Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to refer to those experiences we’ve all had where you lose track of time when you’re doing something you enjoy. For me that can happen when I’m writing or painting. I look up and realize it has been two and a half hours since the last time I noticed what time it was.
It’s never a task we don’t like but it can be something we’re not particularly skilled at. Csikszentmihalyi said in the book, “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel, but the ones we think we have.” Isn’t that interesting when you think about it? The “optimal experience” he’s talking about has nothing to do with our skill level, only with what we believe it to be. I’ve always been a a believer in just trying new things. I like to do lots of things, but I don’t care if I do them all really well.
For example, I wanted to knit. So, I got a book and learned how to cast on and do basic stitches. I bought some yarn. I made some scaves. I’m happy. By comparison, my friend Andrea is a knitter extraordinaire. She likes things to be as perfect as she can get them. Me, not so much. I’m content to just make it passable and enjoy the experience. But, of course, we’re having different experiences, and that’s cool. I’ll bet she’s in the flow when she’s knitting. And, of course, her projects look much better than mine. But, I’m content with my tiny little bit of knowledge. Now, on other things, I might want to do them as perfectly as I can. But, I don’t want to sacrifice the experience of trying something by thinking it has to be perfect or there’s no point. Flow can happen to a knitter like me, if I think my skills are good enough. And it can happen to a knitter like Andrea, whose skills are great.
There’s a long list of things that have to be “just right” for us to achieve flow. We have to be engaged in a task that’s challenging enough to keep us interested, but not so difficult we’re stymied. We need uninterrupted time and we need to see some progress. These are just some of the main components.
You often see referneces to flow from the self-help gurus, and some are pretty sloppy about giving correct attribution. But, if you want to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, read the book, “Flow, The Psychology of the Optimal Experience.”
I was thinking today that it has been a long time since I’ve been in the flow of things to the degree I lost track of time – that I was having that optimal experience. I haven’t been able to be in my art studio in a long time now since it’s upstairs, and I didn’t have any time to paint at the end of last year either. So, there’s one of my main sources of flow cut off.
I can get into the flow in writing but I really need that uninterrupted time for that and I haven’t had much of that the last few months. That is something I desperately need to correct. I need to find a stretch of time when I can just sit down and write and write and write. It seems there is always something interferring with that these days and I need to address that.
Thing about when the last time was you were having an “optimal experience.” Has it been awhile? I think it has for most people. And that’s a shame. Shouldn’t we be doing this on a regular basis? It seems we should. That is only logical. But, it seems to be hard for us to achieve flow.