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Want More Flow In Your Life? Here Are Four Ways


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You’ve heard of the state of flow. Its when time stops, you become completely immersed in what you are doing, and you feel as if your actions and awareness merge perfectly, making the task seem almost effortless.

 

And while flow comes with a host of benefits — from improved mood, concentration, immune function, awareness, and response to stress — it can be a very elusive state, and for that reason, hard to tap into.

 

So how do we reach this enviable state? Here are four ways.

 

Employ Novelty

As novel situations tend to peak curiosity, they are also natural gateways into flow. The different sights, sounds, smells, and movements – especially when they are unexpected – that new situations offer demand our attention because they are something that is unfamiliar to us. As we try to categorize what we are exposed to – figure out just what that smell, place, or person reminds us of – we pay more attention to it. And what we devote more attention to is more likely to immerse us and ultimately lead to flow. But novel situations are flow inducing for another reason. Anything that is unfamiliar engages our automatic (and unconscious) tendency to try to better understand it. When we don’t know why the ball flies off the tee in the direction that it does, the horse spooks at us, the clay molding forms in the way it does, our need to understand drives our curiosity, and ultimately, our immersion in the experience. For this reason, many people can recount past experiences of “spending hours trying to figure something out”, which were most likely states of flow. This is also why learning experiences are so conducive to flow. The act of trying to understand something, and better integrate this understanding into our memory is naturally immersive. Learning how to throw a fastball, scale a tough rock wall, ride a difficult horse, sing on key, or dance to the rhythm are all things that take enormous amounts of practice. And if we are to learn them, we must devote the entirety of our attention to the task (just ask anybody who has tried to learn to ride a horse while not paying attention) – which almost automatically puts us into flow.

 

So how do we use novelty to drive flow? One obvious way is to try learning something new, or adding a new dimension to something you already know how to do. If you don’t know how to surf, for example, you can try learning. On the other hand, if you already know how to surf, trying surfing a new spot, new board, or different type of wave. Similarly, you can try learning how to sing if you don’t already know how. And if you do know how to sing, you can try learning different style. However, you can also use novelty in less direct ways. Simply getting into a different environment – such as a hike you’ve never attempted, walking in a park you haven’t visited, or even driving a new route to work – can all open the doors to flow. As you become immersed in the experience and pursue a clear goal – such as making it to the top of the hike, navigating the park, and arriving at work – receive immediate feedback, and the challenge matches, and slightly exceeds, your ability level, you have all of the three integral conditions of flow.

 

Get Outdoors

Most people can relate to feeling better when spending time outside. Being in nature is naturally calming, and tends to make us feel more connected, while also de-activating stress responses. Much of the reason for this is the same reason that the outdoors is also conducive to flow – it activates out senses. As we take in the smells, sights, and sounds of our natural environment, our experience broadens. Becoming immersed in the world around us, we often leave our worries behind and flow becomes much more likely. Runners, for example, often relate a much greater possibility of experiencing a “runners high” when running outside vs. running on a treadmill. Similarly, rock climbers often relate feeling “at one” with the world around them when outside on the rock, vs. when inside on a manufactured climbing wall. Accounts such as these remind us of the importance of connecting with the world around us – which becomes much easier to do when we feel immersed in our experience.

 

But nature also offers an essential key to promoting flow – that is the self- transcendent experience. When we connect with things that are larger and more powerful than we are – as nature tends to be – we also see our own experience in perspective. We are no longer a sole survivor, but rather, an important part of a vast system. And connection tends to have a palliative effect on our own problems – making them pale in comparison to the larger goal of a connecting with something beyond ourselves. Further, connecting with something larger than ourselves also expands our sense of self – a core characteristic of flow – as well as our possibilities. Through the help of something more sovereign than ourselves, we may accomplish more than possible when relying on our own power. And when self-transcendence hints at unrealized potential, it’s a pretty compelling flow inducer.

 

So how do we utilize nature to induce flow? We begin by interacting with the world around us in any way that challenges us. Try taking a hike on a new and difficult trail. Go for a run on a trail that forces you to watch how you step. Take a bike ride on a twisty and technical trail. Swim in the ocean. Try surfing. Ski down a run that challenges you. Go for a horseback ride. Utilizing the three conditions of flow: clear goals, immediate feedbacks and a challenge slightly higher than your ability level, almost any experience in nature can promote flow.

 

Spend Time With Animals

The therapeutic value of animals has been well documented for some time, yet, in many ways, they are natural flow inducers. For one thing, animals use a much broader sensory system to communicate. While humans rely almost predominantly on verbal messages to communicate, animals incorporate sense of smell, sight, sound, and proprioception to read one another and relay information. And when they interact with humans, animals utilize the same system. While another person may not notice, or not comment on the color of our shirt, a horse will frequently spook immediately at a bright or contrasting color. Similarly, a person is not likely to react if our posture or mannerisms appear aggressive, however, a dog will often cower immediately if we approach too aggressively. It is responses such as these that make the interactions we have with animals such a rich sensory experience. And incorporating multiple senses is one way to make things more immersive – which is a condition of flow.

