Look upstream, change downstream: the importance of knowing and managing your state of mind

Do you ever find yourself faced with a project that you must work on right now, but you just don’t feel like it? Maybe it’s a report you have to produce or an email you have to write. Or have you ever found yourself hanging out with friends on a trip that’s supposed to be fun, but you’re feeling grumpy and you kinda don’t want to be there?

Sometimes, the right course of action isn’t to change what’s going on outside, but to change what’s going on inside. You have to change your state of mind.

But that’s hard to do.

First of all, some part of you believes that your current state is the Right state. It’s what you Should be feeling. Change my state of mind? This is me. This is what I’m feeling. To want to be feeling something else would be to want to not be me.

But that’s largely bullshit. You’re lots of things. You’re the observer as well as the actor. The rider as well as the elephant. Most certainly, “you” are not coextensive with the current contents of your consciousness.

So the question is really one of practical rationality. Is the state of mind that I’m in going to serve me well in the pursuit of my goals? Or would a different state suit me better?

This is the real hard part. You have to know what state you’re in, you have to know what state you Want to be in, you have to know how to successfully move yourself from this state to that state, and then you have to actually do it. That’s a lot. And it’s hard.

But that skill is hugely empowering. Your state of mind is the upstream source of not only all your actions, but also of the quality of your experience. It is the source of your success and your happiness. If you can learn this skill you can benefit enormously.

This skill consists of three steps. Each of these steps is an art that takes years to master. I haven’t mastered any of them. But I have practiced a lot and learned some things.

Step 1: Understand your current state.

What are you feeling? How did it come to be? What’s the significance of those feelings?

Tools for developing this skill:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Psychotherapy
  • Affect naming
  • Talking about feelings, emotions, states of mind with friends

Step 2: Identify the state you want to be in.

Imagine a parallel universe in which you’re in the same situation, but you’re in a great mood, and whatever that thing is that you have to do, you actually want to do it, and you knock it out of the park.

What state of mind were you in in that universe? Cool. That’s the state you want to be in.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. The you in that other universe must have gone through a chain of causes that was different from yours in this universe in order to have wound up in a different state of mind. It’s not certain that you’ll be able to get to that exact state of mind.

So really, you’re looking for the best accessible state of mind. And knowing what’s accessible isn’t easy. Tools again:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Psychotherapy
  • Remembering past experiences of success
  • Watching and learning from others who are doing this well
  • Practice

Step 3: Make a plan for how you’re going to move from this state to that state.

How do you move from this state to that state? Here you want a step-by-step plan; a formula. And it matters that the plan is correct, in the sense that if you do the steps, then you will get the intended outcome.

This again takes a lifetime to master. There aren’t a lot of generalizable skills that I can name. It’s mostly about learning the mappings one by one: I’m in this state, and I can get to that state by taking these steps.

To learn those mappings, you mainly have to experiment. Tools:

  • Try things. Try lots of things, and pay attention to the results. Record it, maybe, so that you’ll have a good chance of remembering it. If it worked, great. Don’t forget it. If it didn’t, why not?
  • Psychotherapy can be a great way to get ideas for how to move from one state to another.
  • Mindfulness meditation often is the tool you need to move from the state you’re in to the target state.
  • Talk to friends about what works for them.

This is barely scratching the surface. But it’s appalling to me that we as humans don’t have this better figured out by now. So much rides on it. And we hardly even talk about it explicitly. And to my knowledge, there isn’t any coordinated, systemized effort. Maybe it’s time to start one.

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