Don’t Chase Flow States. Do This Instead

How the false god of flow keeps us from achieving our potential

The book ‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi changed my life. The day I read it, I felt I’ve found some magic formula for getting work done. A trick that gives me an edge over others by being 5 times more productive.

I learned how daily wage workers, carpenters, coders, runners, skydivers, and everyone under the sun experienced this state of altered consciousness called Flow.

Its when your prefrontal cortex or your inner critic shuts up and all attention is at the task at hand. The sense of time is distorted — it passes too slow or too fast. And the quality of work you produce is much better than otherwise.

So with good intentions, I set out to include periods of ‘flow’ into my life. I started blocking time to focus on one thing at a time. And I tried to use all the flow triggers I read about — rapid feedback, clear goals, challenge-to-skills ratio, and whatnot.

Nothing happened. I got too lost in the system. Eventually, I was spending my time chasing some unachievable state of consciousness instead of getting work done.

Bliss Junkies

Little did I realize that I’d turned into a bliss junky. I was focused more on being in flow rather than doing the work. Deep down inside, was the belief that once I achieve this state, I’ll sail through life effortlessly.

I was dead wrong, obviously. Life is tough. We all need to move the needle every day. There isn’t any magic pill that will get us out of this predicament.

There’s no shortcut to mastery. You can only get there through hours of deliberate practice, purpose, and devotion to your craft.

Focus on This Instead

There are all sorts of crazy things happening in the flow space. There are devices that can shut off your prefrontal cortex. Then there are some which aim to develop a shortcut to nirvana.

While all this goes on, you focus on doing the work. The only tools at your disposal worth focusing on are deliberate practice and deep work.

Deep work and focus compound over a period of time. But the more shortcuts you seek, the more miserable you become.

It’s like investing in the S&P 500 but taking out money every now and then when the shit hits the fan. You won’t make compounding work in your favor.

Time is your enemy here. The more you run away from putting in the work, the more difficult it becomes. With time, you’ll be filled with regret for not putting in the work.

The idea of deliberate practice comes from the psychologist Anders Ericsson. In an article published in 2007 in the journal* Current Directions in Psychological Science*, he talks about deliberate practice and Flow states:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

He continues to warn us against not putting in the work to master our craft,

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

To give you a more practical example, Cal Newport, wrote about advice from an elite pianist,

**Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy. **“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”

There are always things about your work that will be hard. Getting up at 4:45 every day, meditating, journaling, and writing before my day job begins is not always easy. Often my mind is battling with distractions. I’ve to make a conscious effort to bring my mind back to what I’m doing.

It doesn’t “produce intense feelings of enjoyment” but I do it for my satisfaction. I may be exhausted by 11 am, but there’s a sense of peace that is irreplaceable.

This also does not mean that your work should be super tough to make you suffer. But it shouldn’t be so easy (in the name of flow) that you don’t improve.

The Only Strategy Worth Pursuing

There are tons of different ways you can include deep work and deliberate practice in your life. But after months of effort on this, I’ve realized there’s only one process to help you get through life:

  • Get your butt in the chair and do the work without distractions for as long as possible. (It will be hard, that doesn’t mean you don’t love it or you’ve not found your ‘passion’)

  • Keep increasing the time you can focus as you start to feel comfortable.

  • Structure your life to suit your deep life

The good thing is if you really work deeply, you’ll get more done in less time. This gives you time to relax and recharge batteries. Compare this with shallow workers or bliss junkies who “work” all day, drain themselves out, and have nothing to show for it.

Do less to do more. Do it with the utmost focus. And master your craft. There are no tricks.

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Written on July 12, 2020