Water flows, drinks flow and so does life…it flows.
Have your ever lost yourself in something, so much so that you lost track of time?
Maybe, you were cooking, playing music, having a great conversation, surfing or possibly even teaching.
Being consumed in a task like this, while difficult for most people, is called being in a state of flow.
In my experience, it’s one of the keys to happiness in education, and a nice side benefit is that it not only reduces stress but increases your productivity. Not bad, huh?
When I wrote Developing a Creative Mindset, I promised to write more about how achieving flow can profoundly change your life, a concept that is becoming more recognisable and something all of us have experienced at one time or another.
Today we’ll learn more about what Flow is, why it’s important, and how to achieve it on a regular basis for increased productivity and happiness at work. I’ll also introduce you to an age old principle ingrained in a culture that is renowned for having one of the highest life expectancy in the world, and it all starts with achieving flow.
What is Flow?
Flow is a state of peak performance pioneered by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who spent more than two decades studying it in individuals and these days you can find information about it on social media, blogs, articles and of course SMILE Teachers.
Csikszentmihalyi describes it as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing music. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.
Athletes call this state being “in the zone”.
Flow is not only reported in sport, but is widely reported in a range of fields, such as hiking, performing brain surgery, surfing, painting and even in sitting meditation (perhaps why the power of meditation is so real).
When you’re in the state of Flow, you:
are completely focused on the task at hand;
forget about yourself, about others, about the world around you;
lose track of time;
feel happy and in control; and
become creative and productive.
So many reasons why this would be such an advantage for school teachers. I am sure you can think of even more. One thing I love about flow is that it takes the very Zen concept of being completely present in the moment, and applies it to work tasks. It’s a concept I’ve talked a lot about here at SMILE Teachers — being in the moment, focusing completely on a single task, and finding a sense of calm and happiness in your work. Flow is exactly that.
Flow is a state of focused attention, so people experienced in focusing their attention, such as yogis or martial artists, are more likely to find themselves in flow. The great thing for you is, by adopting some of our SMILE mindfulness skills, you are already on your way to achieving flow.
Why is Flow Important?
As Czikszentmihalyi outlines in his book Flow: The Pscyhology of Optimal Experience, flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at a great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.
I believe the ability to focus on a single-task (as opposed to multi-tasking) is one of the keys to being a more efficient teacher. Not the kind of productivity where you mark 20 assessments or knock off 10 items from your to-do list in quick succession (although that can be satisfying), here you’re switching between tasks all day long and keeping busy all the time.
The real productivity I mean is the kind where you actually achieve your goals, where you accomplish important and long-lasting things. As a teacher, that might mean creating one or two important and inspiring lessons rather than 10 or 20 mediocre ones that student’s will forget within 5 minutes. It means getting valuable tasks finished rather than answering a bunch of emails, making phone calls, attending unnecessary meetings, and ordering paper all day long. It means connecting with students. Collaborating with staff. It means quality instead of quantity.
Once you learn to focus on the important projects and tasks that you enjoy or are best at, flow becomes a part of the process to get them done. You lose yourself in these important and challenging tasks, and instead of being constantly interrupted by minor things (messages, emails, coworkers, etc.), you are able to focus on the tasks long enough to actually complete them. And by losing yourself in them, you enjoy yourself more. You reduce stress while increasing quality output. You get important stuff done instead of just getting things done. You achieve things rather than just keeping busy.
Denzel Washington said it best when he said, “Don’t mistake movement, with progress”.
Flow is one of the key movements in your life that can bring happiness, fulfillment and passion while achieving your goals.
How to Achieve Flow as a Happy Teacher.
How do you achieve this mystical state of being?
Do you need to meditate or chant anything? No, you don’t (although meditation can improve your ability to concentrate).
And flow is anything but mystical — it’s very practical, and achieving it isn’t mysterious.
It takes a bit of practice, but like anything, if your prepared to try you’ll get better at it.
Here are some key steps to help you achieve and benefiting from flow:
Focus on tasks you love. If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it. If teaching is made up of stuff you hate, you might want to consider finding another career. Or consider seeking roles you love to do within your current school. At any rate, be sure that whatever task you choose is something you can be passionate about.
