Dangling our own carrots
It was the end of my manufacturing internship, I was supposed to be in a celebratory mood. I just had a celebratory day full of congratulations, fuzziness, and closure with the other interns. We just completed a project that saved the plant 11000 hours of combined downtime over the summer. The party planning committee at the plant ceremoniously showered us with treats. Our boss took us out to a farewell dinner for a job well done. I shook hands and exchanged contacts with all my co-workers. Everyone told us we were smart, successful, and should go home and celebrate.
After the festivities, I grabbed a few beers and some veggies before heading home. I cooked some rice, cleaned some dishes and I was ready to relax and treat myself to a chill night + video games.
“Yo league of legends in an hour?”, I texted as I shoulder slammed my bed. My mind drifted to the coming school year, academics, grand plans and the universe in which we all live in.
I woke up from a quick nap and looked lazily at my phone. No response. Productive motherfucker thinks he’s too good for league of legends.
A thought lingered on the edge of my conscience. I thought of all the hours I put into video games. What if I did something different. What if there was different rules? Why do we celebrate? Why are we supposed to be happy and self-congratulatory on command? Why do I chase dopamine so much?
Do I even enjoy playing video games? Do I even enjoy eating out? Should I be enjoying video games? How do I know what I enjoy? Did I enjoy today’s celebrations?
Then it dawn on me. Why do I spend so much time playing video games and trying to enjoy things when I clearly don’t enjoy it? Why do I spend so little time on things like running and playing the guitar when I consistently enjoy those activities? Why do I label work as not enjoyable and leisure as enjoyable when that’s not how I always feel? What if I integrated my net happiness across time for everything I did? Would the area under the curve tell me how I actually feel?
I flipped through my life briefly, scanning my hippocampus about how I felt during video games, guitar, running, and lying in bed. I was only able to recall the more memorable moments of epic gaming nights, romantic guitar outings, muddy cross country meets, and shivering camping nights in the Michigan wilderness.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman said that we store feelings from our most salient memories and assign them as the event itself, resulting in a cognitive bias that jumbles our perception of how we actually felt. I could I have eight horrible hours of practicing the guitar, but if my most recent session resulted in me nailing the melody with glee, I would assign the experience felt that hour as how I feel about guitar as a whole. I could have countless hours of enjoyable coding experiences at work, but after one frustrating and stressful week, I would think about switching career paths altogether.
Unless I meticulously kept track of how I felt hour by hour, there’s no way for me to calculate my net happiness. What if, instead, I tried to figure out how many flow moments I have in all my activities. Flow is a state of mind often described as optimal experience. First introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s, being in flow is being in the zone. Total immersion in the task at hand with no distractions. Full enjoyment. Full concentration. When challenge meets ability and the self grows.
I started recounting the exhilaration I felt when my code, defeating unit test after unit test, pulled through.
Swish. Swish. I recalled the satisfaction of hitting jump shots after jump shots in basketball.
Sizzle, Sizzle. I lingered on the the slow methodological attack on vegetables during stir-fry.
I then thought about video games and parties. It’s been years since I felt a sense of flow or mastery in either of those activities. Why do I keep doing it? Is it because I’m so mentally exhausted after work that it’s all I have energy left for? Why do I consider the experience to be enjoyable? Is it because I consistently enjoyed it?
Not at all! Even on nights where my brain refused to function, I got a kick of intellectual firepower, renewed energy, and far more dopamine during and after playing guitar. I knew I didn’t consistently enjoy playing video games. My brain thought I enjoyed video games because my brain assessed the immediate dopamine potential of playing video games and not the overall video game experience itself.
I began to reassess what I enjoy by whether I’ll enjoy the overall experience. Rather than focus on how I felt about an activity at the moment. I focused on how accessible the flow experience linked to the activity was. I knew the experience of a good run would leave me happy and energized. I knew writing an article or finishing a book would make me feel renewed and motivated. I knew certain things would give me energy, enjoyment, and flow if I spent enough time on it. But would those intellectually and physically challenging activities keep being enjoyable even as I accumulated fatigue?
The solution was to switch between activities to avoid burnout and consistently access flow. I wanted to optimize my mental energies so I’m constantly filling up and re-energizing with different flow experiences because once the flow experience runs out, I’ll seek easier sources of dopamine. A low hanging fruit was switching up mental and kinesthetic activities. Once I started feeling straining mental fatigue on the horizon, I would switch it up and do some cooking. The problem would simmer in my mind while I’m immersed in my kinesthetic activity. I knew I would reach flow easily while cooking and it gave me a nice jolt of energy to attack the original mental problem with full force when I was done cooking.
By acknowledging the reward behind an experience and understanding the ease in reaching the reward, I was able to maintain much higher satisfaction and productivity. I found that the key was in switching between tasks that took a while to achieve flow with tasks that reached flow easily. This way, the small victories and bursts of energy I received from smaller tasks refreshed me for the larger tasks. I started to label how enjoyable a task was by how much potential enjoyment it contained rather than how I immediately felt about the task. In this way, I felt I was dangling my own carrot rather than having to follow the common carrots of cognitive biases.
So far, it’s been a productive Friday night as I dangle little packets of dopamine in front of my frontal lobe.
As the famous celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain once said: “I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.”