How I shift my feelings

I’m generally quite happy and positive and excited about life and work. This dramatically boosts my creativity and productivity and as you can probably imagine it is something my coworkers (and my wife) explicitly appreciate. As you will see, this positive attitude is not something that happens automatically. Because every once in a while I find myself in a strange mood. A feeling. Something is off. Below I will share how I use notebooks to very consciously notice the feeling, explore it, extract learnings from the situation that triggered it if possible, and finally shift my attitude to where I want it to be. This is how it happened today.

At first I just notice the feeling. I’m sad. I try to ignore so I can continue answering some emails. Dealing with practical reality. But the feeling sticks and even grows a bit. I begin to realize that I should probably engage with it but I keep busying myself with other matters. At this point it seems a bit indulgent to spend time exploring a feeling. But I know from experience that if I don’t, it will both limit my ability to be present as a good father and husband when I get home, and it will spill into my emails and other communication and leave others with a feeling of the same sadness or some other strange feeling.

Finally I get started. Blank page. Just drawing the feeling. Here’s what comes out:

Excellent! I have taken the first little step and the questions come automatically after. Why am I feeling this? What is this feeling in my gut?

The questions I move to the next page where I schematically map my thoughts. I connect and explore further. Step by step. I let the page unfold in front of my eyes. A question triggering another question. Until it looks like this:

It’s clear to me that some of these questions are just mental loops that lead nowhere. For example: “I feel sad” — ”I don’t want to feel sad” — ”can I reject this feeling?” — ”where is it coming from?” And back to the beginning. Here I am a victim of a feeling and I don’t know if I can even ignore it.

But there is another question: “what triggered it?” Which allows me to own the feeling and simply look for triggers. I underline this question for later.

I also underline two other questions: “how do I want to feel?” And “what can I learn from this?” Since each of them have a productive/generative perspective. Moving on.

I chart a graph of my emotional experience at work:

I notice a pattern that I generally feel something between “great” and “awesome” but I have these sharp dips where I suddenly want to quit on the spot and call a friend to ask for a job. I also notice that I am generally good at getting myself up again. I don’t stay down for long. But I’m still curious what events take place just before the dip. The triggers.

So I make a map of triggers:

It’s quotes and concepts and sometimes even people. I don’t blame them. They are just people. The fact that they trigger me doesn’t make them bad people — it’s my feeling and my response. But I need to acknowledge the triggers nonetheless, in order to investigate further.

Update: in the first version of this post I had included the actual first names or initials of some people. I have now spoken to them and I can understand that despite my disclaimers it doesn’t feel good to be exhibited in this context. I have now updated the images with retouched versions where the names are removed. I am sorry for the pain I have caused by my negligence in this matter. I wish I would have done it differently.

Then I try to cheat a bit. I jump straight to visualizing myself empowered again, imagining that I can cause a shift in a trajectory through mental force.

But I know I’m not done exploring yet. This visual is too generic or just too early in the process. I need to explore the triggers and feelings further. So I look at the trigger map again and realize that most of them trigger very little. However the topic of one our our internal projects does yield an emotional response so I let my hand write it out:

Update: I have removed a few actual names of projects and people from the text above.

I discover that I need to let go of my own over-confidence. Climb down from my tower. My conclusion is that there is practice here too. Excellent. Move on.

The other feeling relates to being an adult and wanting to play:

I find a sense of clarity here as well. I look over the triggers again but none of them trigger anything anymore. They can safely be ignored at least for the rest of the day.

Now I’m ready to shift my feeling. I return to the list of feelings I want to have, from page two, and write them out.

Then I find specific memories that relate to each feeling and activate these one after the other. Voila!

I am strong. I am awesome. Excited. Creative. Motivated and productive.

I’m curious: does this make any sense to you? Does it seem like something you could do too? Why? Why not? Could it be something you could learn? Would love to hear your thoughts here or on Twitter.

Mathias Jakobsen is a Learning Designer at Hyper Island and the creator of Think Clearly — a newsletter that helps you get unstuck. He loves notebooks, bakes bread and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son and daughter