Transitioning From One Mental State to Another

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Yesterday morning as I was driving to the gym at 4:55 am, my phone connected to Bluetooth and started automatically on a play list that I haven’t listened to in years.  In fact, it was the play list that I used when I trained to run the Little Rock half marathon several years ago.  I hate running.  That play list and my 15-year-old enthusiastic training partner may have been the only things that kept me from quitting before every scheduled long run.  Yesterday morning when I heard that song, I was instantly transported back to one moment in my runs. To the moment after the first seven dreadful minutes, when things became ok.  At seven minutes plus, my gait, my pace and my breathing started to settle into a semi-comfortable pattern and my mind started to pull away from focused dread and start to meander. That song playing in my car actually made me start looking forward to the 4,000 clean and jerks that I knew were coming in my workout (ok, it was only 89 cleans and 25 jerks.)

This got me thinking about transitioning from one mental state to another, and why it is so hard.  My mental state at home before driving to the gym was a negotiation between my good angel and my bad angel. One told me to put my tennis shoes on and move, the other said that my time would be better spent cleaning up my over-the-limit email inbox, packing the kids’ lunches, or even cleaning the baseboards.  My good angel won and I got dressed for the gym.  I hardly need say my heart wasn’t really totally in it, and a cup of coffee and a good book on the couch still sounded pretty darn good.  Then, that song played and it literally flipped my mental state.  This is really a story about the magical essence of habit, routines and patterns and how long conditioned responses can steer our thinking and actions.  My old song cue stirred up an old habit and gave me a little bit of that magical moment in running where it all falls into place.

A lot of the people I work with in coaching want to find efficient ways of transitioning from one mental state to another mental state.  Maybe one wants to leave work at work and arrive home ready to enjoy family time.  Maybe it is being able to drop into flow state quickly in order to maximize limited free time for highly productive deep work.  Maybe it is getting motivated to get out of bed and go to the gym. Maybe it is preparing mentally to clean the baseboards, pack lunches or delete emails.

One great trick for transitioning mental states is to program a desired response to a specific cue, in order to drop into a new mental state quickly and efficiently.  This will allow the magic of habits, routines and patterns to help carry us from one state to another, without having to think too much.  Imagine setting up your habits, routines and patterns to serve you better.   What if you purposefully programmed yourself to get excited about a workout when you played a specific song?  Could you habitually do a short meditation routine in the car to mentally leave work and get your mind right for family time?  How about creating a short sequence of actions, a scripted routine, that gets you mentally prepped for deep work.  With a little practice, these habits, routines and patterns can be choreographed to get the result you want.  Just remember to keep your cues for transitioning from one mental state to another pure.  If I start playing my workout cue song from Flo-rida during the drive home when I need to unwind, it will lose its meaning and not get the same patterned reaction I want.