by Achim Nowak

When We Are FULLY Immersed In Activity

October 30, 2023

I thought of it last Tuesday as I went to bed

I was in Hartford/Connecticut, at a book event for my book The Difference. Time flew. That was one of the beauties of that evening.

It flew. I was not conscious of time. Was fully immersed in the proceedings. Time became immaterial.

Mihalyi Cziskzentmihalyi is one of the giants of behavioral thought. When I think of my favorite books of all time, I invariably think of Cziskzentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. 

Full immersion. Optimal experience. Time flies by.

That is FLOW.

Allow me to whisk you to another moment from my life.

1991. I left Manhattan to live on the tiny island of Tobago. 30,000 people. You can drive around the entire island in a day. 

I moved to Tobago for many reasons. One was to become a windsurfer. There was only one place on the island where you could learn how to windsurf. Pigeon Point. And there was only one guy who could teach you how to windsurf. His name was Power.

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.” 

Mihalyi Cziskzentmihalyi

Here’s the moment. After 4 lessons during which I would climb on my board, try to stand up, hold onto my sail and fall off, and try again, and try again, and fall off, I had my first time when I did not fall. I held on to the sail, stayed firm on the board, and somehow I caught the wind. Whoosh.

Off I raced into the Caribbean Sea. My heart was pounding so hard. Waves of water were hitting my chest. I felt the wind whipping me. I held onto my sail, I stayed on the board, and I felt my entire being race like a demon across the ocean. It was exhilarating.

Eventually, of course, I fell off. When I looked back the beach, and Power, were far far away. 

I have no idea how long that ride took. I just know that I was fully, deeply immersed in it.That was FLOW.

I want more optimal experiences. Don’t you?

When I mention my “windsurf high” you might think to yourself “well, that’s windsurfing.” That’s not everyday work. Understood. Why don’t we consider 3 pernicious myths about flow and everyday work!

Myth #1: FLOW is a lucky accident. It happens when it happens.

Let’s be clear: Flow happens when we create conditions that allow for Flow. It happens when we have to stretch. In the windsurf moment I mentioned, I exceeded what I had been able to do before that moment. That’s when Flow kicked in. I had just enough skill to perform this new task and soar to my personal next level. Flow is less likely in a task that is too easy for us. And it is impossible when a task is too difficult.

Solution: Seek work that takes you to your personal edge. Covet stretch assignments. Surround yourself with people that are smarter, faster, more experienced than you. Couple this with the deliberate and repeated practice of new skill sets. That’s your windsurf mindset. A pathway to more Flow.

Myth #2: The Way My Job Is Structured, FLOW is Not Possible.

I empathize. There’s a lot of distraction, unnecessary busy work and plain insanity that goes on in some places of work. You will find yourself in circumstances where you may not be able to affect how activities unfold. Consider a 50/50 mindset: There’s the 50% that you may truly have no control over. And there is the other 50% - the small little moment-by-moment choices you and I make every day – that you surely have a say in. That’s our 50% Flow opportunity.

Solution: Flow is more likely when we create opportunities for deep work. Create chunks of time when you can engage deeply in tasks. Bundle like-minded tasks. Be radically mindful of your distraction habits. Minimize distraction.

Myth #3: My work is very logical and analytical. It does not lend itself to FLOW.

Analytical work is powerful work. And yes, an over-reliance on thought can inhibit us from fully engaging in an activity. At its worst, it may lead to overthinking and obsessively picking matters apart. Thought, of course, also has the power to positively shape the way we experience any activity. Cziskzentmihalyi’s writings on Flow draw heavily on the practices of artists and athletes, and their reliance on muscle memory to reach states of Flow.

Solution: Flow accelerates when we pay more attention to intuition, reflex, inner wisdom. These sources of knowing do not supplement logical or analytical work. Develop practices that facilitate access to non-cognitive wisdom. Many of these practices are not about further sharpening the mind – they involve a deeper connection to the body. Yoga, mindful meditation, tai chi, qi gong, hypnosis, swimming are just a few.

You have lived the following kind of day once or twice.

  • You come home from work and you so totally feel it. Mentally, physically, emotionally wiped out. It seems like there isn’t an ounce of creative juice left in you.
  • You remember that you’re really good at what you do but just then, the joy you used to feel seems to be gone. Vanished. Nowhere to be found.

That’s a day WITHOUT Flow. On the other hand, I hope that you also remember the sort of day when …

  • You were so immersed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time. You completed a task and your spirits were uplifted. 
  • You have worked hard all day and come home with energy left to spare.

That’s what Flow feels like. More successful people are simply more adept at activating more of it. They have more optimal experiences.

Consider my Post a primer. I urge you to read Mr. Cziskzentmihalyi’s classic book.

And get ready to flow some more.

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