Choose tasks you find value in. There’s work you love that’s easy and unimportant, and then there’s work you love that will have a long-term impact on your career and life. Choose the latter, as it will be a much better use of your time, and of your energy to achieve flow.
Make sure it’s challenging, but not too hard. If a task is too easy, you won’t be using much though or effort to complete it. A task should be challenging enough to require your full concentration. However, if it is too hard, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to work out how to get started — either that, or you’ll end up discouraged. It may take some trial and error to find tasks of the appropriate level of difficulty for you.
Find your quiet, peak time. This is actually a two steps process. First, you’ll want to find a time that’s quiet, or you’ll never be able to focus. For me, that’s mornings, before the hustle of everyday life builds to busy roar. That might be early morning, when you first wake up, or early in the school day, when most people haven’t arrived yet or are still getting their coffee and settling down. I find there is a special energy early in the morning that helps me flow. Or you might try the lunch hour, when people are usually busy doing their own things. Evenings work well too for many people. Or, if you’re lucky, you can do it at any time of the day if you can find a quiet place to work in. Whatever time you choose, it should also be a peak energy time for you. Some people get tired after lunch — that’s not a good time to go for flow. Find a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate.
Remove all distractions. Aside from finding a quiet time and place to work, you’ll want to clear away all other distractions. That means turning off unnecessary noise (unless you find music that helps you focus), turning off or removing phones, emails and notifications, and anything else that might pop up or make noise to interrupt your thoughts. I also find it helpful to clear my work space, even if that means sweeping miscellaneous documents into a folder to be sorted through later. A clear desk helps immensely. You may go as far as putting up a sign or notifying visitors you are having “flow time”.
Learn to focus on that task for as long as possible. This takes practice and patience. You need to start on your chosen item and keep your focus on it for as long as you can. At first, you will have difficulty, if you’re used to constantly switching between tasks. But persist, and keep bringing your focus back to your task. You’ll get better. And when you can keep your focus on that task, with no distractions, and when your task has been chosen well (something you love, something important, and something challenging), you should lose yourself in flow.
Enjoy yourself. Losing yourself in flow is an amazing feeling, in my experience. It feels great to be able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile, to make great progress on a project or important task, to do something you’re passionate about. Take the time to appreciate this feeling. It doesn’t come easy and it shouldn’t be viewed as this super power that you just have to have, but it is there waiting for you.
Keep practicing. Again, it takes practice. Every step will take some practice, from finding a quiet, peak time for yourself, to clearing distractions, to choosing the right task. And especially keeping your focus on a task for a long time. But each time you fail, try to learn from it. Each time you succeed, you should also learn from it — what did you do right? And the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
Reap the rewards. Aside from the pleasure of getting into flow, you’ll also be happier with your work overall. You’ll get important stuff done. You’ll complete stuff more often, rather than starting and stopping frequently. All of this is hugely satisfying and rewarding. Take the time to appreciate this, and to continue to practice it every day.
More time for you. The increased self-awareness will give you a heightened ability to enjoy lives golden moments. Your mind will become conditioned to focusing your attention on what is important to you. Lessons will become powerful and rewarding experiences that will resonate with you for periods of time to follow.
“Energy flows where attention goes”
This quote is so simple, yet so powerful. It is one of my favourite’s and the first time I spotted it was stuck to a friend’s car rear view mirror on a sticky note. She is the head of Human Resources for an elite sporting program and was using it as a token to remind herself to be present and enjoy finding flow in her daily routine.
When’s the last time you experienced flow?
Have you had any recent lessons or events where you really felt engrossed in what you were doing?
Is your current career giving you the opportunities to get into flow?
Getting into flow is a skill that when practiced will have a profound impact on your teaching career. Having teachers who are aware, teaching with purpose, passionate about the tasks they are involved in, will lead to teachers in flow. Teacher’s in flow is an amazing concept, with the learned ability to get into flow, teachers can then start to shape student’s education by tailoring lessons and activities to help students develop the same self-awareness.
SMILE Teachers envision an education system, where schools have a team of powerful educators who are able to find flow in their career, these incredible teachers will then promote a sense of flow in the classroom and community. Everybody wins!
See the video below for Mihály Csíkszentmihályi speaking about getting into FLOW.