Cultivate flow in these 3 ways to grow more resilient.
What is flow?
Being in “flow” is when you are so absorbed in doing an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Time seems to stop, you forget yourself, you’re focused on the challenge at hand, and you feel in control — you’re not worried about failure or perception of others.
It’s so enjoyable that you will do the activity even at great cost, just for the sheer sake of doing it[i].
In other words, flow happens when you find the activity you are engaged in to be “autotelic” — derived from two Greek words, ‘auto’ meaning self, and ‘telos’ meaning goal — as in, the goal (and enjoyment) is contained within the activity itself.
What are the benefits of flow?
When you are in flow you’re not engaged with the expectation of some future benefit — the doing of the activity is the reward in and of itself. This present moment and activity focus increases enjoyment, satisfaction, and happiness. When an experience is intrinsically rewarding then life becomes worthwhile now — in the present — instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.
When we are in a state of flow our brain decreases activation of the amygdala (our fight, flight, freeze part of the brain), which reduces anxiety, depression, boredom *AND* it also decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex (our “higher thinking” part of the brain), which reduces self-consciousness and self-reflection. This ability to suppress or disregard negative thoughts, to lose one’s sense of self, and to stay focused both enhances performance on the task at hand and makes it more enjoyable.
Experiencing flow regularly improves engagement and outcomes in learning, increases sport performance, including elite sports, enables creativity, increases enjoyment of games and hobbies, and, life satisfaction and happiness. When integrated into the workplace through positive leadership, it increases engagement, decreases cynicism, and improves employee attitudes and perceptions of safety.
How is flow related to resilience?
Resilience is the psychological strength that allows some people to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happen. You can always become more resilient: resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait of individuals.
Richard Logan, who has studied the accounts of people who have survived extreme physical or solitary ordeals — like concentration camps, or polar explorers lost alone in the arctic — found that they survived by going to “extraordinary lengths to create activities in which they can get caught up, that will provide control over their situation, and that will provide variety and stimulation”. Similar to locus of control, survivors paid close attention to their experience and environment, then found hidden opportunities to control what they could — even if they were capable of doing very little given the circumstances. They became absorbed in the activities they could do — and he found “the most important trait of survivors is a “non self-conscious individualism,” or a strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. In other words, focusing intently on the tasks at hand.
Even in the most extreme conditions, we choose where we focus our attention and can work to shift our interpretation of the events.
If we are alone and lonely, we can focus on what we’re feeling or think we’re missing — *or*, we can see it as a chance to accomplish goals that cannot be reached when other people are around (related to “Look for the Gift”).
This re-framing of our understanding of our circumstances, and ability to get into flow by concentrating our attention on the task at hand, build our sense of competence and reduce anxiety. These are core both to surviving difficult ordeals and to our resilience afterward — our ability to adapt, renew, and grow after they end.
Practices for Cultivating Flow
Flow can take time and effort to master at first — it’s a skill, not an innate ability. Here are some ways to cultivate it in your life.
1. Become an amateur or dilettante
The word amateur is derived from the latin verb “amare” — to love — and originally referred to a person who loved doing something. The word dilettante is derived from the latin “declare”, which means “to find delight in”, and referred to someone who truly enjoyed a given activity.
We seem increasingly obsessed as a society with the outcomes of doing something — the success, achievement, or quality of someone’s efforts, rather than the quality of the experience one has from doing them.
If you want to cultivate flow, become an amateur or dilettante — focus on what you enjoy doing for the experience itself (AND that has a clear goal that requires adaptive responses).
Interestingly (and fortunately) research has found that flow is most likely to be cultivated when people are involved in things that require high amounts of psychic energy and attention but not much else. This means that inexpensive leisure activities that don’t require expensive equipment, electricity, or other forms of energy (so, television, computers, power boats, or motorcycles) are the best for flow.
The best flow states are embodied and use our five senses. Some ideas:
· Moving — yoga, running, rock climbing, martial arts, TRX, tennis, crossfit;
· Creating — drawing, painting, woodworking, pottery, sculpture, cooking, sewing, knitting, playing music… coloring books!;
· Conversing — discussing, debating, book clubs, exploring ideas, getting to know one another;
· Playing — try playing with small children — they are often raptly involved in their play!; games, especially ones that involve your mind and body — e.g. charades, but also video games, chess, poker, and other games that require you adapt and gain skill with practice.
2. Design for Slack
Slack is the feeling you have enough of a resource. A perception of scarcity — of either time or of resources — can inhibit flow, as well as decrease cognitive bandwidth and increase anxiety [ii].
Perceived scarcity doesn’t actually depend on the objective amount of the resource — it’s in your perception of the “enoughness” of the resource. You can be extraordinarily wealthy and not feel you have enough, or you can have very little and feel it’s enough (in time, money, or other resources).
Designing for slack is the antidote to scarcity.
To design for slack, create blocks of uninterrupted time to focus on your selected activity and set aside time regularly to reflect and think big picture about your life and goals.
If you can ritualize your activity focus times somehow, even better — make it a consistent time each day or each week (i.e. do yoga every morning before coffee, or writing every Saturday morning), or do a small ritual at the beginning and ending that marks the time as distinct from “normal” time.
3. Be present — Get Rid of Distractions
Allow yourself to fully concentrate on the task at hand, whether it be conversing with your partner, crafting a beautiful Medium post on flow, or cycling up a mountain.
Get rid of distractions — leave your phone on silent, no buzzing, IN THE OTHER ROOM. If something is niggling in your mind, write it down on a post-it and leave it to deal with later (or, if it will take fewer than three minutes, deal with immediately and then focus).
Numbers two and three could actually be applied to all activities throughout your day. Even the simplest activities can become more enjoyable — and an opportunity to cultivate flow — when they are transformed to be a sole focus with clear goals.
RESOURCES: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high”) is the ‘father’ of flow theory and research — his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is excellent and fascinating.
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[i] Csikszentmihalyi has identified eight major criteria for being in flow (though not all have to be simultaneously present):
- Complete concentration on the task;
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- There is a feeling of control over the task;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation and/or transcendence of time (lose track/speeding up/slowing down);
- Lose or transcend the sense of self — no self-rumination or anxiety.
[ii] Scarcity affects our ability to process information, to accurately read our surroundings, to focus on other important areas of our life. It makes us more forgetful, affects our ability to sleep well, and decreases our cognitive bandwidth. Bandwidth is a term Mullainathan and Shafir use to describe a combination of fluid intelligence, cognitive capacity, and executive control. Scarcity decreases bandwidth through four main psychological effects:
· “Tunneling” or focus completely on the goal at hand and undermines our ability to see anything outside of the tunnel. This affects our ability to plan long-term or attend to other important areas of our life.
· Mental internal disruption — scarcity constantly calls our mind back to the scarce resource, interrupting our ability to focus on other things.
· Attentional blink — scarcity causes us to only see what’s related to the scarce resource and can literally blind one to what is in front of them because the mind is still concentrated on the scarce resource.
· Increased cognitive load — when a resource is scarce, it forces constant trade-off thinking. An individual constantly has to calculate the cost of spending a resource one way rather than the other. Furthermore, it taxes executive control by requiring constant vigilance of how the scarce resource is spent: “Escaping the scarcity trap does not merely require an occasional act of vigilance. It requires constant, everlasting vigilance; almost all temptations must be resisted almost all the time”.
All of these interrupt our ability to enter a flow state, and decrease our performance, ability to connect with others, and overall happiness.