Flow Traps Revisited

On a recent Friday night, I installed a video game on my computer: Civilization 5. I don’t play “hardcore” (that is: long, complex, time-consuming) video games much anymore. Really, barely ever. The last time I did before this was probably nearly three years ago. But there was a time when I played them regularly and really enjoyed them.

In any case. I started a game at 6pm. I then played. And played and played for 12 hours. At 6am I finally went to sleep for the night, such as it was. I’ll spare you the digression into how out of character not going to sleep until 6am was. The point is just that this is quite different than something I normally do, and not something I was glad to have done. But I now see I was caught in a perfectly tuned flow trap.

What’s a flow trap? Well I first wrote about it some years ago, but on rereading the piece does too much bloviating and too little explaining. A flow trap is basically a cycle that locks you into the state of “flow” and then keeps you locked in despite the fact that it’s not a particularly useful place to be or thing to be doing. It’s a trap in the sense that the satisfaction of the feeling of “flow” stops you from breaking out and doing other better things. (For me, that list included but wasn’t limited to: folding the laundry, doing the dishes, reading a book, going to sleep.)

The state of flow was first described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Essentially, he uses the term to describe that “peak” experience you’ve probably had sometimes and may have a lot. It’s this mid-point between a task you’re challenged by and one you can easily accomplish that’s optimal for your continued good performance and willingness to keep performing. If the challenge before you is too familiar, accomplishable, and easy — doing the dishes — it’s likely to bore you rather than fulfill you. If it’s so hard that you struggle to perceive that you’re making any progress or having any effect — running a marathon, for most — you’ll never begin or quit too soon.

There’s a lot of good in flow. If you manage to find a way that your flow states correspond directly with things that our world rewards — good athletic performance is the common example, some people flow when conversing with acquaintances and so excel at sales, I sometimes flow while getting paid to write software — the experience is a clear win-win. You’re having so much fun you lose track of time, your employer is happy that you’re performing well.

The importance of the concept of “flow traps” is the fact that flowing effortless experiences are not so clearly a match with many things which are ipso facto valuable and good. I’ve encountered more than a few people who conflate “flow” with peak performance, and it can correspond, as we just outlined. But frequently flow experiences correspond with little or no substantial value. Video games to me are the clearest example, but hardly the only one.

Video games are a fun diversion. Though they today lack the cultural esteem of movies, reading, or even television, I don’t doubt that some of them are artful and perfectly sound ways to wile away a few hours pleasantly. But one of the things that I think is pernicious about video games is that because they’re so immersive, it’s much easier to “lose yourself” in their flow and waste not just hours but weeks and months of time accomplishing nothing in the concrete world we all share.

In my last article on this topic, I mentioned I’m a pretty good programmer, and I could optimize my life around getting into programming flow states and never leaving. That could probably be fairly well-paid if I structured it right. But — and this is important — I don’t think my best self is involved in programming things. I think I’m at my best when I push a little out of that comfort zone and try new things that feel awkward and hard and miles-from-flowing.

You should definitely know what “flow” is. You should definitely enjoy the experience of egoless ease that comes with it. But you must also make sure that when you experience such things, it’s because they’re really valuable to you, not simply because they are pleasant ways to waste time.


Doing The Work

To get a thing accomplished, you show up and do the work. That’s all you can do, really. Other things that aren’t “the work” don’t get the thing accomplished. And what happens as a result of your trying to do “the work”: that’s also not really your choice.

You just show up and do “the work”.

Byron Katie, though I’m only faintly acquainted with her, seems to be the source of “the work” as a unit of thought for me. For her, “The Work” means:

The Work is a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. It’s a way to understand what’s hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity.

I don’t specifically mean that, but I do think she’s onto something substantial. The insubstantiality of thoughts — which is one of the core messages of Katie’s efforts — is something I recently wrote about.

But whatever you count “the work” as — learning to love, building the cathedral, destroying the system you abhor — you’ve got to do it. Even when you don’t really feel like it. Even when you’d really rather just… not.

