The distraction economy kills happiness

DSC_4692_2048LEI’m about halfway through Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and as I said in an recent installment of my weekly blogpost, LFK Thoughtful Weekends it is headed to be one of the most important books I have ever read – and I read quite a few. It is said to be the “classical” work on happiness, yet it in so many ways differs from what I would categorize as “books on happiness”. A lot of those try to pull all kinds of crazy advice over your head in order for you to achieve happiness. This book – Flow – doesn’t do that. It draws upon heavy and clever research on how people feel doing different tasks during the day. A lot of the data gathered has come from people carrying small devices that at random times during the day beeps them, and then asks them to answer questions on how they feel and what they do.

The surprising or unsurprising finding, depending on how deep you already are in this type of research is, that people actually doesn’t feel most happy or fulfilled when relaxing, but actually while they are working or submerged in a task that takes their total attention. This state of mind and being is referred to as “flow”. A state where you lose track of time and being and is just totally submerged in the task at hand.

Speaking from personal experience I can totally agree on the fact that this is one of the most pleasurable states of being. But it is also somewhat paradoxical as although pleasurable as it is, it takes quite a lot of mental effort to reach. In order for an activity to qualify as being able to produce flow, it has to involve some part of skill and be mental challenging to the right amount for you. Meaning that if you get bored doing the activity, then it is not challenging enough. On the other hand if it is to challenging you will look for ways to escape the activity to cut the mental strain.

Reading a book is probably one of the easiest ways to obtain “flow”. If it is a good book and you have placed yourself in an distraction free environment you will probably quite quickly get into a state where you lose track of time and is just totally submerged in the book. Watching television or surfing the internet without purpose is on the other hand not very good flow-activities. While you can get submerged in them, they don’t offer enough challenges or involve enough skill to be fully rewarding. A good movie can leave you with thoughts for days, but they still won’t qualify as flow-activities. That is not to say that you shouldn’t watch movies or television, they are great at creating relief after a full day of good work, but they shouldn’t be your prime sources of happiness.

I won’t go in full detail with how work in a “flow” state creates happiness, for that argument you should pick up the book. But if you can stay with me and for now “buy” the hypothesis that “flow” state creates a sense of happiness, then you can probably follow the title of this blog post; “The distraction economy kills happiness”. Because with billions of dollars poured into one universal goal – grabbing your attention, then you can begin to see why it is so hard to concentrate and reach the sought after state of flow.

Reaching flow is not easy. If it was just a straight fight between a pleasant and easy state on the one hand and an as easy and pleasant state on the other it wouldn’t be that hard a fight. But the odds are very skewed. Not only are billions of dollars being poured into the advertising industry, social media etc. they also offer a quick fix of dopamine that feels good – for about half a second, then you need the next one. But getting into flow and reaping the benefits of this awesome feeling takes hard work. You have to do something that is adequately challenging for a sometimes long period of time, before you can come anywhere close to this pleasant feeling, so why not just stay with the quick fixes of dopamine?

Because in flow state you really live. You live on your terms, creating value for yourself and perhaps even for others. We are born with this internal paradox where almost all of us wants to relax more, but once we do nothing we start to feel worse and perhaps even inadequate. Doing can be anything from researching your bloodline, building scale models of old planes or finding cures for rare diseases. The important part is doing. And doing focused work on something that we enjoy for long uninterrupted periods of time.

A lot of research points to the fact that we might call an unfocused mind an unhappy mind. The more time you can spend in flow the happier and more fulfilling the life you seem to live. The good news here is that you can almost turn any activity into flow activity. What matters is that it challenges you, and that you find it worthwhile. What it leads to and whether you only do it for your own sake does not matter.

Focus your mind and get to work.

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Strength training the ultimate supplement for entrepreneurs

There are many views on how you should live and prioritize your life as an entrepreneur. Some find the only way is to dedicate 25 hours of your day towards your company or goal. If you aren’t working all hours of the day, then maybe your competitors are and they are getting ahead. Eating, sleeping, being able to see the sky – useless – you lazy slob!

While this might work for some, primarily robots, computers and others who has the luxury of not being alive, it’s probably not the best way forward most of the time. There can be times where you need to do this because of tight deadlines and in those cases you should of course be willing to put in the work. But if it is your default state then I’ll try my skills as fortune teller and say that it won’t be for long.

One of the hard things with entrepreneurship is not getting recognition for your work. You can work your ass off for days on end without anything to show the outside world. Or perhaps you do have something to show the outside world, but getting traction can then be hit or miss. In other words your work/reward relationship is very non-linear. Over long periods of time this can be very frustrating. Getting acknowledgement for our work is a very basic and natural urge.

But as I have written before and will elaborate more on in the future you should not derive all your identity from one source. Meaning that if you get all your sense of identity from being an entrepreneur then your mood, sense of worth and general well-being is pretty much tied to the highly unpredictable rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship. You should of course be very proud of your accomplishments but if you are only “The entrepreneur” then you are very one-dimensional and may be more negatively impacted by adversity.

What you need is a way to spend your time that is more linear in terms of work/reward. You could of course always turn to drinking. Generally the more you drink the more drunk you get and the more days in a row you drink the more miserable you feel – all very linear. But perhaps an activity where the work/reward curve goes in the opposite direction will be more appropriate.

There are numerous way to go about this, but my personal recommendation would go towards strength training. You get to work with your body, you get to work with your mind, you get to work with your hands, you get to meet people who are not neck deep in the world of entrepreneurship.

Strength training is very linear in terms of work/reward. You can even put all your knowledge about 80/20 analysis etc. to good use both in terms of the training itself and nutrition. You’ll get a good break from whatever your endeavor is and may even find that during your workout you come up with solutions to problems you haven’t been able to solve or new business ideas.

