When we discuss the power of context and its role in building our Excellence Habit, the assumption is that all context is external. However, there is another kind that really matters. This is our internal context. On any given day, we wake up, and the stream of our consciousness starts and takes us through our morning routine. Without major changes, our mental state tends to become more and more habitual. If there were no outside disruptors, the trends in our lives become more clearly outlined. If we liked our first job, we tend to like the second one as well. If we were driven in college, we tend to become more ambitious in our careers.

Within the context of our minds, we take the facts from our daily lives and process them against our personal history. With each day, any changes that we make are less and less noticeable. Based on our beliefs and values and on our environment, we create a mental context that allows us to feel more or less in control of our lives. Our mental state becomes a product of habit. We tend to have the same reaction to similar circumstances. And while we tend to spend a lot of time thinking about and noticing our external circumstances, we tend to pay little or no attention to our internal context. Our thoughts and our feelings often go on automatic. We rarely decide to “have a good day” regardless of the coming snowstorm and the dreaded month-end business review. On the contrary, we tend to anticipate and justify our bad moods based on the external context.

Just as with our external environment, our mental context is a major factor in the results we get. And just as with our external circumstances, our internal state can have “broken windows.” From childhood trauma and bad experiences, to poor habits and wrong choices, we carry with us the luggage of our inner circumstances. And just as with the broken windows theory in criminology, we are exquisitely sensitive to minor changes in our internal context. Without noticing, we can be affected by a smell, a tune on the radio, or an old poster. An odd thought could pop up during a meeting at the office, and then we find ourselves drifting for fifteen minutes and missing important information. A full moon could trigger a sleepless night, which we try to correct the next day with extra coffee.

These are all small sensory-triggered changes in our mental context that can end up having a big impact on our day. However, there is another class of inner context factors that are even more powerful in determining the kind of life we are going to have. These factors are our prevailing thoughts, beliefs, and values. This is what we tell ourselves on a daily basis, and what we tell ourselves in situations that matter. And what we tell ourselves sometimes comes from a single moment. One point in time can define our lives. ... 

To be continued next week. Sign up for First Look Access.