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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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.

Identity diversification

When you have figured out what your goal is, you should spend all your energy on reaching that goal, right? Yes and No. You should always strive to move towards it, but activities that may not seem to move you closer in the short run, may keep you from stumbling and rolling backwards in the long run. Let me explain.

If your goal is to travel around the world, you of course need some money, but what you do not need is to buy a house or get a full time job, apart from the latter being a means to get your money. You probably do not need to look for a steady relationship, unless you plan on bringing him/her along or loves to dilute all your experiences with a constant longing for your significant other and counting down the days until you are reunited.

If your goal on the other hand is to start a company or try to reach a certain position within your current one, then traveling the world for half a year may certainly not bring you any closer to that goal. A significant other may keep you sane at times, but may also limit your drive or ”hunting instinct.”

But let’s stay with the last example where you strive to build a company – that is what I can most easily relate to at the moment.

You could argue that in order to be successful you need to spend all your waking hours working on your idea. This is the goal you want to achieve – so more time and energy invested must equal more achieved – well not always. If you are building a pyramid and laying bricks, then yes – the more bricks you lay each day, the closer you will get to completion. But most endeavors are not that straight forward. Must are somewhat one step forward – then two back, two steps in the other direction – then one back etc. etc. This is where identity diversification comes into play.

If you derive all your happiness and feeling of achievement from one source, you could potentially dig yourself into a very deep hole, at times where your company are struggling. If you have given up all your leisure activities in order to spend 16 hours a day on your start-up, then you are signing up for some very dark days when things go bad – coupled with having getting rid of all your non-startup friends, then you can really sit in a depressing circle with similar friends all discussing how bad and hard you feel.

What you should do on the other hand is not only be Mr. Startup, but also be Mr. Fitness, Ms. Dancer, or whatever you may have of interests. These may seem like distractions when everything go according to plan, but once things start to get hard and against the plan they can keep you somewhat sane.

Let’s say you have had a very bad day because all the sales you tried this day failed, you feel somewhat down but still go out the door to join the weekly swim-session and your mates there. You are not that much in the mood for talking, because of this burning feeling inside of failure. Then comes the timing of your 50 meter crawl. You just propel all your anger out in each stroke and low and behold you end up beating your lifetime best, which you have tried to do all year. Now this is a good day! What before looked to be a bad day ends up being a good one. Your business-ego may have taken a beating, but as your swimming is completely un-related it does not in anyway dilute the awesome feeling of reaching a personal best.

The above could have been anything from you being a good spouse, sprinter, weightlifter or whatever. Then entire point is to not derive all your sense of worth from one source.

I nearly wrote of my gymnastics, because the cost would take a few weeks of cash away in a time where we were running on empty in my start-up and had no direct source for future income. But as I thought about it, it just made me so sad to think of all the good times and people I would miss by saying no to gymnastics. I luckily came to the conclusion that a happy and sane version of myself would out-work and out-smart a slightly depressed version of me, by way more than what I would save by saying no. The people I am around during gymnastics is by no means going to help my company – but that is somehow part of the point. It makes me relax and think of other things which makes me way more productive when I return.

Your main priority, whether you are a CEO, a father or an athlete is keeping yourself sane and feeling great – once you do that, you can perform at your best.

You evolve – so do your goals

Goals – you have got to have goals – right!? Especially in this century of self-improvement. You can’t be drifting along figuring out what to do as you go along.

I do not think goals are the big solution to all your problems or that they are the universal solution to all your problems – but a few years ago I went from no real goals to set some rather clear goals and this will be about how they have sort of evolved.

Probably 4-5 years ago I started altering my way of life in a direction I had been absolutely sure I was not going in. I had told both myself and others that I was absolutely comfortable working a good paying job without to many obligations in order to earn money I could spend in my spare time. In other words work 8 hours a day 5 times a week to enable myself to do pretty much what I wanted in my spare time.

I worked as a computer programmer at a very large company, had done so for quite a few years and made enough money, to not really worry about normal living. My day job allowed me to do the things I wanted in my spare time – and I felt great about it. Or I did not love my job, I just saw it as a means to and end. I had no aspirations to end up becoming a leader or anything that would give me more responsibility. And further more I regularly said that I had absolutely no plan on doing anything that would take away my spare time, leave me with a lot of responsibility or long days at work. I held this belief until somewhere in my mid-twenties.

Trying to look back, I am not really sure what lead me in the opposite direction. It might be a quite hard break-up with a girl that led me down a trail of self-improvement or maybe its a natural part of what, if I remember correctly is named as the ”odyssey age”. Nevertheless I started a journey that led me just about a totally 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

I started thinking about goals for the future – not as goals for my training – but for what I wanted to do with my life. I got quite inspired by stoicism, read numerous self help books and finally had what I scribbled down on a piece of paper as my goals for the next 5 years. I had originally 3 goals written on that piece of paper I always carried around with me. Within a year or two is was down to 2 goals.

