The Discipline of Mastering Mental States

Our mind can get tangled in a feeling, but that doesn't have to stop us from getting things done
By Leo Babauta, www.zenhabits.net
June 20, 2019 Updated: June 20, 2019

I’m far from mastering this skill, but one thing I’ve been playing around with is how important mental states are to our productivity, happiness, focus, health habits and more.

For example, if you’re tired or feeling down, there’s a good chance you’re not going to focus on your meaningful tasks, and instead will look for distractions and comfort.

If you’re feeling frenetic and in quick-task mode, you’re not likely to focus on deep work, but instead will look for easy busywork to do.

Mental states will usually affect whether we exercise, eat healthy food, binge watch TV shows, drink alcohol, eat junk food, or are open-hearted (or rude) with the people we love.

So it’s really important to monitor mental states. It’s also an incredible skill to be able to move into the proper mental state to do focused work, to create, to meditate, to exercise, or do whatever you find meaningful.

In this article, I’ll share some ways to get better at moving into the mental state you need to be in to do that meaningful work. But I’ll also share an advanced skill—being able to do what you need to do, no matter what your mental state. I think of this as an “antifragile” skill (in the terminology of Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

Getting Good at Moving Into a Mental State

Let’s say you want to do some writing, or other focused work, and to do that you want to be in a calm, focused, energetic, positive mental state.

But right now, you’re feeling frazzled and distracted. How do you move from one state to the other?

First, you have to recognize that you’re in the wrong mental state. You recognize that your current state is not likely to lead to a calm focus. Instead, it will likely lead to you doing busywork or seeking distraction.

Second, you have to experiment to find a set of actions that can help you move into the right mental state. This is going to be different for each person, even for each different mental state that you’re in or that you want to get to. But with some experimentation, you can discover things that work for you.

For example, some common actions that often help move into a better mental state:

  • Meditating
  • Going for a walk
  • Getting up and moving around
  • Talking to someone
  • Taking a power nap
  • Getting into a quiet, uncluttered environment
  • Turning off your Wi-Fi router
  • Using full-screen writing apps
  • Playing calming music
  • Reading an inspirational quote or article
  • Bringing playfulness to the task

There are many other possibilities, of course, but you get the idea.

Another idea is to look at whether you’re feeling discouraged or encouraged. If life has conspired to discourage you from a project, habit, or meaningful task then you’ll want to find ways to encourage yourself. The power encouragement has to change your mental state can’t be overstated.

This is a skill you can practice every single day. Throughout the day. Bring mindfulness to your current mental state, ask yourself what you’d like to be doing and what mental state would help you do that, and then experiment until you find a way to move into that mental state.

Practice and experiment until you get good at moving into the right mental state. Mastery will take daily practice and constant play.

The Advanced Antifragile Skill

Once you’ve played with the ideas above, you can get a lot better at changing your mental state as needed.

However, lately, I’ve been playing with what I think of as a more “advanced” skill. I think of it as advanced because I think it’s better to practice the skills mentioned above first. Then move on to this one.

Here’s the advanced skill: learn that you don’t need to change your mental state to do what you’re committed to doing.

If you need the perfect mental state and the perfect set of circumstances to do your commitments, this is a fragile system. Anything that keeps you from doing the actions you need to do to get into the right mental state throws you off and prevents you from doing your meaningful work.

An antifragile system wouldn’t require the right mental state or actions in order to get the work done. You’d just do the work, no matter the conditions.

That’s much easier said than done, of course. But I believe we can train ourselves to do it.

Here’s how I’ve been practicing:

  1. Recognize that I’m not in the ideal mental state to do the thing I need to do. I’m tired, frazzled, distracted, sad.
  2. Ask myself if I’m committed to this or not. If it’s not that important, I can put it off until I get into the right state. If I’m very committed, I’ll do it if at all possible, though it’s not always possible depending on circumstances.
  3. Make it happen, despite the mental state. If I’m tired, that’s OK. I don’t need to be fully rested to meditate or write or exercise. If I’m distracted, that’s OK too. I can write when I’m distracted—even if it’s not the ideal writing, I still am committed to doing it.

If I’m in a bad mood, for example, I can still do whatever needs to be done. I just need to let the bad mood inhabit the same space as my meaningful action.I’ve found I can do anything in any mood, even if it’s not ideal.

An important caveat: self-care is still important. I know that I need to rest, I need to take care of my body and mind,  and sometimes I need to stop working and have some solitude. I need these things for long-term happiness and health. But at this moment, if I need to do something I’m committed to doing, I can do it no matter what. And with practice, I can even love the moment that is filled with tiredness, distractedness, frustration, or sadness.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net

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