You’ve got to show up and do the work. The rest is out of your hands.


“The Space to Be a Person,” or Why You Need Slack Time

Call it idleness, slack, non-action, pausing, or just plain “doing nothing.” Whatever you call it, too frequently today it is skipped, degraded, and seen as a less than noble use of time. The United States of America — where I was born and have lived all my life — is especially known for its “never slow down” mentality.

I mentioned a few weeks ago in my annual review that I’d spent a long period of the summer suffering at the hands of (self-imposed) outrageous work requirements. And during that period, when I was taking ever less slack time and ever more time ostensibly working, I started to find myself more frustrated, frustrating, and most of all just wishing I had some time. “The space to be a person” was the phrase that echoed through my mind for months .

What “the space to be a person” meant to me then, and still does, isn’t about physical space — though that matters too — but about the sense of space afforded by time when there are no expectations of you and no tasks you’re supposed to be doing. In that kind of space, you really can just be. That’s one of those things that people frequently regard as new-agey and very “woo-woo,” or just simply vapid. But the difference between doing something and simply being is undeniable if you pause to consider it.

When you’re just being, you’re (forced to be) in contact with what’s actually going on. You’re made to feel that you’re restless or bored or whatever. You’re also, with that space, hopefully able to take some time to get intimate with that feeling and learn (or at least experiment with) how you can be and work with it effectively. And that stuff matters.

What’s more, slack time is time when you can pick up a task that hasn’t been done but should have been. A time when you can finish off that thing you were hoping to do earlier, or work ahead on that thing you anticipate being a time-crunch coming down the pike. But the important thing about slack time is that  you don’t have to do any of those things. It is fundamentally this allowance and possibility for a whole array of different tasks, doings, and non-doings that makes slack time so valuable.

When your time and life is scheduled end-to-end and you’re just barely able to do in a day or a month all the things that you have to have accomplished in that period, you feel like you don’t have space to breathe. And any small setback can easily accrete into a catastrophe that’ll throw everything else out of alignment.

Slack time is, in many ways, the ultimate wealth. Slaves never had it, because while they had periods where they weren’t working they weren’t free to do whatever they wanted with that time. And today, people forced by economic conditions to work two full-times jobs surely know better than most of the softer middle class the value of slack time. Throw in a houseful of kids and, well, this 20-something bachelor can’t even imagine.

But to the extent you can claim it, I really think you must build some slack time into your life. Hopefully regularly and in volumes high enough to really allow you to feel into it. An hour a day isn’t bad, but a few days of nothing per week is really the sweet spot. It lets you be yourself better, fulfill your responsibilities with more ease, and really be in contact with what your life is actually like.


It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.


The Meaning of Meetings and Metawork

A bit of a neologism, I wondered if I should use the hyphenated “meta-work” instead. To explain: metawork is simply work about work. That is: rather than making widgets, metawork consists of conversations about making widgets.

Meetings are the quintessential form of group metawork. And the popular disdain for meetings among white collar workers is mostly due to the worst qualities of metawork. Metawork, because it is not the work that you really are tasked with, can just amount to a massive and frustrating distraction. A time-suck that produces nothing but lets people feel like they’re really being productive and getting things done. After all, a worker’s calendar wouldn’t have been jam-packed for weeks if he weren’t a vital person in the company.

Before we bash it too hard, a few words in defense of meetings and metawork. Meeting are great for a number of reasons: they allow everyone to be simultaneously available to each other. This means that decisions that would have to be had in a series of small and repetitive conversations can happen quickly. This also means that the gaps in different people’s understandings of their goals and tasks can be seen and resolved much more smoothly. Meeting are great for strategic thinking and aligning of a group in a single direction. This is necessary are valuable metawork.

But meetings don’t typically move a group very far in a given direction. That’s what the real work is for. And that is the essential tension of metawork. On the one hand, it has a lot of vital functions. On the other, it’s probably not actually doing anything that’s specifically impacting the organization’s real goals. And this tension is inherent, impossible to rectify.

