How to Cure Languishing: The Secret to Thriving At Work and At Home

On January 5th—the day I resumed work after the holidays—I posted on Instagram that getting back to work after a two-week break was particularly hard. In retrospect, it seems a little silly, but I spent the entire break dreading the return.  Motivational speakers would probably say if you are that terrified of returning to work, it’s not your passion or whatever. The thing is I don’t kid myself; work is work. There are other ways to express my creativity and fulfill my passion that aren’t necessarily work, but work will not always be fun. Hence, not wanting to return. The way I ultimately dealt with my return was to remind myself that I have done harder things and succeeded. It’s very important that we remember that. In addition, to tackle the problem and to get into the groove of the new year (at the time), I decided to go back to my toolshed and take another look at my productivity tools. I wanted to better understand how to work harder and smarter without constantly feeling depleted, how to produce more, and I wanted to better understand how to enjoy working—seeing as we do have to do this for the rest of our lives, no? To solve problems, I utilize three tools from the aforementioned toolshed:  reading, challenging my brain, and taking a critical look at things. I have done (and I’m still doing that) with productivity and working. Here is what I have found. Now this IS going to be a long post (that I have also divided into two/three parts, depending), so feel free to read a little, pause and continue later.

In sum, the kernel argument of this post rests on two things: the importance of deep work as the cure for “languishing”.

Adam Grant defines languishing as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of [the moment]”. In his TED talk on languishing, he explained that research has shown that the best predictor for well-being is not optimism or positivity. Instead, it is flow; that feeling of being in a state of total absorption in an activity where you lose track of time and sense of self. Flow, in other words, is being in the “zone”.  It’s what we yearn for when we get suckered down the hole of bingeing on Netflix because we are transported in a different world. But that doesn’t solve languishing because it’s too passive and it is passive engagement in a fictional world. Flow, on the other hand, is active participation in the real world. 

If we are going to conquer languishing, ennui, and all its siblings, we need peak flow. And according to Grant, to get to peak flow, we must focus on: mastery, mindfulness, and mattering. I will not focus on mattering in this post as much, but as you read through the following paragraphs, you will especially learn how to achieve mastery and mindfulness. I posit that to achieve any of the three (mastery, mindfulness, and mattering) and to cure languishing, you must perform deep work. It is invariably impossible to conquer languishing and attain the three Ms without deep work. You may still need convincing, or you may be outrightly asking,

Why Do I Need Deep Work? What Makes It Valuable?

I’m glad you asked. Deep work, a term coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport, is simply a commitment to depth, to concentrating, and to focusing your attention. Focusing your full attention on a task has never been more important. In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport shows research that suggests if you spend enough time in a state of shallowness (the opposite of deep work, of course), you PERMANENTLY reduce your capacity to perform deep work. 

To explain the importance of depth, Newport gives the example of an MIT professor, who was a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and was hired at MIT before he was old enough to legally drink. He was notorious for a fierce concentration on his work: he had no social media, barely had email, and he could sit quietly staring at a white board for hours, just thinking. Newport later adapted some of these for himself: he has no social media (not FB or Twitter or IG), he is very hard to reach, and didn’t get a smartphone till 2012 when his pregnant wife gave him an ultimatum to get a phone "that works" before their son was born. This commitment to depth has rewarded Newport. In the 10-year period following his college graduation, he published 4 books, earned a PhD, published peer-reviewed academic papers at a high rate, and was hired as a tenure-track professor at Georgetown. He did all this while rarely working past 5 or 6pm during the workweek. This commitment to depth has also returned non-professional benefits, mainly an ability to fully disconnect and be present with his wife and two sons in the evening, and even pursue non-work hobbies. Even more than the work and personal life benefits, a commitment to depth improves your mental health, helps you tune out the noise, and teaches you to be comfortable with boredom. 

We often think relaxation will make us happy, but that’s not always true as relaxation can itself shoot us through another level of stress and mental torture. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that the best moments happen "when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile". Mihaly also calls this mental state, flow. Are you sensing a pattern?  Jobs usually have active goals, feedback rules, challenges that allow us to concentrate and lose ourselves in them and these can make them somewhat easier to enjoy than free time. Mihaly argues that, because free time is so loose and unstructured, it can even require more effort to make it into something that we can enjoy. Not so much for our work. Jobs, in other words, give us purpose. Cal Newport applies this theory to understanding the role of deep work in cultivating a good life. The kind of concentration deep work requires means you don’t have the time to notice nonsense or smaller and unpleasant things that crowd our lives. It’s a type of concentration so intense you don’t have the time or the energy to worry about crap and focus on irrelevant stuff.

Doesn’t this already sound exciting enough?

Yet, it doesn’t just help with efficiency, it can help with effectiveness too. The deep work hypothesis, which forms the basis of Cal Newport’s book, posits that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. Consequently, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. He argues there are two core abilities for thriving in our contemporary economy: the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. It is impossible to attain these two core abilities without being able to perform deep work. So you can see how mastery can’t be achieved without deep work? And remember we can’t get rid of languishing without mastery. 

To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson in the 1990s argued that deliberate practice is what separates experts from everyone else. The evidence tells us that experts are ALWAYS made, not born. There is even neurological evidence for why deliberate practice works. In sum, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work. and if you're not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it will be difficult to get your performance to peak levels of quality and quantity required to thrive with your work.

Newport also makes the argument that there is a clear correlation between what we choose to focus on and the quality of our lives. Our brains construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Winifred Gallagher, a science writer, exemplified this when after receiving a "particularly nasty and fairly advanced" cancer diagnosis, she decided not to give the disease what it wanted—her attention. She chose to instead focus on her life and she found that this decision unraveled truths.  The sum being:

"Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on." - Winifred Gallagher.

Wouldn’t you then rather focus on providing value, focus on importance things like your family and you work? And isn’t it better to be efficient with your work and spend the rest of the time with your family (or friends or whatever rocks your boat) rather than have days and moments pass you by while you concentrate your time on shallowness?

If we are going thrive professionally and personally, if we want to get rid of languishing, and if we are going to attain mastery in anything, we must perform deep work. The answer to the questions, how does one cure languishing and how can you thrive at work and home, is deep work.  Which may then lead you to ask, how do I perform deep work? Well, I’m glad you asked, but you’ll have to see that answer in the second part of this post.




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