“The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Last week, I took my first real vacation since February 2020. As soon as we crossed the Piscataqua Bridge from New Hampshire into Maine, I knew that I had arrived. My love of lobster, water skiing, and life on the lake (sunsets, s’mores, family, friends, and hikes nearby) only cemented the knowledge that my heart was home.
It’s easy for us to get caught in a distracted world and the noise in our heads that constantly critiques and needles our every action, thought, and feeling. It’s much more difficult to achieve a flow state, a condition of intense focus and absorption; of stretching your mind to its limit. Flow can happen when we are doing activities like painting, writing, surfing, playing chess, or practicing yoga on the dock early in the morning as the fog is lifting. It’s the act of moving away from the minutia of object, task, or idea in order to see it holistically and with more clarity. Flow is not about cramming as many tasks into one day as possible, or spending time zooming through email or surfing the web. It’s about focused play, and sometimes stepping away from our work, leaning into play and relaxation, actually opens us up to creativity and sharpens our focus for when we return.
In flow, what you wish, think, say, feel, and do align with your goals. It’s this feeling of being in congruence with your goals that enables your attention to flow effortlessly into what matters most. For flow to occur, it’s important that your goal challenges and stretches your current level of skills. I am in flow during a 2-minute waterski run on a glassy lake (as it was last week), and when I am using my creativity drawing on my years of training and experience to address an important issue for my clients.
Now that I am back in my daily rhythm, I will work on bringing and maintaining a flow state, that playful and focused quality of life, into my day to day existence. I’m learning to control my work environment in order to practice deep focus on what is most important while also giving myself the proper time to relax and play.
How will you find your flow? Musician Diane Allen offers a few tips in her TED talk.
“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back,
the way it is with children.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
What I’m Reading: Cal Newport’s Deep Work
Eudaemonia, n: the state of achieving one’s full human potential
Cal Newport’s recent book explores how we can eschew distraction, burn out, and multitasking in support of attaining true focus. Deep work involves “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” — a start contrast to shallow work, a common occurrence in our busy world that values efficiency and speed and quantity over quality. When we turn off our phones, computers, and televisions, when we lock ourselves in a room with pencil, paper, and our mind — this, Cal says, is when we achieve true, uninhibited focus.
“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—
is the sum of what you focus on.”
– Cal Newport
What I’m Listening To: How to Improvise Your Life
On Greg McKeown’s Essentialism podcast, educator and improv master Clay Drinko says that improvisation and play are actually what helps us focus and get deep. Taking chances and rejecting overthinking and worrying helps us to become more confident in whatever we are doing. When he teaches students implemented improv in their in- and out-of-school lives, he identifies and evaluates three crucial elements: openness, collaboration, and listening.
Improvisation in itself is a kind of deep work. It’s a hyper-concentration on the actions of your scene partners and how you fit in to the performance as a whole; a constant generation of ideas fueled by collaboration. And this hyper-concentration trumps thinking about what you’re doing wrong, what you could be doing better — focusing on playing lifts you out of your anxieties and helps you live in the present moment. So the next time you’re feeling anxious or stuck, try these fun exercises to get out of your head and bring you back to the present.
My wish for you is that you take some time during the remainder of the summer to continue to hone your focus and discover your flow state.