In Search Of Flow

Last year I became an addict.

So I decided to quit my job and pursue my addiction. Today, I am happy to say that I am still an addict.

I got hooked onto flow.

Flow is the state of mind 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.

It is a peak state where we both feel our best and perform our best.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow is one of the most cited studies in psychology. According to him, flow is more than just an optimal state of consciousness, it also appears to be the only practical answer to the question: What is the meaning of life?

There are moments that stand out from the chaos of the everyday as shining beacons… In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them part of everyday existence.
~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Most of us have at least passing familiarity with flow. If you’ve ever lost an afternoon to a great conversation or gotten so involved in a work project that all else is forgotten, then you’ve tasted the experience.

If flow is the peak, then entropy is the valley. Psychic entropy is the normal state of consciousness — a condition that is neither useful nor enjoyable.

When we are left alone, with no demands on attention, the basic disorder of the mind reveals itself. With nothing to do, the mind begins to follow random patterns. Attention will be attracted to whatever is most problematic at the moment: it will focus on some real or imaginary pain, on recent grudges or long-term frustrations.

Entropy creates chaos in the mind and flow bring order to the chaos.

In an age where the average attention span is reduced to eight seconds, entropy is ever-increasing. The normal state of the mind is chaotic, jumping from one thought to the next every few minutes. Without adequate training and an object that demands our attention, we are unable to focus our thoughts for more than a few minutes at a time. And during these distracted moments we tend to feel sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied.

It would be a mistake to assume that leisure saves us from entropy. Leisure provides a relaxing respite from work, but it generally consists of passively absorbing information, without using any skills or exploring new opportunities for action. Flow requires focussed attention and action:

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these (Flow), the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.
~ Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

While flow saves you from the dull dissatisfaction of entropy, the resurgence of flow research has less to do with its feel-good nature and more to do with its function as a performance enhancer.

“Flow naturally catapults you to a level you’re not naturally in,” explains Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Ned Hallowell. “Flow naturally transforms a weakling into a muscleman, a sketcher into an artist, a dancer into a ballerina, a plodder into a sprinter, an ordinary person into someone extraordinary. Everything you do, you do better in flow, from baking a chocolate cake to planning a vacation to solving a differential equation to writing a business plan to playing tennis to making love.”

A ten-year study done by McKinsey found top executives reported being up to 500% more productive when in flow.

Flow also helps you learn faster. A lot faster. Military snipers trained in flow by United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) decreased the time it took to acquire their targets by a factor of 2.3. Flow doesn’t just provide a joyful, self-directed path toward mastery — it literally shortens the path.

Flow is available to anyone, anywhere. With enough training all of us can incorporate flow into our lives. Csikszentmihalyi identified three main components to get into flow.

Clear goals: When the brain is charged with a clear goal, focus narrows considerably, the unimportant is disregarded, and the now is all that’s left. If creating more flow is our aim, then the emphasis falls on “clear” and not “goals.” Clarity gives us certainty. We know what to do and we know where to focus our attention while doing it. When goals are clear, metacognition is replaced by in-the-moment cognition, and the self stays out of the picture.
Applying this idea in our daily life means breaking tasks into bite-size chunks and setting goals accordingly.
Immediate feedback: Immediate feedback refers to a direct, in-the-moment coupling between cause and effect. The smaller the gap between input and output, the more we know how we’re doing and how to do it better. If we can’t course correct in real time, we start looking for clues to better performance — things we did in the past, things we’ve seen other people do, things that can pull us out of the moment. When feedback is immediate, the information we require is always close at hand. Attention doesn’t have to wander; the conscious mind need not get involved.
Applying this idea in our daily life means that we need to tighten feedback loops. Put mechanisms in place so attention doesn’t have to wander.
Challenge/Skill ratio: Challenge/Skill ratio is arguably the most important flow trigger. The idea behind this trigger is that attention is most engaged when there’s a very specific relationship between the difficulty of a task and our ability to perform that task. If the challenge is too great, fear swamps the system. If the challenge is too easy, we stop paying attention. Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.
Applying this idea in our daily life means that we should choose a challenge that is about 4 percent greater than our skills.
~The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

While flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it’s also the most elusive. Even though seekers have spent centuries trying to reproduce flow state, no one has found a reliable way to do it.

