Here I am at my desk with statuettes of the smiling Buddha and the arm-waving Ganesh silently urging me on—cheerleaders determined to keep me at the top of my game. These inert deities only have the power that I give them, and I daily bestow them with the gift of being my conscience.
The thing is, when I see them, something’s amiss—I’m not concentrating, I’ve lost my focus, I’m distracted, my eyes are wandering, I’m out of flow. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as a state of mind in which one is so absorbed in the moment that they have lost all sense of time, temperature, hunger—in short they’ve lost touch with the rest of the world. All their energy is focused on the immediate task. When a teammate tiptoes into my office and gently calls “Pierce?” I usually jump in my chair, startled away from my focus and jerked into the world around me.
“Time flies when you’re having fun” could just as well have been “time flies when you’re in flow.” Flow is akin to the currently popular Mindfulness. But I prefer flow, like a river gently, inevitably moving forward—neither drying up nor flooding its banks, neither rough nor still. Flow is a stick fallen into a river that has floated miles downstream with only minor detours, perhaps from mountain to ocean.
Flow is not happiness. In fact, for most of the time I’m in flow, I feel no sense of emotion. Occasionally emotions accompany my flow state, but normally flow is emotionless–a positive state of well-being that I want to inhabit as often as possible.
Also, I am in control of flow in two significant ways.
First, I chose a task or activity that is neither too difficult nor too easy for me. If it is too easy, I become bored, as there is no need to pay close attention and dig deep with effort. If it is too difficult, I become frustrated. Flow is not associated with playing it safe. Flow is associated with stretch goals, with trying something that is just demanding enough that I really have to try hard. For me, to practice Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star would not lead to flow, as I’d be bored. Conversely, to practice the Vivaldi Piccolo Concerto would not lead to flow either, as I’d be frustrated. The one’s too easy, the other too difficult for my skill level.
That leads to the second way that I am in control of flow. When I am bored with a task, I can get into flow in one of two ways—either by decreasing my skill or by increasing the difficulty of the task. So, if I am bored with practicing Twinkle with my granddaughter, I can decrease my skill by selecting a musical instrument that I play poorly. I have about fifty instruments in my collection, and several are unfamiliar to me. Or I could increase task difficulty by attempting to create a new harmony. I did this recently—our granddaughter played Joyful, Joyful (Beethoven) on the guitar, and I made up a harmony using my bass recorder.
On the other hand, when I am frustrated with a task, I have options similar to the foregoing—I could simplify the task or increase my skill level. In the case of the Vivaldi concerto, I could slow the tempo considerably (simplify the task) or I could spend more time practicing scales and arpeggios at brisk tempos (increase my skill level).
Being bored or frustrated is unpleasant. But we can fix our own mess—there is no excuse for staying frustrated—simplify or practice, nor is there an excuse for staying bored—complexify or self-handicap. When I see Buddha or Lord Ganesh, I smile at myself and know that I’m out of flow. Time to stand up, walk around, and re-approach my task with the aim of figuring out how to get back into flow. Ah, my eyes are tired—I’ll try changing my monitor’s background from white to yellow to alter the glare and renew my attention. Thanks, Lord Ganesh. And a nod to my laughing Buddha. Because I’m back in flow, the next time someone interrupts me I’ll gladly jump out of my skin for them!