On day 181 of my 366-day self-care challenge, I tested my day for flow.
What is flow, you ask?
Flow has been defined as being so engaged in an activity that large amounts of time pass by without even realizing it. We become so involved in a task that we feel a sense of happiness and meaning while we simultaneously exert quite a bit of effort.
In his book Flow (Amazon Associate Link), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (last name pronounced cheek-sent-me-hi) defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” He describes this as “optimal experience.”
I first read his book back in 2011, and it brought me a great deal of joy when I discovered that I had written “picking berries” in the margin more than 5 years ago. (I’ll get to why later.)
When we’re in flow, we feel a deep sense of purpose.
Think of a time when you were working on something that stretched you to your absolute limits, yet you felt a deep desire to keep moving forward – even when there was a cost. You simply couldn’t stop. You felt compelled to complete the task for a reason that was beyond your comprehension. You weren’t simply completing a task, you were expressing your inner truth and living authentically. In these moments, when we are in what some call a state of flow, we feel determined, excited…alive!
Identifying Flow Activities
But this can present a challenge, especially if we don’t happen to know what it is that sends us into that state. There are several reasons why this may be the case. For one, many of us are so caught up in our repetitive routines that we become robotic, never exploring new activities. Another reason is that we’ve lost touch with ourselves. We can’t identify (or remember) the things that bring us joy because we aren’t ever truly present with ourselves. And because we’re so disconnected, we don’t notice the subtleties of how our mood changes when we engage in pleasant activities. Lastly, we don’t recognize the activities that trigger flow for us because we don’t actively seek the answer.
As I pondered this I realized, while I had some general ideas about the things I enjoy, I wasn’t really sure what sent me into a state of flow. So, I decided to find out and launched an investigation as my self-care practice for the day.
I recently read an article that suggested setting a random alarm to go off several times during the day can help us uncover these moments. By triggering several pauses throughout the day, we can evaluate what we’re doing and how we’re feeling while we’re engaged in different activities. I chose the RemindMe app, and selected 20 alarms to go off randomly between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 p.m.
My Flow Experiment
What did I learn? First, here’s a run-through of my day:
5:15 a.m. – Tromping through the backyard in my pajamas and rubber boots to let the chickens out. (They were expecting treats and were not happy that I arrived empty-handed.) I noticed that I was smiling as I watched them run from the coop, and at some point it dawned on me that I was also talking to them.
6:24 a.m. – Drinking coffee in bed with my husband, syncing schedules for the day, feeling generally excited about my plans.
6:58 a.m. – Getting ready to go to the gym, feeding the dogs and filling my water bottle. (I am motivated to hit my goal of drinking 32-ounces of water every day.)
7:29 a.m. – Driving to the gym, grumbling about traffic, feeling grateful that I don’t have to commute in this every day.
8:02 a.m. – Checking and responding to emails before class begins.
8:39 a.m. – Feeling sweaty, pushing myself harder than usual in my favorite group fitness class. I love the way I feel after a workout!
9:18 a.m. – Running errands, waiting in line at the post office, feeling annoyed when someone cuts in line to ask to “speak with the Postmaster” in a not-so-friendly voice.
9:33 a.m. – Buying shrimp at the fish market for tonight’s dinner menu. (I love buying fresh ingredients–probably why the farmers’ market is one of my favorite places on earth. Hmm.)
10:15 a.m. – Enjoying a post-workout snack of Ellenos lemon curd yogurt. OMG, it’s so good!
10:42 a.m. – Putting laundry away. It’s not exactly fun, but it won’t put itself away, sooooo…
11:08 a.m. – Working on business strategy and planning.
11:58 a.m. – Doing research.
1:06 p.m. – Still doing research.
1:50 p.m. – Looking for a berry basket. I need a brain break and decided that berry picking sounded like a good idea.
1:53 p.m. – Walking to the trail head to pick berries.
Ironically, the alarm didn’t go off at all while I was in the midst of picking berries (it must have known that I wouldn’t bother to check it), yet this was probably the highlight of my day – my optimal “flow” experience. It was hot. Oh, how I love being warm!
The berries were hard to access in many places due to a logging project last year, which left large piles of felled trees and other mounds of rubble. Fortunately, these are perfect conditions for berries!
My legs and arms were scratched and bleeding (though I didn’t really notice how badly until later). I had to crouch down into a squat to get to the low-growing berries, and it was not comfortable in the least. But, hey, I got a second workout in! Yet, none of these conditions made me abandon my mission. Instead I was thinking to myself, “I’m glad there aren’t many snakes in this area.” (I’ve come face-to-face with many snakes while picking berries in Ohio.)
When I finally had enough berries and began walking back to the trail, and hour had passed. I glanced down and noticed that my tennis shoes were thoroughly stained with berry juice. It looked like I’d been the victim of a terrible incident involving a glass of red wine. How on earth could this have happened when I thought I was being so careful to avoid disturbing any plants unnecessarily?!? I imagine it’s partly because I happened upon the equivalent of what fisherman refer to as a “honey hole.”
One patch was so dense with berries that it was impossible not to trample its parts. Couple that with the fact that berries tend to hide below leaves and other plants, and you have a virtual smoothie fest below your feet. As I walked home, my arms felt intensely itchy and the thought crossed my mind that I may have brushed up against some sort of poisonous plant while zoned in on the berries. My fingers were purple, stained with berry juice (though I’m fairly positive some of it was blood), but I didn’t care – not in the slightest. I got what I came for, and whatever temporary discomfort I felt was worth it. My mind drifted to pondering what my role might have been if I was part of a tribe – certainly some sort of gatherer or forager. And that made me smile.
2:48 p.m. – Chatting with my husband. (Perhaps also showing off my spoils.)
3:06 p.m. – Doing more research.
3:46 p.m. – Doing more research.
4:08 p.m. – Yep, still doing research.
4:43 p.m. – Beginning dinner prep. I love fresh, beautiful ingredients. On tonight’s menu: Bang Bang shrimp and cauliflower with green salads.
5:15 p.m. – Feeding the dogs, who, like the chickens, also demand to have food and treats on a rigid schedule. (They are not pleased that I’m 15 minutes late with dinner.)
6:18 p.m. – Having dinner with my husband on the patio, talking about our day and what we might do for the holiday weekend.
6:22 p.m. – Still laughing and talking with my husband after dinner on the patio. (Considering what to make with the berries I had picked earlier.)
7:18 p.m. – Sharing a still-warm-from-the-oven hand pie with my husband. (Yes, the hour of berry picking was well worth it!)
7:30 p.m. – Journaling with a grateful heart, thinking about my accomplishments for the day, thinking about what I might tackle tomorrow.
What I Learned
From this experience, I learned quite a bit.
For one, I didn’t enter the state of “flow” as often as I thought I would (or had hoped I would). There were only three times that I can say with some level of certainty that I felt harmonious and exhilarated.
- Doing Research. I love to learn; it’s part of who I am. I enjoy reading, generating ideas, thinking about new ways to solve old problems – it just makes me feel alive.
- Picking Berries. Being outside, foraging for fresh ingredients, taking a break from my analytical left-brained activities, and opening my heart to an enormous amount of gratitude made this simple task tip the scale of flow for me.
- Cooking Dinner. It shouldn’t be surprising that my love of fresh ingredients makes cooking an equally fun activity for me. I don’t claim to be the greatest cook, but I’m good enough, and I know that preparing healthy meals is an integral part of my self-care practice.
What sends you into a state of flow?