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Challenge is the third of the major core concepts of OptimalWork. Through challenging ourselves, we engage our whole self in the process of growth and reach our peak attention and performance.

Preliminary Topic Outline

The Idea Behind Challenge

  • Application of the athlete's mindset to our daily tasks
    • Runner practicing for an event needs a stopwatch
    • Pole-vaulter needs a pole to measure progress
    • And the use of high-intensity training, just beyond one's historical capacity, to create that progress
  • Seeing one's own work, and ability to work, as a skill to be developed
  • Challenge as the way to be constantly improving
  • Psychological benefits of flow, too

Reframing Adrenaline

  • Jeremy Jamieson's "Turning Knots into Bows"
  • Allison Wood Brooks' study on public speaking
  • Closely related to the concept of reframing: seeing the surge of catecholamines as good
  • There are some circumstances in which adrenaline naturally arises due to the nature of the task
  • Cultivation and crafting of challenge allows for one's adrenaline to be called forth at any time
  • Chronic effects of stress (negatively appraised adrenaline) vs. beneficial effects of reframed adrenaline

Neurological Effects of Challenge

  • Sends person into flow
  • Colloquial description of flow:
    • Effortless attention
    • Optimal efficiency of the brain
    • Clear sequencing of tasks within the overarching goal
    • Being in the "zone"
  • Allows the brain to be in continued mindful attention (parasympathetic activation) while re-engaging the sympathetic nervous system to enhance the mind's capabilities
  • Brain in harmony; 3 axes and hierarchies in the brain
  • Sends rush of acetylcholine and norepinephrine into the brain
  • [Will need to find fMRI studies that demonstrate the areas of relative activation of specific brain regions]
  • Increased plasticity and ability to rewire while surpassing one's own abilities, enabling maximum brain change
  • Also re-engages the default-mode network as a sequencing tool that carries your attention forward to the next step along the way

Can There Be Too Much Challenge?

  • Original conception of the Yerkes-Dodson Lawn (1908)
    • "Complex tasks" had the relationship to stress that most people know
    • But "simple tasks" had no upper limit to the amount of arousal that could be beneficial
    • OptimalWork claims that "complex" and "simple" were unconscious proxies for the subjective sense of "I can rise to this challenge" that is captured in reframing
      • Thus, reframed challenges can always be improved by the entry of autonomic arousal
  • Dienstbier: No limit to the benefit of naturally-evoked peripheral catecholamines
  • Hans Selye: Stress as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change
    • Stress as necessary for change to result
  • Jamieson's collection of sAA levels in 2010 study

Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges

  • Quantitative:
    • Amount per hour
    • "How much of this task can I possibly accomplish within the time I've allotted to myself?"
    • Can clearly measure improvement
    • Good introductory concept, but has limitations:
      • In some tasks, some people may truly have reached their own human limits (e.g. manual work, reading, or doing anything that involves learning, which does require some temporal engagement for encoding purposes
      • In other tasks, especially with academic work, it can be difficult to know exactly how long a specific task will take
  • Thus, qualitative:
    • Incorporates the ideals we identify in reframing and sets about using them as metrics for growth
    • For example:
      • "How can I do this task as generously as I can?"
      • "How can I approach this hour more patiently than I ever have before?"
      • "If I could measure attentiveness on a scale out of 10, what would a 10/10 look like?"
    • Ideals are especially good challenges because they can never be accomplished fully
    • Because we can always grow in ideals, we can always challenge yourself with them, higher and higher
    • Endless sources of growth, and inherently motivating

Challenges in Work

  • [See Golden Hour]
  • High-intensity interval training
  • Within our work, a challenge should have a crisp deadline, clear tasks to accomplish, and breaks in between
  • Crisp deadline:
    • 60–90 minutes is best
    • 90 minutes is close to the maximum intensity that we can achieve before requiring a mental break
    • A crisp deadline allows us to reap the "deadline benefit" of increased intensity before the break approaches
  • Clear tasks to accomplish:
    • The clearer the sequence of tasks is, the more possible it is to imagine ourselves performing them
    • This allows for the default mode network to act as a sequencing tool during task attention
    • Each task accomplished, if the project is broken down, serves as a small reward to increase dopamine and allow for continued engagement with the challenge
  • Breaks in between:
    • [Cite Huberman] The optimal "mental cycle" of work, relaxation, and re-engagement with work appears to be 90 minutes
    • The ideal break is one in which we allow our mind to focus on nothing in particular, and we remove ourselves somewhat from the setting in which we've been working
    • Focusing on nothing in particular allows for maximum encoding of what we've learned and best improves our memory for the task

Challenge and Growth

  • Challenge as the fulfillment of mindfulness because it allows for greater growth than does mindfulness alone
  • Can refer to Peak: several hours of deliberate, focused, intense practice creating growth
  • Again can refer to the study of superagers
  • Seeing challenge as the raw material for growth
  • OptimalWork focused on reframing any challenges along the way that might otherwise become negative difficulties, but also seeking out challenge to be inducing growth continually