This post is a personal essay on how to manage your emotional states. Over the last few years I have battled the ups and the downs of the black dog in my life, this has made me acutely aware of the impact that your mental frame of reference has upon your day to day life. In the title I talk about performance, but to me, this performance can simply be getting out of bed and going about our day.
This post has three primary sections:
- An introductory background section
- A section covering three theoretical techniques to help manage emotional states
- My personal success with applying this in my own life
Your experiences may vary, this is still a new concept that I am introducing into my own life and I’m not an expert on it. I still suffer setbacks and there are definitely areas where I can improve. This article is my attempt to introduce a different way of looking at a world where if you’re not perfect you’re nothing. Instead, I argue that maintaining a continuous slow improvement is the most important element of your longer term success.
Performance is a slippery beast. One day we are on the top of our game and the next we are completely horrible, everything falls apart. Our performance is volatile, uneven and it frustrates us to no end. This begs, the question. Does it have to be this way?
Why is our performance so haphazard? Why do we feel like we’re firing on all cylinders one day, but on the others were can barely get out of bed. Is there a way to change this? Is there a way to get better at the meta skill of being good?
The more experienced I get the more I firmly believe that my personal performance has a strong emotional component to it. From observations of my peers and colleagues in many situations I’ve also observed the same behaviour in them. I don’t believe I’m alone in this. Whether we’re distracted, hungry, tired, irritated at a colleague or upset that our dog died our performance is likely to be impacted. When we’re calm, resolution and focused our performance is likely to be improved.
In this is where I believe the answer lies. We need to shift from being an emotional weather-vane, tossed around in the slightest breeze. Instead, we should we strive towards being the rock in the ocean, buffeted from all angles but resolute and steadfast.
Being completely stoical can definitely help our performance. If we’re more emotionally even then we won’t be as susceptible to whatever is happening right now, theoretically our focus should be improved. Instead of being tossed around, we’ll be able to take a step back and do what needs to be done to get the job done.
There is a lot of merit in this approach. But, in many instances this relies upon a huge amount of discipline and willpower to keep powering through the work when we’re distracted and upset. This is a recipe for uninspired and lifeless creations, the sort that can only come out of a corporation that is paying someone minimum wage to get something done.
Instead, we need to be able to harness our emotions. When we’re in the zone we want to be able to maximise our creative juices. If we’re not quite feeling it we should stop. What I want is to have a greater control over my emotional state so that I’m more likely to be “in the zone” than I am “not feeling it”. I want to shift my ratio between the two towards the productive emotional states.
If a strike of creative genius hits then I want to run with that and milk it for everything that it’s worth. The surge of motivation that we can get when starting a project or passing a major milestone shouldn’t be squandered due to some arbitrary rules. If I can smash through a huge volume of work and complete it in a frenzied burst then that’s okay. Not sustainable but okay.
The bigger concern I have is that I don’t want my productive work to be coupled to these states. The fact that I can be productive in a rapid burst is okay. If I can only be productive during these bursts that’s a problem. I don’t want my personal projects to be abandoned once the initial motivation that comes with the joy of discovery has vanished. This is a quick way for projects to join the “not completed dumpster fire” that for many of us is all too large.
This isn’t conducive to productivity or getting shit done.
What we need is a mixed layer approach. We need to be able to smash things out when the motivation is high, but also to keep going and do little bits and pieces when the motivation is low. We need to be able to divorce our performance from the baseline emotional state we find ourselves in, but be able to take advantage of it when the mood strikes. We must be able to recognise that we’re not going to “feel”it for every waking hour of the day, but it’s still important to try something. I’m currently in the process of editing this post as opposed to procrastinating playing Civilisation V which is what I would rather be doing right now. Because I know that if I can commit the payoff will be worthwhile.
There is a huge literature of productivity gurus out there. No matter how weird you want to go you can find someone whose style of weird gels with yours. Fortunately, much of the effective advice typically boils down to the following statement which I want to spend a bit more time on to understand the nuances. The advice is:
Do your primary goal as soon as you wake up in the morning.
Why is this the advice they all tend to give?
After personal research I believe that this strategy works because first thing in the morning negative emotions have not had time to set in. We are in a state of tabula rasa, the blank state. We haven’t had to sit through any rush hour traffic, we’re not hungry nor tired and we haven’t had to deal with any personal interactions yet. We can focus upon getting the most important things done. This is why many people report their early hours are their most productive ones.
Throughout the day our motivation and willpower don’t necessary get eroded as some of the productivity literature would suggest, here I am thinking of the ones who believe will power is a finite resource. Instead, over the course of the day we get distracted by ever increasing bouts of stimuli and our natural equilibrium gets upset.
