Finding flow in everyday life
March 6, 2006 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I have just finished read a fascinating book called Flow by this guy.

I think what I've learnt could change my life forever.
My question is to those who might be familiar with his work and have incorporated it into their everyday life: How do you find 'Flow' in the more mundane, routine things of daily existence? Like a boring commute or doing the dishes, or household work. Anything that doesn't excite you but must be done again and again almost daily? How to structure them so that one can achieve 'optimal experiences' even from the most inane tasks?

Any tips or best practices that you could share?
posted by sk381 to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, there's something paradoxical about seeking out 'flow' for its own sake.

Flow happens when you're fascinated and invested in what you're doing. If the only reason you're doing something is that some book made you think it would make you happier, you're probably not all that invested in it.

(I do love Csikszentmihaly's book, by the way. And I agree that flow is a useful concept — and a very exciting one when you first hear about it. I had the same "OMG this will change my life" reaction when I first read the book, and only gradually did I realize that you can't set out to make yourself experience flow.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:37 AM on March 6, 2006

Here's an article on using flow in the workplace, I remember that Jimmy Johnson, when he was coaching the Dolphins, had Cz. out to help him out.

Also, here's his sports psychology book.
posted by OmieWise at 5:42 AM on March 6, 2006

I had a friend who wrote his college thesis on the nature of flow and how it explains why pilots fly. We spent a lot of late nights drinking and talking about the idea of flow. I feel like nebulawindphone, it's not something that you can bring on as much as you can notice when you have it and try to make those times when you have it into a larger part of your life. Some of it is, of course, purposeful: making sure you're in a good space for doing your "work" whatever it is, making sure you're doing what you're doing for purposes that are meaningful to you, trying to give your best attention to the task [or often related symbiotic tasks, plural] at hand. I liken it somewhat to the Buddhist idea of mindfulness where you intentionally and thoughfully approach problems or projects and you turn off (often unintentionally, but I see it as a goal state) your internal chattering voices and just allow yourself to be aware and task-centered instead of the fairly typical you-centered.
posted by jessamyn at 5:50 AM on March 6, 2006

nebulawindphone, Csikszentmihaly gives numerous examples of people who actually seek flow in the most boring situations and unless I have read it incorrectly, isn't that the premise of the book? To suggest that we can 'actively' seek to have 'flow' be a greater part of our lives?

And I was looking for help with things that one has to do inevitably, matters in which one does not have a choice, whether one likes it or not. How could one organize or approach them so that they meet the requirements that he lists as necessary.
posted by sk381 at 5:59 AM on March 6, 2006

It works awesome in first person shooters (Halo Live). This is a nice place to practice it, since it's relatively consequence free, and there are some nice measures of success.

Meditation is very useful for building the mental focus you need for flow - don't do too much of it though, since oblivion isn't the purpose, flow is.

You need to be efficient, economical, and experienced in the activity you want to flow... then, you've got to focus 100% on it.

I think dishes is a great example of something you can develop flow with... Thich Nhat Han has an essay on enjoying dish washing... I think of flow as more than that, I think of flow as enjoying flawless dish washing...
posted by ewkpates at 6:40 AM on March 6, 2006

shillfilter: his followup book is aimed at answering your question:

finding flow in everyday life

and here's a brief 43folders discussion

Thanks for reminding me of Csikszenmihalyi. I need it right now.
posted by craniac at 7:06 AM on March 6, 2006

Re-read the book: Flow requires a managed level of challenge, and a boring commute would hardly qualify.

You might want to look into Buddhist / Zen literature, in which what you're after is more directly addressed (a recent popular book is The Power of Now). One of the goals of practice is to achieve unmediated experience of everyday life: in which one learns to be fully in the current moment, without thought, or analysis, or reflection.
posted by curtm at 7:10 AM on March 6, 2006

Are you aware of Finding Flow by the same author? I don't remember it well enough to be able to recommend it to you - it covers a lot of the same ground - but you might want to check it out.

In terms of general principles I think what you need to do is think like a game designer. The characteristics of flow activities are essentially the same as the characteristics of good games - proper level of difficulty, clear goals etc. So a pretty good question to start with would be "How do I turn this into a good game?"

For doing the dishes I could suggest estimating a fairly agressive target time for getting them done and then seeing if you can beat it. But don't tell Thich Nhah Hanh!

Seriously, on the one hand I can totally see the value of washing the dishes mindfully but on the other hand to me that would still not be a flow experience. The difference is that in my interpretation, a flow activity automatically takes all your attention and eliminates background mental chatter, whereas doing something like mindful dish washing demands positive mental control. Like I said I think both these approaches have value and I would suggest that optimal living would feature a balance between the two.
posted by teleskiving at 7:28 AM on March 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was under the impression that 'mindfulness' meditation addresses exactly this, even using doing the dishes as an example. Oh, like jessamyn said.
posted by kimota at 8:56 AM on March 6, 2006

mindful is one of the legs on the bench seat of flow...
posted by ewkpates at 8:59 AM on March 6, 2006

I read "Flow" years ago, but I still remember the story of that factory worker. They one who loved his job and refused promotions. He was the guy who knew how everything worked. Though it wasn't his job, you'd call him in if the Xerox machine was broken. He took an interest in everything.

