Productivity and Self-Obsession - Next Action Associates

It is in the morning that we are most vulnerable.

Barely awake, the thoughts start coming. Sometimes positive, but often not so much. The reason for that negative start-of-the-day slant I’ll leave to others more qualified, but after 30 years of coaching and mentoring – and 50+ years of being – it seems the default setting is not what most of us would like it to be.

Here are some things I notice about those thoughts:

  • They are usually about me, myself, or I
  • They are not always firmly anchored in reality
  • If I don’t take conscious action to shift them, they can begin to set the tone for the rest of the day (at least)

The specifics vary, but on a bad day they are some flavour of the following:

  • What will happen to me if I do/don’t do x?
  • What if I get y wrong?
  • What will people think (of me) if x and y make z (a bad thing) inevitable?
  • What’s the matter with me anyway?
  • (Et moi, et moi, et moi….)

The longer that persists, the more likely it becomes that I spend more time thinking about possible negative outcomes in my life than on taking any useful action. The rather pithy phrase ‘analysis paralysis’ sums it up reasonably well.

After years of experimenting with ways of managing these thoughts, I’m intrigued by the relationship between productivity and self-focus. Mostly, my experience has been that it is a negative relationship. That is to say that the more acute my concern with what might happen to little old me in the situation, the less able I seem to get into motion about it. If I’m not careful I can spend all day nurturing my story about what might/might not happen to me rather than get into action and change the course of the story.

The more I am focused on my own needs, wants, desires and/or reputation, the more glue is injected into the gearing of my doing machine. This is pretty much the opposite of the state of ‘flow’, where my best skills are pitted against worthy challenges, ideally for some purpose greater than my own enrichment.

So far, I’ve found two ways to reliably shift the pattern:

  • Having a morning routine that gets ahead of the thinking
  • Taking a very assertive approach around what I do/don’t allow into/near my brain on any given day

In this blog I’ll focus on the former; on how what we do with the first moments of the day can point us towards a productive use of our time, or effectively derail the day.

My learning: given the state of my brain in those first moments, I don’t want to do too much decision making. Too many options, particularly difficult ones, are not a good thing.

For me, part of the equation is to get moving quickly, ideally doing very simple things: fluids out, fluids in. Clean teeth. Make bed. Empty dishwasher. Get outside. Cool air and/or cool water seem to be amazing tonics.

Oddly, the other piece of the equation is to stop moving. I like to spend some quiet time, and ideally expose my brain to better thoughts than my default setting is often supplying.

Specifics are unimportant; the current obsession with how business titans launch their day is not helpful, and nowhere near as important as what will work for you.

The key is to have it mostly on rails: this happens, then that, then this, then…, with each thing building a sense of agency for the day ahead. What I want is to be moving on a productive track before my brain gets wind of it. I want my day to be so well-launched that I’m already in a very productive space before any of the thinking gets traction. By about an hour after waking on most days, I’m having such a good day that I’d have to actively torpedo it to bring it off the rails. Life occasionally supplies those torpedoes, but mostly the direction of travel is set.

Caveat: at various points on my journey, I’ve allowed the positive energy of a morning routine to hijack…, well, most of the day. At some points, I was so busy journaling, meditating, exercising, stretching and (insert your favourite prep practice here…) – all wonderful things in and of themselves – that I had no time for actually moving towards my goals. Not helpful.

So if the first part of this blog resonated in any way, give some thought to your current routine and ask yourself whether it is charging you up or depleting you for the coming day. If you see some scope for change, start small. Don’t overbuild the ‘perfect’ – but undoable – routine. Pick one small thing, integrate it in your current routine, and once it is firmly anchored, hang the next change off it in a sequence.

Before you know it, the negative chatter is behind you, the day is ahead, and you are moving towards it with energy and focus.

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