 

The feedback we get from animals is also instantaneous – which, you will remember, is another condition of flow. Because animals rely on present awareness for their survival – it is not helpful for survival to have a delayed response to a charging predator, or conversely, to be late to respond to an available prey in the brush – there is no time delay in the responses they give to one another or to us. And when you combine immediate feedback with a vast sensory experience, you one pretty immersive experience.

 

Interactions with animals also remove many of the factors that typically interrupt flow. For one thing, animals do not tolerate the same level of distraction that humans do. While most of us have become accustomed to carrying on a conversation while texting, driving, typing, or cooking dinner, these type of distracted interactions will result in an immediate response from an animal. As any animal owner will attest, the minute you fail to pay attention to an animal, they will find a way to regain your attention. Keeping our attention is one very powerful way to induce flow, but animals also eliminate another flow barrier. Simply being in the vicinity of an animal lowers cortisol levels and reduces anxiety – which both intercede flow. Because we don’t feel judged, criticized, or the need to measure up or compare ourselves to animals, the experience is much less self-conscious than human-human interactions. Numerous studies have indicated that people feel much more free when interacting with animals, and lower levels of self-conscious is the reason why. In this respect, interactions with animals tend to mimic states of flow – self-consciousness quiets.

 

Animals also offer endless challenges. Even better, challenges typically involve multiple senses. For example, try putting the halter on an anxious horse without first checking your own posture. If you move too fast, use jerky or rigid movements, or a harsh tone of voice, the horse is likely to shy away. Similarly, try teaching a puppy to sit while texting on the phone. Without effectively combining eye contact, posture, and vocal inflection, the puppy is likely to stare off into space, or become distracted himself. Responses such as these not only provide immediate feedback, but open the door to further challenge (once we halter the horse, we can try leading it; once we teach the puppy to sit we can try teaching it to fetch). This ability to challenge ourselves in a progressive way – and with global feedback – is one of the most powerful flow inducers we have.

 

So how do you use interactions with animals to induce flow? Almost any interaction will do. Simply walking a dog can become a flow experience if you pay attention to the interaction with the dog, incorporating as many senses as possible, and choose a goal, such as keeping the dog at your shoulder. You can attempt to teach your pet a new trick, such as fetching, flying to your shoulder, or sitting on command. You can also choose less direct goals, such as interacting with your animal in a way that produces a desired response. For example, you can try to calm a nervous horse by stroking it softly. Similarly, you can try to use your posture and mannerisms to teach your dog to pay attention and avoid becoming distracted by other dogs. When it comes to inducing flow through interactions with animals, the possibilities are endless. What we must keep in mind are the three conditions of flow: immediate feedback, clear goals, and a challenge that is just slightly above our skill level.

 

Use Feedback Instruments

Ways of measuring feedback have exploded in the last decade. We can now measure our heart rate, blood pressure, running pace, miles walked, calories burned, direction, gait, and speed of travel on a horse, foot force, and even cortisol levels. And what all of these devices offer us is in the form of an instantaneous read on how we doing is an integral condition of flow: immediate feedback. If we are working on our running form, for example, we can now wear running socks with biofeedback devices that will provide information about just what part of our foot hits the ground first, how much weight we bear which part of the foot, and what the anterior-posterior and medial-lateral balance is. As we receive this information, we can then immediately alter our running form to be more on our toes, balanced, less heavy on our feet, or whatever the goal may be. Similarly, if we are trying to burn 1000 calories per day through exercise, we can watch our heart rate monitor watch calculate calories burned as we do the very exercises that burn them. If we are not expending as many calories as we’d like, we can simply increase the pace, weight, or resistance, and again receive instant feedback. Immediacy in feedback such as this not only drives us into the experience further – most of us will try harder to reach our goals when we can see that we are getting closer – but also is one of the most powerful ways to induce the state of flow.

 

So how do we use feedback instruments to get into flow? In many ways, the options are unlimited. All you need is a clear goal – such as running an 9 minute mile, keeping your heart rate between 120-150, burning 1000 calories, riding the horse equal amounts in each direction and gait, keeping cortisol levels as low as possible, or running with as little force of the heel as possible – a device to provide the immediate feedback, and a challenge that just slightly exceeds your skill level.

 

The best part about flow is that the more you experience it, the more you’ll want to do it again. So dive in, get immersed, and find your flow.

 

Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit www.leverageadversity.net

Want More Flow In Your Life? Here Are Four Ways


Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit www.leverageadversity.net


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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Want More Flow In Your Life? Here Are Four Ways. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/leveraging-adversity/2016/08/want-more-flow-in-your-life-here-are-four-ways/

 

Last updated: 3 Aug 2016
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.