Flow is that blissful experience that you have when you are so engaged in what you are doing that time slips away. You are one with the task, completely absorbed and utterly content. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. Studies show that 87% have experienced it — I’m saddened to note that this means that 13% of us haven’t. Ever.
The only thing wrong with flow is that great gulf that its absence leaves behind. I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly longing for flow. When it’s not there I’m desperate to get back to it. But flow can be elusive that way. Its nature is incompatible with desperation or longing and it will tend to flit away if you pursue it.
So, if you can’t just chase it down, how do you find flow? To get some insight, I turned to the expert on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the brilliant scientist with the crazy name. You can design for flow by taking into consideration the characteristics of that exalted state. In The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi describes the following elements of flow:
1) You have clear objectives and get immediate feedback
2) Your personal skills are well-suited to the challenge
3) Action and awareness merge together
4) You are concentrating on the task at hand
5) You have a sense of potential control
6) You lose your self-consciousness, you transcend the ego, and feel a part of something bigger
7) You experience an altered sense of time
8) Tasks become ‘autotelic’ (e.g. worth doing for their own sake)
Here some techniques that I’ve found helpful for calling forth flow.
1) Journal about your process
I like to attend to how I do my work. When I check a task off my to-do list, I make a note of how much flow I was experiencing. I write down what I was doing and when I was doing it. Then I study the data. I see if certain activities lend themselves to flow for me. I ask myself why that seems to be. I explore what the flow tasks have in common. In this way, I study the patterns and try to replicate the conditions that seem to be associated with creating flow.
Certain types of meditation are associated with positive changes in the brain. Our brain literally gets wired for contentment when we meditate! By meditating, you lay down the neural network for flow experiences to follow. Another benefit is allowing the stirred contents of our busy mind to become still and settled. A solid meditation practice paves the way for flow to occur during our activity states.
3) Practice Working Meditation
But meditation does have to be passive. Have you ever heard about activity based forms of meditation, like walking meditation or even doing the dishes? When you bring a quality of mindfulness to a task like washing the dishes it can serve as meditative practice. To practice working meditation, let your concentration become laser-focused on the task at hand. If a distracting thought comes to mind, simply observe it and let it go. Pretend that thought is just a leaf on a stream. Don’t turn your head to follow the leaf downstream on its course, just soften your vision and let the leaf float away. Try to merge with your work, letting the fullness of it wholly occupy your attention. If you have to stop to put more paper in the printer don’t label the experience. Instead just attend to all the sensations of this activity: the tactile quality of the paper, the sound the tray makes as it slides out, the gentle vibration of the printer as you push the tray back in.
4) Create space
It’s hard for flow to answer the invitation to come to you if you have no space for it. Meditating will clear out the mental space to welcome it in. You can also create a welcoming space by being indulgent and playful in your free time. This will lighten your energetic vibration to a frequency that is more consistent with the flow state. Like attracts like.
The importance of free time has been emphasized for me lately. I recently returned from a long retreat only to find it difficult to return to work. I wasn’t as productive as I thought I should and my efforts to work harder were undermined by a migraine. Turning to the universe for wisdom, I consulted the tarot. Several of the cards spoke to indulgence.
Between the retreat and the slow work days I thought I had been plenty indulgent, but then I thought of it in a new way. My period of rest had not been very restful, I realized. When I took breaks I wasn’t having fun, I wasn’t laughing. In short, I wasn’t opening up creative space to let in something new during my working hours. I was like a dumpster that wasn’t get emptied. The tarot, I realized, wasn’t exhorting me to spend more time resting, it was telling me to rest better
5) Clean your house
Oh, I know this one sounds horrible but bear with me for a second. Yes, I do mean this literally – that you need to tidy up your living and working environment so that it can support you, but more importantly, I mean it metaphorically.
That retreat I mentioned was Byron Katie’s Nine-Day School for the Work. Oh man, was this transformational. I’ll be blogging about this a lot in the future. Katie compared her simple process of inquiry (which she calls The Work) to cleaning house. When you first start to do the Work, initially you may be skimming the surface. As you continue the work, which often involves going back over the same territory, you begin to perform a deeper cleaning. With Katie’s simple tools you can take The Work very deep indeed. (Please visit thework.com for details.) Katie’s process is all about learning how to challenge our thinking so that we may wake up and stop believing our thoughts – thoughts which always cause us separation from the beauty of what is. The more you can clean up your mental house, the more you can welcome in flow.
All of these techniques are about creating the awareness and cultivating the space that invites flow into your life. Let me know how it goes for you. What works to bring flow in? What is it like for you when you’re in the flow state?