Better Questions is supported by readers like you. If you get value from my writing, consider becoming a supporting member. Exclusive content, weekly deep-dives, free beta-access to future courses and more.
Each year, I recreate my "Personal Vision Document." In this, I list my personal values, lessons learned, short-term goals, and Purpose.
Here, Purpose refers to an overarching goal I'm aiming for but will never achieve. Your Purpose isn't something you ever "get done"; it's a broad direction for your life.
My Purpose reads: I optimize for Flow.
That's because, at some point last year, I realized that flow isn't just everything;
it's the only thing.
So, what is flow?
How you define flow depends on whom you ask.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously defined flow as a heightened state of awareness and focus, most often brought on by a task that is just at the edge of your abilities, requiring deep immersion in the moment.
"Flow" here is used in the sense of a flow state. The most reliable way to enter a flow state is to do things that are high skill and high challenge, particularly when you enjoy them. This hypnotic sense of "zoning in" to a particular task is why people love games like Tetris or jazz - both feature the immersion of the self into the moment, a unity between the act and the actor.
To me, the key component of Csikszentmihalyi's flow is a lack of self-monitoring: there is a sense that we are "just doing," not thinking about our actions before they occur. It's as if we were acting without acting, our movements emerging through us rather than being enacted by us.
Eliyahu Goldratt, an Israeli physicist and business management consultant best known for developing the Theory of Constraints (TOC), defined flow as the smooth, effortless movement of materials, information, or work through a system or process.
If Csikszentmihalyi's flow emphasized internal experience, Goldratt's definition emphasizes the external: what does flow actually look like?
To Goldratt, "flow" means things just work - obstacles fall away, friction is reduced. It's important to note that Goldratt wasn't a believer in trying to plan away chaos - in TOC, variability is one of the core realities of doing anything. Shit happens, and you can never plan that away. Instead, flow means effortlessly and instantly adapting to the variability of the world, a kind of dance with chaos that ends up looking graceful and coordinated despite the insults of randomness.
We can reach yet another conception of flow through the work of Milton Erickson. Erickson was an American psychiatrist and pioneering hypnotherapist known for his innovative approaches to psychotherapy and hypnosis.
For Erickson, the limitations we run up against in our own lives don't have much to do with our actual limitations but rather perceived limitations in our "response sets" - sets of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral patterns available to the individual.
When faced with problems, we search internally for potential solutions. We come up with what we believe are valid options based on our past experiences, beliefs about ourselves and the world, cultural norms and expectations, etc. Thus, the solutions we see as available to us are only ever a small subset of the total possible responses to a given problem.
Whether we define flow as the effortless movement of materials, information, or work through a system or as frictionless play at the edge of our capabilities, both require deep resourcefulness. Why? Because, as Goldratt often pointed out, things that improve flow are often counterintuitive. We have to look past our perceived limitations - to access more and different response sets - in order to figure it out.
We arrive, then, at a sort of unified theory of flow, which is:
Flow is a heightened state of awareness and focus , most often brought on by a task that is just at the edge of your abilities, requiring deep immersion in the moment...
...made possible by the effortless movement of materials, information, or work through a system...
...and enabled by a deep resourcefulness characterized by openness to a wide variety of possible responses.
According to the central text of Daoism, the Dao De Jing: 'The Way never acts yet nothing is left undone'. This is the paradox of wu wei. It doesn't mean not acting; it means 'effortless action' or 'actionless action'. It means being at peace while engaged in the most frenetic tasks so that one can carry these out with maximum skill and efficiency. Something of the meaning of wu wei is captured when we talk of being 'in the zone' – at one with what we are doing, in a state of profound concentration and flow.
Maximum openness to feedback from the universe leading to effortless action and minimal self-consciousness.
COOL STUFF TO READ:
Scott's book reviews are always fun, but this one in particular was interesting. I have to admit that the description of Eskimo culture here sounds particularly brutal.
Better Questions Newsletter
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.