Post No.: 0192
One state of happiness during our waking hours is when we’re in a state of flow. Flow was briefly mentioned in Post No.: 0135 in the context of play and exercise. ‘Flow’ is that feeling when we’re fully engrossed in a task – so much that nothing else can seem to mentally distract or interrupt us from that task. (For me that means I don’t go, “Ooh, there’s a squirrel in the garden!”) It’s like naturally-arising mindfulness, when you’re completely focused on the present task at hand, doing something you’re optimally involved in, when normal distractions are no longer distracting, and time flies by. You’re not bothered about the time but when you do eventually glance at a clock, you wonder how so much time has passed after doing what you’ve been doing – so time does indeed seem to fly when you’re having fun!
It requires a task that has the right balance of challenge versus the ability to meet it. You feel calm, focused, deeply satisfied, creative, even meditative, yet it can also be intense in a good way. It’s the opposite state to being distracted or having a mind wandering on critical thoughts. When it’s just right we achieve peak engagement in a task hence it’s often referred to as being ‘in the zone’, and this is when we are most efficient, productive and we learn the most.
During flow, one is so mentally immersed in something that there is simply no attentional resources left to think about the past or future, irrelevant things or worrying about things one cannot change. Because it’s related to mindfulness and being fully mentally in the present, all the benefits of mindfulness generally apply to flow too (e.g. not consciously over-thinking a situation, not ruminating on the past or worrying about the uncertain future). Self-consciousness disappears and one is maximally productive without being bothered about deadlines (not that there can’t be deadlines but during the state of flow one isn’t bothered about them). One’s skill level is just about enough to meet the task at hand, there’s a clear goal (although one that doesn’t need to be fixed – it can change and adapt), there’s constant and immediate feedback about how close one is to achieving that goal, and one is able to devote one’s full concentration to the task at hand (so one should try to avoid multi-tasking if it’s not necessary since this reduces the chances of achieving flow).
Boredom does have uses for creativity too, and thinking intently in a critical way does have uses for focusing on important or potentially important issues, but too much of either might lead to tediousness and rumination respectively so most of the time we’d ideally rather achieve a state of flow. This means that keeping busy doing something you like doing and/or has meaning to you is better than just doing nothing. Many people probably find this intuitive when they’d rather do some housework than stressfully sit and wait for something or ruminate on something they cannot control.
Different people have different abilities and activities they enjoy and find meaningful thus what tasks bring about flow are very individual, but try to put aside regular time to do activities that give you that feeling of flow, that are optimally between boredom and overload for you. Mindfulness training also improves our ability to fully concentrate on the present, thus improves our chances of achieving fluffy flow.
The performance-enhancing neurotransmitters of noradrenaline (or norepinephrine), dopamine, serotonin, anandamide (an endocannabinoid) and endorphins are raised when in the state of flow, to improve motivation, creativity and learning. Flow involves alpha and theta brainwaves at the alpha-theta border, where one’s mind is between a conscious and subconscious state, and can combine rapid decisions with creative insight.
From the fastest to the slowest, there are gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta brainwaves. These waves change according to what we’re doing and how we’re feeling. Multiple brainwaves may occur simultaneously but only one will be dominant at a time – a fast brainwave is correlated with feeling alert, or if too much then anxiety; and a slow brainwave is correlated with feeling relaxed, or if too much then lethargy. In more detail, gamma brainwaves correlate with higher processing tasks, cognitive functioning and hard, effortful thinking, and are important for learning, memory and information processing; beta brainwaves correlate with normal waking consciousness and alertness; alpha brainwaves correlate with quietly flowing thoughts, light meditation or daydreaming; theta brainwaves correlate with subconscious or unconscious intuition and awareness or sleeping and dreaming; and delta brainwaves correlate with deep sleep, dreamless sleep and very deep transcendental meditation.
A drawback to flow, however, is that some addictive video games and gambling games exploit flow, so this is something to be aware of. And a problem with being so engrossed and finding time fly by so easily is that one might miss one’s meals, bedtime or other duties and responsibilities. We can be so engrossed in something that we miss things outside of what we’re concentrating on. And that might be why you cannot get someone’s attention when they’re doing something – they’re not intentionally ignoring you – they’re just in a state of flow and totally engrossed in what they’re doing. Being so distracted can be used to our advantage regarding pain management though (e.g. playing flow-inducing video games in order to ignore or distract us from an acute or chronic pain).
