Popularised by Lucozade’s Find Your Flow ad campaign in 2015, flow is a state of being in which you do things with harmony and fluidity in mind. It’s a bit like mindfulness and doing things with presence of mind rather than out of habit.
It is part of a practice known as positive psychology, and where the process of doing something is as purposeful as the end result, thus optimizing your day and allowing you to feel the best way possible.
For example, you might cycle to work to make the commute purposeful and more enjoyable by combining exercise with a more pleasant environment, rather than sitting on public transport. Others of us may choose that time to read or catch up on emails rather than seeing it as ‘wasted’ time, in order to free up hours in the day for other things that you want to do.
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described the mental state of flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” In fact, he gave a TED Talk on it in 2004 – so you know it must be a big deal.
Lucozade on the other hand, described it as: “The unmistakable feeling of being on form. Of finding your rhythm and keeping it. Knowing no matter what the week throws at you, you’re going to take it in your stride. Turning To-Do’s into Ta-Dah’s, then asking “what’s next?” Because life isn’t just about getting through it. It’s about getting the most out of it.”
Different people find flow in different ways, and the chances are we all have somewhere specific that we feel it, whether it’s exercise, skiing, football, painting, reading – you know, that place where you feel whole. Most of us have experienced that sense of timelessness when we’re completely absorbed in something that we’re doing, and it’s a wonderful thing, but we don’t tend to use it with purpose in the every day.
The key attributes of flow are: clear and defined goals that are challenging but attainable; strong concentration and focus; a sense of reward from the task at hand; a feeling of serenity; immediate feedback; having a balance between skill and challenge; and lacking a sense of needing something more. All sounds pretty blissful, so the next stage of this is not so much simply finding five minutes in the day to feel that way.
We talk a lot about finding time for yourself, and finding time to treat yourself, but the Holy Grail is finding a way to bring that sense of wellbeing, purpose, achievement and empowerment to every moment of the day, rather than relegating it to singular moments once in awhile – building the things that help you find your flow into the working week rather than feeling shattered Monday to Friday and crashing out on Saturday and Sunday. Part of that is embracing an attitude that you can love at work, and part of it is building in time to let your mind and body breathe.
For example, twilight spa evenings after work every now and again to give you a mid week breather, as well as building fitness and nutrition into your routine (instead of blitzing it once in a blue moon). Many of the twilight breaks are around £30 as well, which makes them an affordable way to spend the evening when you compare that to dinner out with friends or even a takeaway at home. Homewood Park in Bath has a beautiful twilight evening for £35 for example, and Hilton Southampton offers an exclusive package for £30.
‘Work-life effectiveness’ is another way of describing flow when it comes to its wider and more practical application. Forbes contributor Lawton Ursrey wrote that ‘work-life balance… [is a] misnomer and it can set you up for failure.” Within this he encourages people to find passion in everything that they do: “it expresses the idea that your work and your life should be in sync. They aren’t enemies. They are allies… It’s about removing the tension between work and life, and focusing on the commonality – you.”
Key to his theory is putting yourself first, for the greater good: “you have to focus on number one first… you have to know what you really want to do with your life.” He also hastens to point out that while a lot of his thinking seems geared towards entrepreneurs, “you don’t have to have a company to work for yourself. Whatever you are passionate about requires you to be constantly engaged… even if you’re working on a team in the corporate world, focusing on what you want and making decisions toward those goals is key.”
Rather wonderfully, the starting point hinges on thinking about what you really want and love, setting a challenge but recognizing the steps to make things achievable rather than impossible (if your goal is to climb Everest but you haven’t managed to climb the stairs without wheezing yet, then build in a couple of intermediate steps for example). The idea is to set your challenges or goals, develop the skills to achieve them, set clear goals in between, and focus completely on the task at hand.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi argued that achieving the flow state on a regular basis is a key component of happiness, and there are many who agree with him. The idea is that work, life and happiness are not separate entities, but that by learning how to enter the state of flow you can increase your productivity, be more creative, and be happier, all at the same time.
Eventually, as Daring to Live Fully blogger Marelisa Fabrega puts it, you don’t need to practice any more: “It’s also important to note that the [person] has the ability to ‘switch off’ so that the process… becomes almost automatic.”
One thing that’s interesting given the brain’s general tendency to lean towards doing the things that are easy in life, is that there’s a correlation between a lack of challenge and apathy in the way we live and work. Boredom for example, is extremely damaging. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi used a graph to highlight the point at which flow occurs and boredom correlates to both a low challenge and a mediocre skill set to achieve it, where flow is at a point where you feel challenged, but equipped to deal with it, not pushing to the point of anxiety.
Importantly, create the mental space to do all of those things – take time out; relax, meditate, exercise, pamper – whatever helps you find that sense of quiet.
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