Is what you are directing your attention towards deepening your understanding of some topic, or strengthening your relationships? Or are you wasting your attention energy into something that will not build your consciousness?
I enjoy books that can apply to every passing moment of my life. One has been Good Business by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It has a deceiving name, posing as a business book.
My understanding of the author is that his fundamental proposal is to do things to allow you to reach a flow state, even in your every day experience. He contends that by striving for a flow state, we grow by taking on bigger and bigger challenges, and by building up our skills.
He makes a specific argument in Chapter “Flow and Growth” that who we are is a collection of experiences. More specifically, it’s the collection of the attention that we’ve decided to give to different things along the way.
He goes on to argue that:
Psychic energy is consumed when the attention we invest does not produce any change in the mind – when no lasting memories are laid down, no new skills develop, no relationships are strengthened. When a person uses up a fraction of his life and nothing complex results from it, he is wasting his psychic energy. By contrast psychological capital is built up when the attention invested results in a more complex consciousness – more refined skills, a fuller understanding of some subject, a deeper relationship. This usually takes place when we use our skills to confront a higher l level of challenges – in other words, when we experience flow. These are the kind of investments of attention that will bring returns later in the form of an improved quality of life.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Good Business” (2003).
I think a quick response to this would be, “But I’m wrecked after work, and all I can do is cook dinner and watch Netflix with a beer”. There’s been a couple of fantastic TV shows I’ve seen that have indeed changed my thinking, including Seven Up. Another was the documentary Vincent Van Gogh: Painted In His Own Words. Most shows and movies don’t seem like a good enough investment of attention.
One grey area here is that you may not know ahead of time if the experience you’re about to give attention to will help you build your consciousness. Will reading a certain book or reading a certain blog post be an investment in your psychological capital? For me the answer to that is, if you’re being honest with yourself, you can be pretty sure you’re heading in the right directly.
There’s another argument that we need rest, not creating more complex consciousness. I think that entirely lies in with Mihaly’s advice. If you feel like taking a rest, but do it in a way that sustains you. I must tell myself that checking my Twitter feed or reading the news is not a way to rest and sustain my energy. However, resting with a book or chatting to your partner or being really in the present moment all seem like positive ways for me to spend recovery time.