Live Life in the Zone: Inducing Flow

Photo by Nathalia Segato on Unsplash

What’s the opposite of work? Your first answer may resemble a candlelit dinner with soft jazz playing in the background, maybe a pleasant walk around a meadow, or for many, a nap. And those activities are for sure relaxing, but do you remember what the opposite of work was when you were a kid?

Play.

In a world where deadlines and social pressure promote constant, consistent “productivity”, we’re almost never off the clock, and when we are, we’re so exhausted that anything too demanding is fatiguing. But think back to childhood, where energy was expended not only doing math problems and writing essays in school, but playing: tinkering, exploring, discovering and puzzling things out. Playtime for adults means something different than just relaxing to me, making room for play in your life means making room for fulfilling, deeply enjoyable, mentally rewarding activities.

Flow

A healthy involvement of play in your life can be a deeply fulfilling contribution by helping you enter flow, a state of mind where you get lost in a task, feel rewarded for it, and time whizzes by. This mind state is the lifeblood of the tinkering engineer burning the midnight oil in their lab, the artist clacking away at the next great American novel, or the hobbyist enjoying the melding of hours and hours woodworking in the garage.

Flow is characterized by a few criteria; think back to a time in your life where you were engrossed by a task, and you’ll likely be reminded of the following. Flow increases concentration, makes you acutely aware of your actions, pulls your focus away from your consciousness and into your task, makes you feel a high sense of control over your environment, dilates time, and fulfills you deeply. While entirely possible to induce during work (and maybe the subject of a future article), flow is hard to invoke if the work you’re doing feels out of control, boring, or irrelevant to you, which are unfortunately, sometimes the nature of administrative or bureaucratic tasks that may be encountered from time to time at work. However, play, which can mean a highly interesting hobby, can induce the above state.

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How to Find Flow

Many experts from varying fields from education to sports science have conjectured and researched on what kinds of activities induce flow, and recent studies have uncovered a few common requirements. First, the activity must be somewhat challenging (but not too hard). This intuitively makes sense, as something too easy may be perceived as boring or just relaxing, but something with a bit of a challenge really demands attention. Second, our perception of our ability to accomplish the task must also be high. So, our skill level should match our challenge. Again, intuitively we can understand that if our skills don’t match the challenge, that could breed frustration, and if our skills exceed the challenge, that would breed boredom. Additional criteria for flow induction are removal of distractions, and the task providing feedback, which means that you’ve got to have some measure of how you’re doing while you’re doing the task, whether visual or otherwise. This can mean being close to finishing a particular task (like making progress sculpting something) or knowing when you’re doing things right or wrong (like in a video game that has a visual display).

Photo by Drew Colins on Unsplash

Integrate Play

If you’re a long-time reader of mine, you may be familiar with self-care, a concept referring to actions you can take to improve your sense of well-being, usually regarding relaxation, gratitude or celebration. Just making time and explicitly thinking up moments that you would enjoy can make integrating self-care into your life a positive experience. I invite you to do the same with play. In fact, integrating play into your life is a form of self-care. So the next time you feel like you want to do something positive for yourself, maybe pick up a hobby you feel intensely about, and you may find the experience of flow a nice change from the relaxing cup of tea or walking meditation you normally schedule in after work.

Thanks for reading! Follow me here for updates on new pieces on mental health and wellness. And click to follow me on instagram here.

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Marissa Abram, PhD

Educator, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, Addiction Researcher and Founder of Strategic Wellness Management.