Talking Points No.04: Time Millionaires, Flow States & the Concept of Metabolic Expensiveness

A Tig Series

Talking Points No.04: Time Millionaires, Flow States & the Concept of Metabolic Expensiveness

WE ARE FINALLY back with the fourth instalment of our popular series, Talking Points, and before we delve into this edition’s topics, I should tell you that I began compiling this list way back in late December 2022, when the term Time Millionaires was still a much discussed topic, usually alongside the Great Resignation, the latter of which, as of now, late-summer 2023, has all but ended. The other talking point, the science of flow states, was discovered in an article from around the same time, so it may also be slightly less topical today, but still incredibly important to know, especially given all that we know so far about the effects of social media on our collective pysche. The third, the concept of metabolic expensiveness, is of the now, as they say, so with these three, we have a well-rounded discussion.

The Science of Flow States

Do you remember the last time you were so caught up in something that time just fell away? It may have been painting or running, or cooking or pottery or anything that you really enjoyed doing so much, you became so totally immersed that you paid no attention to distractions and hours passed without your noticing. If you can remember such a time, then you were most likely in a flow state.

FLOW STATES, also known as being “in the zone”, are optimal states of consciousness where a person is fully immersed in an activity with intense focus, involvement, and enjoyment. And the science of flow studies how these states are achieved and their effects on performance, motivation, and well-being. Flow is a subjective state experienced when there is a balance between the challenges of an activity and your skills: too challenging creates anxiety, and too easy leads to boredom. In flow, there is just the right amount of challenge to engage your skills fully. Flow states induce intense focus and concentration, to the point where you lose awareness of everything else around you, including your sense of time. Flow is intrinsically rewarding, providing enjoyment and fulfilment separate from external rewards like money or recognition. That is, the activity itself becomes autotelic, or worth doing for its own sake. I’ve often fallen into flow states while working.

According The Guardian, where I first encountered this term, “Flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer.” The article goes on to discuss how social media and many other facets of modern life are destroying our ability to concentrate, from the food we eat to the air we breathe, the hours we work, and the hours we no longer sleep, and looks at how these factors contribute to our continual cognitive degradation. It reveals, “A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. This isn’t happening because we all individually became weak-willed. Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.” It makes the case that our attention spans have not simply collapsed due to personal failings, but are being actively hijacked by outside forces such as technology, work demands and environmental factors. (Flow is intrinsically rewarding, yet scrolling social media activates our extrinsic motivation for likes and comments, which undermines the intrinsic joy that sustains flow. The variable rewards of social media activate the brain’s dopamine-seeking system making it hard to disengage, which in turn competes with the neurochemical rewards sustaining flow.) Back to the article, which states that we need to reclaim our minds while we still can through firstly, individual changes like limiting screen time, practicing meditation, reducing multitasking, etc. to improve focus. And secondly, through collective action by addressing the societal and environmental factors harming attention: constant work connectivity expectations, manipulative social media, etc. It argues that we need collective action and policies to address these forces stealing our attention, such as France’s legal “right to disconnect”.

By fully engaging your attention, flow enhances performance and boosts productivity and achievement, as studies show. Flow states activate the reward centres of the brain, releasing neurochemicals like endorphins, which contribute to the pleasurable, addictive nature of flow. But how is flow actually achieve? It tends to occur more easily when activities have clear goals, provide immediate feedback on performance, and allow a sense of control while reducing distractions. Sports, games, artistic activities and work tasks can readily induce flow. The conditions for flow can potentially be cultivated through practices like mindfulness, setting clear goals, matching challenges to your current skill level, and learning to tune out distractions. Understanding the science of flow gives insight into how to enhance performance, motivation, creativity, and happiness in all areas of life.

To learn more about Flow States, click here.

The Science of Flow States

TIME MILLIONAIRES measure their worth not in terms of financial capital, but according to the seconds, minutes and hours they reclaim from employment for leisure and recreation. In essence, Time Millionaires measure their wealth in terms of how much free time they have to do what they want, and money is seen only as a tool in order to regain as much time back as possible (usually denoted in seconds). The basic idea is that one’s free time can be valued like money or other assets, and the term refers to those who have structured their lives and finances in a way that allows them an unusually high amount of free time and flexibility compared to a conventional full-time job. This life path prioritises time freedom over pursuing ever higher incomes. I chose this path way back in 2009, when I left office life forever. I was working at a top interior design magazine at the time, in a position that I thought would be my dream job. It turned out to be more corporate than creative, so when I left, I inadvertently became a time millionaire and have never looked back.

