I was thinking about how much more I get done when I slow down. It’s weird I’m not sure if I speed up or if time slows down, but something shifts. Then I realized that it is often in the moments when I’m acting slowly and deliberately that I often find myself in flow too. In positive psychology, flow or being in the zone, happens when a person doing something is fully immersed in focused, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Then I tried to really break down how I get into flow. As you would expect, I want to be able to get into the zone whenever or wherever I need to. Being able to get into flow seems like a great tool to add to my toolkit. The problem, if you want to call it that, is the lines between slowing down and being in flow often blur into each other.
Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with John Geirland, “Go With The Flow”
in Wired Magazine, September 1996, Issue 4.09.
Not being able to exactly breaks down getting into the zone into steps, I looked to other really smart people to see what they do. Walter Isaacson writes in his biography about Albert Einstein that “He usually went out [on his sailboat] on his own, aimlessly and often carelessly.’ Frequently he would go all day long, just drifting around,’ remembered a member of the local yacht club who went to retrieve him on more than one occasion. ‘He apparently was just out there meditating’.” Jim Lynch another biographer explains, “He liked to go out during doldrums, and jot down ideas about the universe.” If we use Einstein is our example then it seems that getting into flow is actually a very simple practice.
Step one: create the scene.
Step two: immerse yourself in the moment.
Step three: get to work.
That recipe sounds vaguely familiar. Like, if I can’t seem to get words on paper I know I can go to a café (create the scene), relax in the coffee induced hum (immerse yourself into the moment) and voila my thoughts come together and I get them down on paper with ease (get to work). Nice!
It was nice to have at least one entry point for getting into the zone straight in my head. But in looking at the zone from different angles, it occurs to me that even if the activity isn’t fun if I approach it without judgment I can still get into the zone. What do I mean approach it without judgment? Well it’s like this, I used to hate making phone calls in French. Why? Because I’d tell myself that it was too hard that my French wasn’t good enough, that I’d make mistakes. In short, my pre-judging caused me stress. But if I just picked up the phone and made the call, then listen to the other person, pay attention to what they were saying, notice how they phrased things, just be with what was happening I often finish the call before I even realize what had happened and I’d often pick up a few turn of phrase while I was at it. In a sense, Nike has it right, just do it. For me that just doing it calls on being “fully immersed in focused, full involvement in the activity.” Think about it. Nike never said, just think about it or just judge it. Besides when I’m judging I’m not fully involved. My attention is divided: on one hand I’m having a call and on the other I’m judging my performance.
Thinking about my “make a phone call is French” example; the benefits to being in flow are obvious. I can call on what I know easily and I can do it without getting stressed. Need to do something you don’t usually enjoy? Get into the zone first. Have an important meeting to go to? Get into the zone before you walk into the door. Have an important conversation to have? An exam? The list is endless. Whatever it is, get into the zone then just do it. The benefits don’t stop there. Another benefit is that by slowing down I perceive more of what’s going on around me. I see more opportunities. I make more mental connections. And I find solutions to problems faster. In short, I’m more effective when I’m in the zone
Following the thought process to see where it would lead, I realize more benefits. 1) Paying attention to the moment requires less effort, so I don’t work so hard. Viggo Mortensen says, “One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master. He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day, but if we do each thing calmly and carefully we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.” Since I get more of what I want done, done with less effort, 2) I end up having more time. And the more often I can get into flow, 3) the more purposeful, the more satisfying and certainly less stressful life can be.
Going back to the definition, being in the zone is an active function, but I feel the zone just as strongly when I ‘m doing nothing. I remember sitting at a bus stop in Paris. I closed my eyes and just felt what was to be felt. The feeling of the breeze circling my ankles surprised me. I remember laying in bed at home with an aching knee; as the throbbing dissipated, I realized that the pain was occurring less and less often during the day. I wasn’t doing anything in either of these moments, but in both instances I was “fully immersed in focused, full involvement.” There was no grasping, no wondering, no pushing, no wishing things were different. As a consequence I got more out of each experience. Even when I do nothing life is more informative.
Ironically slow often means less. In my case that holds true for me: I have less fast food, few fast conversations, fewer fast friends and even fewer fast clothes. And there has been and continues to be a certain amount of culling in my life. But I accept that my ability to cull or curate is a needed skills because as my needs and desires change, I need to cull to keep only that which support me and let the rest go. So what’s left? What’s left—are lazy, unhurried conversations with a girlfriend, a relaxed barbeque at home with friends and neighbors, a small, but well curated closet. As far as I’m concerned, in today’s world of fast everything, my experience of flow and my definition of slow seems to translate into luxurious living. The beauty of a flow and slow is that what remains are mostly only things that I love.
That said because my life is so filled with what I do like, I’m even more aware of things that I don’t. But I see these moments as clearer clues telling me what I should or should not be doing. It’s in these often, quiet moments that I am able to really become more aware of what inspires me. And while I don’t live perpetually in perfect flow, I find myself really out of whack less often and for shorter periods of time. In general my life is slow, quiet and measured. I know what doesn’t sound that exciting. But trust me, in flow, life is denser, tastier, more sensual, but in gentle way. And because of it, I do managing to get into my fair share of happy go lucky mischief. Eddie Cantor “Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast —you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”