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%.

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