Updated: Jan 4, 2018
What makes your heart beat a little faster?
What are the things that put you in flow, a zone where you lose track of time because you are so engrossed in what you’re doing? In his TED Talk and corresponding book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes "flow" as as level of focus, "that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake." For Csikszentmihalyi's full talk on flow, check it out below.
How amazing would it be to experience "flow" in our day to day lives, let alone in the work that we do?
Csikszentmihalyi goes on to state that flow can be predicted and found. He suggests that we all have an average level of skill and challenge that we experience in respect to a given thing. We enter flow when we are challenged at a level higher than what we experience on average, and when our skills are simultaneously at a higher level.
So, flow may occur for you when you are having coffee with a friend and find yourself in an engrossing and a powerful conversation. You lose track of time as you explore ideas and emotinos that are slightly higher than your average experience of these things, and you are meeting the challenge with your strong interpersonal skills.
For someone else, flow may come while they are playing blues guitar or writing code. It's the combination of challenge and utilization of skill that brings us into a state of flow.
Here’s a brief list of things that get my heart going and put me into flow:
Playing old folk songs and hymns at a nursing home.
Creating and producing- writing papers, reports, finishing projects (Nerdy, I know.) songwriting, etc.
Trail running, mountain biking, being in nature.
Reading peer-reviewed articles on new neuroscience research.
Getting a beer or coffee with my best girlfriends.
Connecting and spending time with family and “framily”.
Silence in Holy Spaces – an empty cathedral, gardens, alone in the woods, looking at a star-filled sky.
Sure, parts of my list may seem pretty boring, but to me, this little list is life-giving. I notice that in each aspect, I am most alive when I am slightly challenged and am utilizing existing skills. Even when it comes to getting a drink with my girlfriends, I am most fulfilled when
we are discussing topics that are either emotionally or intellectually provoking, which requires me to use my noggin and call upon what I know.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that it's good for us to be in a constant state of flow. First, I think that's impossible, and second, it would be exhausting. It can be a really good thing to spend time with friends and not have to have a thought provoking conversation.
Many of us are looking for "our purpose" and "passion" and how we can add meaning into our lives. What I am suggsting, is to start to noticing the times in your week when you lose track of time. Maybe you are playing with your kids, maybe you're tutoring, maybe you're writing.
The list I shared above gives me some clues about what fills me, and it happens to be those moments when I experience flow. This list gives me a clue to what feeds me, and where I need to go when I feel burned out.
So, how can we bring a little flow into those days where we are running, and running, and doing everything for everyone? The days when we have zero time for ourselves, which my guess (especially if you're a mom) is probably just about every day.
I’m sure your life has more demands than I can imagine, but if you are willing, I’d like to challenge you to conduct an experiment.
The Heartbeat / Flow Experiment:
Make a list of times in the past month where you have lost track of time. You can list the things that make you excited, or feel like an exhale when you get to do them. You can list projects you've accomplished, dates you've had, really any time when you have felt 100% engaged.
Break it down - In reviewing your list, isolate the factors that contributed to you being in flow. Maybe it was spending time with a like minded person, maybe you made time to dust off your old instrument for a few minutes, or you took the bike for a spin. What was the thing about your flow experience that leaves you feeling energized ?
Identify the smallest thing you can do to evoke that feeling. For example, I may not have time to go play songs at the nursing home, but I do have five minutes where I can sit with my guitar and play a song I love. Sometimes it just takes getting started. Often, when I play guitar, it is not until the second or third song that I begin to settle into flow. Give yourself at least 10 minutes or some warming up time if you can. Find the smallest thing you can do to become immersed in flow.
If you are really stretched for time, what is a small 1-2 minute practice you can do just as a reminder that the flow part of you exists? When we get wrapped up in all of our roles and responsibilities, we can forget that there are whole other parts of ourselves that bring us joy and a sense of accomplishment. How can you access that part for just a moment as a reminder to yourself?
If you love painting, but don’t have time to set up, paint, clean up, etc., what is it about painting you love? Could you get a similar feeling from doing some quick sketches in a journal?
Yoga is one of the things I have on my list. I love it because it is one of the few things that gets me grounded in my body and out of my head, the physical releasing of tension, and the calming sensation of deep breathing.Most days I don’t have the time (or $) to do a class, so how can I build a little peace and tension release into my day when I don't have an hour?
Throughout the day, I might take 2 minutes to do little stretches, or shut my eyes to breathe. At night, I will spend 15 minutes before bed alone in my office, with a candle lit, and my yoga mat. I’ll do some yoga poses that feel good that day, or stretch areas that are particularly tense.
Creating and producing is another thing on my list, that isn't always feasible day to day. Arriving home from work most days, my brain feels like mush, and I get frustrated by my perceived lack of productivity.
I’ve learned to honor that feeling, and to schedule time in the week when I know I will have space and a fresh brain to do some work. For me, it’s usually between 6 -8 AM on a Saturday and Sunday morning (I’m a morning person). Doing this twice a week helps refresh and energize me for the week.
Finding the smallest things we can do to create fulfillment allows us to sustain the practice.