We hear about John’s new car or Jane’s new baby and suddenly we have to process a whole heap of extra information. We have to navigate the complexities of the morning coffee run and ensure that all of the various personalities are left satisfied. We have to read through our list of emails.
All of these things don’t erode our willpower, they instead introduce a smorgasbord of distractions that we have to filter, prioritise and remember. How can we honestly expect to be productive when we have so much going on? Worse, some of these interactions can make us anxious. We start to anticipate the worst case scenarios and dread can set in, paralysing our ability to perform.
Our waking lives are designed to make us unproductive.
Thus, to bring this back to the starting question. How can we separate productivity from emotional states?
I believe the answer is a lot simpler than we have been led to believe. Yes it is important to make sure we’re eating well, getting enough sunlight, getting enough exercise and having the requisite number of hours of sleep. But if you’re smashing all of these this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be productive. In addition, there are huge numbers of people who are at the top of the game who aren’t optimising those metrics, unfortunate I know for the quantified self movement.
Instead, I believe that we must go down a different pathway. Instead of trying to optimise the physical conditions we should instead optimise our mental conditions and most importantly our day to day emotional state. We must set up our lives to minimise the occurrence of negative emotional states before they begin as well as develop the tools to bring ourselves back from them. By constructing a mental toolbox of techniques we can ideally keep ourselves in the performance zone and not get distracted by the day to day concerns of life.
On the other hand, if we can only perform when we’ve removed all negative emotional states from our lives we’ll be unable to perform at all. We’ll be sitting there, twiddling our thumbs in perfect bliss, waiting for that giant surge of inspiration just as we were before. Acknowledging that we can only maximise our productivity when we have avoided negative emotional states doesn’t really help us. Or does it?
Top Performers as a Model
One of the key tenets of high performing individuals is that they have trained themselves to manage their emotional states.
The key word here is manage. Not eradicate. Manage.
For the top performers, when the pressure kicks in, when they need to make that clutch decision and perfectly perform an action their stress levels can actually decrease. They refuse to let themselves feel the pressure and instead lose themselves in an ocean of focus. They manage their negative emotional states and are able to put them aside to another time. This management enables them to perform consistently.
They do this through a combination of exposure therapy, visualisation and introspection.
Over the years a top performer has exposed themselves to a huge variety of possible situations. They understand that no matter how bad a scenario is that they’ve seen it before and that they can manage it. They’ve visualised the possible outcomes and they’ve looked internally to assess how they’ll manage them.
Techniques to master
These skills are not specific to high performers though. Anyone can learn them if they know some basics. To get started I see benefit in two ancient philosophical tactical skills as well as a more modern one.
- Meditation from Buddhism
- Negative Visualisation from Stoic philosophy
- Exposure Therapy from modern psychology
I believe that these three techniques are all important as they teach us different ways of dealing with the world and our responses to it.
Meditation teaches us to come back to center from a negative emotional place. If our thoughts and emotions are all over the place then meditation is a centering force. It brings us back to neutral.
Negative Visualisation teaches us to anticipate the worst things that can happen to us so that all of our surprises are good ones. If we consistently practice negative visualisation then nothing can ruin our day, it can only inconvenience us.
Exposure Therapy takes the theory and brings it to the practical setting. If we sit there and meditate for four hours a day and practice negative visualisation for the other four hours then we haven’t actually accomplished anything. We need to put ourselves out there, to practice in as many different environments as we can to build our resilience.
By practicing these three techniques I am attempting to manage my emotional states in order to maximise performance across multiple avenues. Mental, physical and social. Each of the techniques is successful in its own right, but by bringing them together they have a multiplicative effect.
Why is a neutral emotional state important?
To dispel the first myth: to reach a level of high performance and productivity you do not need to be in a pumped up hard charging and highly motivated state. If anything, being completely wired and pumped up is counter productive as it induces tunnel vision. Once that burst of energy falls away your likely to become listless and unmotivated.
Instead, high performance and productivity are strongly linked to the absence of negative emotional states not the presence of highly charged positive emotional states.
In layman’s terms. You’re productive because you don’t feel bad. Not because you feel good.
When you’re super pumped up you lay it all out on the table, leaving nothing left. The problem of this approach is that it only thinks of the present. To become truly great you need to keep turning up, day after day after day and you need to keep performing on these days. Having an amazing session one day which leaves you in an exhausted puddle often means you won’t be able to perform tomorrow. Giving your all is counter productive to getting better in many situations. Please do not conflate this with me advising you to do nothing either. I will expand further later.
