There are two contrasting modes of operation that are commonly cited when talking about the brain.
Colloquially, these are sometimes called the reptilian and mammalian brains. Jonathan Haidt calls these the elephant and the rider in The Happiness Hypothesis. Daniel Kahneman calls these System 1 and System 2 in Thinking, Fast and Slow. In How to Have a Good Day, Caroline Webb provides two perspectives on these modes: one set she calls the automatic and deliberate systems, and the other she calls the defend and discover axes. And in Fierce Intimacy, Terry Real describes these as the adaptive child and the functional adult.
In the context of Getting Things Done (GTD), we can think of these as stressed and relaxed.
When we are operating in a stressed mode:
- Our focus is on addressing threats.
- We make quick choices automatically based on intuition and impulses.
- Our emotions dictate our behaviours.
When we are operating in a relaxed mode:
- We are open to experiencing and learning new things.
- We make conscious, deliberate choices.
- Our emotions inform our behaviours.
Our stressed mode is more influential than our relaxed mode. This means that when the stressed mode is activated, it takes the controls from the relaxed mode.
One may attempt to explain this using evolutionary theory. Suppose you’re calming crossing the street, when all of a sudden you realize that there’s a speeding car coming right at you. Are you more likely to survive if you stay in relaxed mode where you make a slow, conscious, deliberate choice about what to do? Or are you more likely to survive if your stressed mode suddenly takes over and makes a quick, automatic choice using your intuition and impulses to jump out of the way?
We face relatively fewer threats to our survival today than we did in the distant past. But evolution is a slow process. For most of our history, we have benefitted from using our stressed mode to respond to threats. As a result, we still default to stressed mode when we experience a threat today, even if that threat is simply having unfinished work at the end of the day.