On Writing: Decision Fatigue and the “Flow State”

Writers are a notoriously vulnerable group and because of this are often the target of online confidence scams, author mills, and nefarious types who are all to willing to sell writing advice or productivity “training” for exorbitant fees.

Obviously people are free to spend their time and money however they want, but taking advantage of the gullible has always been a pet peeve of mine. Not to mention, a lot of the information these people try to profit off of is already available for free online.

Whether or not the “Flow Genome Project” is pseudoscience is up for debate, however given the direct-to-consumer marketing of their ideas it’s impossible to classify this project as legitimate science. While there appears to be some truth to the concept of a “flow state” for increasing productivity, the explanations of how or why this works are more straight forward than the Flow Genome Project would have you believe.

The Flow Genome Project’s designer website shows all of the media outlets that they’ve appeared in, one of which is ForbesIn the article, “Eight Bad Habits You Must Break To Be Productive,” Travis Bradberry manages to shill a list of similar ideas espoused by the Flow Genome Project without ever naming the project or authors, all while plugging his own book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” and BS pay-for-training site, “TalentSmart.

The second “bad habit” on Bradberry’s list is about “Flow”:

2. Impulsively surfing the Internet. It takes you 15 consecutive minutes of focus before you can fully engage in a task. Once you do, you fall into a euphoric state of increased productivity called flow. Research shows that people in a flow state are five times more productive than they otherwise would be” (Bradberry 2017).

This is fairly straight forward: if you distract yourself by reading Facebook’s news feed, loitering on Google news, or by watching copious amounts of cat videos on YouTube then you have less time to spend working. It’s that simple, avoid distracting yourself unless you want to condition your brain to seek out irrelevant stimuli whenever you’re working. Furthermore, being excited by the work you do is an easy way to experience “flow state” euphoria.

As to whether it takes exactly “15 consecutive minutes” to get into a state of “flow” is irrelevant, the most important takeaway here is that you ought to be working uninterrupted and without distraction.

Side note: a big problem I have with claims like, “research shows,” is that it’s then up to the person making the claim (then and there) to properly introduce and cite their source, which Bradberry does not do.

Regardless, let’s look at the rest of his “eight bad habits” list:

  1. Using your phone, tablet or computer in bed.
  2. Impulsively surfing the internet.
  3. Perfectionism.
  4. Meetings.
  5. Responding to emails as they arrive.
  6. Hitting the snooze button.
  7. Multitasking.
  8. Putting off tough tasks.

The rest of this blog post is going to focus on “number 1” and “number 8,” as these two points are the most relevant for writers. I would cover “perfectionism,” but that topic is already over-saturated on the blogosphere and it overlaps with procrastination, which is essentially “putting off tough tasks” in favor of doing pleasurable activities first.

Why is “using your phone, tablet or computer in bed” a bad idea?

According to the Scientific American article, “Q&A: Why Is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep?” by Jessica Schmerler, the pale blue light from our electronic devices is “short-wavelength-enriched,” and can adversely impact  the production of the hormone melatonin:

“Changes in sleep patterns can in turn shift the body’s natural clock, known as its circadian rhythm. Recent studies have shown that shifts in this clock can have devastating health effects because it controls not only our wakefulness but also individual clocks that dictate function in the body’s organs. In other words, stressors that affect our circadian clocks, such as blue-light exposure, can have much more serious consequences than originally thought” (Schmerler 2015).

The sleep cycle is an important time for your body to repair all of the damage it received during the day. If you don’t get enough sleep, or get restless sleep, then you’re damaged goods; waking up tired is a typical start to an unproductive day that is filled with poor decision making.

Decision Fatigue: Why You Should Perform Difficult Tasks Earlier

Not getting enough sleep or getting restless sleep is a productivity killer. The New York Times article, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” elaborates how with every decision we make throughout the day we become increasingly mentally fatigued.

Researchers are just starting to understand and explain how “decision fatigue” affects us all throughout the day:

“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways” (Tierney 2011).

The author of this particular New York Times article, John Tierney, goes on to explain these two different ways as “shortcuts” one of which is, “to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences” (Tierney 2011). The other “shortcut” is to do nothing, to not make a decision or to avoid any choices, which can create problems down the road.

If you’ve ever written something and just decided to publish it right away without editing it, then you most likely suffered from decision fatigue and one of these two “shortcuts.” Editing spelling and grammar is essential to getting read and taken seriously, “When you get down to it, the basic reason for knowing grammar is to communicate better.” (Brooks 2006).

Anyway, it’s easier to complete complex tasks earlier in the day as this mitigates the negative impacts “decision fatigue.” When writing, all you’re doing is making choices and the more tired you are the poorer your decision making ability becomes; poor choices equals bad writing.

Writing earlier in the day is a good strategy for creating more lucid work, even if it means going to bed sooner and getting up a little earlier. Keep in mind what E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to write will die without putting a word on paper.”

Final Comments: Don’t Sell Yourself Short

To summarize: avoid using an electronic device that emits blue light close to bedtime in order to get a more restful nights sleep. Being well rested will reduce the rate of decision fatigue throughout the day, but for the best state to write in you could be going to bed sooner and waking up earlier in order to work first thing in the morning. While writing, you need to make a conscious effort to stay focused and avoid distractions that disrupt your flow.

It’s important to avoid falling for marketing schemes like the one over at the “Flow Genome Project” as they’re essentially trying to get you to sell yourself short, “When you performed your best, odds are you were in Flow. Trouble is, it’s hard to flip that switch when you need it most. What if you could find that peak state anytime you wanted?” This is incredibly deceptive as it is suggesting that the “odds are” it wasn’t you performing your best…it was their concept of “Flow;” the “what if” question at the end of that quote is classic clickbait, by the way.

While the Flow Genome Project has seemingly run its course there are always going to be copycats and imitators. Watch out for anyone who tries to make you doubt your own abilities; especially if they’ve got something to sell.


Sources:

Brooks, Brian S. et al. “Working With Words: A Handbook for Media Writers and Editors.” Bedford St. Martin’s: Sixth Edition (P. 8); 2006.

Bradberry, Travis. “5 Ways to Experience Flow and Get Crazy Productive.” Forbes: April 19, 2016. Website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2016/04/19/5-ways-to-experience-flow-and-get-crazy-productive/#168f9e704e70

Bradberry, Travis. “Eight Bad Habits You Must Break To Be Productive.” Forbes: January 31, 2017. Website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2017/01/31/eight-bad-habits-you-must-break-to-be-more-productive/#257b0beb4199

Rochino, Lori. “8 Ways to Combat Decision Fatigue.” Huffington Post: March 04, 2015. Website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-rochino/8-ways-to-combat-decision-fatigue_b_6794022.html

Schmerler, Jessica. “Q&A: Why Is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep?” Scientific American: September 01, 2015. Website: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/q-a-why-is-blue-light-before-bedtime-bad-for-sleep/

Tierney, John. “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” New York Times: August 17, 2011. Website: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html

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Author: Reality Challenged

I have created this blog to record, analyze, investigate and report on the ideas, events, and people that would otherwise mislead you and waste your time.

2 thoughts on “On Writing: Decision Fatigue and the “Flow State””

  1. I think any article that claims to know how to improve productivity is going to be flawed. Everyone is different and many writers are going to have different writing styles. As you said, I would like to see the samples, the researchers and who financed the studies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The more I analyze the “Flow Genome Project” and “TalentSmart” the more convinced I become that they are online confidence scams. They have all the hallmarks of a confidence trick, but as a writer they definitely triggered my curiosity…can’t believe that they got the media to shill for them like that though.

      Like

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