I’ve been reading this amazing book by Daniel Pink, called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, which I can’t recommend highly enough. There’s been a lot of great information in it, but I wanted to pass along this bit about flow based on research by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi:
“In the early 1970s, Csikszentmihalyi conducted an experiment in which he asked people to record all the things they did in their lives that were “non-instrumental”—that is, small activities they undertook not out of obligation or to achieve a particular objective, but because they enjoyed them.
Then he issued the following set of instructions: Beginning [morning of target date], when you wake up and until 9:00 PM, we would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is “play” or “non-instrumental.”
In other words, he and his research team directed participants to scrub their lives of flow. People who liked aspects of their work had to avoid situations that might trigger enjoyment. People who relished demanding physical exercise had to remain sedentary.
One woman enjoyed washing dishes because it gave her something constructive to do, along with time to fantasize free of guilt, but could wash dishes only when absolutely necessary.
The results were almost immediate. Even at the end of the first day, participants ‘noticed an increased sluggishness about their behavior’. They began complaining of headaches. Most reported difficulty concentrating, with ‘thoughts [that] wander round in circles without getting anywhere.’
Some felt sleepy, while others were too agitated to sleep. As Csikszentmihalyi wrote, ‘After just two days of deprivation…the general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been inadvisable.’
Two days. Forty-eight hours without flow plunged people into a state eerily similar to a serious psychiatric disorder. The experiment suggests that flow, the deep sense of engagement…isn’t a nicety. It’s a necessity. We need it to survive. It is oxygen to the soul.”
So here’s a thought: what if you have a goal that drives you day and night to the point that you live, eat and sleep it? You embody it to the point that you do almost nothing that isn’t related to that goal.
I’m thinking of executives who are workaholics, lawyers struggling to make partner, residents working insane shifts as they try to become doctors. What are the odds that they take time out for things they like; the things that are ‘unnecessary’?
Well, you can see from the above study that they’re skating on thin ice, mentally, aren’t they? The sad thing is, they probably have no idea what it is that’s going wrong- if they did, they could immerse themselves into flow states as a kind of mental therapy and be so much happier for it.
And it’s not just workaholics, it’s folks who work at a job they don’t like or with coworkers who are stressing them out, who come home to stresses at home if they have friction with family members.
If you’re the type of person who’s constantly switching channels on the tv because you can’t find something you like, you’re not getting any flow from tv watching either…
I think someday they’ll find that writers who are editing their work also suffer from this issue. Writing new work is a major flow state for me. Editing is anti-flow. Necessary, but often tedious. When I read the section on flow in “Drive” it really hit home. Share it with someone you love, okay?
And read the book, Flow, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. It helped give me motivation to add it into my daily life, and it's made me a healthier human.