In a recent comment to my post Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated, Kaizan said, “I think the concept of flow as Csikszentmihalyi describes it is fantastic, but I didn’t really follow him as to how I was meant to apply it to my life.” It’s a good point: psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched and depicted flow beautifully, but actually finding flow takes some work. Here, based on what I know about flow so far and on my own flow experiences, is a starter “how to” list for getting into flow.
First, not every activity should be done in flow. Flow requires being able to concentrate on one particular task or related group of tasks for a substantial period of time without having to switch gears. This can happen alone or with other people, but if anyone or anything is going to need to pull your attention away from the task–ringing phones, kids needing help with homework, pets needing to be let out–it will tend to disrupt flow. That doesn’t mean a person can’t have a phone, kids, or pets, just that whenever there are potential distractions, getting into flow means making sure as well as you can that distractions are taken care of: the kids have someone else to go to, the dog has already been out, and there are no telephone calls you’ll need to take, for instance.
Flow also requires that you know what you’re doing. It’s a balance between control and challenge: if you’re just barely getting a grip on a new skill, you won’t have the control you need. That doesn’t mean you can’t get into a flow state when learning or practicing, but the ways I know of to do that are either 1) mastering the basics first, or 2) getting into flow about learning, not about the activity itself. For instance, if you’re just starting out with guitar, you could conceivably get into flow in terms of learning chord patterns if you have good learning skills, but you wouldn’t be able to immediately get into flow with actually playing the guitar.
Experiencing flow also means needing to carefully set clear goals that provide a challenge. Even thoroughly washing dishes before a deadline, believe it or not, works as one of these kinds of goals: washing dishes well but quickly is a challenge, and the ticking clock makes your goal clear and also provides another essential element:
Feedback. You need to be able to know how you’re doing as you proceed. This may be as simple as dishes washed, whether or not you’re playing the music as written, or seeing the wall you’re framing fit perfectly into the space allotted for it. This feedback needs to be immediate, something you’re getting in real time. Any activity that can’t provide that in-the-moment feeling of “Wow, this is going great!” probably can’t be done in flow.
That’s it. Surprisingly, the task being doesn’t have to be something you would usually consider fun. You don’t have to be a world-class expert at it, and you don’t necessarily need complete peace and quiet. Flow can be achieved filing papers, making a sales presentation, playing “Fur Elise” on the piano, sketching, vacuuming, teaching, brainstorming, organizing … or anything else that meets the following simple requirements: you are able to focus on it; you have a clear goal; it’s challenging yet within your abilities; you’ve already learned the basics; and you can see how you’re doing as you go.
So not everything can be done in flow–but then, not everything should be: sometimes being more responsive, relaxed, mindful, open, or social is called for instead. But as an element of a healthy lifestyle, flow provides an unmatched opportunity to operate at the our highest level while enjoying every minute.
In future posts, I’ll be following up with some descriptions of my own flow experiences, some information about applying flow to different kinds of activities, and possibly an interview or two about other people’s flow experiences.
Photo by Jim Natale