Building Paradise

Paradise is exactly like where you are right now… only much, much better.

– Laurie Anderson

I was recently made aware of Laurie Anderson by Nick Offerman’s excellent book Gumption. The above quote, from her song Language is a Virus was a revelation to me. As you know, NC, I often struggle with an understanding of what I ought to be doing with the hours of my day that aren’t spoken for by my employer. We’ve talked before about what to do in your thirties, foundational habits, and building routines. But until now, I had treated each of those things as an end in itself, or at the most as a means towards that vague goal of “self improvement” that I suppose many of us aspire to.

What I had failed to realize, until Laurie’s words reached my ears (and resonated with similar previous sentiments by Leslie Bricusse and Mahatma Gandhi) was that in taking each of those actions, I am in fact building paradise. One right here on Earth in my very own life. Every step I take, habit I build, or goal I accomplish is another brick I’ve laid on my own walled enclosure (incidentally, the original etymology of the word paradise).

And of course the paradicial endeavour need not be limited to my hobbies, evenings, and weekends. The labor of my life should, ideally, somehow bridge the gap between the world as it is and the world as I’d like it to be. Perhaps I am in a privileged place to have the opportunity to choose such work, but alternatively, perhaps it’s also a matter of perspective. In any given day, how can I approach my work to better bridge that gap?

I acknowledge that there are limitations on what can be achieved, and I don’t insist that we leap the chasm in one or even a few days. After a day of work, I often find myself physically and mentally drained, with no motivation to push hard on a Big Endeavour. The insight for me, though, is that even within the confines of my energy, motivation, and opportunities, there is usually some small step I can take to step closer to Eden. Perhaps it’s simply that I am clean and relaxed in paradise and so a shower should be the next step on my docket. Or perhaps I’m socially fulfilled and so I should call a friend to play video games with.

Indeed, I expect I will never bridge the gap between this world and my ideal, but it pleases me to try. To putter in my proverbial enclosure, laying bricks until I can invite those I care about in and declare, to echo Mr. Wonka, “if you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it”.

So, what do you think, friend? Am I late to the party in discovering this obvious truth, that of course taking steps towards an ideal life is tautologically equivalent to self-improvement? Or is there some nugget of insight in realizing that these small steps and sometimes arbitrary goals we set up for ourselves are in fact our ways of bringing the ideal into the world?

Introduce Randomness

How to evaluate decisions is a good question, NT. As you say, to decide between two things it helps to have a common standard to compare them to. You use time, which is a great system. When I was young, I used an aspirational purchase I liked to make: magic cards. Purchases could be conceptualized in terms of how many packs of magic cards it was equivalent to. That number was always far more visceral for me than an abstract number of dollars, as I think time is for you, and so it made the decision more tangible.

A limitation I’ve found with time is that I find value in doing things myself. I could spend money to have someone paint my house, for example, but I like doing it myself. I learn a new skill and I find more satisfaction in a job well done then just seeing someone else do it for me. That particularly applies when it is something I haven’t done before, or might not feel comfortable doing. For that reason, sometimes I find it useful not to follow my analysis–whether based on time or magic cards–too closely.

Explore vs. Exploit – The Case for Randomness

When I’m faced with a few options, I often do try to find a common baseline to make the comparison. But I also try to introduce some randomness. If it’s something I haven’t done before, maybe I do it even if it seems like the worse option, so I can learn if it’s for me. If doing it will teach me a new skill, that might add a few points too. 

When I get invited to attend an event, for example, I try to err on the side of accepting. They have a cost in time, but there is always a stimulating element of randomness because I’m forced out of my routine and to talk and interact with new people. Sometimes the event is good, sometimes it is bad, but I usually learn something, especially if it isn’t the kind of event I would normally attend. 

Your advice, to include the non-quantifiable, seek asymmetry, and protect your downside, is good. I would add one more: accept randomness. Seek new things. Err on the side of the new, not the old. It’s too easy to stagnate and get stuck in ruts. If you always optimize the same way, you’ll likely always reach the same optimum. If you try something new, you might find you like it even more. I meet too many people who seem to just do what they’ve always done, stuck part way along the path of self-improvement without realizing it. 