A side effect of getting stronger and in better shape may even be more successful meetings as you standing more proud and erect before any person, will alter his or her perception of you. This may seem shallow but never underestimate the subtle cues of body language.

In other words the only real downside to strength training is really the time you need to allocate for it. And allocate it you should. Otherwise you’ll be very prone to postpone in the beginning and find ways in which working can be seen as more important. But 1-2 hours 2-3 times a week should be manageable for most – even the most prolific and busy entrepreneurs. It might be the best investment you’ll ever do.

Cleaning up your procrastination

This may come of as a very unconventional tip for breaking procrastination or even hard to believe – I found it that way when I first read it somewhere – but again and again it somehow works for me, so it might work for you.

Even though I keep my productivity in close check and am very much aware of when it starts to drift, I still from time to time find myself struggling with procrastination or trying to fight my way through thick layers of “bran fog”. Sometimes work and creativity just comes easy. Getting in the zone and banging out several hours of creative work just comes as second nature – but then at other times this “zone” just seems to have disappeared altogether.

My usual ques to get into the zone, as for instance the same hour long mix played through earplugs, just do not seem to have any effect. And even the act of sitting down and put on the music is a feat in of itself. As though the body or the head somehow resists putting up the work. This is where this little tip more often than not have helped me tremendously.

Whenever I find myself in this deep hole, walls covered with brain-fog and with a heavy lid of procrastination on top, I clean my shit up.

Quite literally – whenever I end in this situation I will clean up my room/apartment. Whether it being putting everything back to its intended place, cleaning off dust or vacuuming – it just has to look mint again. The reason why this works for me might be that I make these small unconscious notes of where things are not in order or where in the apartment it needs cleaning. They are of themselves not that big of a deal, but they seems to pile up inside my head and at some point they tip over.

You need to clean up at some point anyway and if you are procrastinating you are not getting anything done anyways – so you might as well try cleaning your home.

As U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McCraven says in his commencement speech:

“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed”

And then goes on to say:

“Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made. And a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

The full commencement speech is here if it caught your interest:

Give it a shot – you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Doing what you love, productivity, procrastination and social media

When you follow your dreams and work with what you love and feel really will do an impact, then you’re never hit by procrastination – right? I can’t recall how many times I have been met with that assumption. Hey it must be so awesome to work with what you love, then it probably never feels like work. You won’t ever do something that you don’t like doing or do boring tasks. Ehm – where to start…

I actually on a number of occasions, felt rather ashamed of the fact that; here I was working with what I love, going after a dream and still I found myself getting distracted by all sorts of unimportant rubbish – thereby failing to put in sufficient work on what really matters.

The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.

Procrastination. Oh yes – even though you work with what you love, the long term goal is totally in line with what you are working on, you can still be hit by procrastination. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just need to take steps in the right direction to try and minimize it. I don’t think you can totally avoid it, since it is so deeply rooted in human nature. But if you become aware of signs as to when you’re really procrastinating instead of getting stuff done, then you can take action to move yourself in the right direction.

There are probably very few endeavors or long term goals which you can accomplish without a lot of time spent on things you really would have preferred to be without. Especially when you are starting from scratch. There will be times when the task ahead of you will have you checking e-mail compulsively, getting coffee 4 times in an hour, updating your twitter, facebook and instagram feed all just to look for some distraction that can pull you away from the task at hand. But this is where you can separate yourself from the crowd.

Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.

I recently had a rather bad streak of not really getting anything important accomplished. Just running around trying to look busy. The only thing I could really get my mind to concentrate on was reading. Having realized this, which is kind of the first step, I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a book that before has helped me regain my productivity: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series)

This is a little short book, filled with tips and productivity hacks by 99U. If you have followed them on their website or youtube you will recognize a lot of the people and advice given in the book. It is basically just a lot of short chapters on productivity by some of the most knowing people on the topic. I dare you to read this book without going away with something really useful. Given the short chapters it is a very good go-to book if you just need a short reminder to keep your shit together or you can sit down and read the entire book in a day, without having to be an avid speed-reader.

I have made a lot of notes and will implement them the coming weeks to get me back on track productivity wise. Short term it sure has helped. My guess is that I have got more accomplished in the last two days, that the entire last week…

But I would like to end by sharing a few notes from the book on social media. It is a chapter focusing on all the distractions fighting for our attention. All the social media platforms that makes us feel good short term, but do not bring us any closer to our long term goals. The overall advice is that we set certain times for accessing social media and ask ourselves key questions once we feel drawn towards them outside these slots:

  • Is it necessary to share this? Will it add value to my life and for other people?
  • Can I share this experience later so I can focus on living right now?
  • Am I looking for validation? Is there something I could do to validate myself?
  • Am I avoiding something I need to do instead of adressing why I don’t want to do it?
  • Am I feeling bored? Is there something else I could do to feel more purposeful and engaged in my day?
  • Am I feeling lonely? Have I created opportunities for meaningful connection in my day?
  • Am I afraid of missing out? Is the gratification of giving in to that fear worth missing out on what’s in front of me?
  • Am I overwhelming myself, trying to catch up? Can I let go of yesterdays conversation and join today’s instead?
  • Can I use this time to simply be instead of looking for something to do to fill it?
  • Do I just want to have mindless fun for a while?

All are valid question, and all can be answered with a valid yes – but the mere awareness might keep you grinding at what you’re trying to avoid, instead of giving in to a quick fix.

As said earlier, this book is filled with good little productivity hacks, focusing on anything from energy to your surroundings. It is a very good book both for reading in entirety as well as browsing a few chapters every once in a while.