Updated: Aug 11, 2021
Psychologist Mihaly Czikzentmihalyi wrote the following two sentences in a book that altered the course of my life:
"Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding."
Czikzentmihalyi (let's call him Mihaly) first articulated flow, a psychological state of full involvement in an activity, in which one loses sense of time and experiences energized focus and enjoyment. Athletes often refer to this state as 'being in the zone'.
Reading Mihaly - roughly 10 years ago - suddenly made me recognize and understand a feeling I experienced whenever I sat down to write, particularly when I worked on pieces of significant length and complexity. Those occasions were (and still remain) some of the most blissful and memorable in my entire life. They even formed the basis of career decisions that followed. I figured, one could do worse than get a job that allowed one to inhabit 'the zone' everyday. After all, as the saying goes, how we spend our days, is how we spend our lives. Right? I quit a cushy job in finance to go into journalism.
Six years on, barring my professional work as a journalist, I found at the start of 2020 that I had simply not written as much as I'd have liked to, or even experienced as much flow as I'd want to on a daily basis.
Much is made of 'finding your passion', and this is difficult, even for people who are looking hard. But for those of us fortunate even to have had those glimpses of bliss, those few and far between experiences of intrinsic enjoyment while doing something that challenges the upper bounds of our skills, the problem is slightly different. I would argue that the difficulty is not so much in the finding, but if I'm right, in the recreating or replication of such experiences or the circumstances leading up to them. I know, for instance, that I've had great 'flow' moments while writing. But why doesn't it happen everyday?
Let's back up and examine Mihaly's words more closely:
"Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make..."
An initial effort.
That's it. That's the bit I've struggled with, and imagine most people do. I call it 'starting trouble'. Steven Pressfield calls it 'Resistance'.
What I've discovered over a long period of trial and error, is that it's in this, the 'effort that initially one is reluctant to make', that the path to flow lies.
But, oh, effort.
The word puts us off. Pursuits we enjoy - ones that produce feelings of deep involvement and intrinsic rewards, we find, are often difficult to begin, let alone doing them consistently . Reading, writing, playing sports, painting, playing a musical instrument, meditating, cooking - are not easily done when modernity has coddled us into an increasingly distracted and anxious lot, overstimulated and overfed.
"Fight it!" we're often urged. But what if one needn't fight... at all?
Here's Sonke Ahrens, in How to Take Smart Notes (underline emphasis mine):
"Not having willpower, but not having to use willpower indicates that you set yourself up for success."
Willpower is a finite resource, the modern literature on habits tells us. Ahrens builds on this finding to tell us something far more important: you don't have to use it. Self-control and self-discipline, he argues, have "more to do with our environment than ourselves." It's easy to eat a bar of chocolate if it's lying around. But, what if it weren't there in the first place?
The upshot is that you can actively change your environment, and more than you think.
Remember, our aim here is not a wholesale abandonment of effort. It's to reduce it as much as possible: expending the minimum amount of energy, while reaping the maximum possible result.
So how do you do that?
There are two key elements to this, I've found: space and time.
Space is simply a dedicated area for pursuing a specific activity. Time implies a specific duration in which said activity is pursued, the key being that it is planned for in advance (more on this later).
Poet and artist Austin Kleon in his book 'Keep Going' suggests the creation of what he calls a 'bliss station', an idea he adapted from Joseph Campbell.
Here’s Campbell in The Power of Myth:
"You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen."
In his first book, Steal Like An Artist, Kleon advocates having two separate workspaces: one digital, one analog (separate, because distraction and interruption are almost inevitable in a digital workspace.)
Dedicated space and time are equally key to cultivating flow, I've found (although you needn't have both, Kleon notes). Combining the two - dedicated space, and dedicated time - for an activity creates what Dilbert creator Scott Adams would call a 'system'. Adams' maxim that systems work better than goals has gone on to become a staple in the books about habits. An example of a system is leaving exercise clothes around in the same place (space) so you won't waste time and get frustrated looking for them, or simply the act of putting them on as a matter of routine (time), which makes it more likely that you will work out. The idea, per Adams, is moving from a place from lower odds, to higher odds.
Let's address space first.
You want to create or make a space for the activity that you want to pursue. Creating space is both practical and meaningful: it solves for a place in which an activity can be done freely and repeatedly while also imbuing the area with a purpose. Optimize your space by investing in the best tools you can afford for said activity: there's nothing worse than being put off by mediocre or bad equipment (picture a sharp chef's knife slicing smoothly through tough meat - that's the feeling you want). You would also want to dedicate your space explicitly to doing said activity. For example, dedicating a desk at which you may want to write would mean keeping it orderly and tidy. This isn't as simple as it sounds. I set up a new writing and work desk last year, and in the transition to working from home, I found that the messier I left it - wires, books, and miscellaneous items around - the less inclined I was to work there. I found myself instead working all over my house, a recipe for distraction, discomfort and frustration. Simply ordering wires around my desk and keeping it constantly clear of items not essential to my work have made it a place where I now want to work at all the time. I don't have to adjust anything at my desk anymore. The same principle applies to my armchair, which initially became a dumping ground for used clothes, but in which I now read and occasionally, write. Having your tools arranged in reasonable order along with an uncluttered space goes a long way towards smoothing your path into an activity. It's easier to begin. Physical clutter also has an insidious way of cluttering up your mind, which is why I think Jordan Peterson's advice to clean up your room is so underrated.
Now, let's talk about time.
Creating a schedule and following a set routine for specific activities also smoothes your path into doing something you want. Routine is a form of automation (the caveat here is that you should design one around things that matter). Think about it. If you know exactly what it is that you're going to do at a particular time and within a specific block of time, you don't have to spend time thinking about it (another kind of resistance). You can jump right in and begin. What's more? The built-in constraint of a strict, set duration (up to you) goes a long way towards making sure you spend the time you've set aside efficiently.
Here's Nassim Taleb in Antifragile:
"It is a well known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated - the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks."
Finally, following a routine, and having a specific time at which you do something everyday builds a momentum of its own. And like my personal culinary/travel hero Anthony Bourdain, I'm "a big believer in momentum."
Culture tends to perpetuate the harmful myth that a creative breakthrough or productive spurt is a chance occurrence, the product of sudden moments of inspiration or worse, intoxication. But it's also well documented that a less palatable and more boring truth sits at the heart of doing great work or achieving mastery at something: it takes time, discipline, and effort. It takes practice. Practice, that over time, converts flow (this one not of the Mihaly variety) into stock.
You don't need to push, strain, or struggle. Instead, reduce effort. Combine space and time, deliberately designing a life geared around your practice.
I leave you with sage advice from investor Ray Dalio, found in his Principles: Life & Work:
"One of the hardest things for people to do is to objectively look down on themselves within their circumstances (i.e., their machine) so that they can act as the machine's designer and manager. Most people remain stuck in the perspective of being a worker within the machine. If you can recognize the differences between those roles and that it is much more important that you are a good designer/manager of your life than a good worker in it, you will be on the right path."