Category Archives: Flow

The power of being totally, utterly completely absorbed in an activity.

Did you hear about the good old country boy nuclear physicist whose hobbies were huntin’, shootin’ and fission?

Although I’ve never been an angler myself, I’ve always admired a dedicated fisherman’s ability to become completely absorbed in the process of sitting on a riverbank watching a float.

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It’s not really my thing, but what definitely is, is the glorious sensation of doing something which demands your complete and utter concentration for an extended period.

You lose track of time.

You forget everything else.

You pack up your troubles in your old kitbag.

The splendidly named psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of mind ‘flow’, and there’s a huge amount to be said for it.

So when were you last similarly absorbed?

What were you doing at the time?

Utter focus can be a beautiful thing

You’re seven years old. You’re lying on the floor, face squeezed to carpet, surrounded by hundreds of brightly coloured pieces of Lego. And right in front of your nose, on its green dimpled base, is the most incredible structure – all built by you.

Bit by bit, section by section, you’ve created this mini masterpiece, and you’re totally, utterly absorbed in it.

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So much so that when you’re called to the dinner table you simply don’t hear it. You’re shutting everything else out. You’re truly ‘in’ your castle, house or rocket.

Then, like clambering out of treacle, you’re slowly conscious of your mother calling your name. She’s sounding impatient because unbeknownst to you she’s already shouted it three times. But you just didn’t hear her, so focused were you on constructing your masterpiece.

Remember that feeling? Good, wasn’t it? (The complete absorption bit, rather than the tetchy mother.)

There’s much to be said for the blissful state of complete and utter focus on something (the condition which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi termed ‘flow’).

And bearing in mind that, sophisticated though our minds may be, we can only think about one thing at any one moment, there’s a lot to be said for being able to forget about your worries for a while at least by focusing 100% on an activity that demands every neurobeat of your consciousness.

Once upon a time you were the master of doing this.

And you know what? I think you still can be.

Why it’s great to get lost in your work

Getting lost in activities you love is a great happiness strategy

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is one of the world’s leading positive psychologists. His theory of “flow” is an incredibly important one. Csikszentmihalyi talked to painters, who became completely lost in their work. So focused on their art were they that they forgot all about anything else. As he said in his book The Evolving Self: “They forgot hunger, social obligations, time, and fatigue so that they could keep moving it along.”

Csikszentmihalyi went on to see that the mental state of flow was achieved by others, and maybe you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it yourself?

Two key factors define flow: the activity you’re undertaking needs to involve a high level of skill, and it also has to present you with significant challenges.

This makes it rather different from hyperfocus – the state often demonstrated by kids playing the type of videogame which doesn’t really require much skill or present many challenges. Note: this doesn’t mean videogames are a bad thing at all. Playing something undemanding can be a great way to relax, particularly if it’s for a reasonably defined time. And of course many games really do present challenges and demand high levels of skill.

Being in a state of flow can play a big part in building your emotional wellbeing, so there’s good value in identifying the activities which enable you to achieve it.

Three of mine are: (1) Computer programming. I don’t do a lot but generally get completely lost in the work when I do. (2) Graphic design. Generally I only stop because I have some kind of deadline to stick to. (3) Making stuff with paper and glue. This is probably why making the WellBee cards is so much fun.

So, seriously, what are yours? And even more seriously, what could you do to increase the number of times you’re able to lose yourself in them in the next week?

But do please promise me that you won’t get so carried away that you forget to eat, drink or go to bed.