“Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The concept of flow comes most recently from Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (here is how you pronounce his name). Although he is credited with giving the term a scientific title, various religions have recognized the concept of flow for thousands of years.
Flow is a state of complete and entire focus on a task. The engagement in the task is so intense that a person may even lose their sense of self. It sounds like magic, and maybe it is magical, but beyond the hocus pocus we know it is incredibly beneficial to the human condition.
Csikszentmihalyi found that when a person regularly engages in states of flow they are likely to have more moments of happiness, higher sense of self worth, a personal sense of value, increased quality of life, improved social engagement.
To engage in flow means to engage in a task simply because doing the task is reward enough. I believe I can attest to this experience. When I am struck with a writing idea, I can lose myself entirely in the project for extended periods of time. Once the idea passes through me, I feel better than ever. Recently, I was working on a writing project for hours and when I realized I had to move on to other things I was desperate for more time.
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
In some ways flow resembles mindfulness in that it requires a person to pay complete attention to a specific activity. This concept runs counter to the idea of multitasking (which is impossible for the mind to do well, if at all).
The biggest barrier to finding one’s flow is fatigue.
Many of us engage in tasks that we do not enjoy (even dislike) throughout the day. This leaves little energy and time for a person to enter a state of flow. The challenge is to find a few moments in your day where you apply focused attention and enter a state of flow.
Being in a state of flow requires the following components:
- Focusing only on the present moment.
- Focusing directly on a task and getting lost in the task.
- Letting go of noticing what is happening around you. This is where you can lose your sense of self.
- A feeling of control related to the task.
- Ignoring time while focusing on the task.
- Doing because just doing the task is rewarding. There is no anticipated outcome or reward for doing the task.
I think I can sense when I am listening to someone engaged flow. In the last month, I saw Gloria Steinem speak about social justice, I listened to a podcast with Lorne Micheals discussing his career at Saturday Night Live, and I heard Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity. Each person talked passionately and with focus about their experiences in their respective fields.
I know I find my flow in writing but I am curious as to where you find your flow. What do you love to do so much that you are able to lose time engaging in that task? What task are you so in love with doing that just doing is reward enough? What do you look forward to doing?
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we
make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last blockon a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,