The Emotional Stages of a Project: Pain, Flow, and Bliss

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Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: I know it happens to me.

So you’ve set a goal for yourself to go to the gym today. You’re resolved to not skip out. About half an hour before your workout you start dreading the whole thing. You somehow muster the energy to go.

And once you’re working out, the first 15 minutes are pure pain. Most of this pain is in the form of thinking: you don’t know why you force yourself to work out, you are dreading the cardio you’re gonna do, or dreading how heavy you know the weights will be.

But then something weird happens: after those 15minutes you stop struggling with those inner thoughts, your breath has caught up to this task in front of you, and although you’re still sweating and feeling the burn, your mind and body are both in agreement that this exercise is a necessary evil, hey, might as well try to work together to get through it in one piece.

You’ll have this feeling for a good 30 minutes or so, depending on your level of proficiency with exercising. Then after these 30minutes, when you’re almost at the end of your workout, you start to experience a form of joy. Yes, joy that you know this is gonna end soon, but also joy that you were able to rise to the occasion. Pride in the fact that you are still going at it, and are not as worthless as you were thinking in the beginning.

Go ahead, you’re done for the day, it’s totally normal to smirk at yourself in the mirror on your way to the showers.

This whole process I have just described is a great example of the internal feelings attached to ANY activity or project. And it can be our worst enemy or biggest ally.

As you can tell by the title: I refer to the first emotional stage of a project as Pain, the second is Flow, and the third is Bliss.

Since some of my freelance gigs slowed down, I’ve been driving Uber full time to keep the bills paid , and I noticed that Pain Flow Bliss applies here too. When I start my day it’s just a big ball of Pain. Now don’t get me wrong, the job is pretty sweet: I love meeting new people and learning about the millions of stories New York City has to offer. But Pain Flow and Bliss show up because there’s a goal to the activity each day: to make money. For the first two hours of my driving shift all I feel is anxiety and pain because I keep thinking: “I need to hit X amount of dollars today, but the goal is so far away…” Every little bit of traffic irritates me during these first two hours. It’s a form of Pain.

Then, the next four hours of my shift I’m focused, I’m no longer going through mental anguish, I’ve acquired tunnel vision and my mind is focused on getting to the next traffic light before seeing red. My breathing is strong and steady. This is essentially what the scientist, he has a challenging name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is what he, that guy, termed as Flow.

Flow happens when we’re fully immersed in a challenging activity. It requires our full attention, but we have a bit of confidence in how to get this activity finished.

Then, towards the end of my shift, it all becomes bliss. I’m usually close to my Dollar goal, and I am ecstatic that I didn’t let the traffic derail me. I feel like I could keep driving for hours and hours. It actually takes effort to STOP accepting new trips. I feel like I could keep working forever! This is the epitome of Bliss.

I argue that Pain Flow Bliss is present if you’re doing something trivial, like mowing your lawn, but also if you’re doing something colossal, like writing a book. And the process has a very predictable time breakdown, let me show you:


Remember I said the first two hours of driving Uber were the painful ones? And the middle four were Flow, then the last two or so were usually blissful. That’s the common thread I’ve found in all the activities I do: the first 25% of the time is spent in Pain, the middle 50% in Flow, and the last 25% in Bliss.

Now, to clarify, I’m using examples of an activity that lasts a couple hours. But the fascinating thing about this concept is that it applies to a project that takes a week, or many weeks, or even years. Think about it like a piece of brocolli, every little stalk is comprised of smaller little stalks that are Juuuust like it. If you look under a microscope, you see this division happens infinitely. With projects, every stage of Pain Flow Bliss is also made up of smaller emotional stages that also feel like mini episodes of pain flow and bliss.

I think this is very useful to know before starting any activity or project, because if you’re aware, then you can learn to let your emotions do their thing, while continuing to push through. We often give up during the Pain phase, and forget that the other 75% of our time will be super-enjoyable.

Even more important, I think Pain Flow Bliss tells the truth about the value of rewards. If we consider bliss being the reward of our efforts, but yet it’s really only a quarter of our time, then it reframes work as its OWN reward. The process is mostly about Flow, NOT about the reward of Bliss. Our life isn’t about the end of the process, it’s about the challenging–yet meaty– middle. The plaque on the wall with your name on it isn’t the purpose of it all, the real purpose is the time spent on earning it. If we wait to live until we’re in the reward zone, we’ll miss out on 75% of our life.

