How to Calm Your Mind
Is your productivity obsession costing you inner peace?
What happens when you take productivity too far? Chris Bailey, a productivity expert (who wrote The Productivity Project, my favorite book on the topic), explores this in How to Calm Your Mind.
He wrote the book after experiencing burnout and an anxiety attack despite doing “all of the right things”: meditating, regular exercise, and other forms of self-care. The book is an interesting exploration about how we can do all of these things and still not find calm.
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What is calm and why can’t we find it?
Calm is the opposite of anxiety. We’re obviously happier when we’re calm, but we’re also more productive and efficient.
There are several challenges to achieving calm, including:
High levels of chronic stress (made worse by the pandemic for people)
Too much of an “accomplishment mindset”, which entails prioritizing productivity above all else or pursuing productivity for its own sake.
Our desire to have “more” of everything - more money, more things, more entertainment, all at the same time (e.g., watching TV while eating dinner and checking our emails on our phones).
Being constantly overstimulated through our smartphones, emails, etc., which makes it harder to calm down
What are some ways to achieve calm?
For individuals heavily focused on an “Accomplishment mindset,” consider implementing “productivity hours” in which you commit to being “productive.” When those hours are done, you’re free to do whatever you want. This way, you set defined limits for yourself - and you might even get more done with discrete deadlines
Take a “stress inventory” to identify what is stressing you out and which of these are controllable. Eliminate whatever is reasonably possible.
Spend more time savoring. When we experience something pleasurable (say, a good meal), there are two ways to react. We can focus on getting more of what’s pleasurable (e.g., eating quickly, focusing on the next bite immediately), or savoring what we are experiencing in the moment.
Try to take a “stimulation fast” by not using what you find most stimulating - news, social media, etc. - for a period of time
Allocating more of our time and energy to the analog (read: real) world as opposed to the digital world. Bailey believes that the digital world is valuable as long as it supports us in what we want to accomplish (e.g., most people don’t “want” to spend as much time on social media as they do)
What I found most interesting
First, the concept that you can be doing the right things, checking all the boxes (meditation, “mindfulness,” journaling, whatever), and still not find calm. When you are highly focused on productivity, it's easy to see everything as a tool for getting more done. It can almost become a moral issue. Bailey reflects on his pre-calm life:
Instead of savoring delicious meals, I ate them while distractedly listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video, in a two-pronged attempt to both fit more into that time, while trying to absolve myself of the guilt I felt taking a break…I chose busyness over genuine enjoyment, stubbornly and repeatedly. When I had scheduled a conversation with a friend at the end of the day, I couldn’t escape the shackles of the mindset then, either, thinking about what I had to get done when I got back to work the next day. As I became unusually concerned with how productive I was, I’m sad to say that even the most enjoyable activities in my life - time with my wife, meals, and other incredible experiences - became to-do items. Even vacations became something to get done, rather than enjoy.
For a few weeks at the beginning of the year, I kept a time log. I noted what I did every 15 minutes, such as "sleep," "work on X project," "commute," and "watch kids."1 While it was interesting to see how I actually spent my time, it was added another level of stress: I felt “under the gun” and needed to justify anything I did that wasn’t “useful.”
I also found the discussion on savoring insightful, as I realized it's an area I haven't dedicated much time to. My guess is a lot of people (like the author) are generally OK with “self care” activities (like meditation, exercise) to the extent they are useful, but feel guilty or bad about simply enjoying something for the sake of it. As an experiment, I decided to actively savor one thing each day for a week after reading the book.
It was hard to remember on some days. For instance, at 10 pm, I might realize that I hadn't savored anything. However, it felt rewarding when I did it. It’s also not very time-consuming or labor-intensive. As he notes, it can be small things (examples for me: watching how much joy my kids get from playing at the park on Sunday as opposed to trying to “survive the weekend”; focusing on the pleasure of reading a few pages of an interesting book after a long day as opposed to telling myself, “OK, I gotta read a few pages as it’ll help me sleep.”)
2 other things that get in the way of “calm”
One of the big challenges with much of the advice in this category (e.g., use your phone less, savor life more, spend more of your time unwinding and less working) is that it’s very easy to believe you’re an exception to the rule.
“It’s hard for me to savor my free time as a parent because it’s stressful being with my kids and I don’t have a lot of downtime”
“I can't work less or be unresponsive to emails because my job demands are too high”
There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this. At one point, Bailey suggests that if you are fairly busy, instead of scheduling “productive hours,” you should instead simply schedule the times you will not be productive, and assume the rest is productive time. I’d also guess that a disproportionate number of readers of these kinds of books are people that think that they are exceptions. (e.g., people who are achievement minded in part due to feeling that, for whatever reason, they need to work harder than others).
As he mentions, achieving calm is not something you do once and are set for life afterwards. It can feel a bit like a cat-and-mouse games. For example, I deleted my Twitter account in the last year because I wanted to have better control over my time. Over time, I began visiting other websites, although less frequently than Twitter, that provided a sense of novelty like Twitter did, such as LinkedIn, which isn't even enjoyable to browse. Our brains latch onto any source of stimulation, novelty, and reward we can find. If we choose, it’s our responsibility to cut down on these sources periodically.
Related reading / themes:
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, by Oliver Burkeman: Similar theme about questioning “productivity at all costs,” but more philosophical and less tactical.
Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence: Focused on the science of dopamine and why our brains are no match for modern distractions like smartphones or social media.
It’s not as much work as it sounds, especially since you can pre-fill in certain times (e.g., sleeping every night at 3:30am)