Opinion | Students need to change their work tactics in a major way

By Ashwat Subbaraman, For The Pitt News

The phrase “work hard, play hard” has become commonplace today — but it’s time we stopped using it. This term misleadingly implies that “work” and “play” cannot coexist, much like opposite sides of the same coin. Much of the reason our work culture treats these two as mutually exclusive comes from a growing resentment by students towards work.

At Pitt and institutions around the world, more and more students are growing tired of work, associating it with “boredom” and “tediousness.” It’s hard to blame them, with the quality of the American education system and a widespread lack of resources for tackling work effectively. But despite the seemingly gloomy status quo, we can significantly improve our productivity and happiness by integrating one simple concept into our daily lives — flow.

Flow — colloquially known as “getting in the zone” — was first described by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975 as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Flow can be seen in countless fields today, such as when a painter spends hours working on her canvas, when a violinist plays a long and complicated solo during a recital or when a runner paces himself during a marathon.

As just one instance of flow’s ubiquity in our society, Irish novelist Edna O’Brien explained that “[her] hand does the work and I don’t have to think. In fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow. It’s like a dam in the brain that bursts.”

Cal Newport, author and computer science associate professor at Georgetown University, explained the neurological basis of flow in his book “Deep Work.” According to Newport, specific brain circuits are fired again and again when one is in a flow state. This triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to wrap layers of myelin around the circuits. More myelin layers over the neuronal circuits results in faster and more effortless signal processingdirectly tied to habit change. Newport said that “therefore, to be great at something is to be well myelinated.” 

For any useful myelination to occur, it is crucial that one focuses on a single task for extended periods of time. Attention residue, a concept coined by Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington’s School of Business, occurs each time one switches from Task A to Task B. A small “residue” lingers from the previous task — even if Task A was completed before moving to Task B. Over the course of the day, our finite motivation reserves deplete in a rate proportional to the amount of accumulating residue, until eventually we lose performance completely.

There are several ways we can minimize the amount of residue accumulated through the day. Pete Leibman, executive recruiter and peak performance coach, offers a few simple solutions. Leibman recommends focusing on one project exclusively for a long period of time rather than juggling multiple tasks at once. He also recommends breaking tasks down into small, bite-sized items to prevent “invisible” multitasking, or when one performs multiple tasks at once subconsciously.

Why should you care about achieving flow? Flow is not just a way to increase productivity — it can increase the overall quality of your life.

Growing up in a society that focuses on imparting face-value goals such as getting good grades and high salaries, I have often wondered — what’s next on my to-do list? Grades, I feel, are a means to an end — a stepping stone for you to get from point A to point B. But the road doesn’t end there. What are we trying to achieve at the very end? My guess is fulfillment, meaning and happiness from a life well-lived. As neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl brilliantly put, “Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

In that sense, besides increasing your efficiency, flow can simultaneously provide a sense of meaning in your life like never before. People in a flow state have reported greater fulfillment, happiness, motivation, engagement, performance, learning and creativity in their daily lives. My proposition is this — instead of focusing on face-value goals, we should focus on putting in as much time as we can in a state of flow. From doing this, all of our face-value goals will be achieved as a natural consequence, topped with a sense of gratification at a job well done.

Ultimately, I can’t put it better than Newport when he said, “A deep life is a good life.”

Ashwat Subbaraman writes primarily about psychology, philosophy and sociology. Write to him at [email protected].