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Understanding Flow

I had an epiphany yesterday. I was struggling to write, and I found myself trying to climb over a mental wall but was met with a lot of resistance. Resistance that caused me to start catastrophizing. I began questioning my ability as a writer. Eventually, after far too many minutes of pushing, I realized I was fighting a losing battle and I began asking myself: Why? What’s causing me to feel this way?

This feeling isn’t new for me. It often comes up on days where I don’t have clearly defined work, or I didn’t take the time to plan out my day well enough, but I feel the need to do accomplish something. Thankfully, I’d written about the last time I felt this way at the beginning of 2022.

Past me had some interesting insights. I was hoping there might be some clues to the thought patterns that cause this to happen, and I was right. Towards the bottom of the entry, I briefly mentioned that a lack of flow was preventing me from feeling fulfilled that day.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve created this association that flow states are the ultimate sign of a perfect day. I’m pretty sure I made that connection when my main role was as a software engineer. The best days would be 4 hours of uninterrupted coding, only coming up for water or to empty my bladder. I still have ample opportunity for flow in my days, despite programming less consistently. So, why is it that some days I can find flow, and other days I can’t?

Seeing as not having any answers to these questions was bothering me, I did was I do best; distract myself through research. I had this vague memory of adding a book to my Goodreads list a few years ago that touched on the topic. After typing “flow” in the search box, I was presented with Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. As soon as I saw the author’s name, I knew it was the right book. I distinctly remember their name being impossible for me to commit to memory when I originally added it.

I knew wouldn’t be able to read the entire book before the day was over. When it comes to reading, I’m very much the tortoise, not the hair. I decided to try and find some summaries of the concepts in the book instead. That’s when I came across Mihaly’s 2008 TED talk.

About 3/4 of the way through the talk, Mihaly puts a graphic on the screen that summarizes the emotional states surrounding flow, and the delicate balance to get there.

As soon as I saw the graphic, It was like the clattering in my brain stopped, and suddenly everything fit perfectly together. I’m pretty sure I turned to my cat in that moment and said, “No wonder I get frustrated! I’m bouncing between high arousal, anxiety and boredom but never landing in Flow!”

A graph with the Y axis as Challenge and the X axis as Skill. Flow sits in the top right of the graph, which means it requires high challenge and high skill to be achieved.
Figure 1: This is the graphic for those who don’t want to watch the video. I highly recommend doing watching it anyway.

I’ve always undulated between anxiety and boredom while working. I just assumed it was because of my generalized anxiety disorder that I worked that way. The days where my anxiety was higher, focus would be more difficult. The days my anxiety wasn’t as high, I’d be left with a sense of boredom and monotony. It was only after seeing the graphic that I realized that my anxiety disorder might not be to blame after all.

Yesterday was a perfect example of these extremes since I felt both of them. Thanks to the graph, I’ve been able to plot where I was emotionally, and why the difficulty of work, or the lack of skill, was causing those states. Some of the emotions were caused by self-doubt, some of them due to not taking the time to properly set myself up for success by planning ahead. It also made me honestly look at the work I was doing. I started to question if I was tackling something just far enough out of my skill zone to cause problems instead of growth.

I really began to notice my frustration when I sat down to try and write. It was the mid-afternoon, my brain was empty and I was slumping hard. Nothing was coming out. I had no ideas. I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say. I felt like a complete and total failure. My forehead and temples were tense, my self-talk was atrocious, but I didn’t want to give up. I couldn’t bring myself to step away. As expected, that backfired. It just made the problem worse. You can’t work your way out of a lack of energy.

Mihaly’s talk snapped me out of my funk. It dawned on me that I was trying to write without a clear understanding of what I was trying to say, on a topic I really haven’t thought much about in general, and at a time of day where I’m least effective. I had stacked the deck against myself. It put me in the top left of the graph, bouncing between anxiety and worry.

With this knowledge in mind, I now have a toolkit to look at when work isn’t sitting right. I can now as myself: “What can be done to get into Flow? Do I have the energy? If not, why bother pushing? Am I lacking information? Do I have the energy to go and get it?”

Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this information top of mind going forward. I may have to print out that graph and frame it within view of wherever I’m working. It’ll be a great reminder to check-in with myself and unpack what I’m resisting instead of trying to push through an obstacle in the wrong way.

This was written as part of my 52 weeks of creation. You can read the entry if you're curious about why I wrote this essay.