Updated: Mar 16
This first appeared on Medium.com, and is also the basis for a podcast in our series '168 Things'
‘Flow’ is the title of a fascinating book by an author with the most excellent name - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The subtitle is ‘The classic work on how to achieve happiness.’
How could you resist that promise? But the author tells you within a few pages that in fact it is not a ‘how to’ book, and points out that the world is full of such things, and that reading them almost always leads back to square one, where you’re just as dissatisfied as ever.
Instead, he says he wants to ‘present examples of how life can be made more enjoyable, ordered in the framework of theory’. It’s up to you, dear reader, to do the work of reflecting on the examples and drawing your own conclusions.
Here are some of mine.
‘Flow’ is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. It’s not achieved through sitting still and meditating, but it’s like a meditative state. It is arrived at when you are deeply involved in doing something - perhaps something physical, perhaps mental, perhaps both.
It might be playing sport, or climbing a mountain, or it might be solving a maths problem, or painting a picture. It’s often what you might call work. But when you experience flow, it’s enjoyable and absorbing - so it’s the best kind of work.
And by the way, it’s not reserved for the kind of work that pays the most and earns the most respect in a world obsessed with status. Csikszentmihalyi gives examples of people doing the most repetitive, simple work, but finding in it everything they need to be happy.
Because happiness is not given, but created, by each of us finding purpose, excluding distraction and controlling our inner state of mind.
Csikszentmihalyi wrote his book after many years of research and study. It’s not long, but there’s more in it than I can possibly summarise here. I can, however, tell you what ‘flow’ feels like for me.
Time slows down but also passes fast. A paradox, right? But every moment is intense and drawn out, until I look up and three hours have gone by.
My pulse slows, and my breathing gets deeper and more regular - which is why it’s like a meditative state, I think - and I’m calm.
I am hardly aware of the outside world, or anyone else around me.
I get into this state when I’m doing something creative, usually. In my life as a creative in advertising, it was when I started work on a new brief, coming up with ideas, thinking of words, lines, or images.
I can get into flow when I’m gardening, too, or making bread. Working with my hands in a creative task, in other words.
But it doesn’t happen every time, and when I became a creative director, one of the tasks I set myself was to figure out how to help all the creative people around me reach a flow state as easily and as often as they needed to.
I knew it would make them happy in their work, and that the work would be better as a result.
I started with the physical work space. In one agency, I had rooms built where creatives could go, away from their desks and phones, and shut the door, and be undisturbed. Then I hired a doorkeeper who would not allow interruptions.
That all worked well until technology started to invade every corner of our lives. Fast forward to now, and we carry in our pockets the means of our perpetual distraction. The untamed phone is the enemy of flow, because it prevents that descent into deep, uninterrupted calm that I described. It yanks you back up to the surface, even if you silence it - because you know it’s still there, waiting for your attention, ready to reward you with whatever it is you can’t resist.
But it’s stupid to blame the phone, because as Csikszentmihalyi wrote, to achieve flow, we need to control our inner life - and what is the phone but a physical embodiment of our own inner chaos? Control that, and the phone subsides into its proper place, as our servant, not our ruler.
Which brings me to the scourge of the ‘to do’ list.
I know many people who compile these lists, and they throw in everything that’s buzzing around in their heads, distracting and bothering them. The idea is to get it all on paper (or screen, or into an app or something) and then tick things off. Which makes life seem manageable, and creates the impression of progress.
But Csikszentmihalyi says, rightly, that flow comes from single-minded absorption in a task, where there are goals that can be achieved. And a ’to do’ list is the opposite. It’s many-minded, and impossible to complete. In fact, like the little pot of porridge in the fairy tale, the more you take off the top, the more it fills up at the bottom. It can never be finished.
My advice, therefore, is to do something completely joyous with your to do list: strike off every single thing on on it, bar one. Not by completing the tasks, but by crossing them out. You don’t have to redact them like a government agency - after all, things like buying milk and calling your mum still matter, but put them aside for now. Put everything aside except one thing.
You have now created a ‘to don’t’ list. Look at it. It’s a thing of joy. A long list of stuff you are not going to do today. You are free now, to do one thing utterly, completely and brilliantly, to immerse yourself in a task. To go deep.
And here’s the pure genius of it. When you come back up to the surface, out of your flow state, deeply content because you achieved something - guess what?
Pull out that list of crossed out tasks, and you will blow through half a dozen of them without breaking sweat, right away. And the other 28 things will reveal themselves to be pointless, anyway, and you can throw the list away.