On our lesser days, we are either a little bored or a little stressed out. As you can imagine, boredom and stress do not fill us with delight. They deplete us. Slow our motivation down to a grinding zero. We do not wish to experience them regularly.
Yet on some days, our best days, we are focused. Absorbed. Energised and totally enjoying the task at hand. We are the captains at the helm of a thrilling adventure and are most certainly not watching the clock. We barely notice how much time has passed since breakfast.
The difference? Informally known as being ‘in the zone’, is Flow.
Flow is the state we find ourselves in when we are totally immersed in the task at hand, and loving it. A flow state can happen when we are so absorbed in an activity that we forget all about the world around us. It happens when we are doing something cool, consider it challenging enough to keep our interest, and most importantly, know how to do it well.
Does this ever happen to you? When you find yourself so absorbed in something that you forget all about the world around you? It happens to us when we are creating something new. Or out and about, exploring some new place. Even putting together flat-pack furniture. In those moments, we are most certainly not bored. We are both too focused and enjoying ourselves to to be worried we’ll mess something up. We are making/fixing/cleaning/exploring/explaining/arranging/analyzing, something. We are making progress. And it feels great.
Flow is an important component of our happiness. When we have the chance to experience it, we get to see ourselves as valuable and talented. We’re progressing. Making an impact. Moving the mountain. That breeds confidence, and with it, a belief that we have something worthwhile to contribute. And it’s fun.
So how do we get more of it?
Flow happens to us when the level of challenge is equal to the level of skill we bring to it. Too little challenge - we get bored. Too much challenge - we become anxious. The sweet spot, where our talents perfectly meet the world’s needs - is Flow. The recipe for ensuring as much flow as possible (according to the concept’s originator Psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi) is simple. If you’re bored..increase the level of challenge. If you’re overwhelmed..increase the level of your skill.
Let’s put this to the real world and begin with skill. When one of our Well Made Mamas brought their newborn home, breastfeeding was not completely smooth. She was spooked. She didn’t believe this was a talent of hers, and it worried her. She started to view it as a chore she had to battle through. Nowhere near the idyllic experience she had read about.
A few days later, she found someone who helped with her technique and got her going. As she practised, as her skill level increased over the weeks and months, things did get better. It was no longer a chore because she started to believe she knew what she was doing. She skilled up, and things became less overwhelming.
And now boredom. Many parents might admit to finding some moments spent with young children, filling in the time between school, work and dinner, a little boring. And it isn’t because children are dull. They’re fascinating. But, they are young. And they simply don’t have the attention span to follow along for more than a few moments before being distracted. For the parents of young children, (as expertly reviewed by Jennifer Senior in in her parenting book All Joy and No Fun) a lack of interest and challenge are not the real roadblocks to flow. Its interruption.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a lot about parenting small children that gets us anywhere near ‘the zone.’ Sometimes its dull. Sometimes we worry we aren’t not doing it right. It isn’t often we hit that sweet spot.
Yet this doesn’t mean we don’t need flow. Our brains crave it. We want to get lost in a moment. We want to make a little progress. We want to see something better as a result of our efforts. We want to know we are holding back the chaos in some small or big way.
So for now, we accept that sometimes, this will need to come from elsewhere. Our writing. Our research. Trying to piece together our children’s toys after they go to bed. Part of understanding our wellness is accepting that while our children are everything to us - the daily tasks of mothering them might not always provide everything our flow-seeking minds need.
The good news is that as little children grow they also become wiser. They develop greater powers of focus and concentration. And suddenly, one day, you are able to build model airplanes together and get lost in the pleasure and process of it. One day, you’ll all flow together.
But in the mean time..remember to leave a little space in the day for your own projects. For something you know you can start..and finish. For something you know you can do a great job at and captures your interest. Remain mindful of this often-overlooked part of our wellness. Giving our brains the opportunity to flow when its possible, can allow us to be our best when we are..on occasion..interrupted.
For a some great reading on Flow:
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Collins.
Seligman, M. (2002) Authentic Happiness. Simon and Schuster.
Senior, J. (2014). All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Harper Collins.