Wait. Is that the time? How did that happen? I was just doing some writing and I thought it had been like maybe an hour since I sat down. But three? No way. I was just so in the zone. I didn’t notice my phone. I’d forgotten completely that I had some music on. And I was supposed to be ready to head out for dinner by now. We all know these experiences. When you just get so into what you’re doing that everything else becomes secondary. In fact, where nothing but the thing you’re doing exists. Time seems to fly, or indeed stand still, and you feel like everything suddenly fits together like some perfect puzzle. It just all flows.
Ummmm. Yep. That’s what they call this state. Flow. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. When we’re doing something that we greatly enjoy or are super passionate about, it can be easy to find flow. I’ve identified a few things for me where I can get so hyper-focused that I don’t think about anything else – I don’t need to use my mindfulness practice to be in the moment. It just happens. Often is has to do with writing. But I can equally achieve it when I’m reading (the story just leaps from the page and my mind visualises everything that is happening so vividly), or when I’m cooking (each step in the preparation of the food seems to come naturally and almost without thought), or even when I’m faced with some challenging work task (and each problem to be solved seems like an exciting new challenge and I have an unrelenting desire to discover a solution or work-around). In these times, and at others less consistently, flow comes effortlessly and unexpectedly. It’s only afterwards that I think about it – otherwise I’d probably lose it.
Experiencing flow regularly helps me to recognise who I am, what I enjoy and what I’m good at. Without the intrusions of the external world, distractions from electronics and interruptions from life’s necessities, you can explore and understand your talents and passions. Once you’ve found it in some things, you can recognise the circumstances and conditions in which it occurs, and more readily transfer it into other areas of your life. No doubt there are different levels of success to be achieved when experiencing flow, and you can’t force it if it isn’t there, but for me it’s the ultimate in mindful living. While it helps to have experience in other mindfulness techniques to recognise when you achieve flow and to reach it again, it’s not prohibitive if you don’t have that knowledge.
All of this said, it’s not possible to achieve flow in any area of life. It has a few requirements – such as a level of expertise and a level of challenge – and lies between boredom and anxiety. A task must be challenging enough to test the expertise, but not so challenging that it causes the expertise to come into question. Conversely, if a task is too easy in comparison to the skill of the person, then it will likely cause boredom to set in, prohibiting the eventuation of flow. This concept was the result of much work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and apparently he’s not too thrilled about the way it has been hijacked, although it depends whose interpretation you read. You see, it’s a theory of expertise, not a theory of happiness. But there are undoubted links to experiencing flow regularly and happiness. According to social psychologist, Dr Sonja Lyubomirsky, flow is “a state characterised by being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you don’t notice the passage of time, you don’t realise that you’re hungry or stiff or in need of a bathroom break, and you are unselfconscious.” It’s essentially not of our normal, everyday world. We are usually so governed by time constraints, corporeal requirements, plans and regrets that we lose the many opportunities that present themselves to just be.
It might not be a state that we can force, but if we can identify activities where we would like to achieve flow, Dr Christine Carter has some suggestions for how we can put the right conditions in place for it to occur. She says that we should begin by clearing mental clutter – have a plan for what you’re going to get done, and the steps you will take to achieve it. She goes on to recommend removing all threats to your concentration. Turn off your phone, ensure you have a large time allotment, make your surrounds comfortable and tidy. Remove anything that could distract you or cause procrastination. Finally she proposes that you should prepare yourself in body and mind for the task. Take care of those bodily necessities, go the the bathroom, have a snack, drink some water. Then put on some music – something that you know well and love – and sit quietly for a few minutes, breathing deeply.
More and more it is being recognised that being ‘in the zone’ is a key component of success and happiness. Elite athletes and indeed, whole teams are exploiting techniques such as these to help get them into a state of flow and set them up for greater opportunities for success. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you too. I know it’s good enough for me. That feeling of just flowing on like endless water in a stream…
Want to know more about FLOW? Psychology Today has some great articles, if you’d like to read some more: