How to Boost Productivity by Recognizing Emotions

By | May 19, 2017
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As a clinical psychologist who works with New York City’s top executives, I’m constantly encountering clients who want to get more done and be more fulfilled. To do this, you need to understand the role of emotion on your to-do list.

Whether it’s a list of weekend chores or a yearlong map of your annual goals, emotion plays an important role in goal attainment. Emotion can keep us motivated and engaged, or sidelined and fearful. Paying attention to emotion facilitates motivation, meaning and fulfillment; ignoring it can lead procrastination or to a “hamster on a wheel” feeling of completing a lot of steps yet missing a sense of journey.

One of my favorite ways to help clients use emotion as a buoy rather than a sandbag in their own lives is to do the following exercise. I call it a “to-do list with emotions.”

  1. Make a goal plan or to-do list.

Start by making a list of the steps and objectives needed to accomplish your goal, or even just create a simple to-do list for the weekend. Whether a complex goal or a simple to-do list, emotion is always at play. I encourage you to make your list on paper or a computer screen rather than just having the list in mind. When we hold too many things in working memory, we are not as cognitively free to evaluate and plan for subtleties like emotion – and if we don’t manage emotion, it will manage us. So do yourself a favor and jot down at least a quick to-do list.

  1. Label the emotions.

Look at each step or item on your list and notice the emotion that accompanies it. Write the emotion next to the item on your list. As you can imagine, different people have wildly different emotions that can accompany very similar items. For example, one person may enjoy preparing slides and doing research for presentations, but get terrified when it’s time to actually present to a group of people. Another person may find the slide prep tedious but feel thrilled when it’s time to present in the spotlight. Similarly, one person feels tired and overwhelmed by a trip to the grocery store, while another feels pleasure from this welcome, mindless escape.

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The idea is to notice, specifically, which emotions arise for you as you create your list. Word to the wise: Don’t skimp on actually writing down the emotions that accompany each item on your list. If you just think of the emotions that accompany your list and then make yourself remember them later, you could actually make yourself more overwhelmed. The idea is to divide the list into small pieces and label the emotion so that you don’t have to “keep it all in your head.” Challenge yourself to write at least one different emotion word next to each item on your list.

[See: 11 Simple, Proven Ways to Optimize Your Mental Health.]

  1. Add mini self-care plans.

Once you see what the “pain points” are on your list, you’ll often be able to easily offset the pain with support.

In the example above, if you find the presentation prep work tedious, your self-care plan could be to treat yourself by doing the slide prep on your laptop while having a glass of wine and a delicious dinner at a cozy restaurant bar. If you find the presentation prep work to be a breeze but quake at the thought of actually presenting it, then your self-care plan would be different. To make sure you don’t avoid practicing because you hate presenting (which, of course, makes the presentation worse because you didn’t practice), you might book yourself a relaxing professional massage at a beautiful spa only to be enjoyed after a “dress rehearsal presentation” you give to a supportive friend.

The idea is to notice which parts provoke challenging emotions, then find a way to give yourself extra support around that step. If you have time, find ways to reinforce the positive emotions, too. This helps make sure you’re really present to relish the parts you like best.

When I was a poor graduate student doing my doctoral dissertation, I made a deal with myself: As long as I was working on that dissertation, I could have dinner anywhere I wanted. I may have run up some expensive dinner bills for a clinical psychology student, but that dissertation was done on schedule. Ultimately, it saved me thousands of dollars because I could finish my program on time and begin building my practice. Plus, I have many fond memories at the classic Carlyle Hotel (try the “Old Cuban” on their cocktail list – it’s guaranteed to help with any task).

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