In exploring the research about calm and productivity while writing How to Calm Your Mind, I realized there are two kinds of productivity advice. To start, there’s the traditional productivity advice that focuses on how we can get more done every day. This guidance is critical (and sexy!) so it’s no wonder so many articles and books focus on the topic.
But there’s a second type of productivity advice that’s just as essential yet isn’t talked about as much: the ways we can develop our capacity for getting things done in the first place.
Put another way: there are countless variables that limit our performance without our even realizing.
This includes something as simple as what you eat. Let’s say that tomorrow afternoon you indulge in four plates of food at the Indian buffet down the street, while also sipping a glass of wine or two. Good luck being productive that afternoon! Your energy and focus will wane throughout the afternoon—and you’ll have less mental capacity to get stuff done as a result. (Not that I’m speaking from experience…)
In How to Calm Your Mind, I break down the countless reasons our productivity may be limited. Anxiety is one of them, and it significantly impacts our cognitive performance. If you’ll permit me a quote from my own book:
If you doubt the extent to which an anxious mental state can impair cognitive performance, you don’t even need to take my word for it: you likely have many examples from your own life that illuminate this phenomenon. For example, think back to when you last had to give a speech in front of a group of people (if that sort of thing makes you nervous). You probably dreaded the event: public speaking is up there with death as one of our most common fears.
Recall what the state of your mind was like immediately before the talk. Could you focus easily, or did your mind barrage you with negative self‑talk that hijacked your attention? Were you able to mentally process a lot at once—calmly carrying on conversations with whoever was around you—or were you busy fretting over what you were going to say? If, theoretically, before going onstage, someone had asked you to proofread something that required deep concentration, would you have been able to give it your full attention?
After your talk started, did you process it fully? Do you remember what you said?
Maybe you’re lucky, and you haven’t given a speech in front of a large group of people, or perhaps you’ve spoken in front of enough groups that you’ve stepped back from these anxious thought patterns. If that’s the case, think of the last time you flew on an airplane and hit a pocket of turbulence. If you were reading a book, did you have to re‑read the same passage a few times? If you were listening to a podcast or watching a movie, did you need to rewind or mentally try to fill in the gaps of what you missed?
Burnout puts another significant limitation on our daily productivity. The closer we get to burning out, the less productive we become—feeling unproductive is even one of the three core attributes of burnout.
If you’re looking to maximize your productivity at work, you’re not alone. But you need to focus on the two kinds of productivity advice: ways to work smarter, and also ways of building your capacity to get things done in the first place. I explore this topic more deeply in the book, and dive into some science-backed tactics on how to set aside anxiety and avoid burnout so you can be more calm and, as an outcome, more productive in the long run.