Evaluating Risks and Rewards

In our past posts on making mistakes and experimentation, we both advocated for taking risks as long as the risks were not too large. In this post I wanted to dig into that more and talk a little about the framework I use for evaluating the major risk / reward decisions in my life.

Almost all opportunities come with some degree of risk. Buying a home exposes you to the risk of dropping real estate prices or increasing interest payments. Asking someone out on a date comes with the risk of rejection. It’s an advantage to be able to evaluate the risks and rewards of any opportunity presented, but developing this skill takes practice. Here are some tips for improving your evaluation:

Time value of risk and rewards

Some opportunities allow us to quantify the risks and rewards involved either in money or in time. If you’re making an investment you’re usually risking some amount of money (either at present or over time) for the possibility of some return on that investment. If you’re buying a car, perhaps you might weigh the amount of money you’ll spend on it against the time it’ll save on your commute. 

In each case, I like to convert all of these quantities into some unit of time. For costs or money at risk, I like to think in terms of how much time it would take me to earn back that amount. For potential gains or reward, I like to think in terms of how many fewer days or months I’ll have to work in the future as a result. This way, I can put all of these quantifiable decisions on the same footing.

For example, imagine you are thinking about getting a car and the cost of ownership is $450/month, including car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, etc. If you are earning $15/hr after taxes, you’d have to work 30 hours to pay this off. One step in evaluating whether the car is worth it for you is to ask if the benefits of owning the car are worth 30 hours a month of your time. Will it save you 30 hours a month in commuting, or doing errands? Are there other benefits that might make the price worth it? Could you accomplish those things at a lower total cost or would you be giving up some other benefit that’s important to you?

Include the non-quantifiable

It’s not enough to stop at just considering the quantifiable risks and rewards. Most opportunities, even the financial ones, come with some qualitative risks and rewards. If you’re investing the stock market for the first time, you might receive the qualitative reward of learning more about finance. If you’re buying a home, you might consider the satisfaction you’ll gain from the new lifestyle afforded by home ownership or the risk of losing the flexibility to change locations every few years. It’s often difficult to balance these non-quantifiable risks against the quantifiable ones, but I like to think in terms of present and future happiness. How many hours of satisfaction will I accrue now or in the future as a result of my decision? How many hours of stress could I expect? These aren’t perfect measures, and in fact, happiness and stress are things that can change a little with attitude, but at least this gives me some metric to include the non-quantifiable in my decision.

Seek asymmetry

If you go through the above exercise, you’ll quickly realize that you’re usually only making the very roughest kinds of estimates. Because these estimates are necessarily very noisy and highly error prone, they’re most useful when the risk/reward ratio is highly asymmetric. 

Take the scenario of applying for your dream job. You might be risking some time (in prep and at the interview), stress, and the possibility of rejection. But, if successful, you could earn significantly more money in the short term, or have a better work-life balance, or even be put on a better career trajectory long into the future. Under that kind of asymmetry, even if your chances of success are low (say 10% or lower), it might still be well worth taking a shot at that dream. In general, if an opportunity seems to provide an asymmetric reward, it may be worth exploring.

Protect your downside

There is a caveat, though, which is that, if possible, you should avoid risks that, even if unlikely, might completely ruin your life. Examples of these abound, but let’s start with the relatively simple case of a financial risk. Imagine you are nearing retirement and have saved up a nest egg of $100,000. Suppose someone comes to you and offers to let you flip a coin. On a heads, they’ll pay you $110,000 more but on a tails you lose all of your money. Even though, on average, you would earn more than you would lose, it’s probably not a good idea to take the bet. Your risk of ruin is far too high. 

A rule of thumb I try to follow, for financial decisions, is to only ever allocate 10% of my money for high risk opportunities. And when evaluating each opportunity within that 10%, I still use the Kelly Criterion to avoid putting all of that budget into a single risky play.

For non-financial decisions, again, I avoid those opportunities which come with the downside risk of my spending many years (or perhaps the rest of my life) in misery. Opportunities that risk my health, my family, or my freedom (e.g. through crimes) are never entertained in the above framework.

How do you go about evaluating your decisions, NC? Do you use a similar framework or something else entirely?

