How Emotions Affect Your Productivity

When we talk about productivity, we are quick to talk about things that help or hurt, like exercise, sleep, caffeine, our diets, work-tracking, goal-tracking, our morning routines, and the various quirky habits of highly successful people. While many of these topics can help us be more productive, they seem to all skirt around the very heart of the issue when it comes to productivity: Our emotions.

Our emotions are always present, and they influence our ability to focus and think rationally. We have to learn to become more aware of and manage how we’re feeling, or else our emotions can lead to bad habits like procrastination, perfectionism, and an inability to focus.

Procrastination

When Winona lands her dream job as the lead editor for a trendy, art-film theatre in New York City, she can’t wait to get started. She’s already filled out pages of ideas in her notebook. She has concepts for articles, projects, interviews, and new angles, but when she sits down at her desk on her first day of work, she can’t seem to get started. She flits from her blank Word document to Google News to her notebook, and then back to Google News again. She wants nothing more than to get started on something, but she can’t break her pattern. This example may seem counter-intuitive to procrastination. She’s not bored, and she’s not in over her head. In fact, she has exactly what she wants. So why can’t she just get to work?

EQ strategy: Take control of your self-talk. At the center of Winona’s procrastination is her self-talk. She’s so excited by this new opportunity that she can’t help but fear the worst. She’s anxious about the possibility of people finding out she’s a fraud and losing her dream job. Whenever she is about to begin writing, she starts to think about all the possibilities of failure. She thinks things like, “What if I can’t do this?” and “What if this doesn’t work out?” Then she hides using Google News, her email, or whatever distraction is at her disposal. Luckily, Winona takes her self-talk seriously. After a rough first day, she sits at home and reflects on her thought process that led her to procrastinate. To get herself back on track, she decides to rewrite her self-talk. Next time she starts to go down that negative self-talk path, she resolves to stop herself and repeat a simple, positive, and realistic statement instead: “One step at a time.” She even jots the statement down on a Post-it and sticks the Post-it to the side of her screen. This is exactly the reminder she needs to start writing each day.

Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a close cousin of procrastination. Instead of blocking the outset of a project, it can strike at any point in your work. One of the most common moments for perfectionism to interfere is near the close of a big project. You take a sales proposal as far as you can, but still, you can’t help but feel like there’s more you can do to make it better. You needlessly toil away at petty details, rephrasing the same sentences in different ways, afraid to send the proposal off to your coworker who is prepared to give you feedback anyway. Little do you consider the diminishing value of return. Using the time you could be using to get started on a new proposal, you instead work long hours to make minute improvements.  

EQ strategy: Get comfortable with failure. High EQ people overcome perfectionism by noticing their mindset and reframing their perspective. Instead of treating failure as a demotivator, they derive motivation from it. Feedback, after all, is an opportunity to learn. This doesn’t mean they turn in half-baked work. It means they pay attention to their process and begin to learn when they have shifted from a healthy concern for detail to over-the-top perfectionism.

Flow

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” What he’s describing, a hundred years ago, is that universal feeling we get when we strike that perfect balance of focus. Time, distractions, and even hunger fade into the background and we are totally absorbed with the work in front of us. The psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe this state of mind. In his research he found that people who experience flow are happier with their work and five times as productive. The key to achieving flow lies partially in the task you’re working on and partially in the emotions you feel. The key is that the task can’t be too easy or too difficult, and correspondingly, you can’t be too anxious or too bored.

For our editor Winona, for example, she was too anxious about the task at hand (even though she was capable). Once she refined her self-talk and her approach, she was easily able to reign in her anxiety and dive into her writing.

EQ strategy: Self-reflect before each task. While we can’t necessarily control the difficulty of the tasks we face at work, we can look inward to listen for, spot, and manage our emotions. Each time you’re about to begin a new task, check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling. Not too enthused about the project? It might be too easy and therefore boring. If that’s the case, try to find a way to spice it up. If the task is something simple, like data entry, you may be able to devise a system or game to play with yourself to make it more interesting. For example, you might try to input data as accurately and quickly as possible and track yourself over time to see how you improve. Or if you feel anxious about a challenging project, try to get to the source of what makes you anxious. Is it a tight deadline or a task that you’ve never attempted. In that case, you might try to break it down into smaller components. The third possibility is that you are experiencing a strong emotion unrelated to your work. By taking the time to reflect for a moment, you can more readily set that emotion and situation aside for an evening call with your best friend. This will prevent it from welling up at work as you attempt to get into your task.

