We’ve all heard the term mindfulness bounced around; whether it’s in a book or a meme or a blog, being mindful (conscious, present and aware) is credited as a path to a more fulfilling life. While many of us recognize the importance of being mindful, there’s a difference between knowing something is helpful and actually doing it. (Am I right??) So how do we put into practice the tools that we know would be good for us?
There’s an activity that can be a starting point for mindfulness; it involves remembering where and when you’ve been mindful before (even if you didn’t realize it) and recognizing what you were doing. Specifically, it’s figuring out when you’ve been in an activity state called “flow.”
What is “flow”?
To be in flow is to be fully engaged in an action. Flowing means losing track of time, forgetting about yesterday and tomorrow: being fully present in the activity at hand. This isn’t just any activity either; activities that bring about flow are different for all of us, but the characteristics are the same. These characteristics include:
- The activity must be challenging (but not so difficult that it makes you anxious)
- The activity works toward clear and recognizable goals
- You experience effortless concentration
- You lose all sense of time
- You feel a sense of control
In flow activities, you are:
- fully absorbed in what you’re doing
- unaware of physical needs
- unaware of the self in general (worries, plans, self-talk)
- feeling intrinsically rewarded (by the activity itself, not the finished product)
- getting immediate feedback (seeing your own progress)
“Flow is…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Being in this state is also called being “in the zone.” It’s asking your body and mind to perform at its peak, letting go of the outcome and getting lost in an activity. While the flow zone is commonly described by artists and athletes, it can be found in simpler activities too: activities such as cleaning, conversating, completing a difficult project at work, or teaching someone how to do something. Flow zones are as unique as we are as people. Finding flow is really just about recognizing which activities make you feel the aforementioned qualities, and then seeking them out and doing them as often as possible. Why?
Because finding your flow is associated with all sorts of good stuff.
Researching the flow state has been the life’s work of the man responsible for that quote up there, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Say that three times fast!) Based on his findings, we know that finding flow is associated with:
- more life satisfaction
- better quality of life
- more positive emotions
- higher self-esteem
These findings make logical sense because of what a state of flow does: it deflates our ego, allows us to rise to a challenge, and in turn enables us to master new skills. When you’re continually seeking out challenging experiences and then rising to meet those challenges, you’re engaging in self-expansion…and that feels good. While the flow zone itself doesn’t equal any feelings (because being in flow presents a loss of self-consciousness) the aftermath of flow is where those outcomes are found, in the form of more life satisfaction and higher self-esteem.
And who doesn’t want more life satisfaction and higher self-esteem?
So, go ahead…find your flow. Unsure where it is? Start with something that you enjoy, and then take it up a notch. Make it challenging, push your limits a bit, and find that sweet spot between challenge and mastery. That’s the flow place. Oh, and don’t forget to put your phone in the other room (distractions can interrupt the state of flow from taking over.) Happy flowing, and let me know how it goes in the comments!
Want to learn more about flow? Here is a Ted talk by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihhalyi