Go with the flow

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I didn’t think I could, just by myself, put together a 60-kilo table and with some mysterious combination of movements (don’t ask me how) make it stand on its four legs; hang the chandelier at a height of 3.4 meters; clean the house non-stop for 10 hours; smooth down the wall and stick the board; mount the lamp bracket in the hallway and many other things. What’s more, I didn’t think that I could lose myself completely in each of these activities, forgetting even about physiology (need for food or rest).

When I was renovating my dream house, I would devote a lot of time and energy to this type of activity. I took the challenge of do-it-yourself in things that I had had no idea about before. Every time it turned out that I am able to do it as most of these activities were, in fact, within my scope. And afterwards, the biggest surprise in all this was when I discovered that while doing these renovation works I would often enter the flow state, without even being familiar with this term.

In English, the word flow means long-lasting focus, along with rapt attention and total absorption. People who experience this state also describe it as elation, passion, ecstasy, high. It is usually accompanied by deep enjoyment, spontaneity, creativity and a sense of fulfillment. A person who is hacked into a flow state seems not to notice the world around them or even the basic physical necessities. For example, they can forget about being hungry for hours.

Flow of genius

From time to time, we all can achieve a state in which we are able to exceed our own limits. In a spontaneous, natural way we find great solutions and learn to solve problems in a creative way.

You probably also often find yourself in a flow state, without even being aware of it. There are many benefits of achieving this condition frequently. And they are all within your reach. Give yourself a moment to read this text in peace and you’ll find out why you should ‘befriend’ yourself with the flow state.

If you allow yourself to master a state of flow, you will soon find out what great influence it has on your whole life. You will boost your creativity and expand capacities of your mind. Besides, by your conscious decision, you will be able to implement this model of action into the areas of life that are most important to you. This way, you will start to welcome challenges with joy, which in turn will significantly improve your chances of achieving proficiency, or even mastery, in what you do.

It is in the state of flow that composers write brilliant songs, surgeons suture tissues, and athletes break records and win medals.

And even if flow was a state completely unknown to you, now you will learn how to increase your chances of tapping into it.

Being in the flow

What do we need flow for?

Entering a state of full concentration and total immersion in the performed activities has an extremely positive effect on the work of our brain.

By achieving and maintaining this state, we can immensely develop our skills, as even if they are, in general, not sufficient to do some epic work, this phase of stimulation significantly expands their capacity for growth. That is why, flow conduces to the learning process.

During a state of flow, the cerebral cortex shifts into high gear and works most effectively, although the scale of its activity doesn’t change at all. The level of dopamine in the brain increases, hence the feelings of joy, happiness and a sense of accomplishment when you are experiencing a state of flow.

What exactly is flow?

This term was coined and the phenomenon itself was thoroughly examined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This psychologist of Romanian origin, a professor at the University of Chicago, together with his research team, conducted research into the state, where where over 8,000 interview subjects from all over the world—in one of the largest psychological surveys ever conducted – described the experience of flow during performing the work they like. Among the people they interviewed were, among others, climbers, blind nuns, Nawajo shepherds and regular American citizens.

On this basis, Csikszentmihalyi uncovered seven core characteristics that underpin that a person is in a state of flow. These are:

  • Concentration,
  • Intense concentration,
  • Effortlessness and ecstasy,
  • Clarity of goals(you know exactly what you are doing and what you are about to do),
  • Immediate feedback (you can always course-correct mid-flight),
  • Timelessness (an altered perception of time),
  • Feeling of being part of something bigger.
  • Flow is not an all-or-nothing experience. It’s not necessary to have all these conditions met at the same time to qualify what you feel as a state of flow. Just a few from the whole spectrum is enough.

    A good example of flow, in an ideal conditions, would be a sexual act. Two people in love tune to each other on such a deep level that they mutually reinforce the state of flow. Lovers are focused only on each other and the sensations of their partner. Forgetting about themselves, they are plunged in the present, lose the sense of time and are completely immersed in pleasure, which is accompanied by sheer joy or even rapture. They delve so deeply into the single activity they are performing that merely small particles of surrounding reality can reach their awareness.

    If you know this state, imagine that you can achieve it on a daily basis while performing various activities that can help you grow as a person or an expert in your field. I am not saying that you will experience ecstatic pleasure while weeding flowers in the garden, although of course it is not impossible. The point is that knowing the characteristics of flow, you can consciously implement them to the areas of life which are most important to you.

    How to achieve a state of flow?

    To illustrate that, I will give you an example from my own experience. I tend to tap into the state of flow during writing. This is a part of my work that I am really fond of and I possess a set of basic competences to do it well. Each article and each topic I am to touch upon is a challenge for me, regardless of how many good texts I have written in my life. As I get down to writing a text, I usually have a general outline of what I want to write in my head. The task of putting it on paper is both easy and difficult. Easy because I can write very well, and difficult because I have never written an article to be posted on a blog of such a well-known coach. Easy because I have been writing for years, and difficult because this is the first time I am to elaborate on the subject of flow.

    I am done with the whole text only to realize that a few hours have passed by. As I look around, I can see piles of books, which I must have looked up during writing, empty coffee cups and water glasses, from which I must have drunk, a plate on which I must have put the watermelon that I ate. Still, I can’t remember doing any of this while writing. I look through the window and see that it has got already dark outside, that the phone is in silent mode (I must have muted it earlier) and that the article is finished and saved on my computer. And I feel sheer joy and a sense of accomplishment.

    Focus is the key to enter the flow

    How to make use of it?

    1. Focus

    In order to achieve a state of flow, you need to meet one prerequisite that is crucial: your total concentration directed on the task you are performing. Focus is the key to enter the flow.

    2. Pick a right task

    The difficulty of a task should provide the right degree of challenge to your ability, i.e. you should possess a set of basic skills essential to complete the task. On one hand, a too easy one will lead to boredom instead of flow. On the other hand, however, a too difficult one will quickly discourage you from working on it. If, for example, you enjoy cooking and you are good at it, you can choose to prepare a meal that requires more skill than what you’ve tried before. Pick a professional chef recipe, do the groceries accordingly, set up the right ambient and … totally focus on that task.

    To this end, turn off all distractors: smartphone, Facebook and TV. Delve deep into the activity. Stay in the here and now, fully focused on what you’re doing.

    “People seem to concentrate best when the demands on them are a bit greater than usual, and they are able to give more than usual. If there is too little demand on them, people are bored. If there is too much for them to handle, they get anxious. Flow occurs in that delicate zone between boredom and anxiety.”

    Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence).

    3. Course-correct mid-flight

    If in the course of performing your activity you start to think about giving up, ask yourself what it is that you’re putting too little of and what too much of here.

    This way, you will immediately give yourself feedback that will allow you to correct your performance.

    Give yourself time

    Now that you know how flow works, you can take the most of this state in many different situations at work, at home or at the gym. Give yourself time and your brain will soon get the knack of entering this state whenever you create the right conditions for optimal concentration, which vary from person to person. Check what are the right conditions for you.

    When you consciously start to enforce flow, you might get ready for a big surprise. It may turn out that it’s the other way round for you now: you will feel the flow not only in the activities you like, but also start to like certain activities, thanks to which you will be able to achieve flow. And that’s exactly what I would like to happen for you.

    MLC coach, blogger, copywriter
    A certified MLC coach, blogger, philologist and copywriter. Passionate about living her life fully, “here and now”. On Life Architect blog, she writes about brain, creativity, meditation, parenting and interpersonal relationships. You can learn more about Magdalena visiting her website at www.magdalenagolda.com (in Polish)

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