The traditional focus for improving performance whether it is individual or organizational, is to work on improving motivation, ability and behavior. The premise is, that the most important variables for success are knowledge, skills and effort. From this perspective, all that is needed to get better results is to work harder, learn new and better skills, and be vigilant with self-discipline. This may produce incremental increases in results, but what happens when we reach the limit of how hard we can work, how self-disciplined we can be, and how skilled we can become? Does that mean performance has to stagnate? And what if we just don’t want to work any harder? Is hard work the only pathway to improving results?
The good news is there is a whole other variable that is not often taken into account. The variable of state of mind. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines state of mind as a person’s mood and the effect that mood has on a person’s thinking and behavior. For example, when I am in a low state of mind the quality of my thinking is not very good. It will be flavored with negativity, judgment, fear, and insecurity. When I see my life and the people in it through the lens of this state of mind, I will tend to see the worst. This will look like reality to me, but when my state of mind changes, my mood will lift and and my thinking will change. I will be able to see the positive in the situation, and my reality will look differently.
One of the most profound experiences of this for me was related to me being in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man. I could not stay with him under any circumstances. After a period of time, I found myself married to the most loving, kind, generous man who I couldn’t imagine living without. The funny thing is, it was the same man. As my state of mind improved, I was no longer seeing my husband through the lens of my own insecurity and hurt. I could see him more clearly and not take his weaknesses so personally. As a result, my behavior changed. It was like I was married to a different person, when I was really the only one who had changed.
We all experience fluctuations in our state of mind. Some people have more extreme or more rapid fluctuation than others, but no matter what the amount or the frequency, changes in state of mind are normal. Having an understanding of this allows us to perform better overall. Interpersonal dynamics are far easier to navigate with less conflict and strife, and the skills, knowledge, and motivation we have are used most effectively so we can get better results with less effort.
The importance of state of mind for success is common sense. We all know if the net profit on a product is negative, you can’t make up for the loss by selling more. However, we miss this logic when looking at performance without considering the role of state of mind. State of mind is the context within which everything else happens.
In an interview between Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin, Seth shares about his coffee making technique. He says the most important part of the process for making coffee is how you roast the beans. This makes sense because he assumes he is working with good quality coffee beans. However, if he is roasting rotten coffee beans, it won’t matter how perfectly timed and sensitive his roasting process is, the coffee will still taste bad.
Having an understanding of state of mind helps us to recognize our quality of thinking so we know what to act on and what to ignore. If Seth gets a bad batch of coffee beans, he can throw them out and get a new batch rather than spending hours trying to improve the taste of his coffee after making it with bad beans. Think about how much time and effort would be wasted trying to fix the taste of rotten coffee beans, when all that is need is a new set of beans. The same is true for any work.
When people have an understanding of the role of state of mind in their lives, it is much easier for them to discard the rotten thinking, not take action on it, and maintain a greater level of stability and equanimity while waiting for better quality of thought to come along, and it always will. Our natural state is to have high quality thoughts. When we relax and allow our minds to clear, our state of mind will naturally improve, and better quality thoughts will come to our awareness. When people are able to recognize their state of mind, they will know when to take that step back, and when to move forward, when to rest and let the mind clear, and when to act on inspiration.
The role of state of mind in work allows for unlimited possibilities for improvements in productivity. Any other resource has boundaries, but there is no limits to our human potential.
As performance and results become more and more crucial for financial viability, individuals and companies who are committed to excelling would benefit from developing an experiential understanding of the relationship between performance and state of mind. There is unlimited potential in each one of us, but we don’t access it through hard work. We connect with it by experiencing an expansive state of mind. We each have this potential, but few of us know how it relates to our work. Understanding this relationship is the key to sustainable, enjoyable, burn-out free, optimal performance.