I recently read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book Flow: The classic work on how to achieve happiness (Rider, 2002). (Now that I’m studying Hungarian I find that his name isn’t unpronounceable at all, which is great.) As I was reading I kept tearing up strips of pink sticky notes to mark pages with particularly resonant thoughts and ended up with a raggedy peacock of a library book. I can’t hold on to the book forever – what to do? And so this (series of) post(s) was born.
The idea is simply to take those pink strips one at a time and write down their reason for being, i.e. the relevant quotation, possibly accompanied by thoughts probably but not necessarily related to or inspired by said quotation. Hopefully I’ll get through all (wait while I count…) ten of them, and maybe I’ll be the wiser for it. Without further ado, here’s the first one:
Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience. (Csikszentmihalyi 2002: 33.)
What I’ve been wondering about for the past few days is why it is so incredibly difficult to direct attention where I think I know it should go. I know that accomplishing certain tasks (work, or study, or housekeeping, or cooking…I could go on but you get the point) would make me feel better. I know that engaging in certain activities (rehearsing my lines for a play, playing the violing, reading (work-related) really quite interesting literature, taking a dance class or a yoga class, going to a concert or for a walk, meeting a friend, etc. etc.) would make me feel more energetic, could even just briefly induce flow experiences, would reinforce a positive self-image. By directing my attention towards those things I could, indeed, “improv[e] the quality of experience”.
And yet I find myself tempted by inertia. I feel sleepy, reluctant to leave the house, lazy (part of which surely is due to disrupted sleeping patterns – I really need to work on those, again). And then there’s the feeling that there’s not enough time – that there’s so much to do that every minute needs to be spent doing something useful, and the resistance kicks in. “I don’t want to,” the toddler inside screams, and she sure can put up a fight, while the “reasonable” adult thinks that as long as there’s work to be done, it should be prioritised, meaning that all other activities should wait – even if I’m not getting the work done anyway. (Writing becomes a battleground as well since it’s not “work”, and because it takes some effort and isn’t always easy, although I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.) My attention has too many potential directions to go; it becomes indecisive and curls inwards. On the one hand I feel like I’m wasting time, on the other that I need a break, that too much active flow-seeking is too exhausting.
Maybe it’s the perfectionist in me, desperate to control everything but severely hit by November-fatigue. Lesson to be learnt: don’t take it too hard. Conclusion: the attention had better go somewhere, but I shouldn’t be too bothered about where that somewhere is. Pick a goal, any goal, and all will be well. I just wrote a blog post. I might go and read a book next. It’s fine. The work will get done. There’ll always be a backlog because I’ll always come up with things I “should” do, but at least I’m not a patent examiner. Relax, let your attention wander and it will find a place to land…