Going Deep, Finding Flow and Living a More Purposeful Life

Going Deep, Finding Flow and Living a More Purposeful Life

“Where’s the entrance to the George Washington Bridge?”, I asked an unsuspecting stranger in Washington Heights, my body drenched in sweat and rain, as I set to run across it. She pointed me in the right direction with a questioning look that said, “you’re crazy … but good luck?”. Little did she know that I had already run 10 miles, living out my four-days prior invented dream of running from my apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan to Fort Lee, New Jersey and back. I was nearly halfway there.

For most of this run I was in a flow state. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian-American psychologist who invented the flow state concept, obtaining flow involves:

  • Focused attention
  • A sense of ecstasy
  • Inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done, and how well you are performing
  • Knowing that the task is achievable – that your skills are enough to complete it 
  • A loss of self-consciousness
  • Timelessness – engaged in the present, hours pass in minutes
  • Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward

Csikszentmihalyi developed his ideas about flow states from observing that money did not make people happier. If money is not the answer, he asked, wouldn’t it be smart for people to design their life around activities that induce flow?

I try to do this. The cover photo of this article is a joke sent to me by my friend Dave Reison but like many good jokes, there’s truth inside; I ask so many people to go on runs together. As I’ve gotten older and reflected on what makes me happiest, my interests have become more defined. Running, nature and deep connection is a combination that induces flow for me – not every time, but often – and thus I schedule runs with friends regularly.

I don’t bring my phone on runs and when doing longer endurance runs, don’t listen to music. These small details are significant because they represent an outlier of how I, and most others, typically live. A prerequisite for flow is focused attention. With technology (or, in a more cynical view, distraction) at our fingertips and an “always be reachable” mentality prevalent, it’s difficult to obtain flow at work or in life. This has consequences and deserves a rethinking about how we spend our time. 

In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the case for focused attention and says that in an increasingly distracted world, people with the ability to focus intensely for long periods of time will thrive. Commenting on his schedule, Cal writes,

“Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.”

Can you imagine doing that? In today’s culture of connectivity, Cal’s schedule is rebellious. People not willing to challenge themselves or the environment they live and work in will call it impossible and stick to the status quo. But I believe that structuring periods of deep work into your schedule is possible and has rewards for both professional output and intrinsic happiness.

Scheduling periods of deep work into your life is counter cultural and requires not caring what others think. Lately, I have been experimenting with periods of deep work when prospecting for new business (i.e. going “offline” on outlook and focusing intensely for 60-90 minutes) and employing a “thinking hour” each week, where I answer a set of predetermined questions with total focus. It’s similar to slowing down to speed up. Flow, with its ability to induce ecstasy, a loss of self-consciousness and timelessness is an extraordinary feeling and something we can all experience more of through a better design of our life and habits. 

What do you think? What strategies have you found effective for establishing periods of intense focus at work or in life? Where do you typically run into problems when prioritizing deep work (i.e. a needy boss or a rigid schedule)? Have you been able to get around these constraints?