Accepting what is true

You point to a fascinating tension, NT. Where is the line between acceptance and making change? The serenity prayer tells us to accept what we cannot change, to find the strength to change what we can, and to have the wisdom to know the difference.  

I’ve always appreciated that as a summary of the difference, but step three isn’t simple. It’s all well and good to say to accept what we cannot change, but some of the biggest triumphs of humanity come from those who do not accept as inevitable what others tell them to. From civil rights to flight, progress often comes from those who defy what others took as fixed. 

As we try to decide what we can and cannot change, it seems to me we should overestimate. I would rather strive to achieve something grand and fail, than accept an injustice or assume I cannot change something. Better to be frustrated than purposeless. But I imagine others would decide differently: they’d rather the peace that acceptance brings. That seems reasonable too. To answer your question, therefore, I think everyone has to calibrate that balance between acceptance and striving themselves, based on their preferences and what they want to achieve. 

Things are neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so

The other way to square the circle of striving and acceptance, I think, is in how we experience the world. It’s so easy to be angry or frustrated at the world: to feel that it is out to get us. It isn’t. An advantage of your ‘this is my life now’ slogan is that it reminds us that anger is wasted. The world doesn’t care. Things are, or they are not. And before you can change the world, you must see it for what it is. 

This, for me, is a general rule. I always try to see the world as it is: not to accept it in the sense of not changing it, but accept it in the sense of recognizing what is true and what is not. Remembering that bad luck happens and that I can’t expect the world to spare me helps me calm down and refocus. Even when someone has done something bad to me, it helps to remind myself that I can’t expect everyone I meet to be kind, and that there is little point in being angry at them. Regardless of what has happened, it has happened, and my responsibility is to figure out what I want to do next, not worry about the choices of others.

We’ve gotten quite philosophical recently, NT. Maybe it’s time to get more concrete. I will leave it to you: let’s leave this topic behind us for now and turn to something more crunchy.

This is my life now

I have been having a hard time reconciling two pieces of accepted wisdom. The first is to “be the change you want to see in the world”, to work towards improving the world and the lives of others. The second is the idea of acceptance as can be found in Stoicism, Buddhism, and other religions and philosophies. This idea of learning to accept the world as it is seems like a key to happiness, but if we accept the world as it is, why work to improve it? Conversely, if there is something we think ought to be changed about the world, how can we accept it as it is?

In his podcast episode on Acceptance vs Resignation, Noah Rasheta addresses this seeming contradiction with the excellent analogy of tetris. In a game of tetris, there is little point in wanting specific pieces to come next or to becoming upset when a certain piece arrives. A player is better served just observing the pieces as they arise and finding the best use for them in that moment. Analogously, Noah argues, we should learn to in any given situation to first observe the world as it is and our thoughts therein, and then take action.

I’ve found a useful exercise for achieving this is adapting the meme phrase “this is my life now”. Whenever something surprising or upsetting occurs in my life, I’ll take a breath and repeat the phrase “this is my life now”. As I do so, I imagine that I’ve been born anew in that precise moment, still equipped with my previous memories, abilities, and experiences, but without any expectations I might have had in the past. How would I react? Given that this is my life, what will I do with it? In those moments, taking stock of this new life I’ve found myself living, I often find my first reaction is gratitude rather than the upset I was feeling before. I recognize all of the pieces of my life that give me joy and see that there is usually a path forward from whatever crisis (minor or major) I was facing.

A lot of the unhappy moments in my life stem from a gap between my expectations and the reality of the moment. I find this exercise useful because it resets those expectations, cutting away the echoes of past expectations that often unfortunately carry forward far past their expiry date, and grounding myself in the realism of the present. And in assessing the present, I induce a state of mindfulness, empathy, and gratitude.

With this analogy and exercise in hand, I do feel like there is less tension between striving and acceptance. There is no point in railing against the world as it is or expecting it to change in a day or a year. But, if we accept the world in its current state, we can often figure out how best to act in it. There is a gap here, though, that I’ll turn into a prompt for you. Even when we find acceptance, how do we decide how to act? What goals do we set for ourselves? Are there general rules or does that fall into the trap of expectations and should we judge each situation for ourselves?

Paradise Found

In your last post, NT, you talk about building paradise – bridging the gap between the world as it is and the world as you’d like it to be. It’s a great point, and it reminds me of the Thoreau quote: 

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”

What struck me reading your post, though, is whether paradise is about the world we live in, or who we are and how we see the world. Many philosophies would say that life is about wanting what you get, not getting what you want – that in our modern consumerist society, the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money, or a big enough house, or a fast enough car, but that we have taught ourselves to crave those things.

I’m pragmatic enough to suspect that’s a hard principle to apply in adversity – going hungry isn’t a matter of perspective. But I think the point people like the Stoics were trying to make wasn’t that going hungry is as good as not being hungry. We all prefer to eat. Rather, I see their point as being that we can make things worse if we take the wrong attitude; we should work to control what is in our power but accept what is not, as per the Serenity Prayer.

Does paradise or happiness come from within?

Perhaps more fundamentally, one of the things I’ve taken from those philosophies is that it is risky to anchor our happiness on external things. Even a walled garden or a paradise can be paved over. Money can be lost, possessions destroyed. If we’ve made the right decisions and done our best, we should still be proud of what we’ve achieved, even if we don’t successfully build our paradise. 

I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with you. We should try to build our paradise. And not just for us, but a paradise for others, too: if we are happy and fulfilled, we are more likely to help others be the same. But it pays to be a little careful about what paradise consists of. And, paradise might be the process, not the destination. Building the walls for your garden, laying the seed beds, cultivating the trees; that work itself can be paradise. To change the metaphor, maybe the goal of self-improvement isn’t about getting somewhere in particular: it’s about constantly laying stones as you build that castle in the air.

All that is pretty philosophical. Maybe it’s time we get more pragmatic. So here’s a question for you. What role does work play in the paradise you are building? If money was no object, what would you look for in work, if anything?

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?

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?

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?

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.


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.


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.


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.