In positive psychology, our flow is defined as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”
The idea of flow has long existed in human philosophy and spiritual traditions. It is studied by many great thinkers, artists and those who strive to live an optimal life. In the West, it is commonly known as being ‘in the zone’. In his famous TED talk, ‘Flow, the Secret to Happiness’, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described flow as the feeling of rapture we experience when performing a task. Since then, many more research has supported flow state as a foundation to productivity, creativity and happiness.
In order to achieve the state of flow, we have to strike a balance between the level of our skills and the level of difficulty of the task at hand. Optimal performance is about finding that ‘sweet spot’ where your skill level matches the level of the challenge. If the task is too easy, you are likely to feel bored, empty or even depressed. If the task is too challenging, you will be hold back by anxiety. Neither of these cases lead to flow.
The theory itself sounds straight forward, yet finding your own sweet spot can be a complex issue.
Usually, your unique baselines of psychological, emotional and physical needs are manifested by your lifestyle choices - from the length of time you wish to engage in intellectual debates, to the hours you work or sleep, to the kind of relationships you have with people.
Finding your flow is especially challenging if you have advanced abilities or heightened intensity in one or more areas: cognitive, intellectual, emotional or physical because ‘common sense’ or ‘general rules’ do not apply in your case. For instance, you may need a higher level intellectual complexity in your work in order to not feel lethargic and empty, thus attending lectures in the evenings even after a long day of work, maybe nourishing for you. Or, perhaps you would like to have intense emotional connection with your partner and need to be with someone who can continuously engage in deep conversations with you. Maybe your idea of fun is not the same as others’.
Another example is that you need to be much more physically active in order to stay energised and often you fidget not because you are anxious, but because the environment under-stimulates you. Having these intensities do not mean you are ‘better’ or more superior in any way, as you may well be limited in other aspects, such as not being able to sit still or concentrate for long hours.
If your ‘natural ‘requirement’ for challenges and stimulation deviates from that of the norm, others will be surprised by, or even feel intimidated by your lifestyle choices. Without sufficient self-knowledge and a solid sense of self, it is easy to be swayed by other people’s opinion and ended up feeling confused about how to live your life.
This journey to finding your flow is as unique as your finger-print. You may add or edit your own guideposts, but here are some of the tips and steps to get started:
1. Cultivate a close relationship with yourself
This requires the ability to self-reflect. Think of yourself as an investigator, be consistently curious about your internal states and carefully observe how various activities, environment and people affect you. Try to take notes or keep mental record of how you do in different circumstances. You can also start a mindfulness practise or a reflective journal in order to practise being introspective.
2. Screen out ‘noises of the mass’
Your needs maybe different from that of what ‘common sense’ suggests. Be especially mindful of criticism or commentaries such as "that is too much", "you need to rest" or "I cannot believe you just did that". Traditional wisdom is not always correct (in philosophy, this is known as ‘Appeal to Common Practise’- the false assumption that "this is right because we have always done it this way"). Always evaluate when someone tells you "you need to…" No matter how well-intentioned they are, no one has full access to your unique physical and mental make-up, desires and aspirations.
3. Stretch your comfort zone sometimes
In order to find your own level of peak performance and happiness, you need to continuously raise the challenge - either by diversifying or deepening the practise of what you do. In ‘The Rise of Superman’, Steven Kotler suggests the 4% rule: the challenge should be 4% greater than your existing skill level. This small, incremental put your body and mind in the zone for optimal focus and learning. In other words, you have to get our of your comfort zone in order to find the zone.
4. Be honest and compassionate with your own limitations
This is about letting go of who you wish to be, in order to become who you are. In the process of finding your ideal blueprint for an optimal life, you will come face to face with your limits. Being self- compassionate is the courageous act of facing yourself exactly as it is, no more and no less. Committing to an honest, but self-compassionate attitude will give you the patience and intelligence to find your own pace without drowning in other people’s opinions.
The art of finding your own flow is an intricate process and will involve some trial and error. It is nonetheless a worthwhile endeavour that has the potential to greatly enhance the sense of meaning and quality of your life.