Why Mindfulness and Flow Are Not the Same As Most People Think Them to Be

Image by Hilary Clark from Pixabay

There are hardly a few words on top of ‘flow’ and ‘mindfulness’ on the top of the Trending: Latest in Productivity Hacks list. From artists to athletes, from comedians to biohackers, everyone is interested in flow.

Sadly, those two might just be the most misunderstood concepts on that list.

Flow, first introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a state of complete absorption in the task at hand. When time flies too fast or too slow, the ego falls back and there’s momentum, grace, and happiness all around.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a state of total awareness not only of your surroundings and actions but also of being aware of awareness. This line presents the core difference between the two concepts that we’ll discuss further.

Of course, mindfulness and flow have things in common. Which is why they’re confused to be the same in the first place. Let’s dig into it and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Being In the Zone

If you don’t recognize the word ‘flow’ perhaps you recognize “being in the zone” used by many athletes. Similarly musicians experience “being in the pocket,” where things just flow without thinking — their body parts move without conscious thought and yet produce beautiful music.

During a flow state, our focus is so powerful that we aren’t aware of anything except the task at hand. Not our emotions, hunger, thirst, worries, thoughts about the past or the future, or time.

Thus, when we come out of this state, we can’t say how long we were in there. Usually, time flies by rapidly in a flow state. You can work for hours on end without realizing it. It’s what all of us are after. And we all have experienced this during reading an engrossing book or watching a movie.

The specialty of this state is not its productivity benefits but the emotional ones. It’s associated with feelings of serenity, peace, calmness, and feeling in control of life.

This is why you see mountain climbers always craving for another climb or startup founders, after taking companies public, quitting to start another one from scratch. They know what the state feels like and want to be in it as much as possible.

Now, here’s the challenge with this state — you can’t be in it for a very long time. It only manifests when you’re working on a task that’s both interesting and challenging enough to keep your mind busy.

If the task is boring or too easy, your mind will start chattering in the background. If it’s too difficult, you’ll face stress and anxiety.

Flow, in that sense, is a drug. You may be in flow or 2 hours a day writing, for instance. But to be in that state again, you need to rest — which is not a flow state at all. This rest period is not pleasant since it keeps us away from the drug of flow states. Hence, if we’re not careful, it can lead to workaholism in an effort to repeatedly chase that high.

Mindful Awareness

Mindfulness is not the same as flow. It’s a state of non-judgmental awareness of what’s happening inside and outside while being aware of the awareness itself.

You can be mindful anytime, anywhere. As you read this, you can be aware of certain body parts where you’re holding tension and let it go. You can be aware of your eyes moving across the screen.

The more you practice, the more you’ll learn to be the observer of your own self. You’ll start to observe your thoughts from a distance — not putting them in the buckets of right and wrong — but just letting them be. You’re neither identified with them nor feel the urge to do as they say. They’re just thoughts.

Unlike flow, mindfulness is not dependent on external situations. You can be as mindful of mopping the floor as climbing a mountain.

Can We Have Both?

Research describes mindfulness and flow to be mutually exclusive. And it makes sense.

When you’re in flow, you’re not really being mindful — you’re just “going with the flow.” You’re not consciously deciding your next action — you’re just letting things happen as they must.

Trying to be mindful when in flow will snap you out. Because if you start consciously be aware of the task, you’re aware of doing it — which is not what flow is.

Think about it this way. Let’s say you’re in flow. Suddenly you become very aware that you’re in flow. You think “Oh yeah, I’m in flow!” Just at that moment, you’re out of it!

The reason mindfulness and flow are confused is simple — both states require concentration.

Flow follows focus. If all your attention is not on the task at hand, then you’ll not enter a flow state. In mindfulness or meditation, you start with concentration.

But the core difference is this — even when you’re concentrating on a single object, say the breath, you’re still aware that you’re focused. This awareness is lost during the flow state. There are many differences between the two states but this is the main one that explains all of them.

Many people say things like “I get my meditation from playing basketball” or “I get my meditation while driving.” That’s just not meditation or mindfulness. That’s a state of flow — which even though pleasant — is not training you to be mindful at all.

Don’t think you’re being mindful while chasing the highs of a flow state. And don’t think that mindfulness is your ticket to flow. They’re similar, yet separate. So know the difference between the two and decide what you want to go after.

Struggling to meditate? Get your free 7 Day email course — Meditation 101: How to Start Meditating

Written on June 28, 2021