“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. ” —Aristotle
Welcome back to our four-part discussion of creating a Productivity Pyramid. If this is your first engagement with this idea, please be sure to read last week’s post.
If you did read that post, I hope you were able to spend some time this week thinking of small ways you can begin to build your physical capacity, and imagine ways you can ritualize those efforts.
This week we are moving to the second level of the pyramid: emotional capacity.
If I ask you right now to tell me how you feel when you’re at your best, what would you say? What are the words that you associate with times when you’re operating smoothly, ie, “feeling really good”?
Now, ask yourself: Are those feelings familiar? Do I spend as much time replaying those emotions as I do fear, frustration, insecurity?
I think we know the answer to that.
I’m here today to tell you that just like negative emotions will drain your energy, these positive emotions can juice you up and get you going. The goal then – if you want to grow your productivity – is to build your capacity for accessing and holding positive emotions.
Side Note: This is actually a lot of what Unstuck is all about: helping writers build emotional capacity by recognizing negative emotions, and consciously choosing to refocus on positive, energy-producing emotions.
Now, the first step in building emotional capacity around our writing is to begin to notice the emotions we have. We have to pause, and check in, and see what’s actually happening in there, when we sit down at the laptop to write.
Here’s a scenario:
You’re going along in your day. Say you’re in the graduate student lounge. Suddenly somebody says something that is hurtful to you. “Oh, you haven’t read that? The classic academic power flex. And, it kicks up your insecurities. Negative emotions pop up – frustration, anxiety, imposter syndrome. You’re overwhelmed. “Who am I kiddingggg? I don’t belongggg!”
The first step in this scenario is to notice. Pay attention. Notice your thoughts. Notice your body. Check for the racing heart, the clenched fists, the tightened shoulders.
Now, try and relax your face. This may feel weird, but your face is sometimes the easiest thing to notice. So, take a breath and relax your face. That’s all. And in that split second you’ll feel something give way. Maybe not everything, but something, and that’s all you need. Just a crack lets the light in. This doesn’t require a devotion to a mindfulness practice or some sort of yogi level enlightenment. All you have to do is notice, breathe and release the tension in your face, and the energy drain of holding that shitty feeling will start to dissipate.
You can do the same thing (but in the opposite direction) with positive emotions. When you accomplish something, notice what thoughts and emotions come with it. “Wow! I finished that paragraph!” Stop and check how you feel. Notice you feel energized, confident, enthusiastic. Where is that in your body? A tapping foot, a lifted chin, maybe a little jig in the chair? Those are the things to hang on to. Those physical sensations focus our attention on the experiences that produce good feelings.
The idea is to practice intentionally going back to those sensations to connect with that feeling.
That is building emotional capacity.
Sometimes, though, academics have trouble accessing your positive emotions. There are some practices, however, that can build that pathway.
- Go toward the things that bring you joy.
- For me, music does it. I have an entire playlist I call “Can’t We All Just Lighten Up?” When I can’t find a good thought or feeling in myself, I play that. It works because I’ve used it hundreds of times to clean house or or walk or garden… times when I’ve been able to accomplish something good and satisfying.
- Use your body.
- Get up out of the chair and move, even just around the office or down the hall. If you can do a wiggle or a little dance, all the better. Just so you take a moment to notice: “I’m really closed up, I’m going to take a breath, and do a little dance. Remind my physical self that I’m ok”
- Act as if you’re already doing it.
- This is where the line from Aristotle really hits home. The way you get good at something is by doing it repeatedly. It’s not one single thing, it’s a habit. So act as if you are energized and delighted. Practice it into reality. Talk the talk until you can walk the walk.
- Build close relationships with people.
- The most powerful tool to build emotional capacity in terms of positive emotions, and in particular recovery from negative experience, is to have close and nurturing relationships with people. People pull us out of ourselves, and remind us we’re more than words on a laptop screen. Schedule people time like you would doctors’ appointments.
Just like last week when we talked about physical capacity, here too we are quick to forgo building emotional capacity in the name of our “performance.” So we don’t make time for lightness, for openness, for friendships. At our worst, we don’t make time for our families or ourselves. We push connections and emotional well being aside in the name of production.
But the thing is, and I know this is really hard to believe, the more time you devote to those important relationships, the more you cut off work at a reasonable hour and spend with people who refill that energy tank, the more productive you’re going to be.
Next week we’ll talk mental capacity. That thing academics love the most and maybe care for the least.