Flowing Through Life

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

4/20/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jackie Gingrich Cushman

“That was quick, we weren’t even in there 15 minutes,” said my daughter Maggie while walking into the house after her hour and a half ballet lesson. She had resisted going to class, and I was glad that she had not only had fun, but had experienced total engagement or flow, the seeming halt to the passage of time while involved in an activity.

Time stands still when you are so engrossed in an activity that you forget your worries, your fears, your unfinished errands and other activities. For those of us with “to do” lists longer than a 4-year-old’s list to Santa, such interludes are not just reprieves from our busy lives, but bits of nirvana on earth. Yes, “time flies when you’re having fun,” but it also flies when you are experiencing flow.

We live, we die. The question is, how well do we live the lives that we have? “To live means to experience - through doing, feeling, thinking,” according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Finding Flow,” (Basic Books, 1997, New York). He is best known for contributing the concept of flow to psychology.

Flow, “the sense of effortlessness action..in moments that stand out” as among the best in your life. Athletes often refer to being “in the zone,” religious mystics call it the state of ecstasy and artists call it rapture. If life is experience, and flow represents the best moments in our lives, it follows that one would want to create more flow, thereby creating one’s best life.

But how? How can we recreate the moments where everything finally comes together almost, but not quite, effortlessly? How can we make time appear to stand still, with all the pieces fitting together, almost as if being drawn together by an unseen hand?

In “Authentic Happiness,” (Free Press, 2002, New York), Dr. Martin Seligman asks, “When does time stop for you? When do you want to find yourself doing exactly what you want to be doing, and never wanting it to end?” Such moments, according to Seligman, occur when you are in a state of flow.

Think back over the past week and consider when time flew by, when you were so totally absorbed in what you were doing that time had no meaning. For me this often happens while reading, or writing.

Flow is notable not just for the happiness that one experiences during the event, but for the reflection and satisfaction one feels afterwards, the ability to look back and say, “that was fun,” whether it was closing a contested business deal, winning a tennis match or rearranging a closet.

The key components of flow include a task that is challenging and requires skill (is attainable, but requires stretching and using all of one’s skills), concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, and a sense of control. When all this happens, the sense of self vanishes, and time seems to stop. Rather than being separate from everything and everyone else, you are involved, and are able to flow through life.

One can create the structure necessary for flow in work and physical activities by setting continually higher goals, delegating items that are outside your area of expertise and receiving feedback. The rest of life, however, is messier. Someone has to do the dishes, pay the bills and pick up the dry cleaning.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, “by taking a the whole context of the activity into account, and understanding the impact on one’s action on the whole, a trivial job can turn into a memorable performance that leaves the world in a better place than it was before.” For these everyday tasks, a few tactics can increase the probability of attaining flow. They include placing the activity in the context of a larger goal, creating periodic goals, and exercising control over when and how the task is to be completed.

While doing laundry is still not my favorite activity, it is more pleasant when while folding clothes; I picture my children wearing them. Creating periodic goals include trying to clean the house or cut the yard at a faster pace that the time before, or improving the process of bill paying. Anything that removes your focus from the task itself to improving or shortening the task is helpful.

A friend recently told me that she irons while watching Oprah. This allows her to enjoy watching the show while accomplishing a required, but not well-loved, task. Other people combine two disliked tasks to complete them in 1/2 the time.

While reframing daily tasks into flow events is helpful, higher-level flow attainment requires effort, skill and accepting the risk of failure. This is the flow that one feels when closing a deal, hitting a home run, or finishing a complex home project.

One is able to accomplish one’s goal by putting skills into action, and overcoming the risk of failure. The task is given complete focus, and success is achieved. At that specific moment of time, one is fully engrossed in living life. Over time, higher levels of skill can be developed, higher goals set and more flow created.

Remember, if your goal is to enjoy life, try to flow a bit more, in the big and little areas of life.