Finding Your State of Flow

Or, how to get your groove on with day-to-day activities so they only ever bring you pleasure and lasting satisfaction

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning to an empty calendar. The clock said 9.30 am. I began to make a mental list of to-dos, categorising my various life and work admin tasks by priority. There was a little laundry in the basket. A few activities for our anniversary trip to Cornwall next month were still un-booked. And the dog needed a walk. Confusion and slight panic washed over me. Surely I must be forgetting something?

A weekend with nothing to do was uncharted territory. If the daily grind is a series of sprints between work, errands, and social events, an empty weekend is a long, boring walk. I have never been much of a walker. You’re forced to be alone with your thoughts, anxieties and worries, or to share those thoughts with a partner and discuss ghastly things like money. I’m rather proud of myself for working out that scheduling is a nice distraction from thinking.

So, as a person who schedules, and I mean, really schedules, I was a bit daunted. I rolled over in the bed to my husband, who gave a few last contented snuffles and opened his eyes. My husband is a different type. He is unconcerned with the relative emptiness or fullness of a weekend. Rarely has a worry line creased his forehead at the prospect of nothing to do. I poked him hard in the stomach.

A few weeks before, I came across the concept of ‘Flow’ while looking for articles on capsule wardrobes (because I am the quintessential basic chick). According to Wikipedia, in positive psychology, flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

I know this is repeated adnauseum as a tool for de-stressing and mindfulness, but emails and social media are really a killer of Flow.

It happens naturally when we engage in a sport or activity that we enjoy. It creates a state of mind where we are fully engaged in what we are doing, without worrying about how well or quickly or properly we are doing it. People who love their jobs apparently get ‘Flow’ when really absorbed in writing reports or filing (ugh). It is equal parts ‘unplugging’ and ‘slowing down’, and relies entirely on the premise of not planning anything. The idea is to ‘create space’ for ‘creative play’ in order to ‘just be’.

Hmmm.

I was sceptical.

But, according to numerous blog posts, documentaries, and a Ted Talk (better known as the Gospel of Ultimate Truth) Flow is nothing less than The Secret to Happiness. This is all well and good. But how realistic is it for someone, and in particular someone who deals with anxiety and dark moods, to fully lean in to the concept of letting things happen?

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi (say that five times fast!) defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”. While Flow is often experienced during states of physical and mental exertion, this feeling can also be tapped by allowing simple activities to propel you onwards, and to take you organically into the next thing. If you let flow guide you, you experience less stress and anxiety over decision-making and perceived productivity. This is going with the flow, 2.0.

Staring into the blank hours ahead, anything could happen. The fear, though, was that nothing would. I have always lived in horror of boredom and despised feeling like a drifter. But as Flow is supposedly the absorption in activities rather than just being content with doing nothing, I thought I would give it a go.

So that morning, there was no cajoling into action. We actually snuggled for 10 minutes. I only got up because I needed to pee, and I heaved myself out of bed to the bathroom, bringing back two mugs of tea and plates of toast. The laundry remained in the basket and the garden went unwatered (that was a toughie). These things were foregone in favour of a pub lunch, and a perusal of an antiques market. My husband, thinking I was going slightly mad, kept looking at me with a funny, concerned expression, like I was either going to burst into tears or morph into a manic pixie dreamgirl from a mid-noughties romcom.

Contrary to expectation, I didn’t suffer from constant worry that the day would lead to nothing. And the day wasn’t all shirking; the dishes were done, and the beds were made. But I guess the difference was that they didn’t feel like chores, because we cared less whether they were done or not.

I learned a few little tricks for doing the whole ‘Flow’ thing. Whether or not you’re a planner, creating a little space for yourself to forget all the boring stuff and to be present in the moment is probably a good idea once in a while.

Get something done

The trickiest part of going with the Flow on an empty Saturday is dispensing with the guilt you feel by putting off productivity. Do a boring, productive chore first thing. You’ll focus less on whether you ‘deserve’ your time off from worrying about all the things. For me, changing the sheets on the beds ticked that box. A run would also probably also have worked.

Get outside the house

I’m not going to lie. The whole Flow thing was greatly helped by blazing sunshine and the ability to go imbibe alcohol outdoors. But leaving the house, and experiencing something new, is essential for activating the part of the brain that keeps you focussed on the present moment. Routine and familiarity are the killers of Flow, as they allow your mind to drift away from what you’re doing to things like work or bills.

Say ‘yes’

Flow only works if you’re prepared to try new things. Follow your instinct, and say yes if in any doubt. On our walk with the dog, we popped into the pub for a drink, and then decided to get burgers. Our waitress recommended a local antiques fair. While it sounded like a faff, we took the plunge and motored up to Clapham to check it out. The fair was across the street from Farrow & Ball, where we got colour cards, and then had fun picking out shades for our new flat. I found the perfect pink to match a picture I bought at the fair that afternoon. It is now going to be the colour of our sitting room.

Switch off

I know this is repeated adnauseum as a tool for de-stressing and mindfulness, but emails and social media are really a killer of Flow. There is nothing like your friend’s holiday posts on Instagram (Is that Bali? How can she even afford to go there when she couldn’t pay me back for that curry?) or post-gym status updates (…maybe I should get a personal trainer) to start you off on a spiral of anxiety and guilt.

Illustration by Lauren Gentry

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