How I Drifted Away with the Flow.
I have this forest 10 minutes away from my house. Whenever I feel stressed or just need a break from life, I go here for a walk. Recently, I sat on this bench in the forest. The bench is usually populated with crying babies, parents and couples but today it was empty. I spent an hour just writing down my thoughts in my journal. I felt so relaxed yet so focused. The world around me slowly disappeared and blurred away. This is sorta what my journal looked like afterward:
It was just me, the sun and a few chirping birds. I felt so peaceful like I was invisible, trapped between the air. I felt like I was drifting with the air; the flow.
Just like that, I was sitting in class the next day looking a bit like this:
Like Jim Halpert from The Office at work, I find school to be very dull and sometimes meaningless.
But I wondered if there was a way for me to always feel the way I was feeling in the forest; feel the flow.
Recently, I finished the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in one full sitting and I found my answer here. So let’s learn about it.
The Fantasy of Flow
Imagine that you are skiing down a slope and your full attention is focused on the movements of your body, the position of the skis, the air whistling past your face.
But you also know that a distracting thought or emotion might get you buried face down in the snow but the run is so perfect that you want it to last forever.
Here’s how you know if you’ve entered the flow:
Basically, if you feel like this:
In this state:
You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.
You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.
You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. You are completely focused on the activity.
You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.
You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.
What’s Really Happening When we Enter Flow?
You usually have these things when you enter flow:
- You have clear goals and progress
- Your task provides clear and immediate feedback
- You are at the balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills.
My takeaways from this were to first find more of these types of activities in my life that will create more meaning and enjoyment.
I also wanna work on where I allocate my attention because it will have a significant impact on how profound or meaningful a given task is.
How is it that something like eating can be so enjoyable for one person? It’s because of the places we focus attention during the task.
Food is very enjoyable for us because we can distinguish between different flavors and ingredients. When we eat food, our thoughts go towards a vast number of places that leads to a fully consuming experience. But someone that shovels food down, thinking about their homework is unlikely to enjoy the meal to the same degree.
The experience of listening to a song is similar. It is much more enjoyable when you are able to focus on the changes in the rhythm, and the story being told as opposed to letting the song come in the background.
This last point is soo important for finding flow. It’s also mastery combined with challenges that brings flow.
It is about having enough challenge but not a lot to the point where you feel overwhelmed. Too much challenge and we get anxiety. Not enough, and our brain loses focus and looks for other stimuli.
Peek of Flow — childhood
To understand how we can increase flow in our lives, we can consider the time when we experienced it most frequently: our childhood. More than anything else, children love to play, and a child at play is a child in flow.
Playing is an “autotelic” activity: because we are caring for the experience of the activity itself, as opposed to its output.
For very young children, play, work, and learning are all one and the same thing. When we were playing as children we were working to learn, even if that was not our conscious intention. We intent on seeking fun, but these tend to be activities that advance self-development.
How School Disrupts Flow
Then we have this (aka school) which quite frankly speaking disrupts flow:
This natural connection we had when playing as kids between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. This is because “learning” becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, and the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out.
Dr. Gray described this really well:
“Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.”
An activity is only really considered “work” and “learning” if it is involuntarily and assigned by adults.
This trains us to mentally associate work and learning with compulsion and obligation. We don’t learn or have nearly as much fun because of this.
The Elements of Flow — And how to bring them to life
You might not be a professional skier, but the idea of being so perfectly focused and in control of a task that you complete it without effort is appealing to all of us (another term for flow Tim Ferriss calls flow “Effortless output”). There's more to flow than just clear goals, feedback, and challenge.
There is also:
Self control. Environment. Skills. Task. Reward.
Self Control: Focus on Willpower
We are all lazy and love shortcuts and the idea of getting into a flow state sounds especially appealing since it means you’re almost working without working. But it still takes willpower, discipline, and self-control to get there.
“In the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces,”
To help us get into a state of flow more often, we need to be able to master this level of control of our consciousness. Which isn’t an easy task in today’s distracted world.
But we can all develop our willpower and self-control by focusing on 3 things:
- Find your standards. Your standards are the reference points you’ll use to determine whether any action you’re going to take is desireable towards getting into a state of flow.
- Set up means for monitoring. Flow depends on immediate feedback and so does self control. Whatever your task, find ways to constantly monitor your performance and adjust as you continue.
- Be wary of your energy. Our mental strength changes throughout the day (which is why it’s so important to define your own work schedule around your energy).
Environment: Find a Novel and Exciting Space
You’ll rarely enter a state of flow just by doing the same thing you did yesterday.
You have to find an environment that challenges you on a daily basis and pushes you outside of your comfort zone (a bit). Almost like a surfer who’s forced to adapt to every individual wave they catch.
It’s generally unpredictability, and complexity that will set off your state of flow.
Look for these things in your environment:
- High consequences: Find environments and activities where your actions have real consequences to you.
- Rich environment: Find environments that require more of your attention and for you to react quickly to changes.
Skills: Practice Deliberately to Bring on More Flow
All of you is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
Because flow is dependent on finding that sweet spot between your skills and the challenge at hand.
One way to achieve this is to engage in something called “Deliberate practice”. Rather than just going through the motions of an activity, deliberate practice is where every session has a specific goal that can be measured, analyzed, and optimized for to increase your overall performance.
Deliberate practice includes many of the same criteria as flow.
- Clear goals and outcomes
- Immediate feedback
- Pushing your skills to their limit
One way to look at deliberate practice is as pieces of a puzzle. Take a larger task and break it down into smaller, individual pieces, focusing intently on each one until you master it.
Not only that, but by breaking down your focus in this way, you are placing yourself squarely in a zone where your skills match the challenge at hand — the same mental spot where flow occurs.
Task: Connect To a Clear Purpose
Having a clear sense of purpose behind what you’re doing is soo important. You need to feel an authentic and real connection to your work to devote yourself to fulfilling it in the moment. Which makes sense.
One way to make sure that your task is tied to your purpose is to create a personal mission statement. Purpose comes from tying your values and skills to how you can make a real change in the world.
You can ask yourself these important questions:
- *What am I passionate about? *
- *What are my values? *
- *What makes me great?*
You can put your answers into this template:
The value you create + who you’re creating it for + the expected outcome.
Reward: Don’t Look for Extrinsic Motivation
Just like flow comes more often when we follow our passions, we also need to be doing work we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing.
Money. Awards. Praise. These can be byproducts of the flow work you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing.
The feeling should be “such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.”
Just like in meditation or mindfulness training, there’s no winning at flow.
Not only will you find yourself slipping into flow more often, but you’ll naturally shift towards doing work that is truly meaningful to you.
Effortless output and feeling good about the work you do? That’s what I call a win-win.
Find Your Own Flow
That walk in the forest really was a life-changing feeling that I’ll never forget. I won’t lie, I haven’t yet reached the flow state but I’m working on it.
The irony of the effortlessness of flow is that it comes when we are working our hardest. We slip past the anxiety and stress and get to a place of serene ability. Flow is the stuff not only of great work, but of a meaningful life.
I’m Alishba Imran.
I am a Blockchain, Machine Learning developer and Nanotech researcher who wants to solve some of the worlds biggest problems using tech. To learn more, follow me on LinkedIn, and Medium! If you enjoyed reading this article, please press the👏 button, and share!