My favorite youtube vlogger, Casey Neistat, learned an important lesson after his early success with his HBO show. He got this big check for the show when HBO bought this series that he made with a home video camera, and then he spent like 3 years where he didn’t release much content. He would start work on a new video, and then be paralyzed by perfectionism. None of these new projects ever got finished, and he would put it away, then start a new one, only to give up due to the pain he was feeling from the pressure of living up to his previous success. What evolved from this was three long years of pain after pain after pain. The moments of Flow were rare, not to mention that he rarely got to experience the Bliss of completion.

After these three years he one day vowed to always finish what he started. Whether the result was shitty or not, going forward every video he started shooting would get posted up on Youtube for the world to see. This type of thinking allowed him to create the Nike video “Make It Count” that has over 20 million views. Now he has 4million subscribers and was named GQs New Media Man of The Year. He started releasing daily vlogs on his Youtube channel, He experiences Bliss every day. Because he finishes.

If we give up during the pain, then we’ll never get to feel the joys of Tunnel Vision, of flow, and later, bliss. We stay in the panic zone, and life becomes one big panic attack.

Pain on top of pain on top of pain sets up a horrible feedback loop. We never get to refill our energy reserves if we don’t get to feel the joy of finishing something. Going forward, I hope to persevere through the pain of the first 25%, I want to live life in the other 75%.

Solo Episode: Three Reasons Why You Need a Side Project

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One of the coolest places to grab food or drinks in New York City is called the Coffee Shop, it’s right by Union Square. When you go there, you’ll be greeted by a tall blonde, she looks as if she’s straight out of a runway, or right out of the screen from the latest horror flick. And there’s a higher-than-average chance that she’ll make it as an actress, this place, The Coffee Shop, is known for hiring talented young people. Maxwell, the Grammy-winning R&B singer used to work there as a busboy before he made it big. I even have a good friend of from college, he worked there too, and now you can find him in shows like Girls, Law and Order, and acclaimed independent movies. My goal here isn’t to give you the lowdown on spots where gorgeous people serve you your french toast, my point is that the thing that fills your wallet and the thing that fills your soul are rarely the same thing.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be. In the future. Right now though, don’t beat yourself up over having a day job. Hey, the bills gotta get paid.

In this episode my sole purpose is to convince you that you NEED to have a side project or hobby. Even if you’re not looking to change careers or branch out on your own, having a side-project will rock your world. Here are THREE reasons why you need to start working on a side-project.

Reason #1: Side projects release the stress of everyday life

Life is tough. This isn’t news to anyone. Work gets more demanding each day. Friends drift farther away. And the Mets keep letting us down every year. Life just keeps pounding away. This every-day grind isn’t easy to put up with.

So what do we do? On our free time, we medicate. We use drinks, or drugs, or sex, or excessive TV watching to just get away from our problems. These are the forms of release we resort to. But these methods of escape provide diminishing returns. If today one drink was enough to get you by, tomorrow you’ll need two. The same goes for all the quick fixes I mentioned earlier… The returns become less and less, and the toll on your well-being becomes greater and greater. You can’t keep this up.

BUT, what if you picked up a hobby or side-project to work on every day after you get home from your job? I argue that this is the best way to release all that tension that life creates inside us. You can’t control whether your boss is having a good day or a bad day, but when you sit down to sketch for an hour at night, that piece of white paper is a universe you can control. You can determine how much of that blank slate is covered, you can determine what it communicates. And this is a great feeling. 15minutes into sketching, or into writing, or working on your car, you forget why you were even upset in the first place.

Joseph Campbell, a very smart scholar who studied culture and myths, developed a wonderful theory of how to live a better life. One of his key suggestions was “Follow Your Bliss” Bliss is simply a moment when you’re doing something that brings you joy. He said: If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.

Modern life is full of obligations and distractions that must be dealt with before we can get time to ourselves. Take care of those, but then take care of yourself. You can do this in just an hour a day, by working on a side project that brings you bliss.

Reason #2: Side projects make you better at your day job

It’s a running joke with my friends: I tell them that if you want to ruin any activity for me, just pull me into a conversation in the middle of the activity. Forget walking and chewing gum, I can’t even walk and talk at the same time. It’s like whatever capacity for verbal communication God grants to humans at birth, I think he forgot to give to me.

By nature, I’m one of those people where verbal communication requires most of my mental energy. I was great at math growing up, but I struggled with language. I was never much of a talker, I was friendly, but shy, if that makes any sense. Writing a paragraph was the biggest punishment you could give me. In my SATs I scored in the 93rd percentile for Math, that’s very good. And then in the verbal part I scored like 54th percentile, as average as it comes, and this took LOTS of effort.

