My understanding of getting into a flow state (or “being in the zone”) was completely wrong.
Authors like Steve Kotler and Csíkszentmihályi describe achieving flow as a structural problem. To achieve flow we must match our skills to the challenges in front of us, they write. If the challenges are too easy, we’ll get bored, if too difficult, we’ll quit from frustration.
Start-up founders will speak of passion as the gateway to flow. If you’re passionate, you’ll dance into the office ready to get back to it. If you’re feeling resistance … well, maybe you’re not passionate or earnest enough.
My personal day-to-day experiences are a stark disconnect from the popular descriptions of flow. I reliably find it irritating to sit down and start working. My mind wanders, opening up HackerNews, Reddit, and Youtube tabs to stave off the negative feelings.
What I learned and want to share with you, dear reader, is the wisdom that irritation is a necessary starter to getting down to work. It’s completely normal to “not be into it” regardless of how passionate you are or how well the challenges are structured. The initial resistance is part of the process, not a sign of a defected process or defected you.
Why oh why?
Noradrenaline is one of the major brain chemicals that builds the initial resistance to getting things done. It’s the “alertness” neurotransmitter (fancy word for “chemical messenger”) that tells different systems in the brain to be at attention when we’re ready to do focused, hard work. The problem: it’s the same messenger that yells across our system when we’re triggering our fight or flight response.
Evolutionarily speaking, fight or flight is effective because we want to escape the feeling of irritation. Racing heart rate, shortness of breath, paranoid alertness–the state of fight or flight is painful. Us humans, as pleasure-seeking apes, would like to avoid pain as often as we can.
This very blog post is a month too late. I have it dated as November 11th but it’s December 13th today. One month later and I’m still writing this damn thing. I have excuses, believe me. Projects, system design study, life, etc., but that’s all they are: excuses. What was most important to me was daily writing. But writing is hard and noradrenaline-fueled resistance makes it harder.
Noradrenaline, to repeat, performs double duty for both “getting down to work” and “escaping danger.” It’s the yin-yang that gives us the predicament of resisting productive work. Work that would be good for us in the long-term but painful in the short-term.
Why is noradrenaline necessary before hard work?
Dr. Huberman (neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford Medicine) describes it as the necessary ingredient to neuroplasticity. It’s the combination of noradrenaline and another neurotransmitter, acetylcholine (the “focus” neurotransmitter), that triggers the process of change in our brain. The change will eventually make hard work easy because we’ll turn new knowledge from foreign and awkward to domestic and routine.
It goes like this:
- You’re at your desk, working hard on your important but not urgent project.
- Noradrenaline starts transmitting through your brain to make you alert.
- Acetylcholine is released at the precise neurons that represent your subject of intense focus (a new concept you’re learning, a blog post you’re writing, etc.).
- Noradrenaline and acetylcholine work together to mark the relevant neurons for change.
- The day ends, you go to bed, and during deep sleep your brain processes those marked neurons for change. This is why sleep is important for effective learning.
How to make it easier
Dr.Huberman describes dopamine as the counterbalance to noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine).
Dopamine is our ancient reward system. It pushes down our noradrenaline levels to give us more runway to do hard work. Our nervous system releases dopamine when we achieve small milestones or we think we’re on the right path. This is why laughter, for example, is effective in giving you a boost of energy.
Therefore, the trick to getting started and staying on track is to reward yourself for trying.
It’s why short, manageable milestones are crucial to achieving long-term goals. This has been written about extensively from folks like Scott Adams and James Clear. The idea is to lace your sessions of hard work with hits of dopamine.
Scott Adams, for example, encourages his couch-bound readers to start small and move just their pinky. Eventually, with enough body parts moving (small achievements), they’ll get off of the couch and thwart procrastination.1 Jerry Seinfeld encourage writers to create an end time to their daily writing sessions. He admits that it’s torture to have open-ended writing sessions. “If you’re going to sit-down at a desk with a problem and do nothing else, you gotta get a reward for that. The reward is, the alarm goes off and you’re done. You get up and walk away and have some cookies and milk.”
My personal trick for getting the ball rolling is Pomodoro. I don’t need multiple sessions, I just need the first one to get to my first dopamine hit and then I’m off to the races.
What if there’s no dopamine hit?
Dr. Huberman states noradrenaline as the underlying substrate for quitting. When our brain hits its limit of noradrenaline, he describes, “it shuts down cognitive control over [our] motor circuitry and we quit.”
All this to say, encourage your creative self. This post isn’t a panacea but visibility into the early resistance of the productive process. Willingness to show up everyday and get to work is a small miracle given the complexity of our internal systems. You must nurture effort, reward it and not blame yourself for a lack of passion, grit, or discipline.
Adams, Scott. Loserthink (p. 106). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩︎