How to Overcome 'Negativity Bias' to Focus on the Task at Hand
Does this sound familiar? You’re feeling a bit uneasy—say, a tightness in your chest or a rumbling in your stomach. You search your mind for the cause, and you think of something unsettling that happened in the office yesterday, a difficult conversation you need to have or a deadline you’re facing on a project. Before you know it, worries are mounting in your mind, one feeding on the next.
It’s a phenomenon called 'negativity bias.' “Over and over,” Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, says, “the mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly and persistently than to equivalent good things.” Or as Roy Baumeister, a fellow psychologist, puts it, “It’s evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.”
True enough, if there’s a lion chasing you. Not so true sitting at your desk trying to work in a clear, focused way, which was precisely my goal on the recent morning that a succession of negative thoughts began to multiply in my mind.
Rather than follow their lead, I decided to interrupt my snowballing reverie. Saccharine as it may sound, I began to write down everything I was feeling grateful for in that moment. I got on a roll, and after just a couple of minutes, I was not only feeling remarkably better, but also far more able to concentrate on the task at hand.
It’s a simple concept: we construct our internal reality—our experience of the world—in large part by where we put our attention. More often than we recognize, we can make that choice consciously and intentionally. Doing so influences not just how we feel, but also how we perform, individually and collaboratively. It turns out that cultivating positive emotions such as joy, contentment, interest, pride and love pays huge dividends.
Norman Vincent Peale published the The Power of Positive Thinking more than 60 years ago. More recent is the scientific evidence for how much better the brain and body operate when we’re feeling good, and what the specific costs are when we’re not.
“Positive emotions broaden [our] scope of attention, cognition and action, and build physical, intellectual and social resources,” says Barbara Fredrickson, a leading happiness researcher at the University of North Carolina. Mario Losada, a researcher, studied some 60 business teams and found that the ratio of positive to negative comments in the highest performing teams was 5.6 to 1. In medium performing teams it was 1.9 to 1 and in low performing teams it was .36 to 1, meaning three negative comments for every positive one.
“We need to have teams within organizations that are able to tap into the liberating and creative power of positivity,” Mr. Losada has written. The notion is not to become an uncritical Pollyanna—but instead to practice “realistic optimism.” That means telling yourself the most hopeful and empowering story possible about any given situation without denying or minimizing the facts.
Learning to put your attention where it serves you best requires the same sort of deliberate practice necessary to build any new skill. The problem is that we grow up in a world that doesn’t value the training of attention or the capacity to cultivate specific emotions.
A good starting place is simple self-awareness, because you can’t change what you don’t notice. For example, how are you feeling right now, in this moment? Start checking in with yourself several times a day—especially when you’re under pressure. If there are negative feelings gnawing at you, do you know the cause, and is there anything you could do right away to solve the problem?
If it’s just a negativity bias kicking in, try the exercise that worked so well for me. Get a piece of paper and spend two or three of minutes writing down anything you’re especially grateful for in that moment. See what effect it has on how you’re feeling.
If you’re a manager or a leader, you carry an extra responsibility. By virtue of your authority, your emotions are disproportionately influential. When you’re feeling worried, frustrated or angry, the people around you are going to pick it up—not least because they’ll be wondering whether they’re the cause. Is there someone on your team who is especially triggering you lately? Take a moment to think about the quality you most appreciate in that person—to remember what it was that drew you to that person in the first place.
Here’s the paradox: The more you’re able to move your attention to what makes you feel good, the more capacity you’ll have to manage whatever was making you feel bad in the first place. Emotions are contagious, for better or worse. It’s your choice.
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