Flow states: why pleasure, not productivity, is the key to a happier life

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Productivity is a buzzword born of the Instagram age (ironic, considering it’s one of the reasons we find it so hard to focus). In a world that moves in a frenetic pace, we’re all hooked on how to do things more quickly and efficiently; how to optimise every aspect of our lives.

The problem is, the concept is all a bit smoke and mirrors – like a magician whose star trick is really just a dud. “Productivity is a trap,” writes journalist, Oliver Burkeman, in his new time-management book, Four Thousand Weeks. “Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance’, whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying ‘six things successful people do before 7am.’”

If productivity – the rampant pursuit of a goal never quite in reach – is a fallacy, then pleasure is surely its grounding antidote. While productivity grinds, pleasure takes it easy. Productivity goes for a goal, pleasure is the goal. Productivity churns you into a froth, telling you you’re never quite enough. Pleasure is the golden nectar of “happy right where you are”. But how to reach this elusive state? 

The power of flow

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Perhaps the answer lies in a concept known as “flow states”. Coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, flow states refer to a peak moment of consciousness in which we are so engaged with what we’re doing, we lose all grasp of time amid a deep sense of focus and satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be a big or noble activity, but just something day-to-day that is enjoyable and carries an element of challenge.

As Csíkszentmihályi points out in his book Finding Flow, this state of mind isn’t achieved by passive activities. Lying around or watching TV won’t cut it, because they’re not engaging enough pastimes to trigger the deep, all-pervasive concentration required.

You’re focusing on the pleasure of doing, not the end result

“Flow is generally reported when a person is doing his or her favourite activity – gardening, listening to music, bowling, cooking a good meal,” he writes. “It also occurs when driving, when talking to friends and, surprisingly, often at work. Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television.”

At its best, flow is an experience that is similar to the effects of meditation. “In flow, our attention is so laser-focused that all else falls away,”  explains author and journalist Steven Kotler. “Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. And all aspects of performance go through the roof.”

How to get in the zone

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Also known in popular psychology as “getting in the zone”, flow is productive by the very fact it’s not trying to be. You perform things well – maybe even at your highest ability – because you’re in the moment. You’re focusing on the pleasure of doing, not the end result. 

There are so many ways to find this state and engross you to the point that you lose all sense of time. Choosing something that you are likely to enjoy is a good starting point, as you’re unlikely to be fully absorbed if you can’t engage. 

It’s also important that you select the right level of challenge: something that is manageable enough to take all your attention, but not to the point where it’s overwhelming. “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills,” Csíkszentmihályi explains. 

One avenue may lie in revisiting your favourite childhood activities. Pastimes like roller skating, playing the piano or colouring in can be ideal for inducing zen-like focus. Equally, learning new creative or sports-based skills, such as yoga, offer up a rich source of flow potential. 

Ideally, you’ll be distraction-free to find flow. So, combining skills within a travel environment, where you’re removed from the hubbub of everyday life, can make this recipe all the more potent. We’re talking about activities such as sunrise yoga in Morocco, ice-hiking in Argentina, a cooking masterclass in Vietnam or learning to paddle-board in Lake Bled in Slovenia. You can also meet new friends, with all the flow of experiences that go with that (lunches that last all afternoon, card games, campfires). 

Hustle versus joy

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Being an adult comes with a whole host of demands and responsibilities. Mortgages, deadlines, looking after the people around us. Our to-do lists are immense – and growing (one 2020 study found we have less leisure time now than 40 years ago). Little wonder burnout rates are soaring, all around the world. 

Despite what the productivity movement says, hustling is not really the answer to this problem. It just means we end up feeling more drained and more inadequate – because no matter how hard we try, our tasks just keep coming. 

Flow, however, offers an intriguing side street around the dilemma. When you’re in the flow state, you’ll likely be more productive anyway, because of the kind of energised focus it sparks. More importantly, immersing yourself in the things you truly love will replenish you in the way that sheer, gritted-teeth “productivity” cannot. It’ll have a positive knock-on effect, even on the tasks you enjoy less. 

By tuning into flow moments, you’ll start to find them everywhere

Just like any habit, by training yourself to tune into and prioritise flow moments, you’ll start to find them in every corner of life. In your leisure time, yes, but also at work. As you become more attuned to the kind of deep, rewarding creativity that speaks to your soul, you’ll seek it out – and at the same time, put other, less satisfying tasks on the back-burner. 

A flow state, then, is a kind of natural selection process for the tasks that count in life. We only have finite time and flow can decide what counts versus what is merely a box-ticking activity. It’s a powerful distinction to make. 

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