Video Games Have Flow Figured Out

I'm learning more about myself just by paying attention to how I feel in certain situations. I've recently realized that I'm drawn to activities and programs that focus on small, incremental steps of improvement. Let me share some recent examples.

I've started a bodyweight conditioning program that focuses on 6 major "master moves" (such as handstand pushups, one armed pushups and other insanely difficult things to do). Right now the thought of doing any of these master moves is downright farcicical. However, each move has been broken down into 10 intermediate steps that build on each other. The first step to doing one armed pushups, for example, is simply doing pushups leaning against a wall. And then leaning against a table. And then kneeling pushups -- and so on. The program specifically tells you to start at the beginning even if you can succesfully complete later steps. The focus is on building the body awareness, joint/ligament strength, and mental strength necessary to do the later moves. I've really enjoyed it because I have smaller goals to shoot for (each intermediate step) and I can see physical evidence of getting stronger when I'm able to complete more reps than I did last time.

Another recent example comes from a much less productive aspect of my life. I've recently been playing some video games (Starcraft 2 *ahem*) that have various "achievements" that are earned for doing things within the game. Although I've already "beaten" the game I've been playing recently, I've started going through and earning the various achievements that I didn't get the first time through. It's kind of silly how good it feels to complete an achievement and be able to scratch it off my list (this same feeling probably partially explains the rush I get when I finish something on a to-do list).

Two other websites I've been using for personal development, Duolingo and Khan Academy, also use the achievement model for tracking progress. It's nice to be able to look back and see how far I've come and to know precisely what is ahead of me. Even the website I use to track my workouts, Fitocracy, uses the achievement model. This idea of instant feedback, which is essentially what you get by earning or not earning an achievement, is the core basis for the success of this model. It makes sense when you look atCsikszentmihalyi's research on flow, as well.

One of the required components of experiencing flow is constant and immediate feedback. Video games provide this by the level of success you're experiencing in the game. Almost anybody who enjoys playing video games will tell you it's incredibly easy to fall into a flow state while playing them. A lot of times, though, it can be harder to find flow in things that are less "fun". I've been finding myself finding flow a lot more often recently and I think it's partially because of these services I've been using that provide feedback in a more visual way. Fitocracy gives me points and gives me badges when I work out. I can log in and see how far I've come in my physical strength. When I'm studying French in Duolingo I'm more likely to stick with a study session for longer if I'm at a point where I'm close to moving on to the next "level". In my bodyweight workout routine I can see where I am in the progression to "mastery" and I know exactly whether I'm moving forward or not.

There's a lot to be said for this video game model of achievement and progress tracking. There are even some apps that try to take this concept and apply it to traditional to-do lists. I haven't found one that really does it well, yet. Ideally, I could give my to-do list to a program, it'd automatically break up larger projects into smaller chunks, and would provide me with achievements like, "Write for 20 minutes 3 days in a row," or, "Make 5 phone calls in 2 days," or other goofy things like that. It seems silly, but turning my productivity into more of a game and harnessing the idea that immediate feedback helps facilitate flow could be prety huge.

It's something I'm going to keep playing with in the future and I'd love to hear any thoughts about what you do to keep yourself engaged with your work.


Developing an Autotelic Personality, or, How to Enjoy Everything

Imagine deriving the utmost enjoyment and pleasure out of nearly every aspect of your life.  Listening to music, doing dishes, talking to a friend, cooking a meal, or doing errands--what if you looked forward to all of these activities equally? In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes a type of person with an "autotelic" personality.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, "The term "autotelic" derives from two Greek words, auto, meaning self, and telos meaning goal.  It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward." 

Engaging in autotelic activities is what many people describe as "flow."  Think back to a time you were doing something you loved and really got wrapped up in the project.  You probably lost sense of time and you felt challenged, yet capable, of handling whatever you faced.  This is the making of an autotelic experience and the more of these occurrences we can have, the greater enjoyment we can get out of life.


Some activities are conducive to entering this flow state.  For example, athletes and surgeons both report high levels of autotelic experiences while they partake in their professions.  The true test of an autotelic personality, however, is being able to enter that state of flow even while doing things that many people consider boring.  A person with an autotelic personality can take something as mundane as mowing the lawn and turn it into an opportunity for growth.  Therefore, the argument that developing an autotelic personality will directly impact your quality of life is quite easy to make.  Deriving true enjoyment out of every aspect of is the key to separating the quality of our lives from external (and therefore uncontrollable) forces.

Becoming somebody with an autotelic personality is not something that can be done overnight.  It must be actively practiced until it becomes part of your personality.  The rules are very simple and can be broken down as follows:

  1. Setting goals: To experience flow you have to have clear goals to strive for.  This includes massive lifelong goals to something as small as figuring out what to do this afternoon.  An autotelic personality can make these decisions with a minimum of extra effort which allows her to focus energy on attaining that goal.
  2. Becoming immersed in the activity: An autotelic personality will give all of his or her attention directly to the task at hand.  Being in control of your own attention is one of the most powerful skills a person can develop.  A wandering or constantly distracted mind is a the mercy of every passing stimulus and therefore attention is spread and diluted.
  3. Learning to enjoy immediate experience: Our bodies and minds have incredible capabilities of enjoyment.  Gaining control of your mind opens an individual to experience almost anything and derive joy.  Every taste, smell, sound, thought, and observation can be the anchor of immediate enjoyment if we take the time, focus, and effort to experience it.

