The Life-Changing Magic of “Flow” — Why Getting in the Zone May be the Key to Happiness
Happiness is a lie.
At least the version of happiness where we’re all content one hundred percent of the time, feel no pain and get to spend our days enjoying stress-free leisure.
Of course, we all know such happiness doesn’t exist, but we dream of experiencing it, don’t we?
You’ve been at the cubicle, or on the factory line, or behind the counter dreaming of sitting on the beach in paradise, sipping a fruity drink, and listening to the sound of the breeze for… forever.
Since no such state exists, what other ways can we experience the elusive H word?
In my life, aside from one-time moments of extreme joy such as my wedding and the birth of my child, I’ve come no closer to true happiness than the state I’m about to describe.
The Life-Changing Magic of Flow
Have you ever experienced a long period of time where you lost the sense of the outside world, where you were in the zone, where you’ve looked up to find hours have gone by without you noticing them? That’s flow.
Here’s the definition provided by the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
[Flow] is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
When I wrote for the first time, it felt like a spirit possessed my fingers. After I finished, I felt like I’d been unplugged from the matrix and sent back in the real world.
“I could get used to this,” I thought.
That was years ago. Between now and then, I’ve experienced flow more times than I can remember and it gives me a type of contentment I rarely feel in other situations.
You’ve often heard athletes say the court or the field is their sanctuary, to the point they can’t even hear the crowd while they’re playing. This experience carries across many fields, and it might be the key to happiness itself.
The Distracted Life Flow Saves You From
Life doesn’t provide an abundance of breaks or stress-free periods.
From the time you wake up until you go to bed, you’re mentally pushed and pulled in several directions and live in a state of constant distraction.
You’ve got social media, and email, and texts, and errands, and work duties, and bills, and a massive pile of s*** you have to wade through.
No wonder you feel exhausted.
We try to do everything at once and, as Inc columnist Larry Kim says in his piece on the subject, multitasking kills your brain.
He suggests the following reasons why multitasking is harmful:
“Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, and bombarding them with information only slows them down.”
“When we complete a tiny task (sending an email, answering a text message, posting a tweet), we are hit with a dollop of dopamine, our reward hormone. Our brains love that dopamine, and so we’re encouraged to keep switching between small mini-tasks that give us instant gratification. This creates a dangerous feedback loop that makes us feel like we’re accomplishing a ton when we’re really not doing much at all.”
“Multitasking has also been found to increase production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Having our brain constantly shift gears pumps up stress and tires us out, leaving us feeling mentally exhausted (even when the work day has barely begun).”
You’ve experienced days where you’ve done many tasks but feel like you didn’t do much.
How often do people work fully immersed without distractions — unencumbered by their inboxes or phones? Not often at all.
Maybe the world is suffering from stress and lack of contentment because they don’t have a sanctuary to escape to. Maybe they need flow.
How to Find Flow
You’ve felt flow before. You just didn’t notice it.
Recall a time doing something you enjoy — something you lost yourself in. If you’ve spent a long time doing things you don’t want to do, you might have forgotten the things you had an inkling of a passion for.
Think back to your childhood — your formative teen years — they usually provide the best clue.
When I was fourteen, I wrote poems and give them to girls I liked. 60 percent of the time, it worked every time.
No one told me to write poems. At the time, I simply enjoyed writing them.
Little did I know I’d have a future in writing and that discovering it would be one of the best things that ever happened to me.
If you think hard enough, you’ll remember the moments of flow, the subjects you felt drawn to, the tasks you did but no one assigned you.
Maybe you’ve found flow while woodworking, writing, playing an instrument, dancing, cooking, playing games, exercising — the list goes on.
When you discover what puts you in a flow state, you now have at minimum an escape from the daily grind or at maximum an area to develop a skill you can use to build a better career and life.