However, recent developments in neuroscience and our understanding of the mind gives us clues on how to structure a life rich in flow:

1) Prioritize Deep Work

Flow requires distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Cal Newport calls work done in such a state of concentration, “Deep Work”.

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
If you’re not comfortable going deep for extended periods of time, it’ll be difficult to get your performance to the peak levels of quality and quantity increasingly necessary to thrive professionally. Unless your talent and skills absolutely dwarf those of your competition, the deep workers among them will outproduce you. 
~ Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

If you study the habits of famous thinkers and writers, you’ll find that a commitment to deep work is a common theme. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.

Shallow work on the other hand are non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.

Rule #1: Commit to depth, minimize shallow work

2) Avoid Distraction

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.
To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where it’s not ready for deep work — even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
~ Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

We are all driven by an urge to turn our attention toward something more superficial. Unless we create artificial constraints we will fall into the same trap every time.

When I do deep work, I disable all social media websites using Go Fucking Work chrome extension, put my phone in silence and listen to White Noise to cut off all distractions that take me away from flow.

Even a minor distraction such as checking your email or looking over your social media feeds can take you out of flow. It takes 15-30 minutes to get into flow, any time you have a distraction, the clock resets.

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.

Rule #2: Create systems that save you from distraction

3) Create Rituals

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
If you suddenly decide, for example, in the middle of a distracted afternoon spent Web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to wrest your attention away from the online shininess. Such attempts will therefore frequently fail.
On the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals — perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon — you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you’d therefore succeed with these deep efforts far more often.
~ Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

An often-overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.

Mason Currey spent several years cataloging the habits of famous thinkers and writers in his book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”. He summarized their ritualistic behavior as follows:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration — that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where… but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.

I reserve the first 4 hours of the day for creative/deep work and I protect this time like my life depended on it. Early morning is especially conducive to deep work because there are little distractions.

However, there’s no perfect deep work ritual— the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued but one thing is certain, you need to do it consistently.

Rule #3: Create rituals that will force into deep work daily

4) Train Your Attention

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters.
In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing — something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your “mental muscle.” 
~ Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

If you live a life surrounded by distractions switching to deep work mode is difficult. Entropy is the default state of mind and it requires training to focus your attention on a single task for extended periods of time.

The most effective tool I have found to sharpen my attention is meditation. Flow requires focussed attention. Meditation is all about attention. Through regular meditation practice, your brain becomes better at paying attention to whatever you choose to focus on.

Rule #4: Re-wire your brain to embrace boredom and focus attention

Flow is way more powerful than most people realize. We are not talking about incremental increase in performance, it yields 200%-500% more results.

As a programmer, my productivity triples when I have blocks of undistracted concentration in flow. While the performance benefits are appealing on its own, my personal addiction to flow is psychological. Flow releases a bevy of enormously potent feel-good neurochemicals, arguably the most powerful cocktail the brain can produce with ample doses of dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin.

When you spend your days in flow, you feel more satisfied, you have less anxiety, and you’re happier and healthier. Flow doesn’t just help you get more done in less time. It significantly improves the quality of your life.

When people were interviewed at the end of their life the ones that claim to be the happiest with their lives were the ones that had spent the most amount of time in flow.

Happiness in our lives is not defined by singular moments of ecstasy but rather the way you spend your attention every single day.

If you live your life in entropy, with scattered attention, your mind will be driven towards darkness. However, in flow, you are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. It kills entropy. It is inherently fulfilling.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” ~ Annie Dillard