The best use of time is to lose track of it

I’ve been writing about languishing, flow and focus. When I recently read about languishing and how to respond to it, I recognized numerous things in my life that relate to those concepts.

I often wonder if people think I’m talking too much about myself. One of the reasons I write is to explore new ideas, or organize my thoughts. I try to speak from my own experiences. As my friend Ronnie James says, “anyways, brag, brag, blah, blah”.

Today I want to work through some things in my life related to “flow” and focus that Adam Grant wrote about when he was discussing languishing. Perhaps something here might be of some use if you are experiencing languishing, yourself. It does seem many more people are languishing in response to the upheavals of the past few years.

So what can we do about it (languishing)? 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.

Fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence.

The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.

There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,
The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021
 by Adam Grant, The New York Times, April 28, 2021

Grant writes that “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”. I’ve long recognized flow in many things in my life. Some examples follow. In each of them, distractions disappear to the extent that is possible, depending on the environment I’m in. As Grant also says, “the lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard.”

As I’ve been thinking about this, I came up with: “the best use of time is to lose track of it.”

We need to create the conditions for uninterrupted blocks of time.

Yesterday I wrote about my writing, and Quaker worship as two examples of focus and “flow” in my life. How I need the first thing in the morning as time to write. And people know not to interrupt me during that time, as much as possible.

Quaker meeting for worship is a time a group gathers together for an uninterrupted hour or so for meditation or worship.

The best use of time is to lose track of it

Jeff Kisling

My professional career in medical research primarily involved writing computer software to automate testing and analyze data. There were many parts that were a significant challenge. A baby’s respirations were monitored and displayed in real time. Every 0.05 seconds three channels were read from the amplifiers for flow, airway pressure and jacket pressure. Each data point was converted to a digital value. A fourth channel, volume, was calculated by numerical integration of the flow signal over time. Then each of these values were displayed on a graph, so the test personnel could monitor how the patient was doing.

For the lung diffusion test discussed here, channels for various gas concentrations were also read and displayed. Concentrations of some gases were in the hundredths of a percent. (Read from a mass spectrometer).

A complex sequence of logic would determine when triggering various valves had to occur Again within milliseconds. Infant’s respiratory patterns were often “noisy”.

Adding to the complexity, major changes in the software tools were emerging nearly daily (really). Twenty percent of my time was spent on learning these emerging technologies. There was an inflection point where I completely wrote all the software in a new computer language.

It took three years to completely develop a test to measure the diffusion of gases in baby’s lungs. Ours was the only lab in the world that could then do this testing. And since, have used this test for a variety of research studies.

The only way I could do that was with nearly uninterrupted time for eight hours a day of the work week (and some weekends). There would be the usual interactions with my friends in the lab. But they knew I needed as much uninterrupted time as possible. Each day I would sit in front of my computer and begin to write code. Or plan how to code certain procedures. Or study the new emerging technologies or computer languages.

There were many times that were frustrating. Something that should take a relatively short time to do, would end up taking days or weeks. Or I might have no idea of how to code something. That meant learning new coding techniques. In the case of the software for the lung diffusion testing, this went on for three years. My colleagues were extremely patient. But there were times when we wondered if we should just give up.

Once the software was at the point of beginning to collect the data and trigger the valve sequences, others began to be involved. The software was used in a simulation setting. Then one of the doctors in the lab would have to painstakingly do manual calculations to validate the program’s calculations. That could take more than a day. Then we would have to figure out what changes were needed in the software. Then update the code. Run more simulations and then check with manual calculations again.

This complex programming could only have been done with intense focus. By creating the conditions in the lab where my “sense of time, place and self melted away”. This “flow” would be interrupted for lunch, then begin again, until the end of the day. I would lose sense of time, often surprised when I saw hours had passed.

I knew how fortunate I was to have a career that I enjoyed so much despite (or because of?) the challenges and frustrations.

As Gant wrote above: The lesson of this simple idea is to treat uninterrupted blocks of time as treasures to guard. It clears out constant distractions and gives us the freedom to focus. We can find solace in experiences that capture our full attention.


NOTE: Permissions were obtained for the use of the patient photos

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