Languishing vs. Non-Time & Flow

"Languishing" is said to be the psychological term for the "blah" many of us are feeling. But the antidote may be two forces called "non-time" and "flow."

A brief housekeeping note before I get into the meat of what I want to talk about today: you may have noticed, but the comments got moved to the “subscribers-only” column of features for this Substack. Unfortunately, despite having a good initial round of paying subscribers, not a single comment was left on the last post.

I am not trying to discourage discussion.

There are two reasons why the comments are subscribers-only: first, I’m trying to business-ify this platform quickly to make it viable. The more I’m able to earn here, the more time I’m going to spend here, and I’m really enjoying being able to broaden the topics I write about (and I hope you are too!).

The second reason is more practical: I’m tired of comment trolls on every other platform I’m on. I want a cultivated community here, and that means stakeholders. In my experience on other sites, the loudest and most obnoxious mouths in the comments are rarely the same people who are paid donors or customers of the given enterprise. They’re there for the free exposure on a platform they didn’t help build.

I want something different. I’m very interested in seeing what kind of productive, interesting, engaging conversation and community we can build here with the kind of people who think it’s worth a few bucks to be part of that discussion.

Remember: subscriptions to The Skojec File are only $5 a month. It dawned on me what a value that is when I went out for a coffee the other day for the first time in forever. I spent $6 on a single, plain, 16oz. latte. No flavors added, no frills. And it wasn’t from a big chain, just a local shop. Now, that latte was pretty much perfect as coffees go, but it only lasted an hour. For $5 here, you get an entire month of content, and all the hours of work I put into it. If you’re interested, subscribe by clicking below, and let’s talk more in the comments.

In my past couple of posts, I tackled an issue I termed “The Elusivity of Fulfilment.” In the first post, I dug into my own memories to find the last time I felt really fulfilled, then shared what I learned. In the second, I went through the advice of others, looking for salient tips on how to begin instilling meaning and purpose in our lives as a matter of intentional habit, and how to manage our expectations as we do so.

Having spent a good number of hours researching and writing about this topic, I nevertheless feel that I’m still approaching it as an outsider looking in. I described my approach as explorative — I don’t have the answers and can’t, therefore, present my findings as experiential, but I’m figuring out some things as I go, and hoping that sharing what I find, however untested, will be helpful to others.

I remain, however — like many of you — stuck with a feeling of general purposelessness. It’s ever-so-slightly improving. But I want more.

This morning, I came across an on-topic piece by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in the New York Times. He opens with a description of the kinds of problems we’ve been talking about: malaise, inability to focus, loss of enjoyment and motivation, and so on.

“It wasn’t burnout,” Grant writes. “we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”

Grant continues:

Languishing is 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 2021.

As scientists and physicians work to treat and cure the physical symptoms of long-haul Covid, many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic. It hit some of us unprepared as the intense fear and grief of last year faded.

Grant’s a little more bought into some pandemic propaganda than I’m comfortable with, but I think he’s right about COVID-as-catalyst:

In the early, uncertain days of the pandemic, it’s likely that your brain’s threat detection system — called the amygdala — was on high alert for fight-or-flight. …But the pandemic has dragged on, and the acute state of anguish has given way to a chronic condition of languish.

In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: You have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: You feel despondent, drained and worthless.

Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work. It appears to be more common than major depression — and in some ways it may be a bigger risk factor for mental illness.

Grant says that the people who are languishing now are likelier to experience full-blown depression in the future, as a function of their inability to thrive. He says that part of the danger of languishing is that you might not feel it. Like the proverbial boiled frog, you might drift into the miasma of languishing almost completely unaware.

I personally find the somnambulist angle a bit far-fetched. I certainly felt it when life lost its flavor, even if it did creep up on me.

Grant says that the antidote to languishing is the flow state:

A concept called “flow” may be an antidote to languishing. Flow is that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away. During the early days of the pandemic, the best predictor of well-being wasn’t optimism or mindfulness — it was flow. People who became more immersed in their projects managed to avoid languishing and maintained their prepandemic happiness.

Grant cautions, however, that lack of focus is a big impediment to attaining flow. This means setting aside time to work on projects without distractions.

For me, working on getting this Substack up and running is the thing that has immersed me in flow. Every time I sit down to write here, I’m working with new, interesting material. It draws me in. It turns me, for the first time in long time, back into that writer who could work on an essay for hours without having any real sense of the passage of time.

And I’ve felt it tugging me out of the worst of my funk. Languishing is always there waiting for me when I come up for air, but I’ve noticed its embrace is a little less suffocating.

