep you circling back to where you are now. The kind of maze in which all of the choices look alike so it’s hard to know which path to take. The maze that gets you clearly confused and totally tired and, to make matters worse, it seems as if you’re no closer to the end than when you started. Yeah, that kind of maze. While watching television recently I saw a sitcom episode in which two mice were placed in two identical mazes in order to compete against each other in trying to reach a bit of cheese. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the behavior of the mice as they went this way and that way, bumping into walls, retracing their steps, and going in the wrong direction at times as they slowly moved toward the cheese. The roadmap was clear to me as I watched the maze from above, but the mice did not have the advantage of my perspective. Finally, one of the mice managed to solve the maze and was compensated with a cheesy reward.

As I enjoyed the humor of the maze episode I also pondered the similarities to our journey through life. In many ways life is indeed a maze, complex and frustrating for the typical traveler. From our human perspective we can identify with the mice in that, with limited vision of the big picture, we can only see what is immediately in front of us. Like the mice we can “smell the cheese” but usually we resort to a basic trial-and-error approach to reaching the “cheese.” During our efforts to solve our maze we’re hoping that we don’t get to the end only to find that someone has moved the cheese!

Clearly, our ultimate goal is to solve life’s maze and to complete the maze successfully. Our success will be determined to a large extent by our personal behavior during the journey through the maze. Additionally, success is dependent upon our ability to manage our minds and our moods. Our individual thoughts and our personal emotions combine with our daily behavior to determine whether or not we solve life’s maze. The self-management of thoughts and emotions has been explored in companion articles, leaving us here to consider the issue of our behavior as it relates to managing our maze.  

                                                                 Styles of Behavior Management

Our choices about specific behavior emerge from the basic lifestyle we follow as we “run the maze,” or, expressed differently, as we travel through life in our unique, individualized journeys. In my personal and professional experience I’ve seen two basic lifestyles that people follow, and I’ve seen the positive and negative behaviors that resulted from the chosen lifestyle.
The Spontaneous Style . . .

One lifestyle—and the one that is highly popular—is an approach I describe as “spontaneous.” Admittedly, a certain amount of spontaneity can serve us well in life. However, in this context I’m referring to a behavioral style in which spontaneity is taken to an extreme level; it becomes the preferred way of life, the modus operandi by which we live.  In this “follow your nose” approach the traveler imitates the mouse in the maze in that he is focused solely upon himself as he hunts the “cheese” in life. He lives for the moment and is primarily invested in satisfying immediate wants and needs. Decisions are hastily made based upon “what feels good right now” with a minimum amount of attention given to long-term consequences. Impulsivity rules the road as effective problem-solving is forced into the ditches. Other than getting the so-called “cheese,” defined as some temporary pleasure or reward, this traveler does not have a meaningful destination in mind nor any specific roadmap for getting there. This style takes the idea of “taking each day as it comes” to a whole new level as each day is started and completed with little thought to its impact on the total journey.

The people who travel through life with the Spontaneous Style are a lot like the mouse who keeps butting his head against dead-end walls without ever reaching the cheese. They often feel like they’re literally “going in circles and getting nowhere.” Furthermore, the Spontaneous Style can reach a level in which each person becomes his own rule-maker; all external rules are rejected or ignored. This approach to life’s maze reminds me of an attempt to drive my car around a large city with no traffic signals. Everyone assumes that they have the right-of-way. I recall a movie I saw in which a villain reconfigured a city’s traffic light system to make all of the lights green at the same time, and immediate chaos and collisions occurred. The resulting mess tied up law enforcement personnel and the villains were able to complete a major financial heist during the time of traffic chaos. Likewise, our lives will become major messes when we travel as if there are no external “rules of the road” or traffic signals to manage our daily behavior.
The Strategic Style . . .

In contrast, the other lifestyle that determines daily behavior is the approach I think of as “strategic.” While moments of spontaneity do occur the journey as a whole is based on a strategy we’ve adopted for our individual lives. Therefore, on a day-to-day basis life is lived strategically and deliberately. We have our behavior traffic signal in place that tells us when to stop a certain behavior, show caution about some behavior, and when it is okay to continue a behavior. Our traffic signal helps us to travel safely and securely, and we hope that other people are using a similar signal. With the Strategic Style all behavior results from personal choices that are made with careful deliberation. Certainly, the human element kicks in from time to time and we react impulsively and immaturely. But for the most part we learn to reject a lifestyle of impulsive spontaneity in preference for strategic deliberateness. The Strategic Style means that we know what the ultimate purpose is for our lives; we understand the “big picture” and make sure that all behavior will move us forward toward our chosen destination. We learn how to problem-solve effectively, and we develop the skills for making choices that allow us to travel through life’s maze safely and successfully.

