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The zombie shuffle of living on autopilot
Finding focus, flow and enjoyed commitment in all things
It’s been like pulling teeth to get this week’s essay done … it all started with a weak thesis statement and then the plodding accretion of ideas to flesh it out. Lots of staring at the screen, fingers not on keyboard. I banged my head against it all week trying to create something worth reading, something with insight, then eventually shelved it. I enjoy publishing the end result, but I have yet to fall in love with the process of writing.
It’s easy to become purely results-focused where we are always striving for the next goal, a great meal, our latest purchase, our successes.
That’s great, but it’s an all or nothing type of thinking that just leaves us craving the next thing and we tend to just blast through the work without noticing.
I am certainly this way. I only know how to celebrate the result.
That cinnamon bun was awesome.
Remember those Ironman races I finished?
I bought a new bike and it made me feel great.
I repaired the wonky door, now it’s the one true door.
I finished writing another thousand words, yay me.
I want to move away from the attitude of just “get this done as soon as possible and move on to the next thing”. This is time-scarcity thinking, borne out of a habit of believing that there are too many tasks and never enough time in which to do them.
What if we learned to savor and celebrate the actual flow of the thing? What would it be like to enjoy the whole act of doing the thing, knowing that it was supporting our long term goals, our vows, our Big Why?
Why is this so important? Can’t we just continue to set new goals, crush them, and celebrate? Because if we train our minds to enjoy being in the flow then we will naturally want to return to that state .. all the time. Without fully understanding I have found that a few times in my life.
When I get back into meditation the cushion starts to frickin call to me. My mind starts to crave being back in a place of quiet.
Similarly, it only takes a few times back in the gym lifting and I realize I don’t ever want to leave. My body just wants to lift heavy things.
The same happens to me with running, it just takes longer to get back to that state.
“The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”
- Martha Beck
Falling in love with the process. I think I started hearing “you have to fall in love with the process” from being in the (amateur) triathlon world: Ironman training is a grind and if you don’t get some enjoyment from it you’re gonna have a hard time. I like to break this concept down into several parts: focus, flow, and a sense of enjoyed commitment. We see these things in various teachings.
Buddhism and Mindfulness teach us to be in the moment with our surroundings, ourselves, our emotions, thoughts, and sensations. This is both flow and focus. In the Buddhist sense some of our suffering comes from time spent craving the result instead of just being in the now.
Cal Newport’s Deep Work points us at unitasking and bringing a singular focus to our work to reach a flow state. Distractions like our phones are anathema to deep work.
My therapist pointed me at “Glimmer therapy” where I take the time to notice moments of joy and peace so my body can use that as a future cue towards calm. In triathlon training I often see the phrase “embrace the suck” used as a reminder that becoming more intimate with our training will help us improve our workouts. In different ways both of these move us towards involved, enjoyed commitment to the process.
Science tells me that at a neurological level I want to associate reward with the planning and doing of any activity, not just with the celebration of the finished result.
Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment chop wood, carry water.
- Zen Proverb
Practice. I can adapt and use all of those teachings into a system that helps me learn to love the process. The proverb above is particularly apropos: there will always be more work so I may as well live life to its fullest while I do it.
This is a practice for a lifetime and it applies everywhere. I want to be enjoying and geeking out about - or at least gaining contentment from - things like:
buying food for a recipe, cooking it, planning a meal, enjoying the meal with others
planning a trip, reading about the destination and finding places to see, enjoying the travel time with family
the work of weeding or cleaning or decluttering that transforms a space
planning a workout, visualizing how it will go, getting the gear ready, seeing how close I can come to executing the plan, embracing the sucky parts, analyzing the results
researching an essay topic to write about, wordsmithing, even enjoying the part where I stare at the screen making no apparent progress.
Part of my personal vow is to “bring my best self to the world” and I can do that by avoiding the zombie shuffle of living on autopilot. I had fun writing that :-)
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