Remember Neo from the movie Matrix stopping bullets in the air? That sequence is etched in my mind to a depth that can never go uncarved. I remember myself freezing in awe the first time I saw it. Neo sees the bullets travel towards him, but he doesn’t dodge them in spinal hyper-extension mode as he did earlier. Instead, he holds out his hand, cocks his head a little sideways, and zones out gazing into them. And the bullets slow down and freeze, mid-air. Then, with a look of deep curiosity, he plucks out one, turns it around in his fingers, and drops it to the floor. As if on cue, the rest of the bullets follow it down.
Neo was in flow. Those looks, first zoning out, and then deep curiosity, explain flow. There were no bullets; they were just codes. Hacker that he was to begin with, Neo had successfully changed the Matrix code.
Flow or “zone” is a state of mind in which you feel deeply absorbed in your work, oblivious of the outside world. In fact, you’re so deep into your work that you lose the sense of time. Your work and your self-identity merge, so much that you don’t feel you’re a person separate from your work. No hunger and no thirst appears greater than the work you’re involved in.
In flow, you work at your peak level with full concentration, without being aware of your what’s happening around you. The work challenges you, but it doesn’t overwhelm. You tackle it at the right skill level, without slackening your focus. All the while, your inner sense of happiness is so complete that it is almost an ecstasy.
When in flow, it seems as if you’ve found the perfect work, or the perfect work has found you.
As a concept, flow was presented by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi back in 1975, but its significance today in our world full of distractions stands even more relevant. He described it as “optimal experience.”
The Art Of Finding Flow At Work
To find flow in an activity, you have to find an activity that has clear goals, gives immediate feedback, and matches your skill.
Think Neo again. Morpheus had told him, “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit.” Up until then, Neo could not bring himself to believe that he was The One. But now, as he was focusing intently on those flying bullets, with his mind working at changing the codes, he was working out of the belief that he had the skill level to hack the superhuman code. And then, when the bullets freeze and he pulls out one, he was checking out the reality of it — an immediate feedback.
Flow is of your own making. It does not emerge as a result of an act that you do passively. Also, it does not depend on your external circumstances. It happens from inside you, and you make it happen. In flow, you find authentic happiness.
1. Find An Activity
You have to find an activity to engage in, while making sure it is something neither too easy, nor too difficult. So that you can do it without losing interest, and at the same time it expands your personal limits. In other words, it challenges you to the outer border of your competence; not more, not less.
Flow generally occurs when a person is doing his or her favorite activity, such as, listening to music, reading a book, talking to friends, and often at our work. As noted, it’s almost never a result of a passive act as watching prolonged periods of TV.
So, find an activity that is interesting as well as challenging.
2. Assess Your Skill
Now, analyse your skill level against the difficulty level of the activity. This skill-level and task-difficulty balance is perhaps the most vital part. If the challenge level is too difficult, you may abandon it because of the insurmountability. And if it’s too easy, then too you may forgo it, but this time because of monotony.
Take these examples to help you understand this skill-challenge equation. You’re a chess player. Now, if you rate yourself anywhere beyond the beginner level, to reach the skill-challenge balance, you should be aiming at practicing your middle games and solving one-move and two-move puzzles. You’re a tennis player of a beginner kind. Then you could aim at simply catching the ball with your racket and hitting it over the net, instead of trying lofty forehand volleys. (By the way, when the ball touches the net strap but still lands on the other side, the umpire calls it a “Let” – not Net).
So, match your skill to the challenge level of the activity.
3. Set Up Your Goals
You can improve only when you have set some goals. However, while setting them, make sure your goals align with your passions for challenging your limits. If it’s the drums you want to challenge yourself to, but it’s football that you’re setting your goals up for, then you can be sure that your disinterest and boredom will pull you out of the field.
So, set up a goal that you are enthusiastic about. In a larger sense, to find our meaning in life, we all need an ultimate goal to set focus on. Learn the 3 highly effective goal setting techniques.
4. Sharpen Your Focus
Paying attention that is absolute takes effort. To learn to rein in your whole focus to your activity, you need to practice. One technique to increase your ability to focus is to learn mindfulness. By practicing being mindful, you can learn to perceive much more than what your automatic response allows.
To become exceptionally mindful, you need to strengthen your self-control too. Find out how you can increase your willpower. So, learn self-control and mindfulness to sharpen your focus.
5. Play In Your Fantasy
You don’t have to get all smeared in grime and dust to experience flow. You can just play in your mind. Close your eyes. Now try to focus all of your mind’s attention on playing out the activity in your imagination, and find yourself entering “the zone.” As top players are known to do; they mentally go through the motions and moves as if in a real game.
So, use your creative imagination and free-rolling fantasy to invite the joy of flow, as good readers do while reading — creating moving images and interpreting ‘living’ scenes. The enjoyment of those mind-movies is equal.
And it gets finer with time and practice. With repetition, our memories retrieve the experience faster, and our logical skills smooth out our flaws better.
I couldn’t have said it better than Michael Hedrick, a writer and photographer who has lived with schizophrenia for many years, and written Connections: The Journey Of A Schizophrenic: “All I ask is that you don’t close your minds to the notion that we could all find that thing (called flow) which makes us happy. We don’t have to make a living out of it, we just have to know that it’s there in case we need it.”
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