Flow + Deep Work = Mastery and Career Capital
You can enter a flow state for the purpose of having a therapeutic hobby, but I’m going to focus on flow in terms of its career benefits because the application has important implications.
Cal Newport, author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work discusses two important concepts related to flow.
Think of career capital as skill-equity. The more career capital you have, the more opportunities you have available to you, the more autonomy you can experience in your profession, and ultimately the more you can earn.
I’m generalizing a bit here, but low skilled jobs which many people can do relatively well pay less than high skilled jobs few people can do.
If you want to be valuable and indispensable — the type who can set their own rates, schedule, and terms — you have to master a rare and valuable skill. Instead of having to worry about the world’s outside prospects, you become so good people can’t ignore you.
How do you develop a rare and valuable skill?
You do deep work.
When you do deep work, you do it in a flow state with a deliberate effort to improve.
Most people can’t do deep work because they can’t go five minutes without checking their email, their phone, or the stimuli de jour. Their attention is fragmented. They’re impatient and shortsighted.
I’ve noticed in most fields the people at the top simply took the time to get good at their craft.
Take writing for example. You have a bunch of people who start blogs and never get traction.
They have “writer’s block” because they give up on writing after sitting at the computer for ten minutes. Their problem has nothing to do with talent. It has everything to do with attention span.
You have companies with cultures of over-stimulation — constant emails, meetings, and phones calls. They destroy productivity because they have distracted employees giving 50 percent of their effort all day instead of 100 percent in isolated blocks of time.
I’ll take 90 minutes of focused work over 3 hours of work with multiple interruptions any time. In fact, that’s what I do. I write for 90 minutes to begin my day every day. I get the benefits of finding solace in the morning while doing what I love and producing work that helps me build a career.
To do deep work, create a practice — time carved out to hone the skill you want to master. Also, create a ritual — do this skill at the same time in the same place over a long period of time.
While you work, concentrate only on the work. Allow yourself to sit in the discomfort of not knowing what to do next. If your mind spins, let it spin for a while, then come back to the center and keep practicing.
Perform your task attempting to improve your work each time and monitor the results of your effort.
How Flow and Deep Work Can Solve Many of The World’s Problems
Imagine a world where everyone found time to enjoy flow and do deep work on a daily basis.
What if, instead of piling students into rows of desks to listen to lectures they don’t want to listen to, they started their days doing their favorite activities? I reckon they’d actually learn. Real learning comes from enjoyment and flow, anything else is coercion.
Picture companies where instead of having pointless meetings and constant interruptions throughout the day, employees set communication boundaries and allowed each other to focus deeply on their tasks.
They’d come up with better ideas, make better products, create better marketing messages, have happier clients, and enjoy a more productive work environment.
Consider the decrease in stress across the board if everyone gave themselves 90 minutes a day to focus on a task. 90 minutes to step out of the whirlwind of life and enjoy the art of doing. Maybe we’d all be a little bit nicer to each other. We’d decrease healthcare costs with stress reduction. The economy would flourish even more, as finding passion and getting good at something tends to lead to income.
Maybe I’m going overboard, but you get what I’m saying. In our hyper notified and attention span shortened world, we all can benefit from finding our own skill-developing sanctuaries.
Flow and Purpose
Often, entering a flow state means you’re doing work to benefit other people.
For me, that’s writing. I could earn more doing something I don’t enjoy as much but I’d be selling both myself and everyone else short. You simply can’t do your best work unless it’s deep work.
You can do okay work, good work, even very good work.
But you can’t become Pablo Picasso unless you’re all in.
If you want to create a second home for the human race like Elon Musk, you’ll need to concentrate.
If you want to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s, you’re going to need to do some very deep work.
And, of course, we don’t all have to change the world or make a dent in the universe.
But we can all contribute by getting into flow — doing the work only we can do.
In this scenario, we all win.
We lose ourselves in the joy of creation and mastery.
The world gets to enjoy what we do and make for them.
That’s the world I want to live in.