The Art of Flow and How to Harness It

Here's how to get better at something — harness flow to expand your mental limits.
Productivity and mastery are not synonymous.

Think about that for a minute — just because you’re checking tasks off a list doesn’t mean you’re ‘mastering’ a subject.

True mastery involves moving up the rungs of the mental ladder — taking on harder and more complex tasks that push you to expand your knowledge and skills.

Research by Malcolm Gladwell shows that typically 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is the magic number to become more than an expert — to become an ‘outlier,’ a ‘rockstar.’ In short, put in concentrated practice early and often to develop your skills. One favorite example Gladwell references is the Beatles, who played 8-hour shows in German nightclubs long before they made it big in the US.

The key is that the deliberate practice must expand your horizons — which is where ‘flow’ comes into play.

What is flow?

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ for the phenomenon when creativity and productivity seem to flow out of you — the equivalent to being ‘in the zone’ or ‘on a roll.’ Flow is achieved when an activity is being carried out without the interference of the ‘thinking’ mind.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times,” says Csikszentmihalyi. “The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”

In his TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi even claims that accomplishing flow might be the secret to happiness.

Why’s that? Csikszentmihalyi’s research supports the idea that people have more power over their own happiness than they think. In short, he argues that when we invest our concentrated energy and effort toward a consciously chosen goal, we are met with an enjoyable and fulfilling experience.

So in the quest to level-up in any area of your life — happiness, relationships, career, prayer, etc. — we should reach for flow.

How to get into a state of flow

A piece of life-changing advice I recently heard on a real estate podcast about getting things done was to just ‘vacuum the truck.’

Although the exact example the podcast guest gave isn’t super applicable here, his gist was this: imagine you’ve got this big, scary to-do list item, and you’ve been putting off doing it because you don’t know where to start. Break that scary item into actionable (and easier) steps, so instead of figuring out how to tackle the entire thing, you’ve got smaller steps to which you can devote less brain power a step at a time.

Basically the equivalent to, ‘how do you eat an elephant?’ One bite at a time.

The same goes for achieving flow. Don’t add to your day’s goals: ‘achieve a state of flow.’ What’s the first, actionable move you can make to get there?

More than likely, your first step will be to identify a challenge, in line with your goals, that involves creativity and will push you just outside of your comfort zone.

Essentially, to borrow a term from Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the first step to achieving flow is identifying a ‘Goldilocks task’: an activity that is not too difficult nor too easy that pushes the actor to foster improvement and growth.

To truly dedicate time toward this activity, however, I’d suggest getting into a state of deep work: go into Do Not Disturb mode and really concentrate on devoting your brain power to the task.

This kind of deliberate practice — where your brain isn’t attempting to multitask and no attention residue is clouding your thoughts — can count toward those 10,000 hours. 😉

So if you keep pushing the edge of your capability bubble a bit further, you give yourself room to grow toward mastery and to achieve flow in the process.

And Pink’s research has shown that working toward mastery naturally generates intrinsic motivation. Yes, that means you might just find yourself more excited to tackle the next ‘vacuum the truck’ baby step — what a plus, right?!

Ultimately, flow is something that can instill happiness, satisfaction, and the drive to accomplish more. Taking those baby steps to pushing your comfort zone, tackling bigger tasks, and leveling-up your mastery all add up to more flow, and who doesn’t love losing track of time because you couldn’t get enough of the activity at hand? 🙋🏻‍♀️I know I do.

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