Erica Avey liked her job. But after microdosing LSD for six months, she quit.
For those unfamiliar, microdosing is taking a wee bit of psychedelics - typically acid or magic mushrooms. The tiny dose (roughly 1/10th of a normal trip) is said to help creativity, focus, relationships as well as reduce the stress of daily life. Besides altering the tripper's sense of time however, the jury is still out on this one.
With Avey, she became all too aware that she wasn't finding meaning at work. "There was no more gray area of hanging around the office or poking around on Twitter, letting the time slip as the outside world turned. No more 'should I stay or should I go' debacles in my head," she explains. Stagnation and stress were affecting her health and no longer could she turn a blind eye.
Finding purpose in work is a personal affair that doesn’t require microdosing - a practice probably best reserved for the select few. What is needed though, is a healthy state of mind. We want a coherent and compelling inner dialogue that we’re making progress in our day-to-day work. When we change the way we think, through whatever means, we alter not only how we feel about our work - but how we show up in the world. As George Clinton put it, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow."
We know so little about the brain, and even less so about the mind. Researchers have discovered that autobiographical memory and mental time travel (reflecting on the past and rocketing ahead to the future) occur in our Default Mode Network (DMN). This is the conductor of our neural symphony and where our sense of self lives. When volunteer psilocybin trippers were placed in an fMRI machine, there was a reduction in activity in the DMN. In plain english, the ego disintegrates.
The DMN is also home to our theory of mind. It gives us the ability to understand and identify with the mental states of others. When we resonate with someone, it’s in part because we can imagine what they are feeling. This plays out at work as we author our own stories while staying attuned to the stories of others. Indeed, they are interdependent. Doing this dance with more grace can lead to different approaches in how we work.
If microdosing isn’t your bag (and even if it), the more popular and perennial means to melt the ego is through meditation. Banal as it may sound, it’s a sure-fire way to gain more clarity and equanimity. It also helps reduce anxiety and stress while boosting focus and productivity. In reducing the activity in the DMN through meditation you’re giving the protagonist of your life story that well deserved break.
Curbing the wondering mind, we train our brains through meditation to be right here right now. This leads to better decision making with a finer balance between objectivity and emotion. The irony, of course, is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in this state. A heightened awareness of every sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound was essential for survival. Being too sensitive could mean death. My how good we have it today as we fiddle over our meditation Apps.
Whereas meditation is focusing on no-thing, mindfulness is honing in on some-thing. At work being mindful means seeing that resentment building in your colleague. The big kerfuffle with mindfulness research in the workplace is that it deflates people. Being mindful doesn’t affect work performance per se, but it sure as hell can lead to a loss in motivation. Employees come to see the pointlessness of some duties and call into question whether these can be outsourced, automated, or possibly dispensed with altogether.
The penultimate benefit of mindfulness is the ability to become more embodied - knowing how best to direct our energy. When organisations help people become more mindful workers they kill two birds with one stone; promoting well-being as well as business innovation.
Finding the Flow
When famed producer Dr. Dre first laid eyes on Eminem he was rocking a blindingly bright yellow sweatsuit. Captivated, Dre invited the kid to record at his studio. It was the turn of the century, and you could say Eminem was feeling the flow.
Over one track Dre’s wig blew back. Eminem dropped ‘Hi! My name is (what?)” impromptu over the sample. The song quickly became a Billboard Hot 100 catapulting his career. Feeling the flow is not reserved exclusively for music studios or sports arenas. The same psychological and physiological effects that make (for these often erratic) flow-states can be witnessed at work.
We’re gaining the opportunity to make work a more enjoyable expression, reflective of our strengths, character, and values. What we need is the right degree of challenge and skill so we can step into the zone. Company cultures that appreciate this also have crystal clear goals as well as embedded mechanisms for continuous feedback.
While there is no conclusive evidence that flow leads to greater productivity in the workplace, there is strong evidence that our perceptions, emotions, and motivation over the course of the workday are improved. Even if we dupe ourselves into believing we crushed it in the morning, the residual effects can ride with us throughout the day. Especially for activities that require both spontaneity and creativity, being in a positive mood can impact our performance. Recall that lightness you feel when the wind is underneath your wings?
Nowhere are flow-chasing junkies more prevalent than in Silicon Valley. Engineers slurp soylent to avoid breaking their coding sprints while CEOs head off to Burning Man to engineer optimum experiences. On the surface — the potency and frequency of flow seems a worthy endeavour. A professional life full of flow experiences can be a satisfying one. Yet the peak experience itself, when your body or mind is stretched to its absolute limits, is not always joyful. It can mean putting yourself in extremely uncomfortable situations where willpower wavers and the rewards are not immediately reaped.
Understanding how you find your flow will be increasingly important as our work becomes more complex. Already it’s extremely powerful for those who work independently. I move time zones, locations, positions — change coffee brands and drinking habits. I shower or exercise in the morning or wait until nighttime. It doesn’t always work but I try and keep experimenting just so a few golden nuggets might emerge from my drivel.
The reality is that getting into the groove takes practice. We need to stay cognizant of when it’s time to change our surroundings. We need to be discerning about the specific type of work we’re tackling as well as our precise mood. We need to pay attention to how we pay attention. And as we ourselves change and our work in tandem, discipline becomes our best mate.