                                                                 Steps in Behavior Management

In regard to the self-management of behavior we must first make a choice of style: to live by the Spontaneous Style or the Strategic Style. If we choose to live spontaneously, there is really no need to read further, simply because, by definition, spontaneity is a lifestyle of moment-by-moment reactions made hastily and impulsively. You are already sufficiently equipped to live this hit-or-miss, take-it-as-it-comes lifestyle with its unpredictable, chaotic outcome. However, a choice of the Strategic Style invites us to press on in our exploration and study. As I pondered the Strategic Style in regard to life’s maze I thought of several helpful steps which, when taken, could help us in self-managing our behavior. Let’s explore four of these steps and their implications upon our attempts at managing life’s maze. Each step includes a relevant question that welcomes our serious considerations and that warrants our sincere convictions.
Step #1--Purposes:  “What is my destination?”
As we embark on life’s journey with the Strategic Style we want to know the destination toward which we’re traveling. Unlike Spontaneous Style people who don’t really care about long-term goals, we are deeply interested in the ultimate outcome. Before we choose a direction to take or a highway to travel we address and answer the question, “What’s my destination?” We understand that the absence of purpose means that life is destined to remain an endless and unsolvable maze that ends at some point when physical death occurs. In contrast, the purposeful life is less like a maze and more like a mission, and the journey to be completed is like a highway that moves consistently and steadily toward the ultimate destination. Decisions about daily behavior are made strategically with careful deliberation since potential solutions are good only if they help us in the fulfillment of our life’s purpose. Therefore, as we consider choices about possible behaviors we would do well to ask “How will this particular behavior help or hinder the fulfillment of my overall purpose in life?” In response, behaviors that help are checked out and chosen, while behaviors that hinder are reconsidered and rejected. 
Step #2--Policies:   “What roadmap will I follow?”

Another important step in the self-management of behavior involves personal policies and workable roadmaps. In our literal travels to various destinations we all have personal policies that we follow. Through these policies we hope to travel in safety and to reach our goal successfully. For example, we have policies about adhering to the “rules of the road” that might involve speed limits, seat belts, and courteous driving. We might have policies about offering rides to hitchhikers or allowing certain practices within our vehicle. Our policies are often tied to current legal standards, and sometimes they are simply related to good common sense and practical safety. Our policies are often connected to our basic moral values and may be issues of our spiritual faith. However, whatever the source these personal policies are important to our physical travels in life.

In our life journey (or, as we work through life’s maze) we would do well to establish for ourselves certain personal policies that form a type of useful roadmap. Obviously, such policies must be made in view of our primary purpose in life. After establishing the policies we must practice daily discernment as we travel so that we’ll know when and how to put a particular personal policy into immediate use. Our personal policies are developed as needed in relation to our purpose and destination, and they help us manage our daily behavior. For example, let’s say that we have a personal policy that states “I will never drink alcohol when I’m driving a car.” Imagine that a friend is riding with us to an activity and on the way tries to get us to drink with him. Now we have a choice to make about behavior—to drink or not. Our response could be, “No, thanks. My personal policy will not allow me to drink while driving.” Hopefully, the friend will respect the policy and not offer the alcohol again. Invoking a personal policy is another way of setting a personal boundary or holding to a belief of spiritual faith. The policy is a tool that can help us travel successfully toward our goal.

Every personal policy needs to emerge from a personal choice rather than a mere decision. What’s the difference? I see an important distinction between the two. All personal choices are decisions but not all decisions are personal choices. I can make a decision simply by asking a friend what he thinks I should do, or I could take a vote and let the majority of votes determine my behavior. I could determine which way the wind of popularity is blowing and decide to go with that direction. In simplest terms I could just flip a coin and use a “heads” or “tails” result to determine my behavior. The coin approach reminds me of two college students who were struggling with a decision about preparations for an upcoming exam. Their decision-making process was simple:  “Let’s flip the coin. If it’s heads, we go to the ballgame. If it’s tails, we go to the Student Union and hang out. If it stands on edge, we’ll study.” These actions may bring a decision but that decision probably does not represent a true personal choice. In contrast to these risky decision-making techniques a personal choice requires that I understand at least three things:  what I need, what I want, and what my personal values are. If I don’t know what I need or want or what my values are, I cannot make a personal choice. The best I can do is to make a decision, perhaps by flipping a coin or following a popular cultural trend. However, if I develop personal policies based on a clear knowledge of these three areas, then I am more likely to make a decision about my behavior that is inherently a personal choice. In my estimation a decision by personal choice is always preferable to a decision that has nothing to do with my wants, needs, and values.

