Have you ever seen a professional baseball player before a big world series game? There is an intensity in the air; the crowd is roaring, fans are begging for autographs, reporters are bombarding with questions, yet the player is calm and focused. When the pitcher first steps onto the mound, he shows no signs of being nervous – he is in the zone – there is just pure, collected attention on the task at hand and what needs to be done. This marks the character of a disciplined and skilled individual. An individual with flow.
Imagine a situation where this state would be beneficial to you. A state where you are completely absorbed in what you are doing, and there is no outside concern.
Maybe this would help you during a job interview, a hard day at work, or a public speech? What about a first date, a night of socializing, or an afternoon jamming on your guitar?
Positive psychologists have developed a concept to describe this state of engagement, called flow, “a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”
I like to describe this state as where consciousness and action collide.
When someone is in flow, they don’t have the mental resources to feel anxious, or stressed, or to think “What if I mess this up?” They are too busy focusing all their energy in what they are doing to have such trivial concerns. There is no physical capacity to even think twice about an action. It is almost as if you are in a complete state of spontaneity and action, but it is a disciplined and it can only be developed with practice.
How To Maintain Flow Throughout Your Day
Trying to integrate flow into our life can be difficult, but the rewards it brings make our efforts worth it. When in flow, we are more mindful and skillful, because we are more aware of what we are doing in the moment. By being more aware we can more effectively monitor our actions, we can gather more information about our surroundings, and thereby change and improve our actions to better serve our goals.
1. Make beneficial actions second nature
If you know something works in your favor, then you should continue to take advantage of it. If you see the benefits in going to the gym, practicing guitar, or writing in your journal – then make those things become a part of you. Treat them as though they were second nature, like a reflex – something that you don’t even have to think about anymore, because it is so common to you, like chewing food or walking down the street. By doing something over and over again, you build those habits into your neurology, and they become automatic.
2. Love the things you do
A good way to build a habit is to learn to love doing it. Make it a source of pleasure. Just like many enjoy the ecstasy from sex or drugs, we can learn to elicit similar pleasure from doing other activities. Just imagine how good it feels when you are being productive and organized, not missing a step in your busy work schedule, or receiving an A on your final exam. When you can more easily identify the pleasure that comes from an action, you can learn to love doing it, and that can be a great motivator.
3. Find the rhythm
All states of flow have a certain rhythm to them. Although the flow may vary depending on the activity, they all share in common this moment-by-moment dance that you become sucked into. If you can synchronize yourself to a certain pattern of action, you will fall into flow.
4. Don’t ignore the bumps in the road
Perfection is just an ideal that exists in our minds, but nothing is perfect. One common mistake is to look past our missteps instead of learning from them. When there is pain or hurt in our life, we may have an avoidance response, when in fact what we should be doing is raising consciousness, not lowering it. By being more mindful of our mistakes when they occur, we can learn and improve upon them, not ignore them and keep letting them re-occur. This is a crucial step if we want to keep integrating positive flow into our lifestyle, because there are certainly cases like in drug addiction where people get caught in negative states of flow, despite the suffering it causes. Flow needs to be monitored and built-upon as we gain more experience.
5. Always be ready for change
Flow doesn’t necessarily mean we are always doing the same things over and over again. It just means that when we are doing something – we are one with it – and therefore we are completely focused on what is happening in front of us. Sometimes an unexpected event occurs, but this doesn’t mean it has to knock us off our rhythm. Certainly, unexpected things happen in sports games; a pitcher may give up a home-run to the first batter, but it is up to him to retain his flow if he wants to stay in the game. Flow is in fact one of the best states of mind to deal with uncertainties, because we are more aware and centered when they occur.
6. Forget about the things that don’t count
Although I recommend being aware of our mistakes, there are some things that aren’t worth paying attention to (such as a cruel comment from the boss or a coffee stain on our new tie). Sometimes little stuff like this can ruin our day, but it would be silly to let something so insignificant screw up a whole day’s flow. It is better that we practice forgetting about these things we can’t change, instead of wasting energy being upset or frustrated. Sometimes it can be difficult not to sweat the small things, but a little humor or saying to yourself, “Who cares?” can often be enough to diffuse the bomb before it is blown out of proportion.
Final words on practice.
Flow is not something that is cultivated overnight. It is a constant work-in-progress, and it requires a conscious effort to build it. What I have mentioned above is merely a rough guideline on the characteristics of flow and the general attitude you want to take, but truthfully this is a process of self-discovery. Individuals can vary on how they enter flow, and what flavor of flow best suits their goals. A good starting point is to identify an action you want to build flow towards, and then make a committed effort to practice it.
Learn how to build a happy and successful life in The Science of Self Improvement.