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How Your Mind Short-Circuits a Billion Years of Evolution Your State of Mind and Your Personal Productivity

Personal productivity begins with your state of mind. Personal productivity rests on the stability of your emotions. If you are too angry to interact with your co-worker then all the workflows in the world aren’t going to help you. If you feel guilty because of a mistake then your workflows will not help you produce at your full potential. If you are too distracted with your child’s grades then you will have a hard time communicating effectively with anyone.

Personal productivity is not just about workflows. It includes the ability to communicate. The ability to cooperate. The ability to solve problems. And much more. These skills, tools and techniques are covered well in the personal productivity community. But they also depend on your state of mind.

What is state of mind?

I am no psychologist but in my pursuit of productivity I have learned a lot. An important framework, and one considered by many as the most effective tool to manage your mental well-being, is called cognitive behavioural theory (CBT). CBT’s framework for your state of mind can be broken down to three major areas:

  1. Your emotions. These are automatic and extremely fast. Mostly they are about your safety. You should consider them signals.
  2. Your thoughts. These can be conscious or they can be automatic. Your thoughts should review the signals sent by emotions and then decide how to react.
  3. Your actions. These can be conscious or they can be automatic. Your actions should be driven by your conscious or positive automatic thoughts.

For example, in a team meeting one of your co-workers might blame you for a major mistake. Your emotions instantly send anger and defensive signals. This makes sense as being blamed for a major mistake, rightly or wrongly, can have a negative effect on your career. You consciously think “This isn’t good. But I can’t show anger or defensiveness, it will make me look bad. Let me shift the burden of proof back on my accuser.” Your action is to say to your co-worker “I don’t recall agreeing that I made a mistake. Would you please clarify why you are making such a serious accusation when there hasn’t been an internal review of the situation?”

Your state of mind is your ability to manage your thoughts so that they turn raw emotions into productive actions.

 How does your state of mind fail you?

Unfortunately, our minds don’t normally work like that. If a co-worker accuses us of being responsible for a major mistake the sequence of events is usually very different from the hypothetical one I described. Instead, it usually goes like this: Your emotions instantly send anger and defensive signals. You automatically think “He’s playing politics and trying to point the finger at me for the mistake! He’s lying! He’s such a ****!” And then you shout it out loud “You’re lying! Why are being such a ****?! Take that back!”

This sequence, and many others like them, are what make it difficult for you to follow advice relation to working, communicating and cooperating. You no longer act as a rational human being but revert to a sequence of automatic thoughts and actions that bypass any rational thought. A billion years of evolution is short-circuited.

Managing your state of mind

You’ve probably been advised to count to 10 before responding when angry. I was taught this at a young age. It never worked. Why? Because the point of counting to 10 is to allow you to engage your rational mind. The problem is, you need your rational mind to remind you that counting to 10 when angry is better than just responding. Chicken and egg problem.

What can you do to remind yourself to let the anger pass and allow the rational mind to take charge? The answer in my experience is there is no way to do this. Think about this logically. The problem is that when you are angry you want a reminder to think and act rationally. But the very act of reminding yourself to think and act rationally is a rational act. Contradiction.

I have found two solutions that have worked for me and that you might want to try.

The first solution is simple. Remain silent at all costs. If you are pressured into responding, simply say “Let me think about that and get back to you.” Since this is planned in advance I found it quite useful in managing my state of mind. It’s a great start but it lacks flexibility. Which brings me to my second solution, that I was able to use after I had become used to my first solution.

The second solution to managing my state of mind is what I call exposure. There are multiple ways of doing this. The first is to simply get into discussions that can become inflamed but do not affect you otherwise. For example, you might join a debate club and pick difficult topics. Politics or religion usually do the trick. The second is imagery. Imagine various situations that you have experienced or might experience and go through how others might anger you and how you would like to react. This works in part because the parts of the mind related to emotions cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. Try it out. Use a hear rate and/or a blood pressure monitor to measure your anger in a calm state and then as you imagine a meeting in which you are attacked by your political enemies. The final exposure solution that worked for me is mindfulness. To me, this simply means not attaching to emotions or even thoughts by focussing on something else, usually my breathing. It took months of practice but it slowly started making difficult conversations much easier.


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