Last week, I took a trip to my happy place. I strapped a wood and fiberglass plank to my feet, rode the lift to the top of a mountain, and launched myself down the hill. Alpine air filled my lungs and icy wind stung my lips. Lurching into action, I escaped from a vapor cloud at the peak and kicked up a geyser of snow carving into a fresh stretch of powder. Approaching two trails diverging from a row of Douglas Firs, I twisted to a stop. Above me, the sky radiated shocking blue. Below me, the surface of Lake Tahoe shimmered in the sun.
After absorbing the view, I turned my board back downhill and let gravity do its thing. As I leaned into each turn, my fingertips grazed the snow and my peripheral vision filled with sky and water. Wind whipped past my ears and adrenaline coursed in my veins. I thought of nothing: not work, not family, not Twitter. Not a thing.
To quote Happy Gilmore, I was feeling the flow.
[Flow is] the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
On the mountain, my muscles slacked as I exited each turn, then sprung into action for the next one. Working memory cleared and muscle memory took over. I glided effortlessly down the hill. Upon reaching the bottom, I ignored my aching joints and rumbling stomach to head back up the lift for another run.
I’m a fiend for flow. I chase it on snow-capped mountains, and I chase it in dark clubs and arenas. I’ve followed Phish and the remnants of the Grateful Dead for hundreds of shows just to sink into the flow they conjure deep in their otherworldly jams. There are moments where – with or without the aid of chemicals – you forget what song they’re playing. You can even forget who you are. Time truly turns elastic. The energy cycles from the stage to the stacks to the audience and back again. Flow takes over.
The Phish community has their own term for this phenomenon: hose.
Any Phish fan lucky enough to experience a hose jam knows exactly what it means. Carlos Santana coined the term when the band opened for him in the early ‘90s:
"Every night, Carlos would tell us: 'The music is the water, the audience is the flowers, and you are the hose.' His point was that we, the musicians, are just the vehicle. If we want the music to truly express what's in our souls, we have to clear our minds, listen to each other, and get our own egos out of the way." – Trey Anastasio
Suppressing your ego is no easy feat in today’s world of overwhelm. Your phone constantly buzzes with notifications. Your social media feeds overflow with updates. You have to summon all your strength to resist the urge to keep scrolling. Giving in is easy. But flow offers rewards that far outweigh the empty calories of short term consumption.
The father of flow
In the 1970’s, a University of Chicago professor obsessed over how artists got lost in their work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied how creators could focus so intently on their projects that they temporarily forgot about things like food and water. (You know, basic ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ stuff.) The professor traveled the world to meet with athletes, artists, and musicians. Throughout dozens of interviews, the same word kept surfacing: flow.
As Csikszentmihalyi investigated the so-called “flow state”, he made a critical observation: those experiencing flow felt more satisfaction from the process inducing it, than from the end result. In other words, flow derives from the journey, not the destination.
Flow isn’t just heady fluff. Science confirms it. One of Csikszentmihalyi’s studies compared American teenagers who prefer “high-flow” activities such as active hobbies and sports with those who choose passive “low-flow” activities. The former reported higher levels of self-esteem, long term happiness, and social, academic, and career success than the latter.
How to feel flow
Be honest, does this sound like you?
The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer.
When a person is able to organize his or her consciousness so as to experience flow as often as possible, the quality of life is inevitably going to improve
You don’t have to be an artist, snowboarder, or Phish fan to feel flow. But you should probably turn off your phone.
Why? Well, let’s start with a few places where time isn’t elastic. In fact it’s rigid and reduced to ever smaller and disposable bits when you’re on Zoom calls, in meetings, or checking email, texts, or Twitter. These minute-to-minute diversions repel flow. Your primitive lizard brain doesn’t stand chance. We are, alas, hardwired for distractions.
When you’re mid-conversation with your partner or friend and the buzz of a push notification in your pocket steals your attention, blame–or rather thank–evolution. Because ancient humans detected the subtle movements of a predator in the nearby brush, our species has survived long enough to build civilization and debate memes on Twitter. Still, not every evolutionary trait holds the same value in modern life. Smartphones and the constant din of social media are flow’s kryptonite.
Flow states happen in deep work, when everything else in life melts away. But you can also induce them by letting your mind wander. Have you ever finished up a busy day of work but felt like you accomplished nothing? Instead, try structuring your day to allow for daydreaming. Take a long, meandering walk. Spend those extra few minutes in the shower. Leave space to get your mind in flow. There’s a reason inspiration usually strikes when you least expect it.
Some tips for finding flow:
- Eliminate distractions – Put your phone on airplane mode. Or better yet, keep it in a different room. Turn off notifications. Use Moment or Screen Time to disable access to distracting apps. If you don’t need it, turn off the WiFi on your laptop. Or better yet, go analog: grab a pen and paper and start flowing.
- Change your setting – Uninspired by your usual workplace? Get up and leave. Go for a walk. Work outside. Find a different corner of your home or office where you can relax.
- Pair your passions – What if you try to foster flow and you’re just not feeling it? Combine it with an activity that gets you there quickly. Strum a guitar. Doodle. Throw on your favorite playlist. Prime your mind first then shift into the next activity.
- Move your body – Physical states affect mental states. If you’re feeling sluggish and unable to focus, get up and move. Take a quick lap around your home or office. Do some light exercise. Then get to work.
- Meditate – It’s an acquired taste, and it’s an acquired state. Start with ten minutes in the morning. If you can train your mind to focus while you’re doing nothing at all, you’ll have a fast-track to flow when you’re in an active state.
- Block the time – It’s both the easiest and the hardest thing: if you don’t make the time, you won’t do it. Don’t leave flow to chance. Schedule blocks in your calendar for deep work and creative time. Defend them at all costs. If you let your schedule control you, you’ll never get in the flow.
Let Covid be a catalyst for flow. Quarantine eliminated so many of life’s proclivities for the illusion of productivity. If you can avoid filling your calendar with a steady drip of Zooms and resist the constant din of Slack notifications, you can plug the leaks in your day and recover time and space for flow. Time for deep work, drawn out thinking, and mental journeys without a clear destination.
A great and knowledgeable author of a very important book once wrote that the trick is to surrender to the flow. But if all you do is read Icculus, you might come away thinking that you can achieve flow just by giving in to it. In reality, reaching a flow state takes effort. The path of least resistance is to yield to distraction. To succumb to the inertia of productivity for productivity’s sake. But if you put in the work, you’ll reap the benefits.
The good news is that flow is self-reinforcing. The more you feel it, the more you’ll seek it. So pause after reading this. Before moving on to the next diversion, think about what you can do today to get into flow. Start with just a taste. If you stick with it, you’ll soon be on the path to eternal joy and never-ending splendor.