Normal people hate working. We are paid to do something that benefits other people rather than doing something we enjoy. One of the main incentives for people in their thirties and forties to work is simply escaping the home. Kids, cleaning and other daily activities can be even less fun than working. Yet, people who are successful in what they do actually love working and often prefer working on other ways to pass time. How do they achieve it? They generate interest, stay focused and occasionally enjoy the bliss of the “flow” state. More information is available here, here, here, here, here and here.
Baseline focus level
Different people have different levels of focus. Probably some of the focus traits are characteristic for that person: brain chemistry, social background and so on. Yet a huge part of our ability to focus depends on our lifestyle. Having regular and healthy meals, consuming around 3 cups of coffee per day, getting just the right amount of sleep are some of our more common recommendations. A more proactive approach includes meditation, physical exercise, taking Pomodoro breaks, focusing every 20 min for 20 sec on an object at least 20 feet away. Even chewing gum can help us focus, whic is a weird lifehack.
While some vitamins are fine, I do not recommend using chemical substances, because we do not know their influence. For example, taking ADHD medication at a young age may reduce your physical growth potential.
Simplify daily routine
We can use the work routine to focus us. To do lists help. We can schedule an appointment with ourselves. When we do basically nothing we regain our focus. If we keep clear boundaries between different activities, in work and in life, we get more focused. Some hours can be used for focused work that we do in a favorite focus spot, turning off the distractions. Some other hours may be used for various meetings, social activities, and multitasking. The better we are in building an organized daily routine, the better the chances we will be able to stay focused.
Some people can work a lot, doing their own tasks, without sharing their challenges. Other people need to discuss, to talk through the difficulties until the situation becomes clear. We can enlist social help to talk through the compulsive ideas we have or see big holes in our logic. Sometimes our self-talk is the disturbance we want to eliminate, especially when we are stuck in a bad metaphor or destructive thinking pattern. Let’s face it, people around us are very important for how we feel and how motivated we are. When we are a part of a good team, we want to work extra hard for the team. When we are competing with someone we will work extra hard to win.
The flow state is a blissful state when we are fully engaged and do not really notice how the time flies by. Usually, we get into the flow when the difficulty of the task we face is high and closely matched by our abilities. Just like some meditative states are similar to sleeping, some entertaining activities are similar to flow. When we get fully engaged reading a book, playing our favorite game or watching an engaging movie, we often forget ourselves and get fully focused. This state is usually characterized by high dopamine levels, a feeling of great engagement and reward. Some people report feeling in the flow state when doing mundane activities, like driving. The more often we reach the flow state, the easier it is to get into the flow state when working.
Finding a task that closely matches our skill level is a common recipe for getting into the flow state. The task often needs to be reformulated. By adding constraints, like time budget or aesthetic criteria, we make the task slightly harder and often more enjoyable. By removing constraints, like breaking the big projects into manageable parts, or reducing the requirements for the initial implementation, we can make hard projects more doable. Nobody knows us as we know ourselves, and we often need to redefine the tasks in order to achieve the flow state.
Notice when acting automatically
Quite often we act automatically. This is neither good nor bad. When the activity is too easy we get bored and do not notice the activity. Again, this is something often reported when driving. If we are driving a very familiar route we do not even notice how we complete it. Acting automatically we consume less energy and free up our focus for other things. When being in the automatic state, we are less aware of what we do, and quite often do not remember what we did. For example, if we want to contribute to a meeting or learn something new, we should avoid acting automatically. Occasionally we may want to swap activities with our peers just to see what it is like from his perspective.
If the things that we do generates no emotional response, we will usually get bored. Fortunately, we can generate the emotional response voluntarily. For example, we may start asking various questions until we get interested. We can try looking for better, more creative, ways of doing things. We might create a metaphor or a background story for what we do. Visualizing the end effect of the activity is not the best way of self-motivation, but still better than nothing. Great people often enjoy every step of what they do, to the point of becoming obsessed with the activity. This is a risky road as we may miss important opportunities and threats, but it is very fun to experience it occasionally.
If we have a role model, working gets easier. We see how our model approaches the task, understand his motivations, and then try to build up a similar approach in ourselves. People are different, so whatever we do needs to take our personality into account. Quite often we imagine how we would do the task if we were more like our role model, and then try to learn from this idealized future self. If we compete with people who are better than us, we usually model their behavior and motivation and thus improve. Simply talking to people around us, and truly listening to what they have to say, we get different ways of approaching things.
Researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and its Neuroscience Institute discovered a unique mechanism that operates like a “switchboard” in the cerebral cortex and appears to control the flow of sensory information in the mammalian brain. Like many other mechanisms, this layer of neural cells can be trained. By generating different associations while working, we activate different ways of information flow in our brain. Some of these ways contribute to our experience and enrich it. Creativity is fun. A simple boring task like watching clouds becomes exciting if we try to see what individual clouds look like, and even more exciting if we share our observations with others.
Do something else
If you tried everything you can think of and the activity still bores you, the activity might just be boring for you. Try doing something else, take a break. Maybe even do nothing, without feeling guilty about it. Occasionally we outgrow the activities we loved to do and places we loved to work at. It is frightening and annoying, but we may want to look for new challenges from time to time.