I removed ”Location Independent” from my goal card. It was probably somewhat spawned from reading The 4-Hour Workweek, and resonated well with me in the beginning. I always loved traveling and still do. But what came to my realization was that I may have a fun time living in Burma, but if all my best friends and family are in back in Denmark, then I will not be happy. I have a huge network of friends from almost all periods of my life and they just meant to much for me to have location independence as a definite goal. Money and freedom to travel – YES. Location independence – not really needed.

The last two goals are totally materialistic. One is an amount I have set as a goal for yearly income and the other is a ”specific object” that I really want to try and own. But come very lately these goals were somewhat moved to the side or at least pushed down.

For the last almost 3 years I have worked on a startup together with my dad. We have developed some software that can give a totally unique overview of the combined effects of any number of drugs. The last 2 years have been full time and so far we are bootstrapped and working hard.

As you can probably imagine this is like the total opposite of what I wanted earlier in life. It is just about exactly what I said I would never want – and now I love it. The prospects are rather promising and would totally enable the fulfillment of the two goals I had left on my goal card. So no need to change them.

But then recently I had to or at least chose to do an consulting assignment to secure a little more capital for our company. No apparent diverging away from my goal on that part – but what surprised me a little, was the hourly wage they were willing to pay for my time. If I totally focused on my two goals – I could obtain them by working as a consultant – and probably with more certainty than working on my startup.

This could be a sign that I needed to reconsider my involvement in the startup – because is it really the best way to reach my goals – OR – are have my goals really evolved so much that they need to be changed once again.

Luckily for me, it is quite easy to answer. I am so certain that I want to spend all my energy and money on trying to succeed with my startup. It needs to be on the top of my goal-card. The other two goals still apply, but they are of less importance than successfully building a company from the ground up – and a company that will have a huge impact on a lot of peoples lives once successful. I therefore had a quite obvious reason to change my goals.

But everyone changes, and the goals you had yesterday may not be the most important goals for you today. Changing your goals is not giving up – you need to be very true to yourself about what your top priorities are and then move towards them. As Neil Gaiman said in his amazing commencement speech(which if you have not seen – you should!) Keep moving towards your mountain – measure your decisions up against whether they move you closer to that mountain.

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.

To-Do’s and Did-Do’s

Like probably a lot of you, I keep looking for tips and systems on how to increase my productivity. Some of them help, some are too complicated to be operational in a just mildly changing environment and others are downright foolish.

I have successfully incorporated a few, which helped me get more of the important things done. Tips like write the most important task of the day on a piece of paper, the one task that at the end of the day, will make you feel like you have accomplished a good days work – and then give this your full attention until it is finished. And as a lot of you know, these are often characterized by being the tasks we feel the most uncomfortable about.

But what I personally found missing from a lot of these systems, was the ever changing environment of running a start-up. If I kept the notes and looked at them by the end of the week, I would always end of thinking – was that all I accomplished during the week? How could I have spent so many hours on those?

Of course I hadn’t spent all my time on those tasks that were written down. I had been programming/writing/preparing something, that at the time was the most important task, but while doing so; something more important had come up; I had figured that this new feature led to a re-think and re-design of some existing components; or something of the like. I hadn’t been procrastinating or unproductive, the things I had on my to-do list at the start of the week just did not cover all the work they had brought me during the execution.

What I needed was a way to track not only what I wanted or needed to do, but also what I actually ended up doing.

The reason why this is important – at least for my part – is that when working on something like a start-up, writing a book or anything where the gratification(launch, release, etc.) is quite far into the horizon, you won’t receive any pads on the back or acknowledgements during everyday work. This means that your biggest critic – yourself – has to have a way of seeing results along the way, for it to get of your back and praise you for whatever small improvements you have made.

This is where TO-DO’s and DID-DO’s come into play. They are actually quite simple, as most of you probably already figured out, the basic premise, but I will nevertheless share my way of organizing them.

I personally use Evernote to store these and therefore the following screenshots will be from there. I have basically created a note which I call “Week template” – this is almost static. Almost in the sense, that if I have long-running tasks that are not top-priority, they can make their way to this template. This template is then each week copied and used to fill out the week. And example could be as follows:
Skærmbillede 2014-03-23 kl. 20.37.42

What I then do is each week, I make a rough sketch of what I want to accomplish, add those tasks to that week and I am ready to go. Then each day I can add things that spawned from doing other tasks, so that everything I do ends up being on that list as seen below:

Skærmbillede 2014-03-23 kl. 20.41.26This enables me to keep track of not only what I have to do, but also what I DID do, which for me makes work much more satisfying. The level of detail in these are totally up to you – just keep in mind that it should be operational and keep your productivity high – if you end up breaking each tasks into to small pieces, just to get more items checked, then you are certainly doing it wrong.

 

If you lack motivation and don’t feel like you are getting anything done, then try this system. The self rewarding effect of seeing how much you accomplished should not be underestimated!