Pausing Time and Getting Unstuck — Lessons from a Day of Kayaking
Getting out in the natural world can be full of joys and surprises, and a recent afternoon of kayaking is a case in point. It was a perfect day to be out on the water, and this was not a thrill-seeking type of outing, with loads of boulders, rapids, and sudden drops. This was a very different kind of river, where my brother and I literally had it all to ourselves, where the only human contact on the way up-river was with a few golfers that we caught sight of.
And after the first mile or so going upstream on this river, it truly is like traveling back in time, because all vestiges of the “built world” fall away. There is nothing but the sound of your paddle in the slowly moving water, the wind in the trees, birds singing, a wedge of goslings paddling and flapping their wings ferociously because they can’t yet fly, or an occasional dragonfly alighting nearby. Or perhaps more to the point, it is as if time does not exist at all — a state of being that can be elusive in a connected, ever-more-frenetic, world. I would like to use this aspect of forgetting all about time as a jumping-off-point for some observations about the world of work, starting with the concept of flow.
Being in a State of Flow
In his TED Talk, just before he closes, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the well-known book about flow, displays a slide which summarizes what’s he’s found to be typical of achieving a flow state, the contents of which are shown below:
- Completely involved in what we are doing — focused, concentrated.
2. A sense of ecstasy — of being outside everyday reality.
3. Great inner clarity — knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.
4. Knowing that the activity is doable — that our skills are adequate to the task.
5. A sense of serenity — no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
6. Timelessness — thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
7. Intrinsic motivation — whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.
Let’s come back to Csikszentmihalyi’s sixth point, about being completely focused about what we’re doing, that is, being completely in the moment. If and when we achieve such an inner state, quite a few things need to be true:
- We are not being interrupted
- We are not context-switching (closely related to the preceding point)
- We can maintain our focus until we finish the task we’re working on, or we reach a point where we’re ready to pause what we’re doing
Such a state of affairs may very well sound like a dream scenario — and may even seem almost unattainable. Depending on organizational context, it can be difficult to create this sort of space for ourselves. To help leaders understand the importance of flow, it may be helpful to remind them that when it comes to being able to have predictability about the ever-present “when will it be done?” question, we need to avoid putting people in situations where they feel pressured to work on multiple things at the same time. To use a term that is common in Kanban — we need to keep Work In Progress (WIP) low.
Note: There is plenty more to be said about flow — for more on that topic, see my blog post Improving Flow.
Let’s return to the narrative about kayaking for a moment. Another unique aspect of this river is that there is a lengthy section where there are lots of fallen trees. If it were not for some helpful volunteers who cut sections of those trees away, the river becomes completely impassable, and even then, it may be necessary to navigate a narrow section that has been cleared, or even get out of the water and “portage” the kayak past the blockage. And even when it appears there is significant clearance for a single kayak to get through, it can be difficult to discern how well-submerged a particular section of a tree trunk might be. Let’s return to the world of work to consider a couple of ramifications.
It’s not that uncommon for something to slow down, or even stop, forward progress on something we’re working on. Some people just have a knack for recognizing when this is occurring, and also for being proactive about taking steps to addressing the situation, so that work can continue. And in situations where there is a pain point that is affecting multiple people, or even multiple teams, it’s hard to over-emphasize how important it is promptly take action to address the situation.
Note: Impediments often surface because one or more dependencies exist. For more about managing dependencies, see my blog post Dependency Management Techniques.
Recognizing That It’s Okay to Start Over
On numerous occasions while kayaking, I did not correctly discern the best passage to take when navigating through sections of the river where there were fallen trees. As a result, there were occasions where the hull of the kayak got lodged on a submerged section of the tree, and the only option for me at that point was to exert force on the log to gain reverse momentum, or paddle backward vigorously, and then try a different passage.
This scenario is also familiar in a work context. We might think we can see all of the obstacles in front of us, and yet, we are often surprised, no matter how much planning we do. The more complex a domain is, especially when it is relatively unfamiliar, should give us pause, because there is a natural process of discovery that occurs. “Just go faster” or “just work harder” is not the answer to every problem. In many situations, we need to go back to the drawing board and carefully consider all of the information that is available to us, and then take a different path based on new and emerging information.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this metaphorical journey up-river that we have taken together. And with that, let’s close with the often-quoted phrase that “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”