Thursday, March 22, 2007

Finding flow in your work

Yesturday, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on 'how to live in the present moment' with some lovely ladies at a Goal-Oriented Living Club meeting (you will find this post on the club's website as well). This post covers the some salient points of the discussion (of those that I remembered or wrote down). And for your benefit has been slightly modified in order to make it more web- and reader-friendly.

Happiness is one of those goals for which everyone seeks. I've never yet met the person who does not genuinely want to be happy. However how are we to attain it? Often, it is said that one of the keys to happiness is living in the present moment. In fact, this teaching has roots that spread throughout time and religions. Two examples that are readily forthcoming are Zen Buddhism and Christianity.

The essence of Zen is to gain an appreciation for living moment-to-moment, to understand the "infinite moment". Koans, such as "what is the sound of one hand clapping?", are invoked in order to have one reflect deeply on these questions; this reflection becomes so deep that the meditator becomes fully engrossed in the moment, hopefully to reach enlightenment. More on meditation and Buddhism later.

The Beatitudes from the book of Matthew reveal a similar message:
"So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [...] Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

Ideally, this sort of contentment would come as easily as breathing, would be as natural as growing; however, most of us are quickly distracted from the now by thoughts of the future and past. Yet surely there must be some way to tap into this power of the present moment.

This is where "flow" comes in.

(This term is not my own, reference available upon request, however it does describe what we will be dealing with for the next bit quite nicely.) Flow is what comes about when you are fully engaged in an activity: one that captures most, if not all, of your attention. Such examples include, playing/listening to music, exercising, doing crosswords, writing, cooking, dancing, meditating, the list goes on. Usually such an activity is enjoyable because it is challenging, while not being frustrating.

In engaging in activities that evoke flow, we hope to get in touch with the same awareness of now that monks engage in while meditating. Though it may not seem like it initially, there are concrete gains to be had from meditaion.

You may recall that there was scientific convention in 2003 where the Dalai Lama advocated (as he still does) the benefits of meditation and scientific inquiry into the same. Of course, research was done as well:

Last year Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin and a conference presenter, used an fMRI machine to map the brain of monk Matthieu Ricard.

While Ricard, a monk with over 30 years' experience in contemplative practice, engaged in what Buddhists call compassion meditation, Davidson measured the activity in his brain. The pictures showed excessive activity in the left prefrontal cortex (just inside the forehead) of Ricard's brain.

Generally people with happy temperaments exhibit a high ratio of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with happiness, joy and enthusiasm. Those who are prone to anxiety, fear and depression exhibit a higher ratio of activity in the right prefrontal cortex.

But the degree to which the left side of Ricard's brain lit up far surpassed 150 other subjects Davidson had measured. No one knows whether Ricard might have exhibited the same results before he became a monk. But given that his readings were off the chart for happiness, Richardson believes that studying the minds of meditating monks can help us learn how meditation can mold our brains to develop happier and less-afflicted temperaments.

(Source: Wired)

What am I getting at here? Our "flow" is one form of meditation that will allow us to access this type of happiness. Flow may allow us to rewire our brains for a higher basal level of happiness.

Before I jump into how we may make use of flow, as a side note I'd like to ask: Do goals push people from this present moment happiness by striving for a non-existent future?

I would say no. Although goals are set for a future point in time, your goals should enrich your present moment. In thinking about them and in the process of accomplishing them, you can more easily practice that flow. In a way, the goals mediate your entry into these present-moment-enriching activities. Further, your thoughts regarding your goals should enrich you right now; goals are not valuable if they only fulfill you once they are accomplished.

As a personal example, one of my goals is to have a beautifully crafted essay to submit to a philosophy magazine here at Queen's University (by March 31). My pleasure will not only come about once I have completed this work, this essay engages me whenever I write or even think about it: this goal enriches my now.

It sounds so appealing for those activities that we do for recreation. Is there a way to get this flow into our work? To put a spin on that: Can we make our flow times more productive?


In the same way that we have found something within engaging activities to flow with, it is possible to find this type of attribute in our work. It is in the framing of the topic, or how we look at it.

Back to my philosophy essay example, some may view the essay as work, something to be dreaded over and to be procrastinated upon. However, the creativity that is allowed to me, the challenge that it brings, does not allow me to think of this essay in a negative light.

In a similar way, we may bring a fresh perspective to our work. It is possible to find something within your math project, history essay, biochemistry textbook, to engage you.

Ah, I can already hear the scoffing even across the vast expanse of the internet. Hold on for a second.

This comes a lot more smoothly once you open your mind to it. So you are asking: "how can I find flow in a subject as boring as biochemistry/history/whatever?" Maybe it will not come from the material itself, but from the process of reading and reviewing. In focusing purely on your text, you are bringing yourself to a different level of awareness. During a different activity, say playing music, try to notice how you feel while in that flow state then bring it to your work. It is something you have to experience to understand.

Another tip to help you get into this flow state (with work or with anything): Remember that all work you do is productive. Don't worry about doing a perfect job right away.

Initially, do what you want, when you can, how you can. Don't worry about not completing enough or every little thing. In thinking about all these other things you are detracting from the essence of what you are doing, you are losing the flow.

Just get in there. You can work about perfection later. If you have given yourself enough time you can tweak things afterwards: edit the introduction, review a section, practice measures 17-24, etc. And you will have enough time.

Why am I so confident that you will have enough time? Usually you don't have enough time because you delay on starting it. Why do you delay? Generally, because you are worried you will (a) not do a perfect job or (b) you hate it. If you start with small expectations and by doing the parts you like initially, you will start to get into it ("the appetite comes with eating"), and you will do much more than you thought possible, even while enjoying it!

So try it! Seriously. This mentality is tremendously productive and fulfilling. If you have some questions or comments about it, feel free to email me or comment below and we can jive.

(One of the comments that I received before this post was that I didn't elaborate on how one can integrate this flow theory into practice. I tried doing that in this post; yet if you feel that it is still lacking, email me and I'll see what I can do. I find in most posts like these - mine and other's - that showing it's practice is the part that always needs the most elaboration.)

If you enjoyed these learning tips and motivational strategies, maybe you'll enjoy the other posts. Please bookmark this page (Ctrl-D) or check out the archive/categories to the right. Better yet, tell a friend! (Click the envelope below this.)

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