When was the last time you flowed? When you were immersed in the present, guiding each moment to the next through the unimpeded action of mind and body at the outer edge of your abilities? How beautiful, how exhilarating, how vibrantly alive was the moment?
Flow is a tremendously beneficial state of being. It contributes to the best kind of happiness: intensely pleasurable, infinitely renewable, and within your control. It also contributes to success, by enabling peak performance toward your goal and faster advancement toward mastery.
Flow requires a very specific set of conditions. There must be a clear goal, one requiring skill; beginners don’t feel flow. You need to believe you have the skills to meet the challenge. The goal must not be so hard that you can’t reach it, nor so easy that you can reach it without your full attention. And you need continuous and clear feedback about your progress toward the goal, so you know which direction to flow from moment to moment.
Although flow requires a goal, it’s more about the present than the future, more about the process than the outcome. Flow doesn’t arise when you do things you don’t want to be doing, no matter how meaningful the results will be to you. Flow arises when you do things you find intrinsically rewarding, as ends in themselves rather than purely as means to some other ends.
Flow also requires intense focus and absorption, to the exclusion of everything else, even self-awareness. You may lose orientation in time and place, forgetting where you are, or even that you are. Self-consciousness fades: all your energy is devoted to the performance itself, leaving none for your inner critic to worry about the risk of failure or what others will think of you.
Because these conditions are not part of our normal waking state, flow is rare and fleeting for most. Obstacles prevail: We often lack the necessary skill level. We opt for the easy route through life and avoid challenges when we can. We spend most of our time doing things we already know how to do. We often act without clear goals. We lack focus and are easily distracted. Our emotions sidetrack us. Our egos get in the way. We are too future-focused, sacrificing today for tomorrow, spending our time on activities we simply don’t enjoy.
But it’s possible to cultivate flow experiences. The first technique is selecting activities conducive to flow, ones that have the conditions mentioned above. The second technique is approaching any activity the right way: Give it your full attention, by quieting your mind and your environment and filtering out distractions. Make routine tasks challenging by imposing constraints. Focus on means over ends by cultivating curiosity and being more present. Banish your ego from the process and shut off your inner critic.
Interestingly, many of the skills needed for flow match those needed for living your best life: curiosity… learning… mastery… quiet mind… egolessness… focus… presence… process over results… What’s more, the arrow goes in both directions. These traits foster happiness, meaning, and flow; and happiness, meaning and flow foster these traits. A simple recipe for a great life is to search for upward spirals like these, cultivate them, and then start climbing.