This is why Meditation is the first of the three skills. Meditation can help to bring you back to a neutral setting once you have lost your equilibrium quashing any negative emotional states you may have found yourself in. If you’re completely rattled by something that has happened then meditation can help. Imagine all of those times when you’ve been distracted at work, unable to concentrate or focus upon what you need to do. At this point you need some way of escaping the negative emotion trap that you’ve found yourself in. I have found that Meditation can be that escape hatch. To summarise:
When we meditate we are training our mind to dispel negative emotional states and return to the neutral equilibrium state. This resets our brain.
But, this is not necessarily enough. Meditation is fantastic at bringing us back to center and if we meditate consistently it can also have a preventative element as well but distractions and high pressure situations will still often overwhelm this. We need a way of stopping ourselves from entering the negative emotional states to begin with. We need a way to be prepared for them so that we’re not reliant upon coming back to neutral. Instead, we never leave it. Prevention is always better than cure.
Enter Negative Visualisation.
Negative Visualisation is a Stoic technique that forces us to consider the worst things that could go wrong or happen to us. To a Stoic, contemplating the fact that he may mess up an important situation or something might come out of left field and what he will do about it is an every day occurrence. He will strive to anticipate what could happen and what he would do in that setting if he did.
But this doesn’t make sense. We striving to minimise negative emotional states, why would thinking about all the horrible things that could go wrong be helpful? Why would we inflict negative emotional states upon ourselves in the first place? Isn’t that the opposite of what we should be doing? Shouldn’t we be thinking happy thoughts all the time?
Sure, thinking happy thoughts is a winning strategy if life is completely deterministic and linear. By that I mean, if life was predictable. But life is not like that at all. Life is chaotic and complex, things change all the time in completely unexpected ways. If you think your life plan at 15 is going to be valid at 25 then you’re in for a rude awakening. Likewise your plan at 25 compared to yourself at 35 and so on. No matter what we want to believe, life is guaranteed to chuck a few curve balls at us.
So let us consider two theoretical people:
- Positive Perry: Spends his life only thinking happy thoughts and refuses to consider what can go wrong.
- Negative Nancy: Spends her life engaging in negative visualisation and thinking about what could go wrong and how she will respond to it.
Now, on a day to day basis Negative Nancy will be in a slightly worse emotional state than Positive Perry. Nancy spends a bit of her time thinking about what could go wrong. If you were to look at this mathematically from a utilitarian perspective then all else being equal the person who thinks about negative scenarios will be less happy than the person who thinks about positive scenarios.
We should keep in mind that that these bad things haven’t actually happened yet. Nancy is just spending a bit of time thinking about what could go wrong and how she would respond if they did. She wants to be prepared. Perry on the other hand is sailing through life on a cloud, he’s not even aware that something could go wrong, let alone what he would do in that situation.
Life decides one day to throw the same curve ball at both Nancy and Perry. This may be major or it may be minor. Let’s assume it’s minor, a bridge is closed and their commute goes from 15 minutes to an hour making them late for an important meeting at work where they get chewed out by their boss.
Now, who handles it better and who is less affected by it over the long?
Positive Perry didn’t believe it could happen in the first place whereas Negative Nancy had spent a small amount of time anticipating things that could go wrong and planning out different ways to react. I would bet with pretty high confidence that Nancy will come out of this situation in a far better emotional state than Perry. She was aware that it could happen and had an actionable game plan in place, just in case. Perry on the other hand is blindsided and his entire day has been thrown into pieces by one little thing that went wrong.
And this is where the secret lies. By spending some time to anticipate the things that can go wrong we can avoid getting thrown off kilter by the day to day things that happen in life. This allows us to maintain a smooth and even equilibrium when life decides to throw things at us. It’s not that these bad scenarios don’t happen. It’s that we’re far more mentally prepared when they do happen and thus they have less emotional impact on us.
I am not suggesting that you spend all day walking around in a black mood anticipating all of the things that go wrong. I am not suggesting that you become a full blown pessimist who thinks the worst in all situations. I am ascribing to the stoical view which has been popularised by William Irvine in “A Guide to the Good Life”. Instead, I am suggesting that having a plan for some of the things that could go wrong will make you more prepared when any set backs occur.
The final secret is Exposure Therapy.
Exposure Therapy is the concept of taking the theoretical case and making it practical, by exposing ourselves to setback in strongly controlled environments. The key here, is in the environment we choose to practice within. Exposure therapy posits that as we become used to dealing with setbacks in one area of our life we become less sensitive to setbacks in other areas. We understand that they’re not so intimidating and that they’re far worse in the imagination than they are in reality.