In The Financial Times, Nilanjana Roy writes, “But I wish we were taught to place as high a value on our time as we do on our bank accounts – because how you spend your hours and your days is how you spend your life.” Sirin Kale, in her October 2021 article for The Guardian on the topic, makes a case against workaholism and for embracing leisure time as equally valid and valuable as traditional productivity, advocating the fundamental shift of how society thinks about success, work, and time. She takes the concept further by suggesting that we move beyond the transactional idea of “time millionaires” and recognise the scarcity and importance of time itself.

Metabolic Expensiveness

Some activities use up more energy in the body than others. How much energy an activity uses is called its “metabolic cost.” Metabolism is all the chemical processes that happen inside living things to keep them alive and let them do different jobs. The body gets the energy for metabolism by breaking down food and stored fuels such as fat or glycogen. Metabolism involves building up, breaking down, and changing molecules to make energy and carry out important tasks. An activity is metabolically expensive if it takes a lot of energy from metabolism and requires the body to burn large amounts of calories or use up chemical resources. On the cellular level, activities like protein synthesis (the assembling of amino acids into functioning proteins), ion transport across membranes, and cell division, are very energy-intensive. At the organ level, the brain is one of the most metabolically expensive organs, using around 20% of the body’s calories just to maintain its function.

In exercise or physical activity, certain movements or exercises can be metabolically expensive because they require a high level of energy expenditure from the body. For example, running a marathon has an extremely metabolic cost as it takes tons of energy from metabolism to move the body that far and that fast. On the other hand, sitting quietly doesn’t require much energy expenditure and therefore has low metabolic expense. Similarly, in the context of animal behaviour, certain activities such as flying, running, or hunting may be considered metabolically expensive due to the energy demands they impose on the organism. Maintaining a high body temperature is also metabolically expensive for endothermic animals like mammals and birds, as they have to constantly burn calories to generate heat.

Understanding which activities have high or low metabolic demands can help people meet their energy needs. Knowing the metabolic costs involved in different body processes provides insights into how the body works. Metabolically expensive activities or processes require a disproportionate amount of energy expenditure relative to other processes. Evolutionary pressures tend to favour efficiency, so organisms and cells try to minimise metabolically expensive activities where possible, but some energy-intensive processes are necessary for survival, so managing energy budgets is an important part of physiology and metabolism.

The term “metabolically expensive” is primarily used in the context of biological processes and physiological activities within an organism, and typically refers to the energy expenditure required by the organism itself. While the concept of metabolic expensiveness is primarily rooted in the biological realm, it can also be used metaphorically to describe the energy demands imposed by certain people or situations on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being. That is, the concept can be used to describe social, psychological or emotional situations that impose a toll on an our mental and physical resources. Certain people or situations can be considered metabolically expensive if they require significant mental or emotional energy, leading to exhaustion or increased physiological stress. For instance, engaging in highly demanding social interactions, such as intense debates or conflicts, can be mentally and emotionally taxing. These situations may elicit stress responses and require significant cognitive resources to navigate, which can result in increased metabolic demands. Similarly, prolonged exposure to chronic stress, whether due to work pressure, personal challenges, or difficult relationships, can have physiological effects on the body. Chronic stress can disrupt hormonal balance, affect sleep patterns, and contribute to an overall increase in metabolic demand.

Extending the metaphor of metabolical expensiveness to the psychological/social realm can help illustrate the draining effects of toxic relationships, high-pressure work, and other energy-sapping situations. Just as cells must judiciously manage biochemical energy budgets, individuals have limited cognitive and emotional reserves. When those reserves are continually taxed, it can manifest physically through fatigue, adrenal impairment, and dysregulated metabolic processes. Hence the very good internet aphorism, “Your energy is your currency. Spend it well. Invest it wisely.”

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