Going with the Flow

Tapping into concentration, forgetting self-consciousness, key to creativity


Ben Sadkowski/News Editor

The act of forgetting oneself should not be an entirely new concept to most human beings. Certainly at least once in a person’s life comes the event in which he or she is so focused on what they are doing that they lose any feelings of self-consciousness, feel their skills stretched to a degree that they feel stimulated and challenged, and lose track of time completely. Recently however, the experience has been given a label, ‘flow,’ and has enjoyed increased attention.

The coiner of the actual term ‘flow’ is Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a former head of the psychology department at the University of Chicago. Csíkszentmihályi has listed nine main components of flow that accompany a flow experience, but those that are most prevalent with my own experiences are a level of high concentration, loss of self-consciousness, and a distorted sense of time. One must not experience all nine of Csíkszentmihályi’s components in order to have considered oneself to be in a state of flow, and the three I mentioned previously are those that I could identify most with in Csíkszentmihályi’s list.

The concentration I have while in a state of flow surpasses all other experiences of conscious attempts at concentrating on a task, for example with the ACT. A good example would be writing. When I have to write a paper the night before it’s due, the concentration I have during such an event is consciously induced, because I need to have that concentration to ignore distracters and to complete the paper. But when I am working on an independent creative writing project late at night, the concentration I have during that situation stems purely from the creative stimulation I receive from writing.

In addition, a loss of self-consciousness goes hand in hand with the high level of concentration. Naturally, if absorbed in a task, I will not have the mindset to direct my focus onto self-criticism; everything goes toward what I am doing at that moment. When I ran cross-country my freshman and sophomore years, I experienced a state of flow in some races. However, during times that I was in pain either from an injury or from fatigue, I’m certain my face went into a sort of comedic grimace that I myself would laugh at if given the opportunity to see it. Once again, everything goes to the task at hand

Lastly, a warped sense of time, for me, is largely the most striking effect of a state of flow. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” is a cliché statement, but it completely sums up how I perceive time in my flow experiences. Next to self-consciousness, time is the last thing I have on my mind when in flow. When I look at the time somewhere in the middle of an activity, either I realize the absurdity of the amount of things I accomplished in a very small time frame, or I realize that I have spent hours on an activity when I promised myself that I would devote only a fraction of the time I spent.

In terms of actually inducing a state of flow, I can’t give any concrete methods that will guarantee such an experience. My own experiences creep up on me without any planning on my part. One larger guarantee that an experience may come is that what I’m doing at the time is something I find creatively or physically stimulating, like photography or running. While performing this activity, I can exhibit all three of the previously mentioned characteristics, and also a lack of self-awareness that subsequently prevents me from realizing that I am in such a state. The realization and analysis of its occurrence always comes after.

Flow is as flighty as it is real. There is no foolproof way to induce it, and conscious attempts will most likely fail, but once it does come around, looking back on the experience in retrospect, I find the real pleasure of being consumed by a task and having my skills stretched on an activity I find truly worthwhile. Call it whatever you want: “On the ball,” or, “in the groove,” it’s bliss.

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