Right now, you have a a given discomfort level that you’re comfortable with. You can think of this as your discomfort set point. To use an analogy, you’re most likely comfortable walking around in just a t-shirt at about 18C. Any colder than this you’re likely to reach for the heater or a jumper, any warmer and you’re going to reach for the air conditioning or a fan.
If you were to drop straight away to 0C then you’re likely to be absolutely miserable. Freezing your ass off. But if over a long period of time you’ve become accustomed to cold temperatures you could still be completely happy in a t-shirt at this temperature. It’s not that the situation has changed, instead you’ve changed.
Exposure therapy is the temperature analogy extended to life. It’s the concept of playing in the minor leagues before jumping to the majors. Exposing yourself to a series of small setbacks will give you preparation to handle bigger setbacks that come. Handling bigger setbacks will enable you to handle even larger ones. The facts of these setbacks haven’t changed. Instead, you’ve changed, you have a larger capacity to handle them.
A warning: Equilibrium isn’t everything
Unfortunately though, maintaining a healthy equilibrium state through meditation and negative visualisation will not necessarily make you a productivity and performance powerhouse. Instead, equilibrium will allow you to be calm while performing, but you still have to get out and actually do the work.
What do I mean by being calm?
This means that we don’t have to psych ourselves up continuously to do the smallest task, that we’re not beholden to our ever fickle sense of motivation. That we don’t make a big deal of turning up and doing something. That we don’t have to brag and share on social media that we did something. Instead, we strive to just quietly go out and do them.
We shift our mindset from one where everything needs to be perfect and marketable to one where we can relax a little bit and just try our best.
To expand upon this I want to use an exercise analogy as I believe it fits best in the culture.
When you exercise, do you need to pump yourself up, blast a whole lot of aggressive music and smash 59 litres of a pre-workout which has so much caffeine in it that you can’t sit still for 7 hours afterwards.
Or, can you simply turn up, lift the weights or go for the run and not really make a big deal out of it. Get in the required work out and then go home afterwards and live your life.
Which of these two scenarios do you think takes the biggest emotional toll? Which one takes the most mental energy to perform? Ultimately, which one is more sustainable over the long term?
If you turn up to your workout completely calm and remain calm throughout it shifts your training to a more purposeful state. You’re not hyped up and blasting everything to try and get pumped up to make a lift. Instead, I wouldn’t say that you’re indifferent to the outcome but you do know that it’s not going to ruin your day if it doesn’t go perfectly. This means that you simply turn up and do the work, if its going well you may push a little, on the other hand if everything is going to shit then you can back it off.
Part of this process is the acknowledgement that we’re not going to be perfect all of the time. If anything, perfection is a rare state of affairs and trying to obtain it is highly detrimental. I have found that now that I’ve taken the pressure off myself to perform that I actually perform better. I am less stressed about the overall outcome because I know that I’m going to turn up and do some more work or training tomorrow. I know that every individual workout isn’t that important because I’m turning up every day and the cumulative effect is still occurring.
It’s all very well to understand the theory of something but the proof is in the pudding. Have I been able to successfully apply these strategies to my own life? Am I a happier, more productive individual who is enjoying life more?
At the moment, yes, I am.
Over the past few weeks after beginning this attempt I have:
- Managed to stick to a ketogenic diet for one of the first times in my life (I find low carb diets help me with managing my overall energy levels).
- Have trained consistently with heavy weights and am reaching new strength levels.
- Have improved my spending habits, spending less money eating out and on more frivolous purchases which is improving my financial position.
- Am getting noticeably leaner (per a friends comments) and feeling much better about my body overall.
- Am able to concentrate and focus for much longer periods of time.
- Have begun reading again’, reading 4 books over the past 3 weeks.
- Have begun writing again and getting some words down on a piece of paper when previously I was completely stuck.
- Have found new enjoyment in my chosen career and a new found happiness about the future potential paths I can take it.
- Reduced my levels of anxiety regarding the future which is also improving my mood.
- Went out for a few evening walks taking photos, watching quality movies or writing instead of spending my evenings browsing the internet (enjoying life more).
Reading over that now, it’s quite a list in all honesty and I’m happy with the progress I’ve been making. I understand that there isn’t a silver bullet here but I am coming to the conclusion that the improvement in my emotional state is the primary driver here. I’m placing less pressure upon myself to improve in the moment and instead I’m living more in the moment.