The reference to personal values invites several important questions. Since my choice of behavior needs to consider my personal values, how do I decide what specific values to accept? Upon what do I base my choice of values—family tradition, personal preference, or prevailing culture? Is my choice based primarily or totally upon what I like or dislike from an internal, self-centered perspective? Alternatively, do I base my choice of values upon an external source, such as family-of-origin beliefs or contemporary cultural standards? Or, do I depend upon a spiritual external standard such as the Bible or a similar religious resource? The development of personal values is necessarily connected to some underlying basis for those values which, once developed, play a huge role in my personal roadmap that I use daily during my journey through life.    

How much thought have we given to the “roadmap” we use to guide us through the maze of life? For me, the importance of a workable roadmap has increased significantly as I continue to travel longer and further along life’s highway. Without a roadmap the self-management of my personal behavior is extremely limited. However, I’ve continued to be puzzled about people who admit that they struggle and suffer a great deal in life without any type of roadmap to guide them, yet at the same time they reject the idea that a workable roadmap would be a helpful addition to their travels in life. Apparently they prefer to imitate the mouse in the maze and simply “follow their nose” in hopes of finding some “happiness cheese” somewhere in life. This total reliance upon the “inner nose” is a rejection of any external source of guidance for life’s journey. Instead, they choose to depend upon a self-generated “Internal Guidance System” that, according to their own description, is at best inadequate and unreliable. Predictably, it’s no wonder that they continue to hit “dead-ends” and to “go in circles.” I’m puzzled by the individual who discovers that the Spontaneous Style to behavior management increases stress in life yet the same person insists upon a continuation of his particular lifestyle. A friend associated with Alcoholics Anonymous once defined “insanity” as “continuing the same behavior while expecting different results.”

In contrast, the people I’ve seen who traveled better are those who admit that, within themselves, they are inadequate to solve life’s maze. However, rather than admitting defeat or following a Spontaneous Style they decide to live strategically in that they develop a personal roadmap that includes external resources.  Over the years I’ve tried to assist people in their struggles with hardships and hurts. Specifically, I’ve inquired about basic coping skills and relevant external resources. My observations have led me to conclude that, generally speaking, the people who travel best are Christians who view the Bible as God’s Roadmap for Life’s Journey. These folks continue to experience life’s hardships and uncertainties, but their focus is upon an external source that represents unchanging truth and personal guidance. Christians who rely upon the Scriptures have reported to me that they feel more confident and courageous about life simply because they are not trying to direct their own steps. They believe that the God who created them knows what is best for them and has provided for them a trustworthy roadmap in the form of the Bible. Their goal is to manage their personal behavior less by their “inner nose” and more by Biblical truth. Their approach to life looks very different from non-religious people who attempt life’s maze with neither scriptural roadmap nor spiritual resource. As I’ve watched both approaches being chosen and applied, it seems clear to me from the reported evidence that the better journey is the one in which behavior is managed by reliance upon a Biblical roadmap that provides both personal guidance and spiritual resources. Bible-based Christians report a strong level of help for the present life and hope for the life to come. I have not heard the same report from people who reject spiritual faith in favor of total reliance upon inner knowledge and strength. All that being reported, let me quickly add that I respect each individual’s freedom of choice in this matter and am not trying to impose any personal views upon other people. Rather, I’m simply describing my observations based upon both professional and personal experience.
Step #3--Pursuits:    “What exits will I check out during my journey?”

Another important consideration about behavior management concerns the issue of pursuits. As stated earlier, our goal is to solve life’s maze and to fulfill our personal mission or purpose in life. Success will be influenced significantly by our personal pursuits and the behavior involved in those pursuits. In our literal travels we sometimes get delayed or hindered because we decide to take an exit in order to check out some place or activity that looks appealing and attractive. These pursuits may be detrimental to our journey or might be inherently okay, but still they distract and delay us in our travels.

Our “sidetracks” along life’s journey often result from unmanaged desires that tempt us into destructive, damaging behavior. Various addictions involve behaviors that often lead to dangerous and deadly pursuits. At other times the sidetracks occur because we simply fail to discern or prioritize. I recall the story about the obsessive fellow who was a day late to a major family reunion. Upon his arrival a cousin asked him why it took so long to get to the reunion. The obsessive traveler responded, “Well, I kept seeing signs that said ‘Clean restroom ahead.’ I must have cleaned fourteen dirty restrooms on my way here. Man, am I tired!” Sometimes we misinterpret the “road signs” of life and expend a great deal of time and energy in unnecessary pursuits. A positive activity can become negative if it hinders and hurts our progress toward our destination. Recently I was traveling with my older brother who was visiting me. I was driving and was trying to get from a state park we had visited to a nearby town to check out a museum. Somehow I misinterpreted a road sign and left the main highway earlier than I should have. Yet for several miles I still thought we were on track—until we came to an intersection of the original highway we had left many miles before! Our large and wandering circle cost us valuable time and effort, and, needless to say, my error in sign discernment prevented us from getting to the museum before closing time. What’s the point to this story? The application is that we must use wise discernment in our choices of personal pursuits in life’s journey in order to prevent those careless sidetracks that consume precious time and energy.

