“Where has my day gone?”

How many times have we heard people express this frustration? For many of us, it seems like there are never enough hours in the day to accomplish all that we set out to do. The day starts off in a mad rush, proceeds through a blur of activity, and ends with a sense of dissatisfaction regarding what has actually been accomplished. Then we repeat the same process the next day, a week goes by in a blur, then a month, and then a year. How is it possible to be so busy but not achieve much at all and remain dissatisfied and pressured to always “do more”?

We might think that these problems are primarily a function of modernity and advances in technology but people have been struggling with how to best use their time for millennia. Seneca’s essay, On the Shortness of Life, was written around 49 AD, nearly two thousand years ago, yet many passages make it clear that humans suffered from precisely the same problems regarding how to effectively allocate their time.

Despite talk today of potential immortality being achievable in the not-so-distant future, for now human life is still limited to several decades with very few of us living more than a century. Human beings are probably the only species that fully understands that our earthly existence will one day end, yet Seneca points out that we do not translate this knowledge into how we live our day-to-day lives:

“You are living as if destined to live forever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”

Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”

Seneca urges people to be as vigilant in guarding their time as they are when it comes to protecting their personal property because time is truly the one resource that is limited for everyone. There are great disparities in human talent, wealth, and income in the world but there are no exceptions, so far, when it comes to our ultimate mortality. Jeff Bezos has orders of magnitude more wealth than anyone reading these words, yet his ultimate fate a century from now is the same as for all of us. But despite the inherent limitations of our lifespan, Seneca says that “life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca is saying that we should strive to achieve a “state of flow” rather than being tied up in an endless treadmill of engaging in activity for the sake of activity, or being mindlessly “busy”.

“A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”

Wikipedia

One of the ironies of achieving a flow state is that, just like the unfortunate person spinning his wheels on useless activity, it feels like the hours have flown by. However, the sense of satisfaction at the end of the process is far greater for those occupied in tasks conducive to the state of flow.

The question becomes how one can structure life in a way that results in more time in a flow state and less on useless and forgettable tasks. Clearly, the way to accomplish this is to actively remove things that are keeping us busy but achieve no useful results, an approach also known as via negativa. This is far easier said than done for people who are stuck in employment that seems to require all kinds of busy work and pointless activities such as excessive meetings, endless email, and having to maintain “face time” for purposes of career advancement.

“Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconsistent, and never satisfied with itself.”

Seneca, “On the Shortness of Life”

Achieving a state of flow might seem like an impossible task for those who feel “stuck” in routines that make focused concentration all but impossible. The problems have become far worse in recent decades due to the increasing prevalence of technology in our lives. As a college student in the early 1990s, there were certainly opportunities to get distracted from immersion in studies, but those distractions were primarily in the physical world. With some discipline, it was still possible to disappear into the library and focus on specific topics for hours at a time, free of distraction. Cell phones were not common and “going online” was something to do for brief periods of time and only possible on a computer attached to a physical network.

Contrast the experience of the early 1990s with the temptations facing everyone today. We now are connected on a 24/7 basis by default unless we take unusual steps to isolate ourselves, and even worse, it is considered unusual or eccentric to put oneself out of reach for more than brief periods of time. We are, for the most part, “expected” to be reachable all the time in our professional and personal lives.

Electronic devices are a constant cause of context switching. Context switching is the exact opposite of the state of flow that we should aspire to. In computer science, context switching refers to switching the task of working on one process to move on to another one. One process is stored in memory, the computer switches to the other process, and then eventually it may come back to the original one. Context switching has a cost in computing. The system has to store one process in memory, switch to another one, and then reload the original process when it goes back to it. However, the cost of context switching to a computer is nothing compared to the cost of switching contexts for human beings.

When we are engaged in any task requiring in depth thinking, whether it involves reading an annual report or preparing a presentation, any chance of being in a state of flow is destroyed when we allow interruptions. Unlike computers, the cost of context switching for human beings goes far beyond the need to store one thought process in our memory, switch quickly to another, and then immediately restore our prior state of mind. In fact, this is impossible to do. A context switch breaks the state of flow.

How many times have you been in a state of flow when your cell phone makes some sort of noise – whether a text message, a phone call, notification of a new email, or countless other interruptions? Human beings are naturally curious and the temptation to check the device is overwhelming when there is any kind of notification. So, you interrupt your state of flow to check what’s happening on your phone. Maybe it was an email. But it doesn’t end there. Now that you are interacting with your phone, maybe the email requires some further action. Or, if not, maybe it is too tempting to see how many “likes” your latest Twitter post generated. Or perhaps check in on Facebook to see how outraged your virtual friends are regarding various political issues.

Just as a large amount of information does not translate into wisdom, frenzied activity and context switching does not lead to productivity or happiness. Instead, it leads to a sense of time slipping away. The state of flow also leads to a sense of time passing quickly, but in a positive way. If you come back from lunch and sit down to a state of flow, you might look up at the clock and find that it is time to go home. Time has flown by, but in a way that might have increased your wisdom or achieved some level of productivity.

When people wish for a “long life”, few wish to be bored and watch the days, months, and years slowly pass by. That’s not the kind of “long life” people aspire to achieve. Instead, humans wish for a sense of satisfaction, or a sense of a life well-lived. This desire has existed for millennia, but has become more difficult to achieve with technology that simultaneously gives up the opportunity to access a wealth of information but also tempts most of us to waste a great deal of time.

Seneca’s prescription is clear: we need to disconnect and pursue a state of flow, even if doing so is unconventional or frowned upon by others.

Cultivating the State of Flow
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