Guilt, Fear and Flow

Are you familiar with the flow state?

(Warning: deep rabbit hole. You could get lost learning about this!)

Every task you perform, you engage with somewhere at the intersection of your ability and the difficulty of the task. If the task is too easy for your ability, you’re bored. You won’t do your best work, you won’t fire all the creative cylinders, and you won’t want to do it for very long. If the task is too difficult for your ability level, you’ll be stressed. You won’t do your best work because you’ll be scrambling just to get over the most basic thresholds, you’ll encounter too much that you don’t understand, and you probably won’t do it for very long without a ton of mental strain.

If the ability and difficulty match, on the other hand, you get in the zone. You do really creative work, you engage and are satisfied. This is true regardless of where actual ability and difficulty rank, as long as they’re roughly even – toddlers can get into the flow zone as well as adults. The important thing is that as your ability increases (and it will; this is where it happens!), you have to push yourself into more difficult tasks as well.

In that section, you’ll find all the greatest rewards. Not only personal rewards such as learning and satisfaction, but also tangible, worldly rewards. Matching difficulty to ability is where you do things that other people value most, and therefore you get the most out of them. If you’re a fantastic defense attorney, you won’t get much reward from helping people get out of parking tickets, but you also won’t get any reward out of taking on cases that are so difficult that you always lose and never learn anything. You want to be right where you should be.

This isn’t easy! Most of the time, we’re in that “bored” or “stressed” section instead. The flow state has to be constantly adjusted, since if you’re in it, your ability is increasing all the time. And on top of that, there are major psychological barriers to changing from either “bored” or “stressed” to “flow.”

If you’re bored, the major psychological barrier is fear. If you want to move from bored to flow, you’re naturally trying to make your life harder, because right now your ability is outstripping the difficulty of your tasks. You know, intellectually, that the rewards are better, but any well-adjusted brain will have at least a little fear response when you’re about to try to level up your difficulty.

If you’re stressed, the major psychological barrier is guilt. If the difficulty if your tasks is outstripping your ability, then moving towards a flow state means taking on easier tasks, and that can wrack us with guilt. It can feel like giving up, or abandoning work we saw as important. And maybe it was important! But if you can’t accomplish it (yet), then you need to get into the flow state to level up.

If you’re any sort of video gamer, there’s a natural analogy here. Lots of video games of the RPG variety have a mechanic called “experience.” For non-gamers: your character in the game will get more powerful as you get experience, but you only get experience from tasks that are reasonably difficult. Most game scale this experience with the relative difficulty. So if your character is “level 10” on a 1-50 scale of power, then level 10 tasks will be appropriately difficult and give you some experience. Level 8 tasks will be easier, and probably give you a lot less experience. Level 12 tasks will give you more experience, but be much harder. When you reach a certain amount of experience, you “level up” and become level 11.

The important part of the analogy: if you’re Level 10, then level 1 tasks won’t give you any experience. They’re too easy to challenge you, and (just like in real life) we only grow from challenge. Meanwhile, a level 30 task would probably give you a ton of experience – except you can’t do it. Those tasks are impossible for a level 10 character.

So you can do level 1 tasks forever, but you’ll never grow. And you can attempt level 30 tasks forever, but you’ll always fail at them. The only way to grow is to get into the flow of doing tasks that are roughly equal to your level.

That’s a GREAT analogy for your life. Pick tasks that are at your level, get good at them, and then mentally award yourself the next level when it feels appropriate (hint: if you’re bored with tasks that challenged you two months ago, it’s time to level up!). If you can’t accomplish something, don’t get down on yourself and say “I guess I’m not good enough,” just say “I need to level up a few times first.”

Keep this in mind, and your life will be less frustrating, more fun, and far more rewarding.

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