“How are you?”
“Great! Busy. Really good, though.”
“Oh, you know. Tired.”
“Not so well.”
“Fine, fine, how are you?”
We ask each other how we are, how we’re doing, sometimes how we’re “holding up.” When someone asks it in a formal, professional context, it means little more than “hello.” When our friends ask, they usually want to know a bit more, if not every single detail of recent lives. Weirdly, I suspect most of us aren’t in the habit of asking it of ourselves. We question extreme emotions, maybe—“why did that garden-variety comment troll make me so angry?”—but we mostly don’t have a culture of monitoring our well-being in any disciplined way.
This despite the fact that we know, thanks to scads of well-designed and -documented behavioral studies, that the many little, boring ways in which we’re “good” or “great” or “tired” or “fine” affect everything else we do: our judgment, our situational intelligence, our creative ability to synthesize, our emotional resilience.
I developed habits of checking in—of trying to regularly, honestly assess how I am—as a way to deal with being naturally twitchy. My hunger signals don’t keep up with my metabolism, and if I don’t have set reminders to eat every few hours, I get spacier and spacier till I’m useless. Sometime in my 20s, I finally figured out that I could work around the problem by adding checkpoints to my day: Do I have a headache or feel dizzy? Am I having trouble concentrating? Am I writing overlong emails?
That simple idea has gradually evolved into something more central as I’ve observed the differences in my interactions with colleagues who were “inexplicably” cross after a night of insomnia or “mysteriously” unable to make decisions when they skipped lunch. It’s not just me, it turns out—we all have bodies and they mess with us constantly. And it’s not just the physical stuff. Everything we experience affects our ability to focus, do our work, and react reasonably, whether we’ve been arguing with a family member or just refreshing Twitter too much.
So before starting a work session or going into a meeting or making a complex decision, I’ve been trying to check in. What’s going on in there, physically and mentally and emotionally? Is any of it something I can improve by eating a banana, or spending ten minutes reading, or taking a walk? It’s basic stuff, but helps—and it forces me to admit that just as I’m sometimes irritable only because allergies are making my head feel like a bag of bees, the same thing is true of everyone else, too.
How are you?