Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” – David Hume

Our action lists are often an emotional hodgepodge of different projects and action items.

Some are must do. Some are might do.

Some are need to do, but don’t want to do.

Some are need to do and want to do.

Some are on the list because it’s supposed to be there but I don’t really want to do it.

Some are on my To-Do list because I don’t know where else to put it for now.

And so on.

When people share their action lists with me, they often just see tasks, but I hear an emotional orchestra: hope, fear, dread, joy, excitement, overwhelm, confidence, shame, and love. In reality, that orchestra is providing the rhythm and mood for the top-level cognitive melody that shows up as words on paper or screen.

I often feel like the conversations about productivity completely overlook the emotional orchestra that’s doing the driving. At some level, we all know it’s there, but given that we prefer the social level of communication that avoids revealing what’s going on inside, we don’t address it. Not with our colleagues. Not with our partners. Not with our friends.

Not with ourselves.

To be honest, I had a completely different idea of where this reflection on productivity was going to go. I was going to write about strategies for eliminating things from your To-Do list so that you can focus on what matters. To eliminate items from the list, though, I’d have to talk about the reasons why things that shouldn’t be on the list are actually on the list in the first place.

But those reasons aren’t really reasons. They’re emotions. A beautiful, cacophonous, dissonant, and complex orchestra of them. An orchestra that is much like the air in front of our face – because our eyes don’t see the air, we forget that it’s there.

So, rather than jumping to the cognitive conversation about elimination, I’d rather just have us practice noticing and listening to the emotional orchestra. Let’s acknowledge that beating hearts are more powerful than thinking heads. Our heads may get us what we want and need, but our hearts are what set the agenda.

Here a few things to listen for as you look at your action lists:

  • Which items sound clear notes of joy, hope, love, excitement, and confidence when you consider them?
  • Which items sound the dissonant notes of dread, fear, shame, and overwhelm when you consider them?
  • Which items have both?

Sometimes we’re aware of the emotional orchestra being played and other times it’s below our conscious level of thinking, but, nonetheless, emotion drives action. 

Make listening your next action and see how it informs you about the action after that.

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