Mental Wellbeing For The Highly Productive

Highly productive individuals are among the worst when it comes to neglecting their own mental wellbeing. Let's talk about that...

I’m a highly productive individual. I have big dreams and I push myself consistently to achieve them. I’m nowhere near achieving those dreams (yet) but I have come a very long way from where I started, I see improvements every week, and I’m always learning.
A few months ago I felt as though my life had fallen apart. I was more stressed out than ever, my financial situation was dire once again, my social life was struggling (thanks, Coronavirus), I was fresh out of a relationship and my mental wellbeing was at an all time low.
I’m one of those people who has always felt like I “had no time” to think about my mental wellbeing. I believed that I had too many more important things to focus on. “Each and every one of my projects is a higher priority than my mental wellbeing”- that was like my unspoken mantra. It all changed for me when I was in a regular catch-up with my boss, and he asked me how I was doing. An innocent question, and I felt fine… Pretty good, even… So I tried to tell him that I was fine… And I broke down in tears.
“Oh dear” I thought in my head as my voice cracked. “This wasn’t what I ordered” my brain silently exclaimed to my tear ducts. We were on a video conference too, so there was no hiding. We ended up having a good conversation and he helped me out a lot. I walked away from this harrowing experience finally accepting that I couldn’t continue to ignore my mental wellbeing. I finally recognised that there was a problem, and there was no point trying to keep it out of sight anymore- it was out there. Somebody had seen it.
I’m doing a lot better nowadays, because I’ve spent a significant amount of time since the event researching, reading and talking about mental wellbeing.
Here’s some of the best things that I’ve learned:

Treat your mental wellbeing as a project

It’s simple, but someone out there needs to hear it (I certainly did). We’re all working on multiple projects at any given time, and your mental well-being should be one of them. It should be as important as your nutrition, or your fitness. You should work on it a little bit at a time, but consistently. You should talk about your progress with the people who make up your support network (friends, family, pets, strangers on the internet).
It’s very common for us to commit time to keeping our bodies in shape, and yet it’s also common for us to neglect our minds. Lots of people have had PT sessions at the gym, but so few would even consider speaking with a therapist for a few sessions. How many of you have tried to change your diet in some way in an effort to be healthier? Almost everyone, I bet. Yet, how many of you have tried to change your mindset in an effort to be healthier? Unfortunately, far fewer.
Treating your mental well-being as a project means:
  • Honestly assessing where you are now, where you want to be, and in how long.
  • Immersing yourself in the culture. Talking to people, sharing your experience, reading articles, books, watching videos all on mental well-being.
  • Being consistent. Improving your mental well-being is like improving your cardio. Consistent good habits will get you there but it takes time. You can’t rush it, and day to day it will fluctuate but if you focus on how you feel week-by-week or month-by-month, you will see an improvement.
“Mental health…is not a destination, but a process. It’s about how you drive, not where you’re going.” — Noam Shpancer

The Reitoff Principle

This is a term coined by Ali Abdaal. It’s the concept of “writing off” the rest of the day so that you can commit to not being productive. Ali framed this as a productivity tip, but I also think that it overlaps as a mental well-being tip.
We all have those days where we are, for one reason or another, totally psyched out. Sometimes it happens because you’re burning out from working too hard, sometimes because you’ve had something heavy weighing on your mind for weeks and the effects have compounded, or sometimes it’s in response to new information which you haven’t had time to process yet. Whatever the reason, you just can’t focus. You can’t get your butt into gear, you can’t even pick your mind up off of the ground. You’re distracted, spent, pooped.
Invoking the Reitoff principle means that you make a commitment that you’re not going to push yourself anymore today. You’re going to kick back, relax, and do whatever you want- and (most importantly) you are not going to feel guilty about not getting anything done. You need good quality rest, and one of the ingredients for that is peace of mind. You can’t have peace of mind if a small part of your brain is berating you for being lazy.
This is the bit that I personally struggle with. It takes a lot for me to be able to write off the rest of my day and actually enjoy it because I have a productivity slave driver in the back of my mind telling me that I’m wasting precious time. One (really dorky) little trick that does help me to silence this voice is to say to myself in the mirror, out loud “I hereby invoke the Reitoff principle!” then I’ll cross out all of the items on my daily to-do list and write one more at the bottom: Relax.
“I hereby invoke the Reitoff Principle!” — Josh Sultan, 2020, multiple occasions.
Yes it’s daft. Yes it works.

Gratitude journaling is a powerful tool

There’s a concept in the world of the productive that setting a goal isn’t always a good thing, because while you’re focused on that goal you’re operating from a point of failure. For example, if your goal is to run for 5km without stopping, then every single time you go on a run and don’t reach your goal, you’re failing- even if you’re improving. Similarly, if your goal is to be happy, then any day that you’re not happy, you’re failing- and that’s just not a healthy way to think.
For me, gratitude journaling is my way of focusing on the process rather than the goal. Every day I reflect on what brings me happiness, and the goal is to find happiness in every day, not to be happy every day.
“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.” — Albus Dumbledore

The sunk-cost fallacy

Highly productive people are often (but not exclusively) determined, passionate and gritty. These are all great strengths, but sometimes I find that it’s exactly these traits that can work against your mental wellbeing. Your passion can blind you from the fact that you’re at your limit, and it’s worth seriously considering whether you’re overwhelmed, and if you are, what you can do to alleviate the pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should give up. It’s not about giving up. It’s about being smart, picking your battles, and remembering that you can revisit a dropped project when you do have the capacity for it.
If you got half-way up a mountain but then couldn’t continue, you wouldn’t go to sleep and try again in the morning. You’d go home, make a plan, work on your fitness for 6 months and then run at it again- once you’re ready. Don’t let your grit get in the way of your health, and don’t be blinded by the effort that you’ve already sunk into a project. Know when to stop.

Don’t fall victim to rumination

“True suffering is being trapped in your own head.”― Adam Snowflake
Have you ever had something swim around in your mind all day? Something that you read online? Something that was said to you by a loved one? We all have, and we all know how it can hold your brain in a vice-grip making it nigh impossible to focus on anything else. My solution to this used to be to compartmentalise. To package the thought away in a little box in the back of my mind, to make room for all of the more pressing matters.
The mistake here is that in this scenario ‘compartmentalised’ doesn’t mean gone. It doesn’t mean ‘let go of’ and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘dealt with’. The next time you find yourself ruminating on something when you don’t want to be, just accept that it’s not going anywhere until you deal with it. Then, deal with it in whatever way you know how. For me, that’s either meditation or journaling. Both help me to slowly work through my thoughts, and process them in such a way that once I’m done I’m able to truly let them go and leave my mind clear to focus on the task at hand.
Well, that’s the idea at least. I’m still refining my mindfulness techniques. These few months that mindfulness and mental wellbeing have been my highest priority area of development have been insightful, challenging and refreshing, but as with anything, the more I learn the more I realise how little I know.
I hope that something that I’ve written here resonates with someone out there, and I look forward to sharing more of this path as I discover it.
Happy 2021!