(Read time: 5 mins and 23 secs)
In what seemed to be a strange dream, I found myself in Montauk, at the furthest end of Long Island. My beloved of only six months had invited me to shelter in place with her. It was a time full of unknowns: How would I set up my business in the house of someone I was just beginning to know? How could I coach my primary client, a national e-commerce retailer, long resistant to remote work, through migrating 600 employees, across five divisions, to successfully work from home? How quickly could it be done? Was it even possible? While that client’s story is still unfolding, what I am learning about myself is changing the way I will live and work forever.
I never imagined that this crisis would force me into a very different level of consciousness. The immediacy of the situation, the need for radical innovation, and the freedom from many of the structures of the “old normal” have opened a window to new possibilities.
Co-leading the crisis management response for our client gave me the ability to reimagine my schedule, with more agency over both my time and resources. The combination of living in nature and having so many distractions removed has drastically improved my productivity and creativity and the enjoyment of both. Our home is surrounded by Japanese maples, weeping willows, and recently, budding white magnolia trees. There are deer, turkeys, and an array of birds. This beauty pulls me in and helps me be more fully present to my imagination.
I started with one—this series, in fact—and found that with far fewer external distractions, my ability to focus on complex, larger projects increased dramatically. Without realizing it, I was dropping into what is called flow. Time slowed down, my self-absorbed worries faded, and my writing became almost effortless.
Flow is a state of highly focused concentration, during which you are so deeply engaged in an activity that nothing else matters. The result is exceptional productivity and creativity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term in 1975, after studying the patterns of artists, musicians, and scientists. He noticed that once they reached the experience of flow, their brains were not interested in paying attention to anything else other than the activity at hand.
Early in his career, Csikszentmihalyi, former Chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago, conducted a massive study on happiness. What he found was groundbreaking. Regardless of culture, social class, age, or gender, people said the same thing: when they felt their best and did their best work, they were in a state of flow. While the activities people found pleasurable varied, their experience of the activity, the why behind their enjoyment was the same. Csikszentmihalyi discovered the happiest people on earth, the ones who felt that their lives had the most meaning, had the most experiences in flow.
In a state of flow, I have been so intensely focused on this blog series, new client programs, and launching new online communities. The normal distractions of email, texts, and other tasks have receded into the background. One or two days of the week, I am able to carve out enough time to become so immersed in my work that I reach a state of productive ecstasy that I have rarely experienced before. It is a rare combination of pleasure and peak performance. It is only now that I realize how difficult it was to achieve flow in my pre-COVID existence.
I have discovered that I can eliminate external distractions for a few hours at a time, but internal distractions are an even greater enemy. They are the things we say to ourselves that break our momentum. I can distract myself with doubt about whether my article is worthy of publication, whether I will have enough time for other activities, whether I might have forgotten something important. Sheltering in place in bucolic Montauk, I could shut out external distractions. Quieting these stealthier internal distractions, however, took much more work. At some point, I realized it comes down to giving myself permission to work on what I need to work on. The more deeply and more often I am in a flow state, the more alive I feel.
What I have found is that the more this seductive mix of pleasure and performance becomes an essential part of my life, the more motivated I am to clear away the distractions that interfere with it. When I began to deconstruct the conditions that enable flow, I found extensive research to draw on. In his research, Csikszentmihalyi found 10 components of flow. These 5 were the most important to me:
- Clear and Critical Goals: Each of my "flow" projects has clear, measurable, and important goals that inspired me to stay focused.
- Direct and Immediate Feedback: Knowing I would soon be evaluated on my work keeps my energy level high.
- Balance Between Ability and Challenge: I need to be really stretched and have enough confidence to believe I can succeed.
- Concentration: I need to get external and internal distractions out of the way.
- A Loss of Self Consciousness: My inspiration needs to come from a higher purpose, not my ego.