We should make mistakes

You finish your post, NT, asking me if I know myself well. I’ve definitely learnt some things about myself, though as I grow and evolve I find I often need to learn those things anew. I do, however, have a far greater stock of mistakes under my belt than I did when I was younger. I’ve learned a lot as a result. So maybe that’s my biggest learning; we should make mistakes. Our growth is the sum of our mistakes.

Mistakes lie at the heart of all of the strategies you mention. We can learn from the mistakes of others, which is particularly important in contexts where making a mistake could have catastrophic consequences; we can learn from experimenting and making mistakes ourselves; and we can learn by reflecting on mistakes we have made in the past and drawing lessons from them. Through it all, we need a growth mindset to realize that those mistakes make us stronger, not weaker, as long as we let them.

For fixed mindsets, as Maria Popova points outs, mistakes are ‘a sentence and a label.’ For growth mindsets, they are ‘motivating, informative input–a wakeup call.’ You can either take a mistake personally or learn from it and do better. 

It has taken me years to realize I don’t enjoy large parties, for example. Now, if I go to a party, I’ll try to stick to conversations in smaller crowds. For the same reason, when I want to connect with others I do so over one-on-one coffees. I am at my best then, and we can take the time to explore ideas and learn from each other more deeply than in a crowd, which I prefer. The only way I learned that, though, was going to parties and realizing they are not for me. In other words, making mistakes. I could have become frustrated at my large-party experience, condemned myself for not finding it easier to connect with people there. Instead, I seek to shape my environment to suit me. 

…as long as we can survive them

Of course, mistakes can have costs. So there is an art to making them in a way that doesn’t sink your ship. If you’re thinking of making a high-risk investment, make it a small percentage of your net worth. Ensure your mistakes don’t cost you or others more than you are willing to pay. As long as a mistake is survivable, you can learn from it and improve, but some things shouldn’t be gambled with. Your health, the happiness of others, your integrity, might all be beyond the pale. But beyond that, take risks! Invest some fraction of your time in moon shots and wild cards, things that likely won’t work but will teach you a lot either way. Try new things even if you expect not to like them. Win or lose, you will learn.

So there’s my takeaway for this week. We should make mistakes! Go forth and take risks. Figure out how to do them in a survivable way. Partway through my thirties, I don’t know if I am wiser, but I am better equipped with mistakes, and that feels like progress. The biggest missed opportunities in my life are those where I could have made more mistakes and learned more, I think.

And then here’s my question for you: do you cultivate moonshots in your life? What bets are you making, and what are you hoping to learn from them, win or lose?

Towards Better Understanding Ourselves

A key difference between my 20s and my 30s is my increased understanding of myself. I have a better sense of what brings me joy, fulfillment, and motivation. I know what my values are and I have experienced how acting against them, even if pleasant in the long term, can lead to long term stress and unhappiness. I have some idea of which foods improve my health and mood and what tools improve my sleep quality. In general, I find it easy to be happier in my 30s as, by knowing myself, I can more easily follow your advice of focussing on the important and eliminating distractions.

I’m still not done in my journey of self-understanding and I hope that in my 40s I’ll be even better equipped to “be me”. In this post, I’d like to take a moment to reflect, though, on the tools I’ve used in the past and to try to systematize them to help myself and others in the future.

1. Learning from others

The design space of “who you are” is truly huge. It encompasses your values, your motivations, your hobbies, your health, your mental models, etc. It helps that you have your whole life to make incremental progress on each of these areas, but how do you even start? How do you put words to some of these concepts? 

I think one of the best ways to explore this design space is to find role models that you can emulate for different aspects of your life. These can be people that are present in your life or people you’ve only learned about through reading. Perhaps you have a friend who you admire as the “kindest person you know”, or someone who always knows what to say at a party. Perhaps you’ve read about Frank Gehry or Justice Ginsberg and have found something you wish to emulate in the trajectory of their life. In either case, the habits and practices of the people you admire can start helping you form templates and hypotheses about yourself. Not all of these will prove to be true to you, but by experimenting and reflecting we can keep what works for us and discard the rest.

