Which Digit Should You Sever?

Bespectacled man with an axe at the filling station

Recently I picked up another book from the eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. In this work, Csikszentmihalyi follows up on his seminal book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Long-time Happenchance readers know that I’ve made much hay about the flow state and how, in my opinion, we create our best work when we lose track of time, forget ourselves, and become one with our work. (For an introduction to flow, check out my cleverly-titled post What Is Flow?)

In this book, Csikszentmihalyi makes the following statement, and I think it succinctly sums up why we spend our free time working on creative projects. To paraphrase:

The creative life may not make you rich or famous, but your everyday life will be more rewarding and fulfilling.

Unfortunately, our desire and intention to create is thwarted and we find ourselves unmotivated, apathetic, disinterested, and prone to excessive procrastination. Csikszentmihalyi identifies four major reasons why this happens:

  1. We have too many demands on our time, focus, and attention. Our psychic energy is dissipated and it becomes difficult to enter the flow state because our mental engagement muscles are fatigued.
  2. Too many distractions in our immediate sphere of attention prevents us from being able to channel our energy into our work.
  3. We are lazy and undisciplined in our approach to our creative work.
  4. We have energy but aren’t sure what to do with it.

To counter these four obstacles, Csikszentmihalyi recommends we let go of certain pursuits. For multipotentialites like so many of us are, choosing which pursuits to abandon is like being forced by an axe-weilding madman to decide which digit to sever, and from what I understand, the obvious choice, the pinkie toe, is vital to your balance, so this decision necessarily requires considerable deliberation.

Our work is often so close to us that it feels like an extension of ourselves, and the choice is a brutal one.

However, severing certain projects (but probably not digits) often proves beneficial. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the quality of our experience improves in proportion to the effort invested. In short, the more you do something, the better you become, and you can only become better when you narrow your focus. (See also: Stop Whining and Start Grinding).

I would add that the creative rewards are greater when we’re not just going through the motions but applying diligent and deliberate practice. For example, if you’re a musician, this means not just playing through a song as you’d like to hear it, but slowing the tempo down to largo, breaking the piece into its component parts, digging in to ensure that each part is perfect, and that each time you play the song, you play it better than the time before.

In  the past, I’ve written about why I think laser focus is a myth. However, I can easily square position this with my previous recommendations: Csikszentmihalyi isn’t saying individuals should abandon everything but that One Big Project. Instead, he suggests to abandon those things which you elect to do but don’t derive that much benefit from.

Creativity and good creative work results from a combination of ideas and pursuits. Scrap the extraneous stuff, but keep mashing up your different interests until you have something that is uniquely yours.

Further, some activities complement each other like tomatoes and cucumbers. For me, a smashing solution to a writing-related problems is to play the piano. Conversely, when I’m experience a particular piano-playing problem, writing seems to engage areas of my brain that allow my subconscious mind to solve said problems.

To abandon one in favor of the other would be to the detriment of both and would probably leave me off-balance and bloody.

How you decide what (if anything) to abandon, that’s up to you. For me, I let go of the things I

  • notoriously avoid doing.
  • felt drained after finally doing.
  • only tried out of curiosity.
  • have no reasonable expectation of mastery or excellence (the world is full of half-asses. No need to swell their ranks).

Share with (almost) 5,000 monthly readers: What projects or pursuits have you abandoned in favor of others? What results did you experience? And for my more morbid readers (and I know you’ve all thought about this): if you had to lose a digit, which one would it be? 


Photo credit: artiomp

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