One of the most joyful experiences is being in the zone: when you’re so involved in an activity that everything else disappears. Worries vanish, self-consciousness disappears, and your energy seems to flow like a river.
Until recently I thought this state of growth and motion, called “flow” by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, was a random occurrence mostly enjoyed by athletes, mathematicians, or fort-building children. But when I read about the characteristics of flow, it seemed there were things I could do to invite in that pleasurable feeling.
According to flow theory, there are 3 conditions required:
Clear goals and progress. Knowing what to do and how to do it is key to getting in the zone. When I’m confused about what to do next, I’m definitely not flowing — I’m stuck in the mud!
Clear and immediate feedback. To maintain flow, you need a way of measuring how you are doing and where you need to go. (Maybe this is why I always found mowing a lawn to be so satisfying!)
A match between one’s skills and the level of challenge. If you don’t think you’re up to the job, anxiety encroaches. If the task is too easy, your mind begins to search for other problems. Confidence that you can complete a task is essential for flow.
Looking at my writing from the perspective of flow, I can see that when I don’t feel capable, I either I avoid the work, or I wander into it feeling lost and I leave with the sense that all I did was rearrange some words.
Here are the ways I can help myself to reach that optimal state of active enjoyment:
Break a massive project, such as writing a book, into small bits — as small as a scene — to create tasks that feel manageable.
Learn techniques and structural blueprints to create clear goals and a way to measure achievement.
Watch out for dreams of grandeur. Adjusting expectations to smaller goals leads to action, which leads to experience, and experience builds confidence.
Children seem to enter states of flow naturally, but sometimes they need guidance, as do we. In the creative process, a strong inner mother is needed to steer the inner child toward just the right mountains to climb. When we set ourselves up for success with specific goals and level-appropriate tasks, we're much more likely to dive into the joy of learning and growing.