2. Design Experiments

Once we have a list of hypotheses about ourselves, sometimes we need to experiment to discover what holds true. It’s never true that your life, values, or motivations will exactly match any of the individuals you admire. To discover what’s uniquely you, you’ll have to be willing to experiment.

The key to successful experimentation, though, is a willingness to fail. It’s far easier to falsify a hypothesis than to prove it, and so it’s often our failures that teach us the most about who we are. This is perhaps easiest to see in the exercise domain. You don’t really know how much you can squat until you’ve tried a weight that’s a little too high and you’ve failed to lift it. Similarly, it may be that, if we’re testing the hypothesis about what motivates us or whether a certain career path is for us, we may have to try and fail before learning our truth. My only caution with this is to set up your experiments in ways that avoid catastrophic failure. Just as you wouldn’t start testing your physical limits by jumping to try to squat 1000 lbs, you may not want to test your values by irreconcilably hurting those closest to you. Experiment with caution, but do accept that failure from time to time is part of the process.

3. Reflect 

We’ve talked in the past about the importance of journaling. As you experiment and discover truths about yourself, it’s important to capture them down in written form. This will prevent you from going in circles with your experiments, might help you see larger patterns in your life, and will also help you build the skill of articulating who you are.

Another good way to reflect and capture your experiences is to tell others who you are. Share your beliefs, habits, and values. Sometimes, this will lead to great opportunities – someone may want to help you test your belief about your next career step. Sometimes, this will lead to arguments as you encounter folks with different values or experiences than your own. As long as you can argue respectfully, it’s an invaluable opportunity to be forced to discuss your differences with others, where your values might differ from there’s, and how you resolve the natural tension between values differently. This, in turn, will help you develop a deeper vocabulary by which to understand yourself.

4. Maintain a growth mindset

I’d like to end with a caveat, which is that, even as you discover more and more about yourself, do not fall into the trap of having a “Fixed Mindset”. Do not believe that your talents and abilities are pre-ordained and avoid statements like “I am not good at X”. Instead, treat experimentation as an opportunity to explore a “Growth Mindset”. If you could learn anything with enough effort, where would you like to spend the effort to be the best version of yourself?

So, NC, what do you think of this little system to learn more about ourselves? How have you gotten to a place in your 30s where you know yourself well? Are there still things about yourself that you’re trying to figure out?

What not to do in your thirties

It was my birthday recently, and as someone partway through my thirties, I took it as a chance to self-assess how I was doing. Was I making progress on my goals? Were there things I would like to do that I wasn’t?

What to do you in your thirties

As part of that, I did some googling on common goals for people in their thirties. The lists I found were all pretty similar:

  • Save for retirement (a topic we’ve posted on)
  • Eat healthy
  • Sleep well (including having a regular bedtime and wake up time)
  • Connect with and invest in family
  • Keeping growing and learning
  • Exercise
  • Avoid competing with others and figure out what matters to you

All good advice – I found Mark Manson’s list particularly good. One list in particular, though, said in your thirties you should start following the news, because you never want to be the one at a party who hasn’t heard that [famous person X] has just died. I totally reject with this. I aspire to be the person who hasn’t heard the most recent irrelevant pop news, not the first to know.

It strikes me that a better way to think about it is that your thirties are about what you choose not to do.

What not to do in your thirties

What do I mean by that? Strategy, the management guru Michael Porter famously said, is choosing what not to do. In your teens and twenties, there are a lot of things you may want to get done: get a degree, land a job, find a life partner, travel the world. Your twenties is a period of exploration where you do new things and find out what you like or don’t like.

That’s still true in your thirties to some extent–you should never stop exploring and learning!–but the thirties are also a time to figure out what you want to exploit, not just explore. Hopefully you’ve figured out the right sleep, diet, and exercise routine. Stop doing other ones! Be more intentional about how you spend your time, and devote it to things you find meaningful. Identify what gives you value and who you want to spend time with, and then stop doing the rest. Prioritize.

If that’s following pop artist funerals, then you do you. But for a lot of people, I don’t think tracking minor news on Facebook is where happiness lies. I want to spend my thirties surrounded by the people I love, working to leave a dent in the universe, and to achieve that I want to stop doing other things. Of course, I still want to take risks, learn, and evolve. I’m not stuck with what I’ve tried so far in life. But where I can choose what not to do, I am happy to do so.

