What to Do with Autotelic Tendencies

“An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

That’s the “flow state” guy basically describing me. I don’t need a lot of stuff. Fewer, better quality, more comfortable things beat quantity for it’s own sake. Clutter is distracting. What I desire is to be doing things. That’s what makes me happy. Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow. The Church of the SubGenius calls it slack. Some Buddhists refer to it as zen.

Yet, that’s why I’m a workaholic, and currently suffering from burnout. I try to do too much. There are too many projects to work on, too many books to read, too many movies to watch, too many recipes to try, too many museums to visit, and so on, and so on, and so on. I overwhelm myself with trying to cram too much into any single given day.

Because, paradoxically, I’m content.

The reality that I need to maintain deadlines so I can pay the bills looms ever-present. That doesn’t mean that everything has to have a S.M.A.R.T. goal attached to it. Some things ought to be done only for the joy of doing them. Those things need to be managed so that there’s enough space for both work and play.

I need to be taking my minimalist razor and cutting out things I don’t need to make space for the things I do. There are tasks and activities that aren’t necessary, or at least don’t have to be worked on right now. What I need to do is revisit Tim Ferriss’s concept of the minimal effective dose. What is the least I can do in order to get the result I want? Where is the point of diminishing returns, where additional effort no longer results in additional reward?

There are things that just can’t be cut out of my schedule, or my life, but I can cut back on them. I can select the things that I get the most reward from, whether that’s profession projects that offer the best return on investment, hobbies that make me the most happy, or personal projects that give me the most satisfaction. I need to be minimalist about my autotelic tendencies.

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