An organization that does no metawork loses its way, continuing to do what it’s always done because it never bothers to find any new insights. An organization that does too much metawork doesn’t accomplish its core mission because it never really does any work. It’s so diverted by discussion of how much its mission matters and how clearly it has explored the details that it forgets that it has to work to get there.

So far I’ve only talked about metawork at the organizational level, because that’s where it’s obvious. But it’s just as relevant, if not more so, in your personal life. You need to do some metawork — organization, perspective-taking (what am I doing with my life?), etc — but you can easily convince yourself that it is more necessary and valuable than it is, and excuse yourself from having to do the real things you need to to have an impact on the world.

Especially in my early twenties, I asked incessantly what my goals and purpose in life were. And I rarely if ever got useful or satisfactory answers. And during that time I did shockingly small amounts of productive work that would let me accomplish any purpose in life. I was doing too much metawork.

This is what I now see. Metawork is, in too many cases, a fun, easy, and deceptively-close-in-appearance-to-productivity activity. A certain class of people enjoys the relaxing qualities of meetings and so have far too many of them.

Metawork’s a useful and necessary tool. But it must be kept in check and seen for what it is. Because you can never get rid of it, you just need to come to it with insight. Know when you’re doing the work, know when you’re doing metawork. Reflect on the balance. And when it seems that the split is off the mark, correct it. That’s the best you can really do.


Premature Optimizations and the Tool Distraction

I do a lot of computer programming. More than that, I’ve made it my primary task of the last few years to learn as much as I can about it. One of the ideas anyone who spends a lot of time doing this will come across is this quote from Donald Knuth:

Premature optimization is the root of all evil

It may seem a bit hyperbolic, but it holds a real truth. Without diving too deep into programming theory — this is a site about doing life better, not about programming — I’ll just take it as given. It matches well with my experience of programming.

And I think it applies well outside the domain. In programming, optimization means that you have something that works, but you’re going to make it work faster and better. The reason Knuth and many others call this seemingly beneficial process “evil” is that doing this doesn’t provide nearly as much value as it may superficially seem.

We do a similar, but not identical thing with productivity. I call them “tool games”. “Tool games” are a way we spend time on things that seem like they’re beneficial to our goals, but are actually an “evil” in much the way premature code optimization is.

To clarify my meaning, let’s say you want to become a great novel writer. That means that you’ll need some writing tools to use. You start with a pen and paper. And you start a few stories that way, and you get a little fed up with the difficulty of revising in that medium.

So you seek a better way, and you find a computer program that lets you store and retrieve text files. It allows no fancy editing and formatting, but it’ll take your words and save them for later. And unlike your paper, it’ll also let you quickly correct a minor error or add a few lines to the middle of something you wrote without issue. So you start a few stories with this new text program. And then you get a little fed up with the difficulty of making your writing easy to share with your friends.

So you look around for a while and your find a different computer program that lets your take your words that it’s storing for you and makes it really easy to put them in an email or print them out to hand off. And you’re really satisfied that you’ve now solved this sharing problem, so you start to write a few stories this way.

I’ll stop this cycle, because you should by now understand what I mean by “tool games”. These are the premature optimizations of the way you actually do things in your life. You’ll notice that in my telling of your journey through three different kinds writing tools, there was never anything about writing, finishing a story, figuring out its more intricate plot points, or understanding what really makes good novels so compelling.

We’re premature optimizers in many areas of our life. When faced with a choice between learning how to do something we already do a tiny bit better and learning how to do something hard, we’ll almost always choose the first. It’s easy and alluring to think that the reason you’re not publishing great stories in great books is that you just haven’t found the right set of tools to let you do that.

But the tools are the most superficial part of almost any work. Want to be a great bike rider? I’ll tell you a secret: you’ll get a lot better riding the dusty old bike in your garage for 50 miles a day that you will by shopping around endlessly to find which of the new shiny $2,000 bikes fits your ideals of bike riding better.

