Finding “flow” through focus

When was the last time you really enjoyed yourself? Were you deeply immersed in a great book? Or learning a new skill – like painting, or skiing, or playing a musical instrument? Or were you having a great conversation, sharing in a passionate discussion with someone? Or were you creating something?
Blasket sun on water

Mihaly Scikszentmihalyi describes a complete focus on the task at hand as “a state of flow.” When you are in flow, time drops away. And as you work, you get ideas from everywhere. They descend on you in the middle of the night, while you’re taking a shower, and while you’re driving. You think of this work and feel your energy lift. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of this work – you are one with what you are doing. 

The mysterious thing about flow is that while we love being in this state, we are rarely there. And how can we be? From the time we wake up to the time we crawl into bed at night, we are surrounded by information, media, and entertainment choices. We’re built to do this. Our species has survived through the centuries by taking in everything that’s going on around us. Are the berries safe to eat? Is there a lion in that cave? Is that stranger a danger to me?

But now the berries and lions and strangers come at us in tidal waves. We have the internet at our fingertips to help us find answers to anything that pops into our head. We stay on top of the news. We know what our friends and relatives are up to via social media. We have constant access to email, texts, and calls. We cook fast and eat fast and take great pride in being able to multi-task.

And because we can’t focus on everything we focus on nothing.

Here’s a quick exercise to remind you how powerfully nice it is turning off the buzzes and bings and spend more time in a state of flow.

  1. Pick a habit you do every day that tends to get smashed in with other habits. Start small. We’re looking for five minutes of flow to remind you how cool this state is. For this exercise, I’ll talk about a morning standard for many: brewing a pot of coffee while making and eating breakfast, scanning the Internet or paper for news, and listening to a morning talk show on TV.
  2. For one morning, experience doing one thing at a time. If it’s coffee, approach the coffee maker with reverence. Add the beans and water and click to brew. Consider how far the beans traveled to reach you, where they might have grown and who might have grown them. Think about the water and where it originated. Listen while the brewing coffee gurgles. Watch the steam rise and see the pot fill. Smell the coffee as it brews. Think about how the coffee will taste. Breathe.
  3. When the coffee is ready, pour a mug and take a seat with no food, TV, newspaper, or Internet. Feel the warmth of the mug in your hands. Taste and appreciate each sip. This morning, you are having a cup of coffee. Your focus is just on coffee.
  4. Afterward, take a deep breath and assess how you felt. Was your coffee experience a small escape from the world? Did making and sipping with focus help you relax and appreciate your coffee that much more? Now get back to your busy life, but remember that state.
  5. Find other habits where you can shift into a focused state of mind. You can go big – being fully vested in a great book, learning a new skill, being part of a great conversation, or creating something fabulous. Or you can add flow to small habits, like driving to work without turning on the radio. Going for a run without ear buds in. Or sitting on your porch and watching birds at the feeder.

Want to know more about flow? Here’s Mihaly talking about Flow in a TED talk. And the book is really good!

Here’s a moment of zen from the coast of Maine: When you are between a rock and a hard place, focus on the quartz crystals. Outstanding!

Between a rock and a hard place




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