(Ebb &) Flow

Everyone has experienced a “state of flow,” a concept developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is characterized by total absorption in an activity. Flow is intense and gratifying.

But what often goes unaddressed are the ebbs, those times when we couldn’t be “productive” (defined narrowly) no matter what. It seems like many motivated individuals’ default behavior is to “work” (more on this in another post), but flow requires a limber mind. Ironically, this “all work, all the time” attitude makes flow a pipe dream. Even fascinating and meaningful work is hardly enjoyable when it’s hopelessly entangled with boring and inconsequential procrastination. In order to experience flow, one must embrace the ebbs, which can be just as meaningful.

What we do during ebbs ultimately determines the fruitfulness of our time spent in flow and the quality of our lives. Here are some ways I have spent my ebbs with more or less awareness (and correspondingly more or less productivity — defined broadly now):

Ebb Experience 1: So many open tabs, increasingly little time. Float mindlessly article to article, post to post. Hours pass before I realize I’ve done nothing at all. Continue in spite of myself.

Ebb Experience 2: Look for “something to do.” Find your friends melting in front of the TV. Join them. Feel de-energized. Go to sleep.

Ebb Experience 3: Recognize that I’ve hit a wall. Hit up a friend for a meal. Enjoy myself thoroughly. Most times, learn something. Leave happier.

Ebb Experience 4: Deliberately take extended time off as I feel myself slowing down. Go for a long walk through Forest Park. Read a book. Watch the sunset. Unwind. Ponder. Be mindful.

How I spend my “ebbs” is key to the wonder, joy, and fulfillment that help me push creative pursuits forward.

How do you spend your “ebbs”?

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