Cognitive offloading? Nah, go with the *flow*.

Posted on 18 February 2014 by Joseph

Every so often, I see a blog post about removing choice and effort from your life in order to focus on what is "most important." These articles cite things like Steve Jobs wearing the same black turtleneck every day as ways to ease our cognitive load, improving our ability to think and reason on issues more critical than our clothing choices.

Indeed, this type of thinking has even evolved into a sort of life-optimizing startup culture. It's not enough to use a dishwasher and wear only jeans and hoodies; now Soylent even aims to remove the need to prepare food for ourselves. These are all seemingly valid ways to remove some of our cognitive load, but are they the correct way to approach the ultimate problem we are trying to solve? In other words, does offloading some of our daily cognitive load really help us better focus on core problems?

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explores some of the research surrounding happiness. One conclusion is that humans are at their happiest when they are in "flow." Flow is the mental state you experience in which you are completely absorbed with the task at hand. The following conditions need to be met in order to experience a state of flow:

  • You are doing an task with clear goals and obvious progress.
  • You have clear feedback on how well you are doing.
  • You are confident that you can complete the task.

There are also a couple things that can help you stay in flow:

  • The task is perceived as challenging.
  • There is little to nothing to distract you.

As mentioned above, we humans are at our happiest when we are in a state of flow. Another nice side effect is that we efficiently accomplish our tasks at hand when we can enter the flow state. In fact, I'd guess that what most of us would claim to be after in our daily work life (and perhaps especially for startup founders) is to spend as much time as we can in the flow state, working on our problems.

But as we are so often reminded, work isn't everything. The so-called work-life balance is a constant source of conversation, and not just among entrepreneurs. Interestingly, the research on flow applies equally well to preparing dinner as it does to building our products. That is, we are at our happiest when we can achieve a flow state regardless of the activity. For me, this means trying to cultivate an interest in my daily activities outside of work in order to better set myself up for flow. Though research is unclear on this, it may very well be the case that by "practicing" our flow, we can achieve something akin to the autotelic personality.

Even if we can't, though, I'd rather spend my evenings trying to craft the perfect omelette instead of "offloading" my dinner choices to Soylent. In general, while shedding cognitive load may help us better focus on what we deem "important", I feel like it shouldn't come at the expense of the vibrancy and wonder of everyday life. By trying to cultivate a state of flow in all things, we can discover all sorts of things that are seemingly mundane but actually fascinating.

I was once wrapping some gifts with a friend of mine. As usual, I was rushing through the process of wrapping my gifts. As a result, my wrapping was ugly and slipshod while his was neat, clean, and elegant. I remarked at how hard it was to wrap gifts, and how good he was at it. He responded with some advice that I won't forget: "It isn't really hard at all. You just need to have some craft."

How many throw-away tasks, like wrapping gifts, do we go through each day? Tasks that we rush to complete because we feel they don't matter - washing dishes, cooking dinner, even hanging out with our friends - and in doing so, don't really apply ourselves completely? Taking this approach to our daily tasks ensures that we won't enter the flow state.

Instead, try and see each task as an opportunity to have some craft. Make your daily activities into challenges. Take the time to wrap your presents neatly and beautifully. Wash the dishes as efficiently as possible, and try to use as little water as is necessary. Try and build dialogues with your friends and family rather than just sitting swilling beer (this one is a little close to home). By insisting on having a little craft in all things, we build an environment conducive to flow, and ultimately increase our happiness. And who is to say that that happiness doesn't feed back more positively into our work life than the shallow value gained by offloading these tasks?

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