And although I think we should all try to find work where we can enter flow, it isn’t always going to be possible, and we may have to look for it in other off-hours pursuits. Jon Elordi, writing at The Masculinist this week, talks about the importance of hobbies.:

I describe a hobby as something you do for its own sake. There’s no goal to it, except maybe to get better at it. Getting good at a hobby is unlikely to have any major ramifications on your life. It’s not going to lead to promotion. It’s not going to improve some other aspect of your life. It’s just something fun you like to do. A hobby gives you the opportunity to focus on, and forget about all the other predicaments you have going on.

I’d generally agree with this. It actually is possible to commercialize a hobby, if the end result is a piece of art or a work of craftsmanship. But when we create an ongoing demand for the fruits of our hobby, the hobby becomes a business. It’s no longer a leisure pursuit. And that can absolutely ruin our enjoyment of the process the hobby allows us to experience.

Elordi says that he’s been doing relief carving in his off time. “It’s not possible to multi-task while carving it requires both hands and focus.” He writes. “When I’m done, I have a carving to show for my efforts.”

Having tangible evidence that the work you put into your hobby created something with intrinsic value is hugely satisfying, and makes an activity feel more rewarding. In an age where many of us spend our work days moving data around on screens in some form or another, a return to the practice of some kind of labor that bears real fruit can be a richly rewarding experience.

Elordi suggests several tips for folks looking for a hobby:

I would pick something you have to focus on. Multitasking is not relaxing. Finding a hobby that Includes a physical or tactile element helps. Something that involves multiple senses can immerse you in what you’re doing. And it should be somewhat frivolous. The more utility you get out of a hobby, the less of a hobby it is.

At Inc., Jessica Stillman says that “Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Neuroscience All Agree: Your Daily Routine Needs More ‘Non-Time’.”

First off, what is "non-time"? As The Art of the Impossible author and TED speaker Steven Kotler explained recently on the TED Ideas blog, non-time is basically a fancy word for quiet alone time when you are insulated from the world's noise and demands. 

"'Non-time' is my term for that vast stretch of emptiness between 4AM (when I start my morning writing session) and 7:30AM (when the rest of the world wakes up). This non-time is a pitch blackness that belongs to no one but me," he writes. "The day's pressing concerns have yet to press, so there's time for that ultimate luxury: Patience. If a sentence takes two hours to get right, who cares?"

Kotler's mornings sound both luxurious and eye-wateringly early. But non-time isn't just one man's quirky way to get his writing done. Kotler notes that neuroscience shows blocks of disconnected quiet time have a profound effect on our thinking and creativity. 

"Pressure forces the brain to focus on the details, activating the left hemisphere and blocking out that bigger picture. Worse, when pressed, we're often stressed. We're unhappy about the hurry, which sours our mood and further tightens our focus. Being time-strapped, then, can be kryptonite for creativity," he explains. 

Non-time, in other words, helps us relax enough to see the big picture and allow innovative ideas to bubble to the surface.

“Einstein,” Stillman writes, “was a lifelong sailor who insisted that many of his best ideas came to him while he was floating around doing nothing and enjoying his own non-time.”

And Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs too was a famous loafer. "The time Steve Jobs was putting things off and noodling on possibilities was time well spent in letting more divergent ideas come to the table," Wharton professor Adam Grant told Business Insider about Jobs's long stretches of aimless non-time. 

Of course, both of these geniuses then put in incredible hard work to bring their ideas to fruition. Non-time isn't all you need to change the world. Not by a long shot. It is, however, an essential ingredient. 

Non-time can be anything from the cliched experience of having your best ideas come to you in the shower to turning on a boring audiobook during a drive so that your mind can wander. It can be helped by silence, or by music, as long as neither is too distracting. And it is best accessed by means of boredom. I think of it this way: when my brain doesn’t have enough to do, it finds ways to entertain itself, usually by creating ideas.

Non-time and flow are intimately interrelated. Although they can exist independently, neither can really flourish without the other. They are, respectively, the means by which our creative forces are released, and the means by which they are most effectively put into action. The description above of Kotler’s early morning writing sessions makes clear, interestingly, that the two frequently overlap entirely.

There are tons of resources out there about how to get yourself into flow. One of the key means is to find something to work on that actually interests you. You’re probably not going to find flow working on your taxes — unless you’re really into that sort of thing.

Another key is to eliminate both internal and external distractions, and to work when you’re at your optimal time of day. (For me, that’s the morning not long after I’ve begun drinking my coffee.)

When I’m feeling distracted, I find that a good focus music track like the one I’m listening to right now can be helpful, too. I try to avoid anything with lyrics or aggressive beats. I want my music to flow in a way compatible with what I’m trying to coax from my mind.

See this, from Jari Roomer at Medium, for 10 “flow state triggers” that can help you get in the zone. Knowing that getting into flow is part of a process that is learnable and repeatable should help us find our way there more frequently.

I hope you’ll try a few of these over the weekend and see how you feel. I’m going to try to be more intentional about both non-time and flow myself.

Have a good weekend. I’ll see you next week.