How to Eliminate Unproductive Mental States

Jun 08, 2020

Ever find yourself in a bad mental state? Not feeling like doing anything? Not feeling like taking action and pursuing your goals?

Check the following guest article by Vita from deprocrastination.co. He will help you manage any unproductive physical or mental state and get into a more productive state of mind.

We all find ourselves in sub-optimal states of mind from time to time, procrastinating, passive, pessimistic. But that doesn't have to stop us.

In fact, in 10-30 minutes you can turn a bad mental state into a productive work session.

Let's dive into it.

1. Don't be a victim of a bad mental state

Now, for many people, laziness and unproductive mental states are something that affects them like a disease. They feel controlled and consumed by it. They feel like a victim of a bad mental state.

Once in a sub-optimal mental state, they continue to make unproductive decisions - watch more episodes of a TV series, eat more, scroll more.

This is detrimental to both physical and mental health.

To not follow this counterproductive pattern, we need to first understand what leads to bad mental states.

2. Find your algorithm for a bad mental state

Bad mental states are predictable. Mental fog, feeling lazy, feeling sluggish, these states don't just happen. There are causes and factors that lead to them.

Here are some of the factors that lead to bad mental states:

  • Lack of movement
  • Lack of sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of personally meaningful goals
  • Dopamine-driven frenzies (scrolling Twitter, TikTok,...)
  • Unhealthy types or quantities of food
  • "Bad" events
  • Unproductive mental thought patterns
  • Lack of visible progress
  • The weather

There are more factors, but this list should cover the most significant causes of unproductive states.

Now let's do a fun exercise that will help you understand how you get yourself into these states and form a foundation for getting out of them.

Write your algorithm for a bad mental state.

Here's a couple "bad state algorithms" for illustration:

Wake up late → drink no water → bad mood + bad weather + no clear goal for today → scroll Twitter for 30 minutes → eat too much food for breakfast → unproductive mental state.

Wake up → Think about how much you have to do + no visible progress (no positive feedback loops) → Escape stress by going on on Instagram + no physical movement → unproductive mental state.

While this is a simplified version of what happens, this exercise does help make one more aware of negative influences on one’s mental state.

What's your algorithm or recipe for a bad mental state?

You can take a moment to reflect now. Take a piece of paper and a pen.

When have you felt bad? How did you get yourself into that state?

Most of the time, we don't just wake up in a significantly unproductive state. We may wake up grumpy or drowsy, yes, but if we don't worsen the state by adding more of the unproductive factors, in an hour or so we'll be happily chipping away at our goals.

Using simple arrows to indicate causality like we did above, write out how you typically get into a bad mental state.

Now that you have at least 1 “unproductive state algorithm”, let’s move on to the next step.

3. Find and monitor your unproductive factors

Learn to observe which negative factors are affecting you so that you don't worsen your mental state.

Take a look at what you wrote down in the exercise above. What were the unproductive factors and influences?

Are you often dehydrated? Are you tired? Are you saying demotivating things to yourself?

Make a list and try to observe the unproductive factors as you go about your day. If you want to improve your awareness even more, put this list somewhere where you’ll see it.

Make noticing negative influences a practice.

From now on, whenever you find yourself in a bad mental state, pause.

What brought you there? What were the steps and the factors? Take a quick note on your phone or on a post-it note for later.

Learning to observe what leads you into an unproductive mental state is key.

But enough about getting into a bad state. What about getting out of it?

4. Design your reset algorithm

When you find yourself in a bad state, you have a choice: continue wallowing in it or reset.

Many people choose the former. They let themselves be victims of bad mental states and waste their whole day. Then they promise themselves to be productive tomorrow.

They rely on the natural reset algorithm - sleep.

Except this often doesn't work.

Modern distractions like social media or Netflix can cut down the number of hours of sleep and in that way, disrupt the sleep schedule and lead to yet another day started on the wrong foot.

Side note: At Selfmastered we recommend you use Deprocrastinate's extension to block distractions after a certain hour in the browser and keep their phone out of the bedroom so that this doesn't happen.

Now, you can use sleep as a reset, but you should also have in your mental toolbox a reset algorithm that you can use at any point during the day.

How to reset

Here's a principle we stand by:

Given an unproductive mental state A, there is a certain number of steps to get to a productive state B.

Our goal is simple: find those steps.

Going back to point 3. about monitoring your unproductive factors, the reset algorithm doesn't have to be static. It can change depending on the situation.

We'll give you a couple of specific examples to help you understand this.

Example #1: How to go from feeling overwhelmed to being focused

Bad mental state: feeling overwhelmed.

Unproductive factors: tiredness, long to-do list, negative self-talk ("I have so much to do", "I can't do this"), dehydration, last 1 hour spent scrolling Instagram.

Reset algorithm #1:

  1. Get up and put the phone in a drawer in Do Not Disturb mode.
  2. Realize you're making yourself stressed by repeating negative thoughts.
    Instead, interrupt the negative self-talk by taking several deep long breaths. You can also do a couple minutes of box breathing.
  3. Drink as much water as you can.
  4. Take the long to-do list and divide it into Key items and Bonus items, to make clear to yourself what needs to be done first and what can wait.
  5. Take just 1 of the Key tasks and work for 10 minutes.

At the end of these 5 steps, you'll be in a state that will make it easier for you to take productive action.

However, you could also have an alternative reset algorithm.

