Finding the flow

Yard work is hard work

Over the last few years, I’ve started some adventurous landscaping projects at my home in Walnut Creek. As a first-time homeowner, I felt a little nervous about it. Yes, I was anxious about whether the projects would turn out successfully. More importantly, though, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have the grit to complete them. How else are you supposed to feel when you’re staring at a huge pile of rocks that you need to haul into the backyard?

Ominous beginnings: gravel and gold fines

Not surprisingly, the work was difficult. I had a hard time getting started. By the second day, though, I had found a new mindset that made the physical difficulty fade into the background. There was something simple and certain about the work. My body learned the movements of shoveling, dragging, and dumping. The more I did it, the less concentration it took. Hours would pass, and I wouldn’t think about anything in particular. I was flowing with the work.

Almost almost

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on my experience, I’m certain I had entered into what people call a flow state. That isn’t something that a lot of people in business get to experience, at least not during the workday. Recently, I’ve been searching for ways to introduce that mindset into more parts of my life. I’ve had some success, and I urge you to try this too.

What Is a Flow State?

I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll let renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explain what a flow state is. His TED Talk does a wonderful job of discussing the experience and how it benefits people. If you have time to watch this presentation, please do so. It’s enlightening. It does last almost 20 minutes, though, so I’ll offer a brief description of what a flow state means to me.

For me, a flow state happens when I get so deep into an activity that I forget about my surroundings. In a way, I even forget myself. It’s like I become an animal that lives by reflexes and instincts. I don’t stop to think about what I’m doing. In fact, thinking is the opposite of flow. To flow is to act. There’s no thinking involved.

I first encountered flow states while training for a marathon in college. After you run a certain number of miles, your brain shuts off and lets your body take care of everything. When I first started training, every mile was torture. By the time I adjusted to it, I could run for miles without noticing any discomfort. When I would suddenly become aware of myself, I would falter. My legs would ache and I’d feel cramps coming on. As long as I stayed in the flow, I could run non-stop.

Ol’ Blue Boy watching me work

Where We Usually See Flow States

When I hear people mention flow states, they’re almost always talking about sports. When you watch a terrific player like LeBron James move on the basketball court, you can see that his body is leading the way. He’s a smart player, but he doesn’t think about what he’s doing. He’s practiced so much that he lets his body do the thinking.

I’ve met some coders who do the same thing. They put on their headphones, hunker down and get so into the flow of their work that they don’t notice the world around them. (Just ask the engineers at Scripted.)

Bringing Flow States Into the Business World

These are people doing something that requires focusing on a specific task. In other words, they live in a world that’s almost the exact opposite of a chaotic business environment where you’re constantly responding to emails, talking to employees and wondering what else could possibly go wrong today.

Side yard before the gold fines

The simplest thing I try to do is block off time to finish certain tasks. Maybe from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., I’ll sit down and go through email. Just email. Then from 1:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., I’ll work on a data collection project or something else that’s been on my mind. I can’t say that I’ve entered a legitimate flow state while doing this, but I’ve come close. As long as I keep doing the same thing, it starts to become automatic. I get lost in the moment, and the painful process of sifting through emails or some other rote task is over sooner than expected.

I believe we can use this approach in more areas of our lives. It’s how we do our best work, so why shouldn’t we try? Even if you’re not successful today, you can keep practicing until you get there. Every step you take toward flow gives you new insight into how you function within the world.

Mindfulness Can Bring Us Closer to the Flow

It’s possible that a pure flow state is impossible in the business world. That doesn’t matter as long as I can keep getting closer to that ideal. Lately, I’ve found that mindfulness is the vehicle that gets me there. When I’m trying to finish a project, other thoughts try to interrupt my flow. That’s fine. I acknowledge the thoughts, and I let them go. I don’t deny their existence, but I refuse to dwell on something that’s going to hold me back. No matter what the thought is, I can address it later.

Side yard after

Mindfulness is kind of my way of sticking a pin in something. Maybe one day I’ll get good enough that the thoughts float away on their own. Maybe I won’t even notice them.

Don’t get the impression that I’m starting a new career as a self-help guru. Far from it. These are things that I’m trying to figure out in my own life, whether I’m hauling gravel or talking to my business partners. So far, though, I’m convinced that we can lead happier, more productive lives by letting ourselves get lost in the moment. Or at least as lost as we can let ourselves get in a noisy office.

Finished product

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