I recently wrote a piece at The Change Blog about the basic elements of what I call “inner productivity”—the ideal mental and emotional state for peak productivity and creating our best-quality work. In this article, I take a deeper look at the common ways of thinking that keep us from developing inner productivity, and offer a new way of looking at work that can help reconnect us with our passion and focus.
As I said in the first part of this series, inner productivity has to do with our inner experience of working—the patterns of thinking and feeling that either help or hinder our effectiveness in our work. We can easily see how important our inner experience is to staying motivated and productive. For example, if we experience working as a mechanical, lifeless exercise, we’re unlikely to perform as well as we could if we saw it as a thrilling adventure.
The Conventional “Work/Life” Model
In spite of this, the conventional wisdom in our culture is that it’s best to ignore our inner experience—to basically pretend the thoughts and sensations that disrupt our focus at work aren’t there. To illustrate, you’ve probably had the painful experience of having to go to work despite some recent tragedy—maybe the death of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, and so on. Despite this event, you were probably expected to keep working as if everything was fine, keep providing “service with a smile,” and experience your feelings about the loss “on your own time.”
Perhaps more importantly, we aren’t just expected to ignore our inner experience when we’re sad or upset—we’re also expected to repress our joy. For instance, suppose you have a job you actually feel excited and passionate about. You’d think our society would see this as ideal. But if you actually told a coworker how psyched you were to be in the office, I suspect they’d give you a funny look, as if you were acting strange or impolite. Showing any strong feeling at work, even if it’s excitement, seems to be taboo.
In other words, the model worker in our culture doesn’t experience or express intense emotion of any kind on the job. Instead, in keeping with the ideal of “service with a smile,” they’re mildly but not overly happy, and they’re always “doing fine.” So the conventional work/life model looks like this:
At first glance, this may seem like the best way to ensure productivity. If everyone is calm and avoids emotional extremes, they’re likely to get more done and have fewer conflicts with each other.
But this mindset has a cost. When we deny ourselves permission to feel intense sensation, we cut off our access to the joy, compassion and drive that could otherwise empower us in our work. What’s more, forcing ourselves to stay “on an even keel” gives working a dull, lifeless quality. Given our usual approach to working, it’s no wonder phrases like “Work/Life Balance” and “I work to live—I don’t live to work” are popular—it’s as if, at work, we’re expected to be less than fully alive.
The Conventional “Adult/Child” Model
How did our inner experience of working become something to be ignored or pushed aside? My sense is that, at a deeper level, this has to do with common ideas about the differences between children and adults. Young children are naturally emotionally expressive—if they’re joyful, angry, sad, or something else, they make no bones about telling you. The same is true about children’s thoughts—whatever they’re thinking, even if it’s unflattering toward someone, they don’t hesitate to let you know. In other words, children’s “inner experience” is basically on loudspeaker.
Adults usually tolerate this kind of expression by very young children. As children mature, however, they gradually learn they’re supposed to keep what they’re thinking and feeling to themselves. They come to associate voicing their thoughts and emotions with burdening or angering their parents, and with behaving “childishly.” Thus, they learn to be quiet and compliant, and to see their inner experience of working and other aspects of their lives as unimportant.
I think this is a key reason so few of us are doing something that inspires us in our careers. We’ve been conditioned to believe that our passion, and sense of what’s meaningful in life, are basically irrelevant. In fact, to many of us, the idea of “following our bliss” in our work and elsewhere seems selfish and childish. Given this mindset, it’s no surprise we tend to see the ideal worker as emotionless, and experience work as boring.
“Coming Back To Life” In Our Work
How do we break with this conditioning, and start cultivating patterns of thinking and feeling that help us thrive in our work? I talked about several concrete exercises in Part One of this series, and in the third part of this series I’ll offer more. One key point I haven’t made, however, is that the first step in transforming our inner experience of work is actually paying attention to our inner experience in the first place.
As I said, the conventional wisdom has it that, if distracting thoughts and feelings come up in our work, we need to ignore them and deal with them, if at all, “on our own time.” Instead of this, I want to suggest we start getting familiar with those thoughts and sensations, and noticing the patterns that regularly come up in them. Some spiritual teachers simply call this “being present.”
Noticing Where Your Mind Wanders
I call one exercise for doing this “notice where your attention goes.” This exercise is very simple. Find a moment when you aren’t under a lot of time pressure, and sit at your desk or wherever you usually work. Begin your tasks as you normally would, but keep an eye out for moments when your focus starts to drift away from what you’re doing. When you notice your attention begin to float away to something else, allow yourself to get distracted as you normally would—don’t try to force your attention back into place.
Instead, just watch the patterns of thinking and feeling that tend to come up when you’re getting distracted. In other words, witness your distraction as it occurs. For example, when I started observing how my attention began to drift away, I noticed two distinct ways I normally lost my focus on what I was doing. Either I’d begin replaying a song in my head—usually one I didn’t even like—or I would relive some moment from my past when I felt embarrassed. I suspect you’ll find you have a few consistent, predictable ways of getting distracted as well.
Notice also that just becoming aware of how your mind tends to wander transforms your relationship to distraction. As you become familiar with the thoughts and feelings that tend to draw you away from your tasks, it starts to feel easier to gently return your attention to your work when those thoughts and feelings arise. Simply becoming conscious of the ways your mind gets diverted from what you’re doing builds a mental discipline that can help you get more done and have a more uplifting experience of work.
In other words, I’m not saying we need to react to the emotions and thoughts that come up in us–say, by yelling or crying–I’m simply saying it’s important to pay attention to them rather than pushing them away. I’ll talk about more exercises for becoming more aware of our inner experience of working, and how this can benefit our productivity, in the next part of this series.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the others in this series:
Inner Productivity, Part I: 3 Keys To Developing “Inner Productivity”
Inner Productivity, Part III: Listening To Ourselves
Inner Productivity, Part IV: Some Exercises For Self-Listening
Inner Productivity, Part V: Breathing Through Our Fear
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