This post is the second of a four-part series on three of the most important needs identified by psychologists. If you have not read part one of the series, that’d be the best place to start! Consider this series a “How To” for becoming more motivated and satisfied in different areas of your life.
Why Autonomy Matters
What is autonomy, and why should you care? Well, first, autonomy is the sense that you are able to make your own choices. It’s the feeling of being in charge of important areas of you life, feeling you have the freedom to decide your own path. Autonomy is important because so much research has found that it leads to more satisfaction, motivation, productivity, and happiness. Sounds good, right?
This isn’t surprising. Ask any teenager whether they would be more likely to enjoy doing the dishes when their mom tells them to, or when they spontaneously decide to do so on their own. We all know the answer to that question.
If you’re not convinced, let me spout just some of the many research findings published on this fact: people who feel “autonomous” are more likely to enjoy their classes, more likely to graduate from college, more likely to like their job, more productive, more satisfied with their life, more creative, more energized, happier, less sad, more likely to work out, and more motivated. Boom.
Is Your Need for Autonomy Met?
So, let me ask you this: in what areas of your life do you feel you are able to make your own choices? I encourage you to make a list. My list starts with my research, my marriage, how I spend my free time, my eating habits, etc. These include areas of my life where I feel unrestrained, free to do what I please, and not like I have to constantly be monitoring my behavior to meet someone else’s standards.
Perhaps more importantly, in what areas of your life do you feel you are unable to make your own choices? Again, make a list, and be sure to reflect on why you feel you lack autonomy in that area. Maybe for you, this list includes parts of your job where a hyper-involved supervisor watches your every move, or an inflexible schedule in which you’re always hard-pressed to meet all your deadlines.
How to Help Meet Your Need for Autonomy
When looking at your list of areas where your need for autonomy is unmet, think about which of these situations feel really impactful. Are there any that stand out? If so, consider the ideas below for how you might be able to feel more satisfied.
Idea #1: Cut the Fat
A lot of us have a tendency to take on more than we can (or at the very least, should) handle. We feel pulled to “do it all.” The problem is, adding more to your life doesn’t add more to your quality of life. We usually end up more stressed, less satisfied, and increasingly at the mercy of our increasingly busy schedules. Busy schedules don’t breed autonomy.
I encourage you to think about what can be cut from your daily schedule. What is something that takes time/energy, brings little joy, and isn’t absolutely unnecessary?
Although some burdens cannot realistically be lifted, do your best to identify ways that the tasks you dread each week can be made a little easier. For instance, if you absolutely hate folding laundry, try starting a new show on Netflix that you only watch when you fold laundry.
Freedom to make your own decisions is dependent on having free time. If you are constantly on autopilot to get through your busy days, I’m guessing you don’t totally feel in control.
Idea #2: Get Ahead to Allow for More Flexibility
If frequent deadlines and/or a heavy workload keep you from feeling free and autonomous in your life, it can help to rearrange your schedule to allow you to get ahead on your work.
Procrastination is not conducive to a free and flexible schedule. Why? Because if you only work productively when you are under pressure to do so, the work no longer becomes your choice, but rather something you do out of necessity.
What if, the night before an essay is due, a college student gets a last minute chance to snag some free tickets to a concert? If that college student had the essay prepared and printed in advance, she could easily go. If not, she would be forced to make the unhappy decision to stay home and hastily put together a half-way decent paper.
The ironic thing is, the same amount of work is required whether I do a task a week before it’s due, or the night before. In one case, I am stressed and panicking. In the other, I feel accomplished, organized, and proud of myself for being so productive.
Although we don’t always have power to change the tasks on our to do list, we usually have the power to decide when we do them.
Idea #3: Free Yourself from the Burden of Other’s Opinions
Sometimes, we make really important decisions based on what other people think. Maybe you’re considering med school because your parents want you to. Maybe you’re working a job you hate because you like the status that comes with your title. Maybe you took on an extra responsibility out of obligation to “keep up” with that annoyingly put-together mom in your kid’s friend group.
When we make decisions based entirely on other’s opinions, it usually doesn’t end with us feeling at peace and satisfied. It might be helpful to think about why you feel pulled to make decisions to please other people. Think curiously and non-judgmentally: why do you care what “Miss Perfect Mom” thinks? Humans don’t typically make decisions for no reason, so if you can identify what pleasing others in this area does for you, you can work to meet that need in a healthier way.
What do you think? How do you foster autonomy in your daily life? Comment below with your thoughts!