PeopleImages/iStockAlthough we may not always be aware of it, many of the tasks we perform—whether we’re answering a colleague’s email or engaging in a tough negotiation with a supplier—elicit emotions: excitement, anger, pride, boredom, uncertainty, and so on.
The reason emotions have a surprisingly powerful effect on our performance is that emotions have adaptive value—they can help us cope and respond to the situation at hand. For example, Beyonce was once quoted as saying, “Every time I get on stage I’m nervous [beforehand]. I’m actually really scared when I’m not nervous.” If she’s not nervous, she explained, she does not perform at her best. Even emotions that we perceive as negative, such as anxiety, are great tools for getting our minds energized and focused on the task ahead.
Anxiety: Get Pumped for a Presentation
Anxiety and readiness are physiologically almost the same, my father—a psychiatrist—explained to me when I was a teenager and felt anxious about some upcoming big challenge. Anxiety is a way of revving us up to be on high alert and ready to react to whatever may come our way—for example, in a presentation or a sales call. It’s easy to want to wish the feeling of anxiety away, but when you understand its benefits, you can be grateful for it.
The next time you find yourself feeling nervous, see how it goes to say to yourself, No, I’m not nervous. I’m alert and ready to react.
kupicoo/iStockFeeling good: Boost Creativity
A positive mood is especially useful for discovering new insights, being creative, being less critical when making decisions, and making snap decisions. Positive emotions can lead to easier collaboration. If you want to let unimportant things go more easily—look with a less critical eye—a positive mood can help. If it’s time to get creative, I suggest getting into a positive emotional state. When you need to make decisions fast and there won’t be time to deliberate, see if you can enter that situation in a positive mood.
Notice whether you’re in a good mood when you come to a decision point. Or close your eyes and remember something that makes you generally happy—a favorite TV show, learning, chatting with a friend, relaxing for a few minutes with a book, having a good laugh. Remembering something emotionally positive helps bring about that positive emotion.
shironosov/iStockAnger: Take Action
Feeling mad is unusual among negative emotions in that it facilitates approach-oriented behavior, or actions that move us toward a person, object, or idea. For example, a store owner considers increasing prices in order to increase profits, which she badly wants. But by doing so, she will run the risk of violating the trust she’s built with her customers. She’s afraid that increasing prices will lead to customer backlash, which she wants to avoid.
Tapping into a source of anger, rather than fear, may help. This sounds surprising: When I coach someone on emotion regulation, they often want to get better at controlling their anger, not eliciting it! But one option is for the store owner to recognize when she’s angry for some other reason and consider it a good moment to consider pricing options. She may ruminate on how unfair it is that her profit potential is held hostage to the whims of shoppers who don’t understand the products she sells.
The next time you’re afraid to take a risk even though you know it’s the right thing to do, consider getting a little angry.
seb_ra/iStockSadness: Think Critically
This emotion has several surprising effects. When we’re feeling sad we tend to be less biased in decision making—thinking a little more slowly and deliberately about whom to trust, for example. We are also likely to act more fairly and less selfishly. Plus, we err on the side of healthy skepticism, helping us to avoid being too gullible. And we’re more apt to put in the effort to make a message persuasive. All in all. it seems that when we need to slow down, be thoughtful, and think critically, sadness can be a real resource.
So if you’re on the receiving end of a sales pitch, you may want to go ahead and think about how much you miss your childhood dog. And on the other hand, if you’re feeling super happy, you may want to avoid taking a sales pitch and use that positive emotion for something good instead—like your creative work.
In his new book, Two Awesome Hours, Josh Davis, PhD, reveals cutting-edge science-based tips to improve our productivity and performance at work, including how to maximize your down time and how to feed and move your body for optimal focus. Learn more and buy the book here.