When we are preparing for significant events in our careers, we tend to focus on our physical preparation. If we have a big presentation to do at work, we practice until we are comfortable. If we have an interview for a new job, we research the company and the key players to ensure we have answers to obvious questions. If we have a project deadline, we manage our time and our team to ensure the best results. When we take this approach, however, we are only doing half the work to be effective and successful.
When you are trying to prepare yourself for a successful outcome in your work or career, how often do you take the time to prepare your brain? What do you do to ensure that you keep your brain in the game, not just your body and actions? You might say that physical preparation is what controls the brain but there are specific things you can do to ensure your brain is as prepared as your body for those important career situations.
The role of your thoughts
Many people have the misconception that emotions just happen and we have no ability to control how we feel. This leaves us at the whim of our emotions, reacting based upon our feelings. The problem with this is that emotions are subjective and don’t typically allow for logical or strategic thinking.
The truth is that you can manage your emotions but this starts with controlling your thoughts. Every emotion we experience comes from a thought. The thought occurs, consciously or unconsciously, and then we experience one or more emotions based upon the thought. The challenge you likely have is that you will recognize the emotion but not take the time to identify the thought creating it. This is what leaves you feeling like you can’t control your emotions and you’re right. You can’t control your emotions until you learn to control the thoughts creating the emotions.
In business this can be detrimental at best and dangerous at worst. If you are reacting from emotion, you might not make the best decision or choose the most effective path for optimal results. You might be distracted by your emotions, unable to focus your energy and attention to productive actions. Instead of functioning from your peak performance level, you get pulled into the whirlpool of emotions that leave you feeling out of control and depleted.
To avoid this, you can start with an analysis:
The first step is to clearly identify the emotion that you are experiencing and then asking yourself if that emotion serves your goal. For example, you might experience a heightened level of anxiety regarding a professional presentation. Instead of sinking into the anxiety, ask yourself if the emotion facilitates your goal of doing well in the presentation.
If the emotions don't serve your goal the next step is to identify the thoughts that are creating the emotion. In our example, the thoughts creating the anxiety might include that you don't want to make a fool of yourself or seem like a fraud, or that people will be staring at you and judging you. The anxiety isn’t just because you don’t like public speaking. The emotion is coming from specific thoughts that you have now identified.
Once you know the thoughts, you can take the time to break down these thoughts by replacing them with data. By asking yourself specific questions you can replace the detrimental, anxiety-provoking thoughts with information. You can consider how many times you've given successful presentations. You might also do a quick mental scan of your resume to remind yourself of all your accomplishments, training, and education which makes you qualified to give this presentation. You could consider the people in your audience and identify allies who will support your presentation. When you provide your brain with evidence and facts, your brain doesn’t have to fill in the uncertainty with “what-if’s”. By reminding your brain that you do have the skills to give the presentation and you do have the background to be credible on the topic, your brain will create emotions which align with your thoughts, replacing anxiety with confidence.
The role of your words
As a professional, you are likely very aware of the power of words. Words can be used to motivate or demoralize, strengthen or undermine. But how often do you think about the words that you use on yourself? The words might be the conscious things you say to yourself or the words might be the unconscious or whispered things you say to yourself. Ask yourself, would you say the same conscious or unconscious thoughts to fellow colleagues or to your team? For many professionals, the things that they say to empower others are not generalized to themselves.
The problem is that these words create the thoughts and emotions that are detrimental to optimal functioning. It may be the obvious words like when you call yourself an idiot for making a mistake or tell yourself that you aren’t as skilled as others think. You might catch yourself thinking you are likely to fail at something important to you. These words create undermining thoughts which will generate emotions aligned with the thoughts.
There are also the smaller words that can create an internal climate which sabotages your goals. These words —should, have to, need to and must — create thoughts of you not doing enough, not being enough, or that you are falling behind your peers. They also create the illusion that you are being forced to do certain things. These words then generate emotions which align with the thoughts. You might experience pressure, stress or guilt from words you commonly use when you talk to yourself. Because of this, you might make decisions out of desperation to prove yourself or catch up, which ultimately will not allow you to function in an optimal or healthy way.
To avoid creating an internal climate of negative thoughts and emotions, you can replace these pressure words with power words. Words such as want and will can change the internal dialogue and put functional control back in your hands. For example, instead of telling yourself that you should go into work to review practice for the presentation so you don’t mess up, the internal dialogue becomes “I will go into work to practice because I want to be confident about the presentation.” Changing from the pressure word of should to the power words of will and want, and shifting the focus from making a mistake to building confidence, puts you back in control of your thoughts and emotions.
The role of your brain
Ultimately, your brain is lazy. It will focus on whatever you tell it to focus on. Consider this. The last time you were looking to buy a car, you likely came down to one or two styles you were interested in purchasing. Most likely, you began seeing these styles everywhere you went. Was there suddenly an uptick in the amount of these cars being purchased in your area? Not likely. Then why were you seeing these styles around you when you never noticed them before? It is through a process called priming. We prime our brains to search for evidence and examples of whatever we tell it to. When you told your brain the types of cars you were interested in, your brain found as many examples as possible to support this focus.
How can you use this same approach when it comes to your professional functioning? One way is to decide what perspective you want to have regarding your work. If you tell your brain that you hate your job, your brain will search for and provide you with evidence of why you should hate your job. All you will see will be supporting data aligned with the thought of hating your job. So how do you apply priming so it works for you instead of against you?
It’s true. You might not like your job but you can tell your brain that you appreciate earning money at your job while you look for new opportunities. Your brain will search for examples to support your idea of appreciation and it will search for areas of opportunity. You don’t have to create an inaccurate statement about your job and lie to your brain, but you can decide which aspect of the situation your brain spends time and energy on. This strategy again allows you to function at your optimal level instead of being drained of your focus and power.
The role of choice
Consider this. When you work on a project for your organization, do you plan to complete fifty percent of it and hope the rest will come together on its own? Of course not but it is likely that this is how you’ve been functioning if you only do the physical preparation for your professional role. Overall, how you function is your choice. You can determine what thoughts you want to practice and implement to create beneficial emotions which get you closer to your peak performance. You can decide what words will generate the behaviors and actions which align with your goal attainment. You can tell your brain where to direct your focus and energy in order to get the results you want in your career. These strategies help you control your brain so it is your greatest tool rather than your biggest obstacle.