From Insights to Action. Now you know that barriers to outward focus require looking inward. Reframe your self-talk, shift your mindset, or take a pulse on how you’re feeling before you tackle that next task. You’ll be surprised how far these simple, daily EQ strategies will take you on your way to becoming happier and more productive.  

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The Empathy Switch: How to Turn It On When You Don’t Feel Like It.

What makes our empathy wane and what to do about it.

In last week’s blog, we discussed how emotions can switch off our empathy for people around us, causing us to say or do things that go against our values and beliefs. We may do things like yell at a customer service rep when mad about our stolen credit card, curse at the umpire or pitcher when angry at ourselves for striking out, or neglect to stop to help someone when feeling rushed and late for a meeting. In these moments, we operate as though we are the only important player. Anyone else in front of us is to be blamed or ignored because we’re in a self-involved state of mind. You don’t matter. Only I matter right now.

Martin Buber, the philosopher and author of Ich and Du (I and You), describes this type of interaction between people as an “I-It” interaction. Whether briefly due to a mood, or intentionally due to a belief system, one person treats the other person as an object, something to be ignored (not seen), used, blamed or attacked. Through an “I-It” lens, our state of mind makes us more likely to engage in words or actions ranging from inconsiderate to harmful.

Empathy, on the other hand, is an “I-You” state of mind. Empathic thinking sounds like this, “If I do __, it will affect you in __ way.” You matter just as much as I matter. I notice how you feel and I care to do something helpful. Without empathy we erode our connections and relationships. With empathy we address each other’s pain, resolve conflicts, and build a feeling of community.  Empathy is our North Star when our state of mind erodes our connection to others. 

Here are the strategies that will help you switch your empathy back on when emotions or thoughts start to dim your regard for the person next to you.

World of Your Own Empathy Erosion: Strong emotions like stress, anger, or anxiety consume us. To avoid going blind or numb to people, here’s what you can do:

Strategy 1: Observe the ripple effect from your emotions. We all react differently when our emotions overwhelm us. Some people clam up in response, while others lash out. Some people work tirelessly toward fixing their problem, while others take time to reflect. Whatever the tendency, it has the potential to hijack our empathy if we’re unaware. Learning tendencies is the first step toward managing them (i.e., people who clam up may need to learn to force themselves to speak, and people who lash out may need to learn to breathe for ten seconds and give over the floor to other people.)

Strategy 2: Cut “catch phrase empathy.” “Maybe it’s better this way” and “At least it wasn’t worse” are little more than catch phrases used to avoid real acknowledgement. Under a veil of “well-wishing,” catch phrases are an example of how world of your own empathy erosion can become a workplace norm. Instead of using catch phrases as a crutch, try to be present, listen deeply, and thank them for sharing something so important.

Strategy 3: Note your circumstance. Just as our natural tendencies can cause us to treat someone badly, so too can our circumstances. One common example of this is being in a position of power, which studies show lessens our ability to empathize with others. Similarly, alcohol not only makes us less empathetic, but also makes our empathy less accurate.

Corrosive Emotions: Corrosive emotions like contempt and disgust seep into our thoughts over time. To avoid letting these emotions toward a person dictate your actions, here’s what you can do.

Strategy 1: Walk in their shoes. At its simplest this strategy can mean envisioning how someone we hold strong feelings against goes through their day or their life. At its most challenging this can be like George Orwell who intentionally lived homeless to learn what it felt like before writing his experience in the memoir Down and out in Paris and London. The most efficient way to step into someone’s shoes is usually something between the two extremes: long conversations. Stories of a person’s life help us to piece together who they are, what they feel, and why they act the way they do.

Strategy 2: Be open and vulnerable. To flip a negative relationship on its head, try flipping the entire approach. The last person we typically open up to is the person we dislike, but when we do, it can be surprising how they react. While we may fear that radical vulnerability and openness will make us look weak and inadequate, studies show that people actually see vulnerability as “desirable” and “good.” Vulnerability breaks down the “I-It” perspective by forcing us to communicate on a human-to-human level.

