The Fickleness of Flow

By Jimmy Warden

Have you ever had an experience where you were completely engaged, mind, body, and spirit, in what you were doing? Did you lose your sense of time and space while this was happening? Were you completely present in what you were doing despite what might have been happening? Were you emotionally sound in the midst of any interference that may have been deterring you from reaching what you set out to do? Were you performing at your absolute peak, or optimal state, and upon reflecting, realized you did something that you didn’t know that you were actually capable of doing? Did you have a feeling of connection with your immediate environment? If you have had an experience like this, it sounds like a transcendent experience, in which one surpassed their previously understood abilities. This experience is what psychologists and performance experts refer to as flow.

What is flow?

There are many definitions out there, but after reading books and articles on the topic, as well as having many experiences of flow, I have a definition that should stick with most. I define flow as the optimal state of mind, body, and spirit that creates optimal performance. This is an oversimplification, but is related to the characteristics of the flow experience. When an individual loses their sense of time and space during a performance (of sport, music, household chores, or any other activity), can maintain a present state of mind, be emotionally acute, and feel a connection with their immediate environment, there is a high likelihood they are in a flow state.

During this experience, the individual’s focus is narrowed to the present task at hand. Their visual focus has its attention on one of two things. Smaller parts of a larger environment, or the entirety of the environment. Having the focus on smaller parts can be thought of as an intense focus, such as when we have starting contests with people. That type of narrowed visual focus. Having the visual attention on the entirety of the environment is known by neuroscientists as “optic flow”. This is when you’re not necessarily focused on any particular thing, but rather the general landscape of what’s in front of you and around you, while moving in time and space. This is something that you might experience on a walk on the beach or driving your car. Not only is our full attention present in flow, but so is our emotional acuity.

When experiencing flow, it is important to have your emotions in check, so that you can extend your time in your state. In order to be in flow, you cannot let your emotions get in the way of the task that you are trying to perform. Having too much emotional attachment to the outcomes of performances often set us up for a lot of disappointment. One of these emotions that people experience that gets in the way of experiencing flow is fear. People often play, perform, or act out of fear. Quite often, one of them being a fear to make a mistake. This can hinder your performance while trying to get into flow because the more fear you act from, the less that you can tap into potential. Anger is another emotion that can get in the way of your flow state because it creates resistance towards the environment around you. In flow, you want the environment to be working with you, considering those that have experienced it, state there is an inner mind, body, and soul connection with their environment. Even too much joy can get in the way because the heightened levels creates a bit of dysregulation in our ability to focus. Despite these challenges, they don’t end there, as challenge itself is another element needed to reach a peak performance flow state.

In order to fully esperience flow, there also needs to be a “just right” challenge at hand. The reason there needs to be challenge comes from the fact that flow is a peak performance state, which means that you are pushing the previous limits that you thought you had. However, if you try to take on too much of a challenge, there is too much frustration and agitation to overcome. On the contrary, if you take on a task that is deemed too easy for you, then your fullest capabilities are not actually present. You are more in a “cruise control” state of mind and perhaps might have boredom creep in on you as you’re performing your task. A lot of the research shows that you should try for a challenge that is 4% greater than your curent capabilities.

When do people experience flow?

People have been known to experience flow in many ways, shapes, and forms. From traditional sport, to action sport, to creative tasks like writing or painting or performing music, to even washing the dishes. When a person does something that makes them lose their sense of time and space, have a narrow focus on each present moment as it happens, stays emotionally level, and feels a connection to their environment around them, there is a high likelihood they are in flow.

As stated previously, there does need to be an appropriate challenge present in order to reach the optimal and peak states that someone has yet to reach in that context. For example, giving yourself a certain time limit or telling yourself you want to wash the dishes in a specific way could create a 4% challenge that you need in order to reach flow while doing a mundane task. Another example could be that you want to make 4% more baskets than you normally do when shooting hoops. Or perhaps, you want to try to 4% more words while taking part in some writing. However you calculate that 4% challenge is fine because once the challenge is established your brain will signal to the body to try to come along with it.

When in flow, people also tend to have a desire to complete the task or perform well in what they’re doing, which helps motivate a sense of urgency. However, they’re usually walking an emotional tightrope when too much emotional attachment is present, so there must be emotional detachment to the outcome when they’re in flow in order to maintain that state. Being too high or low emotionally takes people out of the present moment as their mind wanders forward in the future or scampers back to the past. Therefore, the person that’s in flow is emotionally resilient during their experience.

When the present mind is at the helm, flow can follow the lead of the mind. When the mind is present, there is just enough thinking happening. Not thinking too far in the future and not thinking too far in the past. A frame of reference is that the mind is usually thinking no more than five minutes ahead (if it’s thinking ahead at all) and no more than a minute in the past (if it’s thinking in the past at all). This appears as a “next play” mindset in sport regardless of the outcome of the previous play, as well as letting go of expectations and emotions in all settings.

There is also a sense of curiosity and play when in flow. This sparks a level of creativity within the individual as they are exploring the depths of their abilities with a bit of uncertainty about what will be happen. It’s often spoken of that the individual in flow is embracing the challenge that lies ahead and faces it with a sense of optimism over fear. When the question “what are my limits?” arises, rather than having a fixed mindset and stating their limits, they lean into the question with a sense of wonder to see what they are truly capable of.

How do people experience flow?

I hate to break the news to you, but there is not “magic formula” per say, unless I have not done enough reading on the topic. Conceptually, it is hard to re-create a flow experience. When you start to think too much about a time when you experienced it, and attempt to re-create it in some way, the thinking mind is already too active as it starts to create the “perfect” set of circumstances. In reality, there can’t always be a perfect set of circumstances because there is always going to be some type of interference that gets in the way of doing our best. Whether that be the thinking mind, the adverse stimuli in the environment around us, or anything in between, tools must be used to try to enter a flow state in order to combat interference.

The first tool that can be used is meditation. Meditation helps to practice presence and awareness of mind. It helps to build emotional resilience as its premise is to notice thoughts and emotions that might be attached to them, and let them go, to return the mind back to the present.

Another tool that can be implemented is a specific type of meditation known as visualization or mental imagery. This helps build an experience of an event before the event happens. A lot of professional athletes use visualization to imagine themselves playing their sport before their game, artists sometimes imagine what they’re going to paint or draw before they partake in their art process, and more traditional people might visualize a challenging event before it happens, so they feel more prepared for it. This technique can help the individual configure a plan of what to do when interference inevitably pops up, as long as they incorporate the anticipated interference into their visualization.

A third tool that can be used is nasal breathing. Breathing through the nose helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which combats stress. When people tap into their parasympathetic states, they are more emotionally level and their heart rate is more under control because nasal breathing helps to decrease heart rate.

A fourth tool is an “oldie but goodie” because there is never a replacement for deliberate practice. The more that someone can practice with a deliberate and specific activity, the more they will increase their skill set. Especially if they incorporate interference into their practice. That way, when interference arrives when it’s time to perform, the individual will have already had that experience, and be able to handle the interference when it arrives.

The last tool is perhaps the most important one, and that is surrendering to the outcome. The more an individual can surrender to the outcome and not get too caught up in their thoughts and feelings during the performance, the more their true essence and skill set will shine through. They’ll be performing from a place of curiosity and joy, with a present state of mind, that will indeed be quite fulfilling, and a one of a kind experience.

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