In his decades of research on the psychology of flow, Mihaly Cskiszentmihalyi has studied people who like to do things that they enjoy. He has studied athletes, artists, religious mystics, scientists, chess players, rock climbers, and ordinary working people. What keeps these creatives jazzed about what they do is not money, fame, or fancy titles but rather, how they feel while doing what they enjoy.
We often hear the message that we work hard so we can play hard, but what if hard work can (and should) be playful? According to Cskiszentmihalyi, in order to find our flow and engage in deep work, we should seek out “risky and difficult activities” that stretch our imaginations, challenge our perceptions, and involve an element of novelty to breathe fresh life into our labors. In other words, discovery, delight, and wonder are key elements of meaningful and fulfilling work.
So, how can you increase your fulfillment at work and lead an excellent life?
Practice these three Wonder Interventions to bring more delight and emotional reward into your work and inspire creative action:
1. Enter Sky Mind.
I pay attention to my attention. When my attention drifts and I start to obsess about fears, regrets, or irritations, I know I’m in trouble. My brain is free-falling into the Pit.
The Pit Mind is where our frustrations and (often baseless) anxieties lurk. It’s where our self-sabotaging storytelling takes place. Our brain is wired to occupy itself with these stories that all too often turn into negative thought loops. If you lack cognitive tools to trip these thought loops, such ruminating or artless daydreaming can fuel fret, anxiety, depression, or a general lack of well-being.
Fortunately, there’s a simple trick to escape the Pit: get outside and look up. Simply recline and gaze up at the vast sky. Enter Sky Mind.
New research corroborates what I had discovered through experience. The act of looking up and out with your eyes expands your capacity for problem-solving. As a prominent researcher in this emerging field notes, looking up is “good for the brain, our world, and one another.”
When you shift from Pit Mind to Sky Mind, you take creative action and open your mind to new possibilities. You invite wonder.
2. Distract yourself with deliberation.
It may seem counterintuitive but deliberate distractions can encourage innovative thinking and reboot long-term focus.
Atsunori Ariga and Alejandro Lleras of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign questioned the assumption that loss of focus came from, say, fatigue or lack of attention. Their 2010 study concluded that a deliberate distraction or introduction of a second task actually can increase vigilant attention on the first task. This is because the second task offsets the mind’s tendency to get stuck in a cognitive rut. Of course, there are some conditions. Breaks must be rare and deliberate, and the second task must not lead to prolonged distraction.
Next time you find yourself feeling stuck, try a deliberate (and preferably productive) distraction: do the dishes or step outside for some gardening. But, remember, introducing a quick, deliberate second task is not the same as multi-tasking, and it is not the same as being mindlessly distracted.
3. Build and inhabit your own Mind Rooms.
A Mind Room shapes mental space. It’s a tool to help the mind focus on one project at a time, give meaning to multiple small tasks, and keep taking consistent creative action toward completing projects. Using Mind Rooms can help you see at a glance where your mind is spending time and how (or if) your actions are prioritized. So, how can you make your own?
Start by listing the categories your “work” falls under, or your distinct titles. These don’t have to be your profession. For example, your categories might be Writer, Teacher, Volunteer, Parent (after all, parenting is hard work sometimes!). Next list all the tasks you have on your plate, then assign each one to a category or “room.” This simple step brings flexible order to an overcrowded mind. At a glance, the list also will help you see which room you need to spend more or less time in.
This shaped list also reframes our small tasks into meaningful actions. Reframing is a tool to help us creatives stay motivated by shifting us from a state of learned helplessness to one of empowered thinking, feeling, and action. So, instead of seeing “buy envelopes” or “send our client letters” on a list of 38 random to-do items, these tasks now sit in the Client Astonishment Room.
Finally, time to decorate! Paint each room with to evoke a mood that aligns with its function. Color-coding our task categories (a flat translation of “Mind Room”) can bring small delight and pleasure, and ample evidence points to the fact that positive emotions keep us going. Behavioral scientist and writer Winifred Gallagher reviews this research in her book RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life. She notes, “[G]ood feelings such as affection, pride at a promotion, and enthusiasm for a new project are the carrots on the stick that keep you moving smartly along life’s up-and-down road.”
As these interventions reveal, you don’t have to work in Maui to invite delight to your days. Practice inviting wonder into your work and soon, it will come naturally. Savor the hues and tastes of the small physical world around you. Letting a dark chocolate bite dissolve on your tongue, tending to a tender orchid near your desk, writing with the right pen, and stepping outdoors for a break in vision.
If we enjoy our work – even the small tasks – we’re more likely to be more productive and efficient. A small-time investment in remodeling your mind might pay off in the long run.
If you want more than a 10-minute deliberate distraction or Wonder Walk to clear your head and make room for more wonder, maybe it’s time for a deep dive retreat. Now, imagine having guided time, distraction-free zones, and trusted support to do just that.
In the company of other creatives, entrepreneurs, parents, professionals, and leaders at the state of the art center, you’ll shine a light on what’s blocking your potential and integrate wonder interventions. Steal away for a few days among California’s Redwood sanctuary to learn evidence-based practices that bring more openness and purpose to your work and your relationships every single day.