Being in a state of flow

Deep Flow

A book I need to read sometime soon is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (that’s sick-cent-mihalie – thanks to Daniel Kahneman for the pronunciation tip). Csikszentmihalyi looks at how time seems to behave differently when we are deeply engaged in what we are doing versus when every second of boredom drags by at the end of a workday. Flow is how he describes the state we are in when we are concentrated and focused, when an hour seems to blink by.


It’s the state where we are so engaged with our work that time seems to bend around us. Rather than looking at the clock every few minutes, and rather than experiencing time, we are absorbed by what we are doing, and when we finally pause, we can’t believe how much time has passed. It is a complete feeling of commitment and purpose with what  we are doing, and we all find different ways to be in a state of flow.


For me, my morning writing and editing work is a brief flow state. My running is usually a flow state, and sometimes other work that I have ranging from spreadsheets, to building training slides, to report writing can actually be flow work.


I know others who find flow from riding motorcycles, drawing, and even from being part of a band. The commonality between everything is a sense of presence and focus specifically on the task, work, or activity of the moment. Flow, in many ways, is the fulfillment we live for, even if it is found in report writing rather than singing in a garage band.


Cal Newport highlights this reality in his book Deep Work. He writes, “Most people assumed (and still do) that relaxation makes them happy. We want to work less and spend more time in the hammock. But the results from Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM studies reveal that most people have this wrong.” What we actually want, and what actually brings us the most happiness is being able to be in flow states. Free time and leisure can be meandering, purposeless, and even boring. Work that provides us with flow feels good, even if it is difficult and is still work. I believe this is part of why some people find it hard to retire or stay retired. Unstructured free time doesn’t always give us something that we can be absorbed and engaged in, and we don’t find the same level of happiness as we find when we can tackle a project and get into a state of flow.


This suggest that when we are considering our weekend plans, considering our career choices, and considering hobbies, we should be looking for things that provide flow states. We should find ways to set up a space and environment where we can focus deeply on a specific task, and find our flow. Rather than only chasing promotions and money, we should consider whether a new job or promotion will provide more or less flow time. Rather than seeking a beach retirement, we should seek a retirement that opens more flow opportunities. We will be focused, engaged, and find more fulfillment in both work and retirement if we can ensure we have an opportunity for focused flow.

Focus and Presence

Marcus Aurelius, in his work Meditations, wrote about the importance of presence in our daily lives, and how focus and the ability to be grounded in the present moment can bring us happiness.


“If though workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as  if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.  And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”


The quote above shows the value in giving your self over to what it is you are currently working on, and focusing on that thing with 100% of your attention. The quality of your work will be maximized, and with greater focus your determination and effort will culminate and build into greatness.  When that mindset is coupled with self-awareness, you can create something  that you are proud of, and ensure that all of your actions aimed toward your current goal help fulfill your mission and the task in front of you.


Aurelius is writing about more than just today’s popular idea of monotasking. He is writing about focusing on a single thing and doing it well, which is the base of monotasking, but he is also diving into the idea of staying grounded in the present moment, in every moment of our lives.  Rather than being distracted by thoughts and feelings of our past or future, he encourages us to look at what is in front of us at each moment and consider how we can make the most of it and build the most in ourselves from it.  Monotasking is the idea of doing one thing at a time and bringing our full focus to that thing, but it does not include the same type of grounded awareness that Marcus Aurelius writes about when describes the benefits and importance of staying grounded and true to oneself in every action and decision.


When I first read the quote above it stood out to me as a quote written about achieving flow in the work that we do. When I look back at it I understand the ways in which Aurelius is describing flow, or that state where you are so absorbed in your work that time seems to act strangely and you are able to produce wonderful work with a clear focus and minimal effort, but I am not sure that is exactly what Aurelius is hitting on.  Flow usually accompanies actions that are truly engaging or are activities that we are passionate about. Finding that area for any individual is a powerful feeling and a very rewarding experience which does bring happiness, but Aurelius is encouraging us to find the same type of happiness through the grounded awareness of ourselves and our activities. In being focused on how each action and decision builds into the person we become, we are able to stay present and focused on those activities so that they are in alignment with who we are and want to be, and ultimately, we will find happiness through rigorous self-awareness, determination, and self discipline.