Summary: How to Calm Your Mind By Chris Bailey
Summary: How to Calm Your Mind By Chris Bailey

Summary: How to Calm Your Mind By Chris Bailey

Less Productivity

The best productivity advice really does allow us to both earn back time and accomplish more of what we want to do. But it often misses a crucial part of the productivity picture. Most productivity advice focuses on all the possible ways we can get more done. But in focusing on this, we neglect to think about the reasons we might be getting less done than what we’re capable of. We must identify what our productivity inhibitors are.

Let’s say you have the goal of becoming as productive as possible at work. If this is your goal, you should focus on advice that falls into both categories. For starters, you should focus on strategies that let you work more intelligently and deliberately, and on what’s important. This advice is fun to follow because of how immediate the results are. Strategies like planning out your week, keeping a to-do list, and saying no to unimportant work are all techniques that are helpful from the get-go. When you notice they work, you’re more inclined to stick with them.

The second category of advice is tougher to master, far more neglected, yet just as critical if you care about your productivity level. In addition to focusing on ways you can get more done, you need to focus on all of the reasons you are getting less done than what you’re capable of. This means paying attention to variables that limit your performance without your realizing it.


Anxiety and Productivity

The first type of productivity advice—which leads us to work smarter—is sexy and lets us get more done, especially at first. But by overinvesting in this category of advice and simultaneously neglecting to fix productivity deficits, we may become less productive than we’d like. This is especially true as time marches forward and we fail to focus on how much we’ve got left in the tank—mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually.

If you doubt the extent to which an anxious mental state can impair cognitive performance, you don’t even need to take the author’s word for it: you likely have many examples from your own life that illuminate this phenomenon. For example, think back to when you last had to give a speech in front of a group of people (if that sort of thing makes you nervous). You probably dreaded the event: public speaking is up there with death as one of our most common fears.

Recall what the state of your mind was like immediately before the talk. Could you focus easily, or did your mind barrage you with negative self-talk that hijacked your attention? Were you able to mentally process a lot at once—calmly carrying on conversations with whoever was around you—or were you busy fretting over what you were going to say? If, theoretically, before going onstage, someone had asked you to proofread something that required deep concentration, would you have been able to give it your full attention?

If anxiety is something you experience—even if that anxiety is subclinical—it probably limits your productivity in ways you don’t yet realize. Your mind presumably (hopefully!) doesn’t freeze up as much with everyday tasks as it does during something like a speech, airplane turbulence, or losing track of your kid in the department store. But these are good illustrations of an extreme, of how anxiety can compromise our attention and productivity without us realizing it.


Making Back Time

If when you feel anxious you mostly find yourself paying attention to anxious thoughts, the general reasoning functionality of your working memory will be most negatively affected, and you may struggle to think logically as a result. If you find that you visualize anxious episodes from your past, the visuospatial sketch pad part of your attentional space may be most affected, and you may struggle with visual and spatial work. If you find that your negative self-talk runs rampant when you feel anxious, your attentional space’s phonological (language) component may be most harmed, and you may not be able to communicate as effectively.

With all of these ideas in mind, let’s try to ballpark how much time calm will save us. To illustrate how much time you can make back, let’s make an incredibly conservative assumption that the only way that anxiety limits our performance is through a reduced working memory capacity. Let’s also assume that the relationship between working memory and productivity is linear. In other words, for every percentage point decline in the size of our attentional space, our daily productivity declines by the same amount and takes that much longer as a result. Again, given how much we depend on this mental scratch pad, this is very likely a conservative measure.

When our attentional space size is 16.5 percent smaller, our work takes that much longer. This is a far more meaningful difference than it sounds: if we have eight hours of real, actual work to do, that workload now takes us nine hours and nineteen minutes. If you’ve found yourself busier than you used to be as you’ve become more connected—yet upon a bit of reflection, your workload has stayed largely the same—anxiety could be why. (And given that workload is a critical contributor to burnout, this extra time may affect how engaged you are with your work, too.)

Anxiety doesn’t have to be clinical for it to affect our performance. And it likely limits our productivity by a lot more than 16.5 percent because our working memory capacity is just one dimension of performance that anxiety affects.

Given that calm can lead us to so much—including to engagement, the process through which we actually make progress on our work—it can be considered a vital ingredient in productivity, especially during an anxious time. If you value productivity, the numbers are clear: you should absolutely invest in calm.


Trying Things Out

Try moving more, in nature if you can. Practice meditation, a way of developing a more vibrant presence with everything you do. Create a personalized savor list, and enjoy one thing on it every day. Inventory the stress in your life to identify low-hanging sources you can tame. Define productivity hours so you can strike a daily balance between striving and savoring. Undertake a monthlong stimulation fast to make focus effortless and settle your mind. Choose a few “currencies” in your life that you personally want to strive for more of—like happiness, presence, and time with other people—instead of the defaults like money and status. Invest in habits of calm in the analog world that lead your body to release serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, along with a healthy and more reasonable amount of dopamine. Notice and question the guilt that arises as you invest in calm. See a therapist if you want to dig deeper into your mind.

Pick one or two things from this list. And while you’re at it, make a plan to try more things out after you’ve tried the first couple. Set aside a few hours each week to go analog only, or try some new analog hobbies, like taking an improv class, cooking, learning an instrument, or knitting. As an experiment, subscribe to a physical newspaper, while swearing off digital news for a while. Reconnect with play, or treat yourself to a one-hour massage each time you ship a big work project. Make a plan to cut back on liquor, or try resetting your caffeine tolerance. Maybe even write a letter or two to a loved one with a fancy fountain pen.

calm is a worthwhile pursuit in and of itself. Trying out as many tactics as you can—whether small or large, straightforward or structural—is what lets you find what strategies actually fit with who you are, and the life you live. Doing this will also make calm sustainable over time.


Finding Enough

It is sometimes said that all we need to feel happy is right in front of us, but this doesn’t feel true when the mindset of more gets in our way. The mindset of more tells the opposite story: that happiness lies ever so slightly beyond what we have, what we’ve accomplished, and who we currently are. As soon as we make a bit more money, become a bit more productive, or become a bit fitter, then we’ll be comfortable, and then (and only then) do we believe we will have the time and attention to enjoy the fruits of what we’ve accomplished.

In practice, we really just push the goalposts a little beyond our reach—and never stop doing so. Here’s a simple truth: regardless of how much you have, comfort, calm, and happiness will come from savoring the things that are already in your life—not from trying to get what you do not have. Adopting this mindset takes practice and patience, and happens over time as you invest in habits of calm. But it’s well worth the effort.


Deeper Connections

Intention is when you decide what to do ahead of doing it—and it’s possible to observe your mind forming an intention just by giving it a little more space. As a simple experiment, the next time you feel like listening to music, instead of choosing your go-to playlist, wait a few seconds until your mind comes up with the perfect song that you want to listen to. That’s what it feels like for an intention to form.

In making us more likely to notice our intentions, calm can make us feel more accomplished—further combating burnout. When we choose what to do ahead of doing it, we feel more efficacious in our actions. By becoming more intentional about what we spend our time on, and deciding what to do ahead of time, we feel our actions have a purpose, even when we don’t have total control over our work or life. Our efforts don’t change, but our mindset and stories do: we feel as though we’re choosing to take on things that are difficult and stressful—they’re no longer things that happen to us. Regardless of our level of control, calm gives intentions room to form and allows us to notice and then act on them.