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.

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