19 Jun How “flow”can you go?
How to achieve more flow in your everyday life…
I think one of my earliest experiences of being in flow was when I was writing a story in an English exam when I was about 15 years old. I remember being so totally absorbed in creating the story that the only thing I could hear was my heart beating and the noise of the pen scribbling furiously on the page. All the other noises in the room just faded away into the background and in that hour or so I was totally focussed. The words flowed effortlessly, almost as if the story was being told by someone else and channelled through me. I remember at the end of the morning being really proud that I’d managed to write that essay under such strict time constraints and it’s probably the one and only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam in my life.
As a teenager, I had no idea that what I’d just experienced was something I now know was called “Flow”. The concept of Flow was developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihayli. He said that flow “is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.
He explained that there are 8 characteristics or elements of flow;
1. Complete concentration on the task;
2. Having clear goals and immediate feedback;
3. Time does not pass in the usual way (i.e. you experience it speeding up or slowing down);
4. Intrinsic motivation (you’re doing the task because you love to do it);
5. The task feels effortless and easy;
6. The task is challenging but well matched to your skill level;
7. A feeling of being in control ;
8. A loss of self consciousness and a feeling of calmness or serenity
So are there ways that we can experience more flow in everyday life? Can you apply the principles to more than one area of your life? Can you have flow experiences all day and everyday, whatever you might be doing?
More Flow in Work
I probably experience flow most often now in two parts of my life; one is my day job and the other one is when I write. It can be quite tricky to get into flow at work especially when you have constant interruptions from emails, phone calls and other people. But I know there are days that just fly by because I’ve managed to focus and I’ve really enjoyed the task I was doing.
If I’m going to achieve more days like that, then I need to plan my working day to ensure I have a good mix of tasks that will provide sufficient challenge and enjoyment along with the tasks that I just have to get done.
Wherever I am working, I like to start in the same way, I’ll update my client checklist; declutter my desk to make room to get to work; grab a coffee and then organise tasks into a logical order to work through, making sure I work on my most difficult or challenging task first while I’ve got the most energy. This is the “Eat the Frog” technique I picked up from Brian Tracey’s book. By focussing and completing your most important task first thing every day it can give you a great sense of achievement but it’s also useful for picking out a more challenging task for flow. I also have more opportunity to get into flow first thing as it’s normally the quietest part of each day for me and I’ve got much less chance of being interrupted. I also think that adopting the same ritual before I get to work helps me to get into flow more quickly. It’s like my brain wakes up and goes “oh ok…here we go“.
As Cal Newport puts it “the key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimise the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration”.
I’ve also trained myself to sit down and focus on a single task for about 50-55 minutes at time and then take a short break. I don’t use a timer or anything, but this is the essence of the Pomodoro technique, and you can experiment with it to see what timings work best for you. I’ve also disabled email pop-ups and I usually work with my phone closed or on do not disturb so I have less chance of getting distracted.
For the less challenging tasks of my day, I’ve tried to look at those as a chance to focus in a different way, so maybe more like a mindfulness practice. Making sure that I am staying present and connected to the task at hand rather than thinking about other things. I use it as an opportunity to train my brain and if I find myself getting distracted by thoughts of what to have for dinner (which happens a lot), I just acknowledge the thought and re-direct my attention back to the task in hand. It definitely makes the day feel more productive and I know I achieve much more as a result.
Everyone is different though, our jobs are different and can have very different demands. You need to find the techniques that work for you to help you to get into your flow.
To be able to concentrate for a considerable time is essential to difficult achievement” – Betrand Russell
Flow and Creativity
Because the creative part of my life is a passion for me, I find that getting into flow happens more naturally. The main issue I have at the moment is with justifying the time to be creative. I often find myself procrastinating about settling down to write because I feel guilty that the cleaning, washing and a whole other list of to do’s need to be done first. Then what happens is that I end up doing a whole lot of nothing instead. If I just allowed myself to get the writing done first I’d probably feel more inspired to do the other tasks as well and I’d end up having a much happier and productive day all around.
My getting into flow rituals for writing are pretty similar to those I use for my work, in that I’ll make a coffee, clear the desk area and settle down in front of the keyboard. But when I get stuck writing I also find it helpful to go for a walk outside to get some fresh air and perspective or I’ll uproot myself to the local coffee shop as a change in scenery can often help me to find some inspiration or I might read something. I don’t tend to listen to music but I know that this is helpful for a lot of people when they are doing a creative task. Although you might find you’re better off listening to music that you know well rather than something new which would probably distract you. Repetitive music like techno,classical or trance also seem to work best for a lot of people to maintain their focus once they’re in their creative zone. And although I can usually focus enough not to need them as long as I’m enjoying a task, sometimes I find headphones with music, rain sounds or white noise can be a big help especially if the coffee shop is busy.
So far, I have yet to experience a serious bout of writers’ block but that’s probably just because I haven’t been writing for long enough. I’ll probably go on a long hike when it does happen which is something that Steven Kotler recommends. I much prefer that idea to his more extreme suggestion of “try skydiving” to boost your creativity and get over writers’ block anyway….no thank you!
Flow and Exercise
Flow is quite often referred to as what athletes and performers experience when they are “in the zone”. It’s often talked about as a state of supreme focus which can help athletes perform at their peak potential. Many athletes talk about feeling superhuman; like everything was in slow motion; having limitless energy or the feeling of knowing that your shots were all going to be spot on. For someone who probably wouldn’t class themselves anywhere near an athlete like myself, it’s still useful to think about how you could achieve more flow when you exercise. If it’s going to raise your enjoyment levels and make you feel better afterwards then you’re more likely to want to do it again. For most of us mere mortals, sticking with an exercise habit is probably one of the hardest things to nail.
You need to find an exercise that you enjoy and something that you can push yourself just a little bit out of your comfort zone each session to make sure that you have enough of a challenge. If you are using your mobile phone to track your walk or run then try not to get distracted by it, make exercise a time when you commit to not using your phone, let it be some time just for you and to focus on your health. Give yourself some specific goals, maybe to do so many extra reps, or try to cover a certain distance or try a new activity. See if you can make a connection between your mind and your body and to be fully engaged in the activity not just going through the motions.
Exercise can also play a part in helping you to achieve flow in other areas of your life. I said earlier that sometimes when I’m stuck creatively I’ll take a break and go for a walk. Taking my mind off things for a short while and letting my mind wander allows my sub-conscious to work on solutions to problems and come up with new ideas.
So how Flow can you go?
Trying to achieve more flow for me is about more than just being more productive, it’s about being happier in myself and more content with life.
If you’re trying to achieve more flow in your life there are some actions that can help generally:
– make sure you are fed and watered, if you’re hungry or dehydrated then it’ll be harder to maintain flow;
– cut out distractions as much as possible i.e. turn your mobile off, wear headphones, declutter your workspace etc;
– get enough sleep, if you’re knackered all the time, you’re never going to be able to achieve your best;
– don’t try and multi-task; work on one task at a time; as intensely as you can – have a laser-like focus;
– do your most important flow tasks when your mind is at it’s most sharp and energised
– create habits or rituals that work for you for each type of task during your day;
– the more you get used to focussing the easier it becomes to achieve flow.
“The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow”. Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life – Hector Garcia and Francesca Miralles
PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER BURNE ON UNSPLASH