Have you found a transition between your twenties and thirties, NT? Either in how you think about your life or where you spend your time?

The Role of Emotion (Pt. 2)

Part II: Overcoming Challenges

In my last post, I discussed some of the ways to achieve a positive emotional state to boost your productivity. I often find that if you’re able to find joy or curiosity in the work you do, you’ll do better work and be more productive overall: a win-win. However, in most professions, it’s important to be productive even when things are more difficult. Sometimes personal or professional factors combine to make us particularly high stressed and anxious or low energy and demotivated. Below, we will explore a few tips for still achieving productivity in these low energy days.

Document Everything

This requires a bit of proactivity, but I find it very helpful to carefully document as much of my work as possible. At the end of each day, I write down the most important pieces to be done the next day. When I do a piece of work, especially if it’s new or I need someone’s help to complete it, I document each step and any questions I had in a FAQ document I write for myself. When I complete a project, I’ll write a couple of sentences about what was accomplished in a document I can revisit when I encounter a professional evaluation. By keeping such careful documents, even on my worst days I usually have a sense of what needs to be done and can muddle through the tasks using the steps and checklists I’d created earlier. As I mentioned in a previous post, by treating the future versions of yourself as potentially less competent than you currently are, you build in a bit of a safety buffer for low motivation days.

Reward Yourself

As humans, we are hard wired to respond to rewards. Indeed there are neural structures specifically connecting components in our brain related to cravings, euphoria, and positive reinforcement. When we’re feeling low, we can try to take advantage of these structures for a bit of a short term boost. To do so, simply think of a simple small reward you would like and set some rules on what you have to accomplish to receive it. Depending on how tough the day is, you can make this game as easy or as hard as you need it to be. For me, on particularly bad days, I might reward myself with a square of chocolate (or a whole bar) for just opening a work document or responding to a few e-mails. As with many things, just getting the energy to get started is the most difficult part, and you might end up surprising yourself by exceeding that initial goal. Although, it’s totally fine if you don’t, just play the game again with another task and another reward. I’m sometimes able to get a fair amount of work done just through this repeated process.

Distraction

If I’m having a hard day, not due to low energy, but due to stress and anxiety, I can often use distraction as a tactic to make some progress. For me, music works well, a well chosen playlist on Spotify can calm the spiral of negative emotions that I’m fighting against and I can even sometimes achieve something of a flow state. This tactic works particularly well with a bit of proactivity (if you already have a playlist set up) as well as in combination with the first step above about documentation. With the music playing, I can just follow the instructions that my past self left and push a set of projects forward.

Take Breaks

Finally, I encourage yourself to treat yourself kindly and to recognize if you might need to simply take a break. Sometimes our work and expectations of ourselves build up to the point that the only way to really escape the low energy state is to take some time off. If you have vacation days (or sick leave), consider using them to give yourself some time to rest. Staycations are underrated as a means to regain the energy we need to progress. And if that’s not possible, at least occasionally allow yourself zero-days. Days where you don’t expect yourself to make progress on anything but just allow yourself to accomplish nothing. As with physical exercise, the rest days are just as important as the days where we push ourselves.

Where do I start with personal finance?

As I mentioned in my last post, it can be tough to know where to start with personal finance. If we stick with a basic definition of making sure that our wants don’t outstrip our means, though, there are a few good first steps. Ultimately, personal finance is just that, though – personal. These are often the best places to start, but everyone’s circumstances are different. 

1. Do a budget.

Measurement helps! Just knowing what you spend on is an important first step, and is usually the best place to start in personal finance. I think people find this stressful because they feel guilty about how they spend the money, or think that their budget categories should be targets. Not the case. A budget is an exercise in information-gathering. It tells you where your money is going. Whether you want to change that or not is up to you, but the place to start is to keep track.

Budgets don’t have to be fancy. Some people swear by YNAB or Mint. I’ve never felt comfortable sharing my bank login information with another app, so I use an excel sheet where I record what I spend, and it calculates the totals. Find something that works for you. Then, do it for a month or two, so you have a sense of where your money is going. No judgment or self-criticism at this stage. Just track the money so you can be aware, in the same way that when you meditate, you stay aware of your thoughts without judging yourself for them.