We all have amazing capabilities to control our level of enjoyment in everything we do.  Practicing the steps to developing an autotelic personality is a very concrete way to improve the quality of your own life. As Csikszentmihalyi writes, "Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment." 

What can you do today to derive enjoyment in your life? 

Want to learn more about flow? Robert Wall of Untitled Minimalism interviewed me for his podcast and we spent most of the time talking about flow. Check it out here.

Living Consciously to Improve the World

I've been writing about this idea of "conscious living" for awhile now. Sometimes I worry that I'm beginning to sound like a broken record. Then I remember that the only thing that really matters is how we live. It's only when we are each living in accordance with our values and actively taking steps every day to live those values out that the world can be improved.

Conscious living is an old idea that has been hashed and rehashed. It has gone by different names over time: Deliberate living, a life well lived, the examined life. All of these refer to the core idea of living a life that you're proud of and of living as vibrantly and authentically as possible. In my own lexicon, I refer to the idea as living a life beyond external decision makers.

For many people, life is nothing more than the mindless meanderings caused by factors outside their control. The T.V. tells them to dress like this, so they do. Society tells them to think like so, so they do. People say to act like this, so they do. When we constantly look around, instead of inside, ourselves for guidance on how to live we have given up on living consciously.

All of this talk seems intrinsically selfish at first. I seem to always be encouraging people to improve themselves, to find themselves, to focus on themselves, and to better themselves. An astute observer could probably criticize me as being overly concerned with individual action when we actually live in a very social world. I would agree with that critique, except for one point.

Everything that happens in this world, for both ill and good, happens because of individuals. Sure, organizations like governments and companies may be the seeming actors, but reduction from there always ends at individual people. Individual people that may or may not be living consciously. People that may or may not be trying to live closely aligned and authentically with their values. Everything can be brought back to the individual. In my opinion, this is a very fortunate realization because the only thing we have control over, is ourselves. The individual.

Lack of consciousness at the individual level results in an overall feeling of malaise. Of feeling like we aren't living up to our potential or taking the greatest advantage of our situation. When that feeling is multiplied across many individuals the result is organizations and groups that lack consciousness. Extrapolated even further, I believe nearly every social ill we currently struggle with as a country and even as a planet, can be traced back to an individual lack of consciousness that is multiplied into social lack of consciousness.

Poverty, obesity, political apathy, violence, underperforming schools, and nearly any other social problem you can read in the newspaper every morning or hear on the tips of every person's tongue is a result of a social lack of consciousness. Social consciousness is simply the summation of individual consciousness.

My dream is that by improving ourselves we will improve the world. Truly, improving ourselves is the only thing we can do. By improving ourselves we will improve the organizations, the companies, and the social groups that we all belong to.These are the agents for massive change and massive improvement.

So please, be selfish. Focus on yourself. Improve yourself. Live more consciously. Myself, your neighbors, and the world will all thank you.



Four Ways to Close the Open Loops that are Driving You Nuts

I don't like my attention to be spread across many different areas at once. I've found that when I can focus my attention on only one or two areas at a time, I tend to do much better work. When I first started this blog, I tried to maintain my personal blog and my teaching blog at the same pace as this one. I thought writing 8 articles a week for 3 different blogs was sustainable. I quickly realized that was insane and dropped my two less-important blogs to a more sporadic posting schedule. A similar example is when I have more than two books going at once, I seem to get through none of them. On top of that, not only do I seem to not finish anything, I can never remember where I am in each book and end up re-reading a lot of it. If there is one thing I have learned as I have delved more into the concept of simplicity it is that my attention is nearly the most important resource I have. The people who are very cognizant of how they spend this incredibly finite resource seem to be the ones who make the most impact.

Last week I was feeling very spread out and thin. I decided to take a look at the "open loops" I had going and was not surprised to find the culprit behind my lack of focus. I was reading four books at the same time, I had three rough drafts for posts waiting to be edited, a couple more in outline form, two partially read articles sitting on my desk and a small stack of unresolved mail. Each of these open loops was gnawing at my subconscious.Individually they were easy to ignore-- together they were driving me nuts.

I work best when I can take all of my attention and energy and focus it on one point of impact. Having multiple ongoing projects or nagging errands sitting around was slowly eroding my ability to focus.

  1. Identify open loops: An open loop is anything that is demanding some of your attention when it really should be spent elsewhere. For me, open loops can be partially read books or articles, small but annoying errands, and partially completed projects of many kinds.
  2. Pick the easiest to close: Figure out all the errands you need to run and do them all together (also known as batching). Decide what book you want to finish first and ignore the others until you do so. In fact, are those other books you're reading really that good? You don't get a ribbon for finishing a book you know-- if it's not worth your time, close it and forget it.
  3. Work your way from the bottom up: Pick the easiest ones to finish first because we're trying to build momentum for those larger loops that need your attention. Remember, the whole idea is to get rid of these little attention grabbers as quickly as possible. The larger the loop the more attention you're going to need.
  4. Get back to work on what really matters: This is the most important step-- do not skip it! Now that you've taken an hour, an afternoon, a day, whatever, to close these open loops it's time to focus on the work that really matters. Do not let the act of closing loops lull you into a sense of great accomplishment. You have much more important things to do.

If you are feeling spread out I recommend you follow these steps. Your focus is the key to accomplishing great things. You can't center it on those great things if you have open loops begging for attention.