The Force That is Preventing You From Doing Your Best Work
Imagine trying to use a computer from the 1980s — or even the 1990s — to do your work today. Or imagine trying to use the first generation iPhone to do what you do with your iPhone today.
If you’re anything like me, you’d pull your hair out in frustration. The machine wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Now consider the human body. We are composed of trillions of cells, which refresh every day. Our hardware is designed to keep pace with modern demands.
Our challenge is with the operating system — aka the central nervous system.
The Operating System for The Body and Mind
The nervous system is the control center of the human body. It dictates our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual responses to external and internal stimuli. The problem is that this system is ancient. It was created in a time when simply being alive was a risky endeavor.
We are wired to look for problems, to scan for danger, and to react to perceived danger.
In the face of perceived danger, the nervous system cues the body to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
We often think of fight-flight-freeze as a physical response. But it isn’t only physical.
Fight: Some people tend to attack with fists or weapons. Others attack with words or tone of voice.
Flight: Sometimes we physically run away. We may defer or procrastinate on projects. Or we escape into work, food, alcohol, sex, social media, or other compulsions.
Freeze: We may stand in one spot, physically unable to move. We may go into a mental spin of overwhelm or confusion, the equivalent of the spinning beachball on the Mac — which happens for the same reason. Perhaps we might crash and emotionally or mentally shut down — like an app that folds under the weight of too much processing. Or we might “freeze out” other people because we fear that we will get hurt if we allow them to get too close.
Each of us has our preferred responses to stressors and triggers.
These responses are habits.
And these habits block us from fully activating our creativity and productivity, engaging in constructive, meaningful relationships, and pursuing a life of meaning and purpose.
Our Operating System Doesn’t Keep Pace
In ancient times, if you bumped up against something during the day, that thing was likely a predator that would eat you alive. Your nervous system developed habits to protect you. In my daily life, I get bumped into multiple times a day: on the streets and subways of NYC. Rarely is this a threat to my life. The nervous system doesn’t know the difference.
Even if you’re not a city-dweller, your nervous system is often under attack. Just as the body responds to the nervous system, the nervous system responds to the body. Whether it’s “hustling,” racing to meet deadlines, consuming too much information, or life changes, every day we take actions that communicate to our ancient operating system that we are in danger.
Why This Matters
Lest you think this is just some spiritual talk that doesn’t relate to productivity, here’s why this matters:
Safety is the number one priority for the body, mind, and spirit. When the nervous system perceives that it is in danger, it directs all available resources to get out of danger. The resources get used for fight-flight-freeze instead of for processing new information, nurturing connections, articulating ideas, creative thinking, and the other work that we desire to do.
We are working with an old operating system that treats many things as danger when they aren’t really putting us at risk. That perceived danger diverts resources to creating safety, leaving us without the resources we need to create our work.
We Can Update Our Operating Systems
The good news is that we can update our operating system. The bad news is that unlike your iPhone, the body’s operating system doesn’t get updated automatically.
Updating the operating system is a manual effort. To update the operating system, we must break the habits of fight-flight-freeze. These are stubborn, engrained, habits that don’t disappear easily. Our task is to break these habits.
This is not optional. This is foundational. It is the work that supports the work.
Just like you would update the operating system on your phone or computer, you must update the operating system that runs your body, mind, emotions, and spirit.