At the gym, I simply turn up, do the work then leave. I’m no longer striving for the perfect training session or the perfect pump. I’m not training myself to exhaustion at all. Instead, I have a rough idea of the work I’m going to do, the basic exercises and set/rep ranges. I then have the freedom to just go to the gym, put in the work sets and then leave to go and do other things. Here, I’m leaning upon the work of Matthew Perryman and his excellent book Squat Every Day which has been a huge inspiration to me. I have learnt that I can just calmly turn up and lift which leads to results.
In other elements of my life the impact has been pronounced as well. I’ve always been an emotional eater. Someone who craves kilograms of sugar and can eat it without a second thought. Someone who has one beer and then decides to have 10 more. I don’t have an off switch when it comes to food. I simply cannot do moderation.
But I’ve taken the pressure off recently and just tried to be calm and objective about the scenarios. Coincidentally I’ve managed to avoid all the nasty stuff whilst drinking predominantly water, tea and coffee. Once again, it’s working for me to separate the knee jerk emotional responses from my actions. On multiple occasions over the past few weeks there has been huge quantities of sugary treats (chocolate, donuts etc) floating around the office. To my surprise, resisting these has been almost trivially easy.
In my writing I’ve never been good at finishing, never been good at crafting the final end result. My typical writing profile is to get a burst of inspiration which lets me smash out the first couple thousand words… and it doesn’t go any further. I’m a chronic procrastinator when it comes to finishing work.
Lately, I have been telling myself to just “turn up and do the work”. Previously, I would require conditions to be perfect, oh, my seat is uncomfortable, can’t write. Oh, I don’t like this topic, can’t write. Oh, I’m hungry, can’t write. You name it, I used it as an excuse to get out of doing what I truly wanted to do. This is weird as I get a lot of intrinsic pleasure and purpose from writing. The thought that my writing may help someone brings me an inordinate amount of joy.
Financially, because I’ve been happier I haven’t been trying to buy my happiness. This means that I’m not drinking large quantities of alcohol or buying expensive sugary treats to give me a momentary diversion. I’ve been able to avoid spending money and instead eating much more delicious, healthier and cheaper home cooked meals. As I’m talking I have a roast lamb in the oven which I’m looking forward to eating later.
The common thread in these anecdotes is that I’m calm and I haven’t had to psych myself into a positively charged emotional state to motivate myself. Instead, I’ve just done it. I’ve turned up, put in the work and then given myself the permission to go home if I don’t have the effort to continue. But I’m finding that the work is becoming easier the more I do it as well. There’s a huge positive feedback loop at play here which is incredibly exciting since lately I’ve been more familiar with the vicious cycle as opposed to the virtuous one.
I’m beginning to master the emotional elements and the performance is coming as a natural consequence. Previously, I focused so hard on achieving the performance elements that it destroyed my mental equilibrium. I was an emotional wreck where one bad day would be enough to throw me into a downward spiral. An emotional weather-vane who spun around at the first sign of a setback.
After practicing negative visualisation and anticipating what can go wrong I’ve been able to handle setbacks. I had a career setback earlier which threw me around a little bit. But after looking through the situation I was able to make a solid plan for the three possible opportunities which I saw coming up and realised that I would be happy with all of them. Now, no matter what happens I just need to adapt and move on. I have a different perspective.
I keep a spreadsheet which tracks a few different elements of my life. A very stripped down version of what the quantified self movement preaches. It’s entirely manual but I’ve tried to only include what’s important to me.
On a few key metrics I’ve been smashing it out of the park. In particular. My drinking has decreased substantially. My diet has improved substantially, the quality of my journaling has improved as well as my ability to focus and read long form books. Body wise, I’m becoming leaner because I’m exercising consistently and eating well (rocket science I know).
As I near the end of this writing I have had the opportunity to reflect. Each day my mental state has been improving and I’m becoming a more positive and happier person which is the best part of the process I’m currently on.
In a fascinating turn of events. I’m happy because I’m not focusing on it so hard. I’m productive because I’m not trying to be productive and I’m exercising because I’ve given myself permission to fail.
I don’t need to emotionally wind myself up to feel like I’ve accomplished something. I can simply let the results speak for themselves.
Our emotions are potent beasts. They form the oldest and deepest parts of our brains. It’s scary when we come face to face with them and realise just how little control we have over some areas of our lives. It’s scary when we realise that we’re not the rational individual that we sometimes believe that we are. Our emotions drive us far more than we know and acknowledge.
But, we can train ourselves to not rely upon them so much. We can train ourselves to simply turn up and perform day after day after day. It’s not necessarily fun, in fact, it’s hard work but it’s worthwhile.
As I continue to gain mastery over my emotional states my enjoyment from life continues to increase. This is all the motivation I need to keep going.