But I dreamed of being a good communicator, just because this seemed like such a DRASTIC CHANGE. So later as an adult, I took up a hobby of writing every day after work. At first it was just 15minutes, and over time I found myself being able to sit for an hour to write. Then I joined Toastmasters, a club to hellp you get better at speaking and communication.

Now, I’m not saying I’m great at any of this, but most of the progress I’ve made in my career has come because my managers say I’m a good communicator, I know how to get others on the same page. This is a dream come true for me.

And this is not magic, this is simply a by-product of having a side-hobby. When you work on something and there’s no pressure to hit quotas, your mind shifts into a special gear. I’ll be dedicating a whole separate episode to what this special gear really is, but for now, let’s just say that this special gear we shift into, accelerates your learning. The learning that you do while you’re working on your side-project STICKS with you during regular life. This will make you a much better employee, a much better team member at work, and a better leader. Pretty soon you might find yourself having superpowers that were previously just a dream.

Reason #3: Side Projects Give You Hope

One of my favorite books ever is The Alchemist. The author of this book, Paulo Coelho, has a quote from a different book that I also love. He wrote “The poet would die of hunger if there were no shepherds. The shepherd would die of sadness if he could not sing the words of the poet.” In this quote I just read, to me the shepherd represents how we go about fulfilling our basic human needs: water, food, shelter, etc… The poet represents the needs that fall higher on the pyramid. The spiritual and emotional needs that keep us mentally sane. For me, HOPE is one of these important emotional MUST HAVES. When you go to work on Monday even though you’d rather stay in bed, you do this because you HOPE and expect, that you’ll be paid on Friday. You also hope that you’ll get promoted and get a bigger paycheck sometime soon.

Side projects bring you that hope in your personal life. Your hobbies fill you up with excitement. When you finish writing your short story, you have hope that someone will read it and like it. Even if it’s just one person, the hope is there. If you don’t have a hobby or side project, the best you can look forward to is for a new season of Narcos to be released on Netflix. Then what?! Give yourself the gift of hope. You need it just like you need water and food.

The Good News

The good news is, all it takes is just an hour a day. I understand that creating an extra hour of available time is difficult, but it’s much tougher to enjoy a life with no project you can call your own, and no moments of real bliss.

If you’ve stuck around with us for this long, then I think you’re becoming convinced, deep down you KNOW that you need to start working on your side project. This side project or hobby will help you release the stress of everyday life. As it happened to me, this side project will help you build skills that you didn’t even know you had in you. And this side project will give you hope.

A side project can co-exist with a day job. One feeds your stomach, the other feeds your soul. The magic of it all is, just like Maxwell and that blonde serving you your lunch, a side-project, if you’re determined enough, can one day become a career.

Insanul Ahmed: Become a Genius at Spotting Trends

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Insanul Ahmed is a Senior Editor at Genius and he’s made a career out of studying culture. In this episode we hear the story of how he got into journalism, how he spots trends, leverages controversy, and his decision-making when it comes to choosing the projects he’ll be working on.

Music written and produced by Ben Murray-Smith

This episode is sponsored by Freshbooks, cloud accounting for the non-accountant.

Sunni Brown: Visual Thinking for Better Projects and Opportunities

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Sunni Brown is an accomplished Author and Entrepreneur whose mission has been to teach people how to solve problems through visual thinking. She has a great story of how she stumbled upon this career path, and how she learned to put visual thinking to work on her own projects.

In this episode we’ll hear all about her journey and how we must start to think differently if we’re going to find our best ideas. We also discuss the reason that most of us don’t use all the resources at our disposal, as well as how to change all that.

Music written and produced by Ben Murray-Smith

This episode is sponsored by Freshbooks, cloud accounting for the non-accountant.

How a Side Project Turns into a Career – with Kirby Ferguson

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Kirby Ferguson created the viral documentary Everything is a Remix in his spare time, just as a little side project outside of his day job. After the instant buzz it received, Kirby was able to leverage his side project into a full-fledged career as a film-maker and video producer.

In this episode we’ll hear from Kirby on how the idea for Everything is a Remix first surfaced, then we’ll see how the success of that project turned into its own business, and then we’ll use his story to extract tips on how one should balance the work once we’ve turned a passion into an occupation.

Kirby’s new project is called This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, and it’s superb! Check it out.

Music written and produced by Ben Murray-Smith

This episode is sponsored by Freshbooks, cloud accounting for the non-accountant.