2. Build an emergency fund

Now you know where your money is going. Next, you need to be ready for the unexpected. Too often, people plunge into investing or tax planning, without getting this basic step right. If your car broke tomorrow, do you have the cash available to fix it? If not, set up an account and start saving up until you could. Otherwise, small problems can snowball. If your car breaks, that might mean you miss work, so your income drops too, and suddenly you are really pinched. 

Common advice for an emergency fund is about 3-6 months of expenses, so if you spent $2000 per month, about 6-12k. That way, if you lose your job, you could be unemployed for a few months while you look for a new one. That might sound like a lot. If you’re starting from nothing, focus on getting the first thousand saved up to start, to cover broken cars, emergency home repairs, or other short-term expenses. My wife and I keep about 6 months of expenses available across the two of us in a savings account. That might be more we need, but it helps us sleep at night.

3. Pay down debt (at least high-interest debt)

Now that you have the basics down–a budget and an emergency fund–there is a bit more flexibility on what you might choose to do next. If you have an employer-match retirement fund, where for every $1 you save they save the same, then you might want to take advantage of that. If not, paying down debt is important.

Debt isn’t always bad: borrowing to pay for education can be worthwhile, and sometimes borrowing to meet a critical need is unavoidable (though better to have an emergency fund!). Borrowing costs money, though: you pay interest. If you’re trying to save more, reducing how much you pay on interest is a great way to reduce spending.

To do that, you have to pay down the debt. Not all debt is equal, though. Low-interest debt (such as student loans), may not cost you very much, and so may not be a priority. High-interest debt, though, such as credit card debt or car loans, is much more expensive.

There is no silver bullet for debt repayment, but two strategies to consider. The financially best strategy is the ‘debt avalanche.’ There, you pay down the highest interest debt first, while making minimum payments on the others. This shrinks your most expensive debt first, reducing your costs.

Equally valid though is the ‘snowball’ method. For this one, you pay off your smallest debt first. The idea is that lets you reduce the number of debts you have fastest, which many people find motivating. That may not be financially the best option, but it can be psychologically the best option. If that’s what helps you get out of debt fastest by keeping you motivated, then it may be the best option for you.

I had meant to cover more about where to start in personal finance in one post, NT, but I seem to have talked a lot already. I’ll break here, but tune in for another post to come on what to do after you’ve got your budget and emergency fund established, and at least your high-interest debts paid off.

What is personal finance and why does it matter?

When you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or Maslow’s mountain as I charmingly heard it called recently, you typically start at the bottom and work your way up. Without food, water and warmth, it can be hard to focus on prestige or fulfilling your full potential. For me, that’s why personal finance is so important: it gives you the space and freedom to focus on the rest of the mountain.

So what is personal finance?

A lot of people get intimidated by finance. It can seem technical, with a lot of knowledge of markets and business needed. I’ve heard people say they wish they could get into it but find it too hard, or that it’s not for them. If we think of personal finance as a proxy for freedom, though, I think it gets a lot easier. For me, personal finance is just that; it’s about trying to build up enough of a surplus that we are not subject to the vagaries of life’s fortunes. 

If we accept that definition, then two things follow: successful personal finance is about increasing how much we have in reserve, or reducing our needs. Neither of those needs to be complicated. There are plenty of complicated details à la tax optimization, interest rate deductibility, etc., but you can get it 90% right without much effort, and then decide if you want to put the time in to get the final 10%.

It’s more than just money

That definition also means it isn’t just about money. Personal finance is intertwined with ideas of environmental sustainability and reduced consumerism. It isn’t just about making as much as you can, but also about making sure you’re focusing on what’s important, prioritizing the things you care about.

Today, it’s trendy to talk about retiring early. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but that has never had much appeal for me. What I want is the option to retire early; the option to leave whenever I want. If you can’t leave, you are shackled. In contrast, if you know you can leave, then you can choose to stay for all the right reasons.

