“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follow inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In the previous section, we have discussed the concept of deep work and learned about the reasons why this ability is so important. It is worth noting, that working deep doesn’t mean working hard. On the contrary, it is quite the opposite. Deep work is effortless when it is performed in the state of flow. The term was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990 in a book with the same title. Let’s define “flow”.
The state of flow is a state when the process of work becomes so immersive that you exert little or no force in order to keep doing it.
This is what Cal Newport writes about the state of flow:
“The connection between deep work and flow should be clear: deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state.”
It appears that deep work becomes extremely energy efficient once it triggers the state of flow which doesn’t require significant consumption of the willpower. A person in flow state doesn’t exhaust willpower reserves and that leads to notable gains in productivity.
The flow diagram that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has developed gives an intelligible explanation of the main flow principles.
Essentially, the flow happens when a high-level challenge meets high-level skills.
A highly skilled worker engaged in unchallenging tasks feels boredom, and a worker who is not skillful enough for the challenge ahead will get overwhelmed and fall victim to anxiety.
Apathy is a state opposite to flow. In this state, one doesn’t have energy and motivation to work on the task because both level of challenge and worker’s skill set are so low, they ignite little to no interest.
As a result, we can derive a condition necessary to induce the state of flow:
The flow appears when your work summons the best of you, and your skills are adequate to the task.
In his TED talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares how people describe what it feels like to be in the state of flow. People feel:
- “Completely involved in what we are doing — focused and concentrated.”
- “A sense of ecstasy — feeling of being outside of everyday reality.”
- “Great inner clarity — knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing.”
- “A sense of serenity — no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.”
- “Timelessness — thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by minutes.”
- “Intrinsic motivation — whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.”
A good example of what the flow state feels like can be taken from social situations. It feels a little awkward when you have to talk to people right after you spent some time alone. It takes a couple of minutes to refocus from internal to external, to redirect your attention inside out, if you will. The inner resistance dissipates in interaction, funny thoughts distract you no more, you get into the flow of conversation.
Snowboarding is another great example of flow. It is one of those magical on-land activities that actually feel like flying. After you reach a certain level of riding, the control of the board is no longer conscious, navigation becomes so effortless it seems that the board steers itself. As your mastery grows, riding becomes so natural it feels like an active meditation — you ride in the state of thoughtless observation, you flow across the hillocks of the slope. But of course, you don’t get to that level right away. At first, you have to go through the 4 phases of flow.
#1. The Struggle Phase.
In the beginning, you fall. In snowboarding, you fall quite literally. In regards to other activities, you fall if you give in to procrastination.
The failures of the struggle phase give rise to negative emotions and that is the reason why many people give up without persisting. You have to push through the struggle phase, only then you’ll be able to enter the flow.
In writing, for example, the struggle phase starts right at the moment when I sit down and stare at an empty screen. There is something paralyzing in the whiteness of the blank page. The longer I sit the more grows the inertia, and the best way to overcome this inertia is to act without hesitation.
#2. The Release Phase.
I start writing. I accept the presence of struggle. I ignore it and stay focused. I trace some keywords, keywords start to unfold into sentences, sentences grow into paragraphs, the body of the text starts to reveal itself as the paragraphs array along with the central idea. Twenty minutes in, I notice that something has changed — it gets easier and easier to juggle ideas, fragments start to fuse into a cohesive whole.
In some sense, the release phase feels like tuning up a radio to a clear frequency. The white noise in the head fades away, the vision becomes tunneled, gestures are swift and filled with confidence. I enter the flow.
#3. The Flow.
In the flow state, my body awareness weakens. It feels like my observing self is taking a step back deeper into the braincase. I become more of a spirit that looks inside-out through the illuminators of pupils witnessing how thoughts are taking up a physical form of text on the screen. I lose the sense of time, only sometimes I notice that another hour has passed. I am aware of the fact that the work is getting done and that I am being productive, however, not for a second, it feels like hard work. Words just flow.
#4. Brain Rewiring and Memory Consolidation.
At the final phase of the flow, you shut down the work mode and let yourself relax. This phase is as important as the state of the flow itself. During the downtime your brain processes and consolidates newly acquired knowledge — you realize that you are perfectly capable of operating at peak performance for long periods of uninterrupted work if you find the discipline to get through the initial resistance. The flow experience causes the shift of your identity. You come to believe that you are indeed someone who can effectively produce valuable work and that makes you act accordingly. You develop a “flow mindset”.
The Flow Mindset.
Once you internalize that it is completely normal to feel lazy at the beginning of your work your paradigm of procrastination will start to shift. The initial internal resistance cannot be avoided — it is inherent to the inertia of inactivity. The flow mindset is a firm confidence in the fact that this resistance will dissipate as soon as you start working.
The interest in your work is the product of the working process, not its prerequisite.
“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Everyone who exercises regularly is familiar with the hesitation that sometimes hits you before you go to the gym. The desire to skip is a very clear example of mental resistance. Let’s say you passed that and arrived to the gym, now you will have to face physical resistance that exists within the body. Inflexible tendons, stiff muscles, residual soreness from the previous workout — everything tells you that you won’t be able to work out productively. All this self-talk is just a mind game. It takes some time for the body to “wake up”. If you push through this initial physical resistance of the body you will be able to train again at a high-performance level. And that is the essence of the flow mindset — a resolve to act with an unshakeable conviction that the state of flow will return.
These examples bring us to one valuable conclusion: regardless of the nature of your work, the best way to start is just to start. Remember at all times:
You can always see far enough to make one more step.
And that is what you have to do: always take just one more step. You act and the Universe unveils the opening for the next step. Small actions snowball into momentum, the momentum drags you along. After that, all you need to do is go with the flow.
Thank you for reading my book “Meditations of the Millennial”.
If you want to support me on my mission, please, share this book with someone you love. Maybe they will find what they seek on its pages.