Triggering the right mindstate for productivity

February 6, 2020

I’m on the tail end of my trip to Southeast Asia—currently waiting for my flight home at the airport, to be precise—and I’m getting back into the swing of things.

Just yesterday I was chatting with a new friend in Bali and we discussed getting in the right mindstate.

Now, when you hear “mindstate”, that might sound very different from the normal productivity topics I cover. Perhaps your skepticism-meter is rising or your BS sensor is on high alert. But hear me out.

True or false: sometimes, you suddenly find yourself impressively productive. You’re flying through your tasks. You feel like you’re on fire! Whereas at other times, you can’t seem to get anything going. You feel resistance towards getting started, or you can’t seem to make much progress no matter how hard you try.

Yet you cannot discern any good reasons for why you are so productive sometimes and not so productive those other times… so what’s going on? In my experience, this is because I got in the right mindstate to be productive. The external world is mostly the same, but for some reason, in my head things are arranged in such a way that is conducive to productivity.

For example, I noticed that when I am in a quiet place, especially when I am alone, I tend not to be very productive. Often, I get indecisive; I question whether I am even working on the right thing. But if, in such a circumstance, I happen to be listening to certain kinds of music (happy music, such as carnival music) I tend to get a lot of energy very quickly. I get out of the rut I was in and suddenly I feel that I can do anything. I feel no more resistance towards starting my projects or working on the next task; I just do it. So I decided, well, next time I’m working in a quiet space by myself, I had better put on the music then!

I want to point out that it does not matter why something works, as long as it works. Why do I snap out of my state of indecision and snap into a sense that anything is possible when I listen to certain music? I have no idea! Fortunately, it doesn’t matter that I have no idea why it works—because it works and that’s what I care about. Sure, it would be nice to understand the mechanic. But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth.

The logical next question is—even if we don’t understand the mechanic—what change caused me to get into that state? And how can you get into such a state?

I don’t have the answer for you, of course. But fortunately there is a way to find out what’s going on, and it’s called the scientific method. So get out your scientist’s hat and let’s do some experimenting.

So here’s an “exercise” for you, if you will: next time you suddenly find yourself more productive (or more inspired, or more creative, etc.), ask what’s currently going on. Where are you, physically? Who’s around you? Are you listening to music? If so, to what kind of music? What time of day is it?

Then, the next time it happens, take note again. Repeat this a few times and see whether there are any patterns. Perhaps your productive bouts tend to come late at night. (They often do for me. I think it’s because late at night, I feel less “watched”. Then again, it might be for a completely different reason. But guess what—it doesn’t matter why, because it works!)

So don your scientist’s hat. (I say this, but what does a scientist’s hat even look like?) Analyze the data. Which circumstance seems to recur when you’re productive, or when you’re in another mindstate you were looking for? If you think you’ve isolated one, run an experiment: next time you want to reach that mindstate, change that one circumstance. Don’t change multiple things at once; you want to run a clean experiment. Then note whether it worked. Hopefully it did!

How does this approach strike you? Will you try? And do you already have something in mind that might be the mystery x-factor for you? I’d love to hear about it.