Reset algorithm #2:

  1. Get up and put the phone in a drawer in Do Not Disturb mode.
  2. Drink as much water as you can.
  3. Set a timer for 25 minutes and take a nap.
    It's worth noting that many people don't understand how to take a good nap. The ideal sleep time is 10-15 minutes. If you sleep longer, you will wake up tired. By setting a 25 minute timer, you give yourself about 10 minutes to fall asleep and you'll wake up with fresh energy.
  4. Write down a list of 1-4 most important tasks, put it in front of you and start working on one of those tasks.

If you have the time for a nap, we'd highly recommend it. It improves a host of cognitive functions, besides giving you an energy boost.

If you don't have the time for a nap, then 10 deep breaths or box breathing is a good easy alternative.

Example #2: How to go from scrolling social media to taking action

Bad mental state: feeling distracted.

Unproductive factors: last 2 hour spent browsing the Internet without getting anything done, no clear goal for today.

Reset algorithm #1 (indoors):

  1. Close all distracting tabs, close all unnecessary apps, put the phone out of sight, out of reach, out of hearing (Do Not Disturb mode).
  2. Take a couple deep breaths, look out of a window, or make yourself coffee.
  3. Take a post-it note and write down 1-4 things you'd really like to get done today.
    Put the post-it note in front of you.
  4. Block distracting sites in the browser for 3 hours.
  5. Open the document, presentation, or email you wanted to work on.
    Expect a slow start, review what you've done so far, find a place where you could start.
  6. Start working.
    Take non-addictive breaks (stretching, exercise, healthy snack, tidying, cooking - no addictive apps.) when you get unfocused.

Alternatively, you can get away from your desk.

Reset algorithm #2 (outdoors):

  1. Turn off the computer.
  2. Leave the phone in your house (ideally, or turn off WiFi and data) and go outside.
  3. Walk / Ride a bike / Go for a run - the main point is to move, preferably through nature.
  4. While on the move, think about your situation. Thinking in a high-level strategic manner is often easier away from technology or even to-do lists.
  5. When you come back home, take a piece of paper and write down what you came up with.
    Caution: Don't go and immediately check social media, you'll often forget what you thought about if you don't write it down.

This outdoor reset algorithm has another advantage - it burns calories. Even walking will help you stay physically fit, which will lead to better mental performance.

Example #3: How to re-prioritize and reset with a busy schedule

We have one final example for you, from a global investment advisor Adam Robinson on the Tim Ferriss Show:

When I’m feeling unfocused, the first question I ask myself is, “Am I rehearsing my best self,” and if the answer is no, I ask myself how I can reset. Each day presents us with 86,400 seconds, which means each day presents us with virtually countless opportunities to reset, recover our balance, and continue rehearsing our best selves.

If I realize my focus is off, and certainly when I’m experiencing any negative emotions, I ask myself, “Where should my attention be right now?” Almost always, the answer is, “My mission,” which is like a beacon that always beckons. But, sometimes I take on too many commitments because I sometimes have trouble saying no to others eager to work with me. I can become a bit overcommitted and overwhelmed. So, when that happens, rather than attempting to do everything badly, I ask myself, “What activity or commitment can I cut out right now that will free up the most time?”

Reminds me in a funny way this news story I read ages ago about a small European town – I won’t say what country, lest I offend it unnecessarily – in which the postal workers had trouble keeping up with their deliveries. So, on Monday, they do their best to deliver the mail, but they’d have some pieces left over, which they’d add to Tuesday’s delivery pile. Tuesday, they’d fall further behind, of course, and Wednesday and Thursday, further still. By Friday, they’d have an enormous pile of undelivered mail, which they’d burn so they could start fresh on Monday. The process would repeat the next week, a small bonfire every Friday purging their delivery vans of that week’s undelivered mail.

Now that was a highly dubious way of resetting each week, which I don’t recommend. But, the idea of having a fresh restart whenever overwhelmed is excellent. So, let’s say by noon on any given day I’m falling behind, and it’s clear I’m in danger of becoming overwhelmed in short order. Rather than attempting to keep all of my afternoon appointments, which I’d reach later and later as the day progressed, I scanned my calendar and I asked myself, “Which is the earliest appointment as it where I can burn by postponing it to another day?” I’d rather reschedule one appointment and make the other three on time than be late and frazzled for all four appointments that afternoon.
Source

With these examples of reset algorithms in your mind, how will you reset when you find yourself in an unproductive state of mind?

Will you rearrange appointments? Will you do 3 minutes of box breathing? Will you go for a walk?

Whatever you do, it will be much better than passively accepting that "you're having a bad day" or that "you are just lazy."

Create your own mental reset algorithm.

Summary

You may have noticed there are common element in the examples above:

  • Controlling your breath.
    Controlling our breathing is one of the fastest ways to get out of an unproductive mental loop.
  • Drinking water.
    When we're dehydrated, we don't perform at our best.
  • Moving.
    Movement catalyzes thoughts.
  • Rest.
    A quick nap or 10 minutes of mindfulness can do wonders.
  • Blocking out distractions.
    Social media, YouTube, or video games don't allow us a moment of reflection to reset, they are too good at hijacking our minds.
  • Prioritizing (and being clear about what matters.)
    Finding the boundary between must-have and nice-to-have items on your to-do list helps you pursue goals with clarity.
  • Taking action solidifying the reset.
    After you do some of the relevant reset activities above, take action. This will be the last nail in the coffin of the unproductive mental state.
    Once you make even a bit of progress, it will start a positive reinforcing feedback loop that will motivate you to do more.

In short, breathe, drink water, move or rest, block out distractions, prioritize, and take action.

It doesn't have to be complicated, you don't need to do all of these steps.

What matters is taking responsibility for getting out of unproductive mental states and not being a victim of circumstance.

Design and use a reset algorithm today!

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