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Breaking Flow States: Avoiding the Squirrel Effect

Breaking flow states: avoiding the squirrel effect
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It’s harvest season, which for me means 500lbs of potatoes have to come out. I always dread this part. It’s grueling work. This is one habit that must be broken up into several days if I want to avoid injury.

Also around this time, there is a little squirrel who likes to come eat my sunflowers. As winter approaches, squirrels go into a frenzy. There’s no such thing as “enough” for them. They hoard and hoard and hoard, to make sure they make it through the winter. So far I’ve seen 10 ripe corn disappear, dozens of tomatoes, and even one potato.

This type of hoarding mentality illustrates a good habit principle that we’ll talk about today, and it’s related to what I discovered while harvesting potatoes.

Here I am writing my newsletter, but if I didn’t have the Multihabit system to keep my perspectives in check, I’d probably still be harvesting potatoes. I took out 100lbs this morning, and was tempted to get out the remaining 150 or so just to be done with it.

But I also had a goal to get my newsletter done so it can be processed and scheduled for Tuesday. (I write these every Friday.)

When balancing multiple habits, we have to look past how just to put in lots of time on one habit. Instead, we have to ask — just where do we draw the line on any one habit with respect to the overall balance of every other one? This is especially true with habits that put you in a state of flow — such as taking out your potatoes when you feel you could just keep going and going.

I call this avoiding the squirrel effect, named after my garden friend.

When I first started tracking habits, it was just my writing time. This was back in 2017 and I was eager to put in as much time as I could manage. But over the months, this led to burnout. Weeks would go by and I would not see friends, or I’d sometimes pull all-nighters because I had too much on my plate. I had no sense of where to say “no”.

I was under the influence of the squirrel effect.

The revolutionary step that led me to create the Multihabit system was to realize that, aside from writing, I could track other habits. Over the years, accompanied by a few others who have shared my tracking spreadsheet system, I was able to define all the areas that I want to put time in on.

Fast forward to my present challenge with the potatoes.

Going into 2022 I knew I wanted to put in some serious garden time, so I defined it as a habit. This means, when I’m out in the garden, I have a timer on and I’m tracking it the same way I would any other habit I want to balance. This has helped me learn how to avoid the squirrel effect.

Here I am writing my newsletter, and when viewed as a whole, today is more of a success because not only did I get 100lbs of potatoes out, I also met this newsletter deadline. Even better, because of how I balanced the day, I got this done early so I can enjoy an evening with family without having to work before bed. Triple bonus!

What about those potatoes, though?

Context is always important. If there was a sudden frost and temperature drop, or several days of rain, I’d be changing my strategy. But as it happens, we have a week of beautiful weather ahead. This just means tomorrow I can enjoy some more time with the potatoes, and as well, feel great about it because I know my newsletter is done. I’ll likely have had a better sleep too, since I’m not working late to meet deadlines.

All in all, I’ll feel balanced, and like I can keep doing consistent time on these habits that previously burned me out.

This touches on a concept related to flow states, which I call flow streams. If we think of a flow state as a session of unbroken attention on a particularly engrossing activity, then think of a flow stream as a way of keeping this kind of unbroken attention going across days — as though you never stopped.

My potato harvest has become a flow stream. I am in day 4 of it right now. Every day I’ve gone out to the garden and for 2 unbroken hours, I’ve harvested potatoes. Each day I resumed, it’s as though nothing happened to stop me last time.

Flow streams are created when you learn to avoid the squirrel effect. Over time practicing this technique, you start to see larger projects can be broken up into sessions like this. Not only can you develop flow states for these shorter, more sustainable periods each time, but you can generate a stream of consecutive flow states until the larger project is done.

This newsletter is another example of a flow stream. Every Friday, I open my Scrivener project where I have article ideas organized into categories, and I jump into whatever feels freshest. This is a great example too because it shows how a flow stream can occur with several days’ gap in between sessions. What matters most is, your goal is very clear, so there will be no uncertainty about what you’re supposed to be doing when you pick it up next.

I hope you’re enjoying this newsletter. Stay tuned for next Tuesday, when we’ll explore yet more ideas built around the Multihabit system.


p.s. if you enjoy this newsletter and have suggestions for future articles, please hit “reply” and let me know.