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Are We Wired to Work?

A little effort can leave us feeling better and more motivated.

Key points

  • Exerting effort may be preferred to doing nothing at all.
  • Effort is a factor that helps us achieve the flow state.
  • We tend to experience greater satisfaction and motivation when we are working toward something.
Annie Spratt/Unpslash
Annie Spratt/Unpslash

“This Sunday, I’m not doing anything,” I declared to my family during a dinner the week before. “I just need a down day, nothing scheduled, nothing required of me. Nothing I have to do.”

Then I cast a stern look around the table. Heads nodded. Seemed like everyone knew Mommy needed a break.

It had been a frantic couple of weeks with a couple of funerals, a big work deadline, dinner with friends, a school program—all the life—and I was looking forward to sleeping in and waking up slowly with a strong cup of coffee; everything else was up for grabs. No plans, remember?

The coffee was good, even if I wound up drinking it a little earlier than I wanted. But I was antsy by about 10 a.m. What would I do with a day where I had nothing to do?

Do Nothing or Something?

Downtime is essential, we all need to have moments where we can calm down, regroup, reflect. Meditation and mini-breaks throughout our busiest times benefit our health and well-being.

And a whole day free from planning, fixing, figuring-outing, managing? The thought was enticing. But putting that plan into practice was harder than expected.

When given the choice—which we rarely have—most people say they would choose the path of least effort. If we can avoid work, it's generally assumed we will. But a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology indicates that we’d rather be busy than bored.

In 12 different experiments, 2,311 participants were asked to choose between doing nothing or tackling a task. There was no penalty for those who chose to do nothing.

Most of the experiments gave participants a choice between staring at a blank screen and taking on a minimally challenging task such as a simple addition problem. In another participants could opt to take on a task or watch a computer do it.

In the end, researchers found that people were more likely to take on the harder task requiring more cognitive effort, rather than an easier exercise or doing nothing at all.

Effort and Flow

In fact, effort is a required element when it comes to creating that sought-after feeling of flow.

A flow state, where we become so immersed in an activity that we lose all sense of time, can occur when we are doing something that is challenging and requires our fullest effort, yet one we can improve on, enjoy, or accomplish. This combination of elements, including motivation and concentration, can lead to “intense experiential activity" and one we will seek out again though there is no external reward, according to famed flow researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others.

Yet, on my designed day off, I was about as far from flow as you can be. I wasn't bored, per se but I wasn't engaged. I felt lethargic. Restless. Like I wasn't contributing. Time crawled.

So what did I do? I went to the computer and went to work on my novel. At first it was hard to focus and get started, but after about 20 minutes, I made good progress. In the end, I felt satisfied that I'd worked through a particularly hard stretch and felt exhilarated.

When I came out of the office, I was surprised to discover most of the afternoon had passed.

And instead of feeling lethargic or tired, you know what I felt? Energized. Happy. My effort had paid off, leaving me feeling revitalized in a way that loafing around the whole day didn’t.

Turns out doing nothing might require more effort than doing something.

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