How to keep calm and get things done

Posted on March 10th, by Dr Rob Yeung .

A client of mine I’ll call Joanna had a tendency to take things personally. When projects went wrong at work and her colleagues pointed out her mistakes, she either got irritated and angry or she retreated and sulked.

Another client called Rupert wanted to change his life. He wanted to get a new job – but he wasn’t able to find the motivation within himself. When we first met, he said that he never “feels like” sitting at his computer to research job opportunities and then apply for them. In fact, he often engaged in emotional eating instead. When he felt lonely or depressed, he bought a bag of Snickers or Mars bars and ate them all in one sitting.

Do you ever allow your emotions to get the better of you? If you do, then you may be engaging in what I call emotion-directed actions (EDAs), in other words, allowing your emotions to dictate your actions.

In contrast, many of the most successful people I know engage in what I call goal-directed actions (GDAs). So these people have goals in life, and choose to pursue actions that help them to achieve their goals in spite of how they may be feeling.

For example, when Joanna learned about the concept of GDAs versus EDAs, she made a series of commitments to herself. She wrote down a couple of goal-directed actions (GDAs) that she would prefer to take:

  • “If I’m feeling criticised, then I will write notes.” (This one gave her an alternative behaviour to do rather than behaving defensively when she felt criticised. It also meant that she could then later review what people had said about her or her work so that she could learn from her mistakes.)
  • “If I can feel myself getting emotional, then I will focus on relaxing my stomach muscles.” (This one helped to reduce her physical tension, which she found helpful in reducing her emotional feelings too.)
  • “If I have a sulk at work, then I will later call or email to apologise.”

The point is that you don’t have to be driven by your emotions. When you are thinking about your irrational, angry, sulky or otherwise emotional self, you can choose how you would ideally like to behave.

The other client Rupert initially struggled to come up with GDAs. However, he eventually decided that his commitments to himself would be:

  • “If I’m thinking about putting the TV on, then I will instead do at least 10 minutes of work.” (This pledge to himself was intended to combat his inherent laziness. In practice, he kept his promise to himself only some of the time. But he also often ended up doing far more than the 10 minutes of work, so overall he was a lot happier with his job hunting progress.)
  • “If I’m going to the supermarket, then I will buy myself a bag of apples as well as chocolate, then I’ll eat at least one apple before I allow myself any chocolate.” (This GDA was intended to combat his tendency to engage in emotional eating. Over the course of the next month or so, he found that he cut his chocolate consumption by three-quarters.)

We human beings unfortunately have an emotional system in our brains that can make us feel angry, sad, tired and so on. And these emotions can drive us to behave in ways that aren’t always good for us. But by taking some time to think about how we would prefer to behave (and then writing down these goal-directed actions), we can help ourselves to conquer our emotions and make better progress towards our goals. Incidentally, people often think of emotional intelligence as being the skill of influencing other people, but controlling our own emotions is perhaps the more important part of becoming more emotionally intelligent.

So if you want to achieve your goals in life, here’s your 3-step plan:

  1. Sit down quietly for just 10 minutes.
  2. Think about how your emotions tend to get the better of you (i.e. identify your emotion-directed actions or EDAs).
  3. Then write down a handful – maybe between 1 to 5 – goal-directed actions or GDAs, which you would prefer to perform instead.
  4. Put your list of GDAs in a prominent place. And be sure to follow through with them as often as you can.

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