However, discernment without discipline is insufficient. Effective behavior management requires that the use of discernment be connected to the practice of good self-discipline. After discerning that a specific behavior is helpful or harmful to our journey we still must be able to complete the helpful action or reject the harmful action. Discernment without self-discipline means we have simply made a good choice that remains undone.  Good self-discipline insures that we translate our thoughts into appropriate behavior. Thus, the combination of discernment and discipline is critically important to our management of personal pursuits during our travels through life. 
Step #4--Partners:  “What passengers will travel with me?”

A fourth step in effective behavior management relates to our choice of traveling companions. In one sense each person travels individually throughout life. He works to solve the maze by himself. In other words, no one else can live his life for him. Yet, at the same time, we travel through life with other people, for no one lives in a total vacuum. Our respective individual highways may run in parallel with others, or they may intersect and crisscross one another. Without doubt our behavior in life is influenced heavily by the passengers or companions who travel with us. Their examples and their messages have an influence upon our thinking which in turn influences our choices about behavior.

Therefore, because of the impact of influence we must exercise wisdom in the selection of our traveling companions, particularly in regard to spouses and best friends. On a daily basis newscasts tell us about individuals who got into serious trouble because they were traveling with trouble-minded people. Like me, perhaps you can recall the old saying, “If you run with goats, you’ll probably end up smelling like goats.” Like it or not, negative people tend to rub off on us, sometimes in significant ways that tempt us to change our behavior in negative directions. Thankfully, positive people will encourage us toward positive behavior. We need to travel with such people who share our life purpose or who at least will understand and respect it. Their positive influence will encourage us toward better management of our daily behavior.

Concluding Thoughts. . .
Successful self-management means that I choose my behavior strategically and deliberately. Otherwise, I am putting my journey at risk and will probably fail to manage life’s maze. I will strive to understand and undertake the fulfillment of my life purpose, and I will develop and implement policies in the form of healthy personal choices. I will stay focused on life’s highway by choosing those pursuits that will help me fulfill my ultimate purpose. Further, I will be extremely careful about the people I select as personal traveling companions. My usage of the Strategic Style will improve my ability to practice effective self-management, and, as a result, my life will be healthier and happier.

The presence of a clear and well-defined purpose means that I can view life less as a maze and more as a mission. From another perspective I am actually solving the maze through my commitment to fulfill my mission in life. Without a doubt life on the Mission Highway is clearly a better journey than life in a maze.
In conclusion, effective self-management is necessary to a successful journey through life. As suggested earlier, our self-management involves three key areas.
           (1)  Thoughts:  Managing My Mind
           (2)  Emotions:  Managing My Mood
           (3)  Behavior:  Managing My Maze

Because of their importance all three areas merit extensive study and growth throughout the years of one’s journey in life. I challenge all of us to commit ourselves to daily improvement in these areas of self-management. The areas of thoughts and emotions have been explored in companion articles which are available to you on this website. Links to these articles are provided at the conclusion of this current material.

I wish you well as you ponder self-management during your life journey, particularly in regard to how you will manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. I hope that your thoughts will be focused upon your life purpose and that the behavior you choose will help you to fulfill that purpose. Your emotions will certainly be related to your thoughts and your behavior. Then, when your journey has been completed you’ll be able to look back and say, “Life was uncertain and hard at times, but I’ve stayed on track and I’ve reached my destination with humble gratitude and satisfying joy.”

And, as always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.  
Resources: Dr. Baker has written several related articles that are published on this website, three of which are listed below. To examine these articles please click on the titles.
                "Thoughts: Managing my Mind"
                 "Exiting the Worry Highway"
Additional Resources:  Dr. Baker has also written articles about worry, anxiety management, and depression. To see a list of these articles and related resources, please consult the Mental Health category in the Resources section or you can click on the link below.
VIDEO:  To view a video of Dr. Baker's television interview on "Emotions: Managing My Mood," please click on the image to the right or just  click here.

(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)



       (Mental Health--Blog #1311)



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