Strategy 3: Intentionally empathize with enemies. “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” -Abraham Lincoln

By seeking out the people we harbor long-term negative emotions toward and getting to know them better, we can proactively break down those long-term emotions like contempt and disgust. One profound example of someone who mastered this is Daryl Davis, a Black blues musician who has intentionally been attending KKK meetings for thirty years. He spends his time befriending members and has personally convinced over 200 members to resign. He’s done this by sitting down to have dinner with individual Klan members and having deep conversations with them.

From Insights to Action. In a Princeton study, Betsy Levy Paluck successfully led anti-bullying campaigns at middle schools. To accomplish this, she and her colleagues found that the most successful approach was to assign specific students to hold their peers accountable for bullying. The reason this worked so well is that groups operate first and foremost on norms. When we see other people act in a certain way, we’re much more likely to follow their lead than we are if, for instance, a principal walks around threatening punishment for bullying. By modeling empathy and practicing mindful empathy strategies, each of us can begin to successfully shift old team norms and mold organization cultures the same way individual kids were able to successfully reduce bullying at their schools.

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Two Important Ways Emotions Can Erode Empathy

Empathy is so essential to how we interact as people that even brief lapses can be hurtful to the people we work with and live with in our communities. Last year one of our training participants shared an all too familiar hectic workday story that illustrates what we mean by a brief lapse of empathy.

Liam (at least that’s what we’ll call him), woke up to an emergency call from the office in another time zone about an upset client. He didn’t have time for breakfast and boarded the train at six thirty still preoccupied on his phone. He sat down in the last available seat. An elderly man carrying a cane boarded the train just after Liam and had to stand right beside Liam’s seat. Liam noticed but didn’t offer his seat, too engrossed in his conversation about mitigating the crisis. At the next stop, the elderly man lost his grip on the pole and would have fallen if not for a woman nearby who caught him.

Liam received several pointed glares and turned bright red seeing this play out. Now he felt completely guilty. His inconsiderate state of mind almost caused a serious accident. He knew he could have taken his call standing up, but in the moment, he chose not to. He had acted as an uncivil stranger rather than the civil commuter he liked to think he was, and it was too late now to correct himself. Why did he do that?

Liam’s example is something we can all admit to at times. His feeling of being rushed and work-absorbed temporarily eroded his empathy. According to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen in his book The Science of Evil, empathy requires us to “suspend our single-minded focus of attention and adopt a double-minded focus of attention” to include our own feelings and interests as well as those of the people around us. Both recognition and response are needed to be empathetic. Baron-Cohen goes further to say that mild empathy erosion can lead to cruelty when people turn other people into objects in their mind.He explains that this objectification of any person is one of the most hurtful things we can do to another human being, to ignore their thoughts, needs, and feelings.

Emotions can erode our empathy to both a mild and a severe extent:

  1. In a World Of Your Own State of Mind

Instead of seeing the elderly man as a person who needed the seat more than he did, Liam saw a distraction from his priority—to solve his client emergency. Liam was completely absorbed in his own world, and his goal took precedence over the people around him. Other examples of “world of your own state of mind” include yelling at a telemarketer on the phone for interrupting your dinner, flipping off another driver for a mistake, or yelling at a colleague for messing up and making you miss your kid’s soccer game. Most often, this first type of empathy erosion is a moment’s deviation, the result of temporary anger toward or attention away from someone getting in the way of your goal.

2. Corrosive Emotions

The second kind of empathy erosion builds over a period of time and is the result of corrosive emotions like bitter resentment, contempt, and disgust. Dr. David Motsumoto a researcher of emotions from San Francisco State University warns us of the volatile combination of contempt “an emotion of superiority” and disgust, “an emotion of contamination.” These emotions, and the attitudes they feed, erode empathy levels to zero. If ignored and unmanaged, they create the mindset and conditions for treating someone as an object to harm, hold back, use for personal gain, or make unhappy. An example in the workplace could be a boss who intentionally excludes a capable employee from opportunities out of personal detest or jealousy, or a competitive coworker trying to make their rival look bad for personal gain.

From Insights to Action. It’s important to understand the potential we all have for acts of short-term and long-term cruelty. We are human and the emotional center in each of our brains works similarly.By discovering that your frame of mind and negative emotions can derail your empathy for people around you, you can begin to watch yourself and work to take proactive steps to avoid empathy erosion. You can also recognize when someone else is in a world of their own, so you can steer clear, defend yourself, or step in to protect another in their path.

Tune in next week for the second article in TalentSmart’s series on empathy. Next week we cover emotional intelligence (EQ) strategies for acting more empathetically.

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