Mental State Continuity and Productivity

Our brains are awesome in many ways. It's pretty incredible that our lumps of grey matter hold the entirety of our consciousness as human beings. Pretty neat, for sure. However, as incredible as our brains are sometimes they need a little help. One form this takes is what I call striving for "mental state continuity."

Mental state continuity refers to the idea of keeping my brain working on one problem or type of problem for as long as possible, instead of bouncing around between lots of them. When you're working on a specific type of task you've pre-loaded a lot of concepts, knowledge, and information needed to complete that type of task. For example, when I'm reading and summarizing academic articles for my thesis I've "pre-loaded" what I know about how to read academic papers efficiently, social science methodology, whatever knowledge I have on the specific content area, and all of the thoughts and ideas I've recently had around the larger project that is my thesis. That's a lot of stuff. And it's a completely different set of information that I'd have ready to go if I were writing in my journal, watching a lecture, or paying my bills.


It takes mental effort to shift between these states. If I were switching back and forth between reading academic articles and paying bills I'd constantly be loading and re-loading the relevant mental states I'd need to do these tasks well. I'd be spending more time trying to remember what I was thinking about when I left a task to switch to the other one than I would actually doing what I need to do. This is why working with distractions is such a time waster. Distractions represent shifts in mental continuity that you have no control over. While it's certainly important to eliminate those as much as possible, I think most of us need more practice with not switching mental states so quickly.


Weekly Planning


There are certain things that you probably have to do every day to fulfill your job responsibilities. However, there's probably another whole class of activities that you have more control over when and how you do them. These activities are the ones you can use to organize your week to better allow you to have control over your mental state. For example, when possible try to work on fewer projects each day. Instead of bouncing around 4 or 5 try to hone in on 1 or 2. By giving yourself more time to dive deep into fewer projects you're more likely to come up with creative ideas and feel like you're making meaningful progress.


Tapping forward 9 projects in a week may take the same amount of energy and represent the same amount of progress as really booting forward 2 projects but the psychological satisfaction you'll receive from the latter usually makes it the better course of action to take. While I'm sure there are important individual differences as to whether this holds true for everyone, it's something you can easily test for yourself in the next week, too.


One of the best ways to ensure you're minimizing the amount of mental state switching you have to do is being deliberate in your weekly planning. Look at your upcoming week and figure out the main tasks for each day. You don't have to get down to the micromanagement level of planning each hour of the day, but it's helpful to know that Big Project A is going to be your main focus on Thursday so you can focus on Big Projects B and C on Tuesday and Wednesday. In order for this to work, however, you have to be diligent in recording any ideas, updates, and thoughts for Project A that come to mind earlier in the week so you can engage with them on Thursday (and not in the moment when they first appear).



The other consideration when planning your week is to think about how your mental state naturally shifts throughout the week and capitalizing on your natural tendencies. For example, I like to start my week off with a bang so I'm likely to tackle very important and large projects on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have class in the middle of the day so it's difficult to dive into large projects that require large swaths of focus time so I'll usually work on smaller projects or something directly related to those classes. I like to end the week with as many closed loops as possible so I'll try to take care of all my administrative tasks on Fridays. For all of this to work, though, I have to make sure I record any administrative tasks that come up on Monday (instead of doing them in the moment) so I can tackle them at the end of the week and not have to shift my mental state when I'm working on something important. Likewise for ideas that come to mind on Tuesday or Thursday for the project on Monday -- any ideas have to be recorded somewhere I'll trust when I get back to it later.


Daily Planning 

Finally, one last scheduling consideration to keep in mind when thinking about mental state continuity is at the individual day level. When do you feel at your best in terms of doing creative work? In the morning? Just after lunch? Late at night? Do your best to match the energy level required for a project or a task to the level of energy you currently have. Doing a low-energy task when you're at full-energy is a waste of your potential. For that reason I do almost all of my writing in the morning and schedule all my meetings in the afternoon. Meetings don't require me to be as creative and productive as writing so it makes the most sense to schedule them when I'm already feeling a little tired. Friday afternoons are the most tired, so that's when I'll handle responding to non-urgent emails, filing papers, and other administrative mindlessness.

If you have some level of autonomy over your work day and how your work week is scheduled it makes sense to think about how you can keep your mental state in as continuous a state as possible. True creative work comes from digging below the surface level connections and observations that anybody can see. The only way to do that is to work on a project or a problem long enough, and with enough concentration, to break through that layer of superficiality and dig into the richness of the content below. It's not necessarily easy to do it but with practice and a little bit more consideration when planning your weeks and days I think you'll find the effort worth it.

Photo by frankdouwes