You get better at doing work by doing it. You spend time futzing with your tools or shopping for better ones, and you’ll be really good at futzing and shopping. Neither of which is likely to lead to accomplishing things that are valuable and hard.


The Art of Doing

It’s far too easy to let the worry that you’ll not do it right stop you from doing it at all. As someone who’s spent most of his life avoiding embarrassment at the cost of inaction, I feel rather certain I know what I’m talking about.

Doing is the only way you’ll learn anything. Ten thousand books about how to speak Italian will not stop your first spoken words and sentences from being sputtering conveluted unrecognizable messes. Ten thousand tips about how to write will not make words flow from your fingers pure as a summer rain.

Life exists, mostly, in the doing.

Ten unexecuted million-dollar ideas do not yeild ten million dollars. Fifteen great ideas for books does not make you a prolific author. Twenty great ideas for organizing your life does not organize those junk drawers in your kitchen.

The first thing you learn about doing is that it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s messy. And it’s not always fun. What’s required is a commitment that you’ll make it through the beginning stages until it becomes fun. You’ll keep going through all the hard work that’s required before you’ll get any recognition. Before it’ll start to feel second-nature. Before you’ll realize that maybe you’re overusing the power of repetition to convey your point.

We need more doing and less thinking about doing. And we need more doing without the constant worry that we’re doing it wrong. And most of all, we need fewer people pointing out where someone else is doing it and more people learning for themselves how to do.

It’s easy to watch. And it’s also easy, while watching, to develop opinions about how it’s being done wrong. But sharing those opinions isn’t doing it. And broadcasting mere opinions formed by watching hardly counts as doing it.

I’m no master of doing. I’ve not been doing this for far too long. But I’m begining to realize the value of just doing it. And I really hope to find the time to just do it more frequently.


Flow Traps

One of the more popular psychological ideas in the public sphere is that of “flow.” The idea, originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that we’ll get more done and enjoy it more when we’re given a level of challenge to keep us engaged and exercising a sense of mastery. One shouldn’t have to look very hard at their life to find times when work has been easy, fun, and “flow”ing.

What I struggle to buy into is the rather popular correlate that these flow states are good and worth seeking and preserving. That they make us better at our tasks and thus make us better in life. I’d make no quarrel with the idea that they can do those things, but I’d strongly dissent from the idea that they consistently do those things.

To pick a common example, you’re a programmer. You’re a pretty good programmer, and you’re currently working hard on a project that’s offering opportunities to learn new things from time to time, but generally you’re just enjoying using your tools in slightly different ways than you have in the past. Here flow is clearly a useful thing. When you can get into that groove, you’ll probably be faster and more accurate than you would outside of it. And it feels great too, just being there pounding and creating and getting toward the goal.

But here’s how flow has you trapped: you don’t really want to be  a programmer your whole life. You’d really like to be the kind of person who hires and helps programmers to create projects far bigger and more ambitious than you’d ever manage yourself. You know this, but every day you arrive at work and you just plod until you flow and you stay that way (with a few breaks) until quitting time. You’re never making any progress on this big long-term goal because you’re stuck in a flow trap.

Flow traps aren’t inherently as pernicious as they may sound. (Though they can be: video games, I’m looking at you.) You’re still doing good things while you’re writing code, you’re just not getting any vision of the new vistas of possibility that you think you’d really enjoy. The problem with a flow trap is that it makes you think you can just keep coding your way out of writing so much code, and you can’t. There’s a drastically different skill-set you need if you want to go from the kind of person who writes code well to the kind of person that helps people to write code well.

Real tangible progress in your life, real growth in your skill-set, requires you to step out of the flow and take on things you don’t even have an inkling of how to take on. It requires you to be uncomfortable and for things to be hard. Because that’s where you really learn new things, see new vistas, and gain mastery of the world you’d never thought possible.