Chances are, you already know a thing or two about the hyper-focused frame of mind which produces a state of high productivity. But there’s surprising information emerging about its opposite: a state of “mind wandering” which makes you not only unproductive, but unhappy. It made me ask: “Is there are a hidden connection between happiness and being a Total Task Scheduler?”
Authors Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, Anders Ericsson and Cal Newport are separately known for a trio of similar concepts: Flow, Deliberate Practice and Deep Work. They advocate a variation of the same idea; there comes a time when, in order to achieve a productive state, you must shut out distractions and focus on a single challenge for a long enough time to produce a breakthrough result. These tasks are the ones which produce the most movement in our professional careers. Complete enough of them, and the improvements compound over time, giving you a clear path to growth and an advantage over the competition.
The most productive people who attempt to achieve these states know that they don’t just happen by accident. They must not only be scheduled beforehand, they involve clear-headed preparation. Not only must you set up your environment in a particular way, you must also ward off other people who could become a source of interruptions.
While these highly productive states may occur by serendipity, you are unlikely to fall into them by accident. The opposite is more likely. Most workplaces are set up to interrupt you easily. As a result, a professional may never experience a single moment of Flow, Deliberate Practice or Deep Work in the course of the average working week.
Now there’s evidence that a failure to manage oneself to reach these productive states can make you unhappy. The evidence actually comes from a recent study of wandering minds.
Apparently the behavior is widespread. “People spend some 4.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing” according to a recent study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” they state. Even though our ability to think about what is not happening in the moment is a great advantage to us as humans, apparently we indulge in it far too often.
We think about stuff that has already happened, is about to happen, and will never happen, instead of being present. By contrast, we are at our happiest when completing tasks which occupy our attention the most: “making love, exercising or engaging in conversation.”
We are least happy when” resting, working or using a home computer.” Each of these are un-challenging tasks which are completed alone while not using any particular skill.
Not surprisingly, there is a strong link between mind wandering and happiness. “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
In fact, the researchers estimate that a person’s mind-wandering is responsible for some 10.8 percent of their happiness, while the nature of the activity only accounts for 4.6 percent.
Someone who schedules everything is far more likely to stay on purpose each day. After creating a written schedule, they know what they hope to be doing at different times. This includes time for rest, social activity, meals and exercise.
Without a schedule, they have to make multiple decisions each day about what to do next. When decision fatigue sets in, it’s easy to let the mind wander, particularly late in the day.
Compare that with the approach of Total Task Schedulers who experience what I call “awakeness.” They don’t become lost in time, arriving at the end of the day wondering what just happened. In fact, they are likely to know the purpose of the activity they are engaged in at that moment, plus all its temporal attributes: how long it is supposed to last and what due date it is meant to hit, if any.
As a result, they leave little time for mind wandering to set in, and for unhappiness to accumulate. Instead, they move purposely from one task to the next, giving it as much of their attention as possible.
Furthermore, having a plan for the day serves as insurance: they are less likely to fall into the trap of chasing their tails – being hit by one surprise after another, often instigated by other people. Without a plan, the average person is entirely off-balance all day, wondering about the stuff she had kinda intended to get done but never actually wrote down.
We hate this feeling: it’s when the Zeigarnik effect is at its worst and we are at our least productive. It turns out that we are also unhappy.