Thinking is at its optimal level during a task we have sufficient skill in – when we suddenly over-think during a task that we’ve genuinely mastered, this actually makes us clumsier and less efficient (and this is usually what happens when people start performing in public for the first time with a task they can easily do in private – their minds are over-thinking with thoughts of self-consciousness and self-focus). So overall, sometimes it’s safer and more efficient to leave ourselves on autopilot and in a state of flow, but at other times it’s more dangerous because we can miss other important things.
A lot of learning in school nowadays is about inflexible standardisation, testing and grades – meaning that pupils who don’t attain flow in these kinds and/or levels of activities are either bored or burnt out; thus the system fails to take advantage of many children’s individual, intrinsic levels of abilities and desires to learn. Pupils are more tempted to cheat or be disruptive if they’re not optimally engaged in classes and the material, or when the metric for achievement is high grades rather than actual learning itself i.e. when the proxy goals (grades) are far more important than the journey (the intrinsic value of learning something itself). Engaging learning should be the goal, although this is difficult to achieve in classes of varying abilities and desires.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ for optimal schooling – so children should ideally have at least some autonomy, some control of their own to choose activities or subjects that are relevant to their own lives/goals and have meaning to them (or at least lessons should be presented to better highlight how relevant and meaningful they are to the pupils’ own personal lives/goals). So offer them some choice, within the bounds that the choices must be educational and edifying – and then challenge their abilities and support their choices. Teachers/coaches should model enthusiasm for the material, seek rapport, use humour, include lots of lessons with hands-on interaction, provide clear goals and offer continual timely feedback and positive support. Leave pupils free to fully concentrate on a task and do not interrupt flow whenever it arises. Good teacher-student relationships involve trust and accepting the student whatever they decide (within reason). What drives a satisfying career path is interest, a passion – not mere academic performance. This doesn’t mean not pushing them – it precisely means finding that peak level to push them at so that they progress without boredom or frustration.
This is why age-appropriate toys for children are better for a child’s rate of learning than toys that are either too challenging or unchallenging. Trying to force a child to do something that they’re not yet ready for in the naïve hope that it’ll somehow expedite their progress is just like trying to get them to run before they can walk. The result will be slower progress overall, frustration and maybe even a conditioned dislike for that activity. There’s an optimal rate of learning where trying to push even harder or faster results in a worse rate of learning. Likewise, a child who is progressing well must be constantly given fresher or greater challenges, if they’re not naturally exploring and pushing the boundaries of their own abilities themselves (often kids will naturally seek a taller tree once they’ve successfully climbed a smaller one, for instance).
Group flow can be attained by aligning an entire group of individuals with one united goal that is shared and that each member has a key part in fulfilling. Provide a compelling vision and shared mission, have a strong group identity, and seek the balance between having just enough focus so that the team knows when they’re getting closer to a solution or goal yet one that’s open-ended enough for maximum creativity to emerge. Genuinely listen to others (i.e. no preconceived ideas or having an answer before the other person has finished talking), use, “Yes and…” rather than, “Yes but…” responses (don’t ignore your partner or team mates – listen closely, accept it fully, then build on it), and keep the whole thing moving forwards positively. Pack away any other projects/tasks in the environment so that no one’s distracted. Manage the feeling of autonomy and control with respecting and giving room for the autonomy and control of others.
It works best with teams that aren’t full of egos, where the individuals have roughly equal competences and participation (i.e. no one dominating or feeling pointless), where everyone is familiar with each other (which takes time to develop), there’s open communication, immediate feedback, and there are challenges/stakes created by the risk of failure (although no one is afraid of failure because it is to be expected as part of the journey towards success). In aligning group flow, there are a lot of fine balances – between structure and improvisation, listening and involving oneself, critically analysing and freewheeling, there must be rules but everyone should share them tacitly, and there must be the trust that genius will emerge from the group rather than from any single member. Group collaboration, when done well, is simply unbeatable in the world of work – it’s rewarding for both workers and the organisation as a whole. Woof!
It can be difficult to seek flow in our daily lives when so many fuzzy tasks we must do aren’t balancing on that edge of offering the right amount of challenge without being too mundane, uninteresting, meaningless, difficult, confusing or frustrating; and when there are so many distractions vying for our attention too – but if we can achieve the state of flow more often then it’ll make for more satisfying and happier lives.
Woof! Please share with us the last time you remember being in a state of flow, by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below. We cannot ask for anything more for a given moment in time than being optimally ‘in the zone’.