"Take an interest in everything" is the lesson I learned. And I've found that everything IS interesting, if you really delve into it. I like "teleskiving" game idea. For me, the game is "How can I make the most boring thing interesting?" The answer is to fight past my initial reaction and study it. If my office buys a new fax machine, I take home the manual, etc.

Do this enough, and you get a really exciting, empowering feeling that you're in the middle of a big machine, holding the remote control that can make the machine do ANYTHING.

I play another game called, "How much can I cram into my skull before I die." I assume -- true or not -- that I can master anything. And I try to master really hard things. Nowadays, you can find how-tos on pretty much anything. The web is a great resource for Flow if you use it in an active way.
posted by grumblebee at 11:15 AM on March 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

In his books, David Allen talks about flow as it relates to everyday productivity.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:32 AM on March 6, 2006

I don't know anything about your man Csikszenmihalyi (best name ever, incidentally), but from reading the above links, it sounds like he is describing mindfulness and/or meditative states, as others have suggested.

My take on the subject: The concept of flow describes a state of relaxed attention. Therefore in order to increase the amount of flow in your life, you should simply practice being relaxed and/or attentive. Do not think of flow as something that can be switched on or off. Rather it is a state of mind that is cultivated over time, with practise.

You can practice anywhere, at any time, simply by focussing your attention on whatever you are doing, or by focussing on your breathing or heart-rate. I practise flow/mindfullness while washing the dishes - it boils down to making it into a game; trying to do it both competently and efficiently, whilst simply ignoring any thoughts that describe the experience as a chore.

If you are particularly interested in these ideas and concepts, investigate the principles of meditation.

The Now, an essay by William S. Burroughs, covers this territory quite interestingly. He explains a concept of his invention known as 'the discipline of Do Easy', which translates fairly well to the concepts of mindfulness and flow. Intriguingly, the major example he uses is about tidying up one's apartment fluently and efficiently, so it seems rather appropriate to the question.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:22 PM on March 6, 2006 [2 favorites]

I've experienced flow in the mundane a couple of times, which is not a lot for thirty-seven years of life. I often equate it with self-actualization. Perhaps I am missing some finer points of each. (I'm quite familiar with Maslow, but have only read a part of Finding Flow.)

From my personal experience, mindfulness isn't absolutely necessary for finding flow in the mundane everyday life stuff. In fact, mindfulness seems to detract from flow in these cases. Using sk381's example of a boring commute, it's only when I'm not focused on driving, not focused on the traffic, not focused on the road, only then that I can begin to approach flow. But then, as I say, perhaps I am actually approaching something else.

As I get older, the more I realize that one key in achieving these sorts of states, especially in daily life, is for me to have a less cluttered environment: less cluttered physically, less cluttered mentally, less cluttered emotionally. If the rest of my life is in order, my mind is less distracted, I am more focusued, and flow (or self-actualization, or Peak Experience, or whatever) is easier to achieve.
posted by jdroth at 3:28 PM on March 6, 2006

I have not read the book, but I have experienced flow. I'm a bartender, and sometimes when the place is hopping I'll find myself grinning unconsciously because I'm enjoying work so much. It's like there are a thousand little detailed lists in my head, each linked to a specific guest or task, and they get shuffled around and rearranged automatically to accommodate where I am in the various processes. When it's all working right, I'll be moving with what seems to me to be preternatural efficiency, without having to hurry. I'm looking three to five tickets ahead, fetching bottles and glasses and consolidating shakers while carrying on four different conversations with customers, all the while communicating with the waitstaff and making multiple drinks simultaneously, both hands always in motion, always knowing exactly where everything is and what to reach for next. It's really exhilarating.

When it doesn't work, then I'm in the weeds, and I have to focus on tasks sequentially to work my way out of the hole.

It isn't something I can automatically conjure up. It just happens, and I usually don't even know it has happened until business tails off and I have a second to stand still. It's a rush, it's like a drug.

I've discussed this with a regular customer who happens to be a surgeon. He said he had experienced similar states when performing complicated operations. It's not a "zone", because that sort of implies that your mind is turned off or is somehow on cruise control, and it's not "focus" because that implies attention to detail, when in fact it is awareness of detail without needing to give attention to it. It's like pulling back from a part of an image to a distance that allows you to see the whole thing in one encompassing glance. It's like looking at jigsaw puzzle pieces jumbled in a box and already knowing where they all go, how it all fits together.

I've noticed that it is much more difficult to get into this mode when business is slow -- all the stopping and starting seems to inhibit the process. That's why I love the busy nights. Flow, and cash-flow.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:38 PM on March 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

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