So much for the philosophy of personal finance, though it’s a topic I could wax on about at length. When you’re trying to get better at something, though, it pays to have concrete steps you can take. Implementation intentions, as they are sometimes referred to in the literature. Given this post is already a bit long, tune in to my next post for just that. You can expect talk of nest eggs, paying down debt, plugging leaks, budgets, and more! 

The Role of Emotion

Part I: Engendering Joy 

My productivity is frequently tied to my emotional state. If I am approaching a problem with joy, excitement or curiosity, I’m able to pull long hours, push through hardship, and get a lot done without any sense of burden. When my state, by contrast, carries anxiety, stress, or fear, there is a lot more friction and it almost feels like I have to fight myself to get work done. I think it’s important in most careers to be able to be productive in both states and so in this post I explore my personal strategies for engendering the former and in the next for managing the latter.

Curiosity

I find a problem most engaging when I am studying it from a place of genuine curiosity. Many problems can be reframed into puzzles simply by asking questions like “I wonder why things work this way” or “I wonder how we can build x or understand y”. If I’m able to transform the problem like this, I can engage the part of my mind that likes to solve Sudoku or pick apart knots. This little cluster of neurons is surprisingly stubborn in its quest to solve problems, and isn’t as easily repressed when it encounters a difficulty. Challenge just adds to the game of it all, adding a new layer to investigate, learn about, and eventually solve.

Flow

A related approach to finding joy in work is achieving a “flow state”. Flow is a mental state coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and is often colloquially referred to as “being in the zone”. To achieve it, the author suggests three criteria as being necessary:

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • A balance between the perceived challenge and one’s perceived skill

To me, the third criteria manifests as the activity being just at the limit of my skill – where I am confident I can complete the task, but that I’ll have to learn and grow in some way in order to do it. While not all work is conducive to flow, you can often restructure your tasks into smaller milestones that let you achieve flow for some part of the task. In programming, instead of trying to build a whole system in one chunk, breaking the problem into smaller components, each of which can be written and tested separately is often more conducive to flow. In contrast, if you find yourself particularly reluctant to pursue a piece of work, as if one of the three flow conditions is broken and see if you can rescope the work to enable more flow. Perhaps you can ask your manager for more regular input for feedback? Or perhaps you can set an intermediate goal that will better match your perceived skill at the moment? Flow, when achieved, can feel like effortless productivity, and is well worth finding in some part of our lives.

Sensory Engagement

I think in modern life, living so much of it in our own heads as we do, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of our five physical senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound). But when we look back and review our lives, much of our experience and memories are catalogued by these senses – the taste of that favorite pasta, the smell of the ocean, the sight of clouds in the sky. Another aspect of extracting joy from work can come from trying to better engage our senses in our work. When taking notes, I find using a constellation of multicolored fineliners gives me more visceral pleasure than just typing on a keyboard. After lunch, playing a favorite electronica playlist can get me back into the zone more quickly. In the video A Little Joy and Color in an Otherwise Unbearably Bland Life, John Green tells the story of how using a purple sharpie has brought joy to his otherwise monotonous task of signing 250,000 copies of his book. If you can, look for opportunities to engage your senses whenever you can in your day or your work. Light a candle, listen to music, savor a mint, get a mechanical keyboard, do whatever works for you to engage the more physical side of your mind.

Remember Your Why

Ultimately, whatever work we are doing and whatever we are trying to achieve, there is some purpose for it. Whether it’s putting food on your own or your loved one’s table, looking after your pets, or trying to make the world a little happier or a little better, we are striving for a reason. If all else fails, I can sometimes find peace and contentment in reminding myself about all of the reasons I carry the burdens that I’ve chosen. Sitting quietly with those images, for me particularly of the people in my life that count on me, allows me to tap a deep well of motivation that won’t allow me to fail them. It helps to keep an artifact on your desk, like a family picture or favored quote, to make this connection manifest. While not the source of motivation I rely on day to day, it’s a comfort to reach out and look for it from time to time and know it’s there when I really need it. 

These are just some of the tools that allow us to find joy in being productive. Are there any you can think of that I’ve missed? If so, please let me know. It’s also important to learn how to be productive when joy, for whatever reason, can’t be found and in my next post I’ll seek to outline strategies that work for me in those more challenging times.