NYC Subway + Tunnel Vision = Flow

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “…a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Thanks Wikipedia!

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

I know it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: New York City is awesome!

Where else do you have access to any cuisine, anytime, anywhere? There are so many different people from all over the world, in such a small geographic area. Want to take a cooking class? Pottery class? Join a Flash Mob? You name it, NYC’s got it!

And how does the city that never sleeps get people from point A to point B? Public transportation, a.k.a. the subway.

I was 12 years old the first time I rode the subway by myself. To put that in context for all you non-native New Yorkers, it was the emotional equivalent of getting my driver’s license.

One huge advantage of the subway, is since I’m not driving the train, I can get work done on the way. This goes back to Tony Robbin’s concept of No Extra Time or (N.E.T.) time, illustrated here with him answering emails while walking on a treadmill. I’m already riding the train anyway, so doing work would take zero extra time away from other things. And until we develop transporter technology, that’s not going to change anytime soon. By the way, any diehard Trekkie fans want to get on that? I’ll be the first on your waiting list!

It’s not all peaches and cream though. Here are some potential drawbacks of working on the subway:

  • No Internet access. This is not actually a problem, since there is always plenty of work that doesn’t require being “plugged in.” Anyone else feel like Neo from The Matrix sometimes? This mostly takes the form of writing (like this blog post!) and brainstorming (like the Mindstorm that generated the idea for this blog post!).
  • Major service changes that affect my usual route. This doesn’t usually happen, but if it does I need to actually pay attention to announcements which invariably distract me from my work. Sad face.
  • Very crowded trains. Fortunately, I rarely travel during rush hour. I make a point not to go anywhere before 2 pm unless absolutely necessary. If I’m downtown, I also make a point to stay out later until the evening rush hour ends at about 7 or 8.
  • The massively annoying and infamously un-entertaining “showtime” guys. I’m not sure who started it, but there are at least a dozen separate groups performing the same exact “show” these days. For those of you who don’t know, they blast loud hip hop music with a very strong bass, clap louder than your audiologist would recommend, and dance in the moving subway car. At least once during the performance they have a signature move of jumping onto the poles and twirling their way down. The only people who are impressed are out-of-towners. Clearly, these showtime guys are majorly disruptive. Fortunately I’ve managed to pinpoint which subway cars to avoid at specific times during the day. For example, they seem to be on a weekday loop during the day, getting on the 2nd or 3rd car from the front on the A train at 125th street. Why 125th? Because it’s the longest time between the next stop of 59th street and allows for maximum disturbance potential. I really want people to stop giving them money so they would learn that it is not a profitable way to spend their time. The fact that they continue to do it leads me to believe otherwise though. Wow, that was quite a rant. I must have been more upset about it than I realized!

Since I always like to end on a more positive note, here are some of the benefits of working on the subway:

  • Increased focus. I am able to concentrate remarkably well, with the help of in-ear headphones and the playing of music without lyrics. I make sure never to have it on so loud that I’m oblivious to my surroundings, but it’s enough to make everything else fade to background noise.
  • Movement & people. Sitting at home all day makes me feel physically restless and socially isolated. Riding the subway requires some physical movement and also surrounds me with people. #winwin
  • Fewer choices = less time deciding what to do. I’m either reading, listening to an audiobook (something I usually reserve for long walks in the city), or most of the time I’m reading or brainstorming. This takes some of the mental burden off of not knowing what to work on. It’s Barry Schwartz’s concept of the Paradox of Choice, we have so many options that we feel overwhelmed and end up doing nothing. Sound familiar?
  • Less pressure due to limited timeframe. When I arrive at my destination, the work must stop. That takes the perceived burden off of my shoulders in spending an indefinite amount of time on a particular task. I like that. It has the same impact as the 5 minute timer when I Mindstorm.
  • Helpful distractions. It allows for the option of momentary distractions and people watching. Again, it’s background noise so it doesn’t actually interfere with my focus if I’m in the zone, experiencing flow. However, if I hit a small road block or dead end of some kind, I can pause for a moment. I look up and people watch, and somehow it seems to help me come up with new ideas. I must have done that at least 4 or 5 times while writing the first draft of this post.

One last thing to point out is that on the subway ride home at the end of the day, it’s no longer my prime time for cognitive work. That’s why I do most of my self-tracking during that time. Diet Log, CANI Log, Life Balance Log, 1 Second Everyday, and of course the Subway Schedule Log.

The cool thing is that everyone works differently. It took me a while to become intimately familiar with my ideal working habits. Where do you work best? In an office? At home? At a coffee shop? On the train? Discuss!