Productivity: Work Zone

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. A hallmark of the focused life is blurring the distinction between work and play. We can do this by actively choosing endeavors that demand our total focus and skillfully use attention to make even inevitable rote chores more engaging.

To the founder of American psychology, William James, rapt attention required a target that offers just the right combination of novelty and familiarity. Imagine that after a long, grey winter, your bleary eye lights on the red breast of the year’s first robin. Then, your attentional system kicks in with a memory to add meaning to the new feathered stimulus: robins come in the spiring, which has always been your favorite season. Suddenly, you’re not just glancing at some humdrum bird but focused on a winged Mercury come to herald good times.

Like a robin in July, writes James, “the absolutely old is insipid.” Similarly, because you’d had no associations with some drab little bird you’ve never seen before, “the absolutely new makes no appeal.” It’s the convergence of the robin’s unexpected appearance and its cognitive and affective resonance that makes its debut the stuff of poetry.

Claremont psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has developed and expanded upon the concept of flow. He says this state of optimal human experience kicks in when we’re completely focused on doing something that’s both enjoyable and challenging enough to be just manageable. Either attention or motivation—the drive that impels toward a goal—can jump-start flow, but both of these major psychological processes must converge to sustain it.

Occasionally and, unfortunately, sometimes frequently the most productive person is hard-pressed to concentrate on the job, much less enjoy it. For example consider draining a flooded driveway doesn’t sound interesting, but it can be made fun if you try to make the water go here or there. Csikszentmihalyi says with some thought, effort, and attention you can make even an apparently routine job, such as assembling toasters or packaging tools, much more satisfying. He says the trick is to turn the work into a kind of a game, in which you focus closely on each aspect—screwing widget A to widget B or the positions of your tools and materials—“and try to figure out how to make it better. That way, you turn a routine activity into an engaging one.”

Psychologist Gilbert Brim, a strong advocate of just-manageable difficulty, high achievers can avoid burnout, depression, and perhaps even self-destructiveness by focusing on a new vocation or avocation along with their business as usual. Baruch Spinoza’s day job was making spectacles, and William Blake was a printer by trade, used their free time to advance philosophy and the arts.

For some reason, inexplicable to HM, “working hard” is an honorific phrase. If the answer to the question, “are you working hard?, is yes, the reply is almost always , ‘good!’ But hard work is not in and of itself good. It might be stupid and nonproductive. The query should be, “Are you working smart?” To the extent possible, work should be productive and fulfilling. The main distinction between work and leisure, is that one is paid for working.

Keep in mind, the following paragraph from this chapter. “IN THE SHORT term, whether it’s writing an epic or building a birdhouse, choosing work and play that call for fast focus and all of your skill, provides satisfying, productive experience. Whenever you squander attention on something that doesn’t put your brain through its paces and stimulate change, your mind stagnates a little and life feels dull.”

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