Focus on the Flow

“Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

– Bruce Lee

One of the most useful theories I keep going back to is the theory of flow. We have all experienced the state of flow, and with it wield the natural creativity that flows through us all. In fact, it can be argued that not being in flow is an unnatural state to be in.

So what is the state of flow, and how can we leverage it in our daily lives to become more productive, creative and happy?

Runner’s High

While I am writing this, I just came back from a 5 kilometer run around the local lake. Where initially I feel sluggish, slightly hesitant and the steps are tough, after about 5 minutes my mind and body adapt to a semi-comfortable rhythm and I enter a trance.

As I continue to run, I no longer think of the next step and my breathing is in a natural, steady pace. Time seems to slow down. I feel the wind in my hair and on my face. I hear – with great clarity – the birds singing and the waves of the lake crashing against the shore. Each step reverberates across my body and I feel the force going from my toes, to my heel, to my knees and into my core. Although I don’t feel comfortable – I am struggling to keep enough oxygen in my lungs – I feel great.

“Runner’s high”, people call this. The term accurately describes the pleasant feeling that is part of the experience; It is, however, a universal concept. All of us have reached this state of mind in one way or another.

Focus on the moment

A writer experiences this when he finds a sliver of motivation and subsequently finds inspiration by starting to write. Before long – innate creativity will cause the words to flow from his of her hands as if by magic. As with the runner, time slows down, worries fade away and the entire mind and body is focused on the task at hand. A musician experiences it when creativity summons an unknown chord from the subconscious mind and is suddenly jamming in the moment like never before. In fact, anyone experiences it when making love – melting in the moment and being together as if the rest of the world does not exist.

All examples have the following characteristics in common:

  • Intense focus on the present moment – The whole world fades away, except for this activity.
  • The fading away of the self-reflective ego – You no longer feel anxiety
  • The activity and awareness of the activity merge – It’s like everything goes automatically.
  • Distortion of one’s subjective experience of time – Time appears to slow down or speed up.
  • The activity is intrinsically rewarding – It feels great.
  • A sense of control – You feel incredibly skilled.

The Theory of Flow

A man with the most difficult name I ever encountered – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – began researching this state of mind after seeing it occur primarily in artists being absolutely fully immersed into their work. As he observed these individuals, he notices that they would become so enthralled in their task – that they would forget to eat, drink and sleep. It became an incredible fascination for him.

Over time, he developed an extensive theory on this particular state of mind. As he interviewed people on it, the would often compare their actions to naturally flowing water; Thus he began calling the state of mind a state of ‘flow’. He would later describe the state of flow as follows:

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

-Man with the most difficult name ever

Being in the state of flow is the absolute optimal way to divide your attention. As we humans have a limited mental capacity to divide – having our focus divert away from hunger, sleep and egocentric thoughts allows us to place this mental capacity into the activity at hand. We literally cannot become more focused.

Enter the Matrix

So how can we put ourselves in this esoteric state of flow? Well, it turns out that there specific conditions you can create for yourself that actually put you into the state. The most important interplay is between the perceived level of difficulty of the task vs. the perceived skill level of the one performing the task.

Mr. Mihaly gave this all a lot of thought, and came up with the following model:

This has several noteworthy consequences:

  • If an activity is way to hard for your skill level, you become frustrated (Anxiety/Worry)
  • If an activity is way to easy for your skill level, you become bored (Apathy/Boredom)

If you want to put yourself into a state of Flow – the activity must be hard enough to provide a challenge, but within reach of your level of skill. Don’t force yourself to write a best-selling novel when you just started out, but also don’t walk when you can run – or run when you can sprint.

(This is exactly why competition can be so motivating and even addictive to many. It is in the very nature of competition with similarly skilled opponents that beating them is hard – but not impossibly hard. Many video games manufacturers play on this concept by always pitting you against competitive peers – in order to hold you in a state of flow and keeping you playing their video game. Gambling does exactly the same to your automated brain by creating the illusion to see patterns, and still keep you playing by randomly providing rewards. )

Note that the interplay of difficulty vs. skill is on the perceived level. If you fool yourself into thinking something is way too hard – you only create anxiety and worry where factually it might be the perfect amount of challenge for you. Always try to keep perceptive vigilance in your mind and stick – as much as you can to rational, verifiable facts to determine levels of skill and challenge.

The research shows that the following can help tremendously with increasing your perceived skill and decreasing the perceived difficulty of a task or activity and – in a way – frame the problem in a different way:

  • Have a clear, verifiable goal
  • Have a plan on how to achieve it
  • Create factual metrics on your progress towards the goal and plan
  • Removing distractions as much as possible

Don’t be too hard on yourself

So to summarize the application of the theory of flow:

  • Design your activity to be a challenge for your level of skill
  • Have a clear goal, plan and metrics to lower the perceived difficulty and increase your perceived skill level.
  • As soon as you feel anxious on an activity, explore whether it is too hard for you OR whether or not you are being factual in your assessment of your skills.
  • As soon as you feel bored or apathetic on an activity, explore how to make it more challenging OR whether or not you are overestimating your skill

And finally, get in there and go with the flow!

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