Go with the flow
Mind flow

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”

Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

Go with the flow, they say. But how we can provoke it? And how does it help us with change and navigating our life?

What is flow?

Flow is a mysterious mental state. We can feel flow during sports, reading, painting, and writing and much more. It's the state of optimal experience, feeling totally immersed in the moment. It's when we know and realize we are feeling sharp and alive. As a result of flow, we are giving the moment every bit of our attention. In other words, we are fully focused on the task at hand - utilizing our mental and physical capacities to the greatest extent.

The researcher Csíkszentmihályi identified 10 experiences that go with the state of being in flow:

  1. Having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve.
  2. Being able to concentrate for a sustained period of time.
  3. Losing the feeling of consciousness of one's self.
  4. Finding that time passes quickly.
  5. Getting direct and immediate feedback.
  6. Experiencing a balance between your ability levels, and the challenge.
  7. Having a sense of personal control over the situation.
  8. Feeling that the activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  9. Lacking awareness of bodily needs.
  10. Being completely absorbed in the activity itself.

Moreover, flow engages our mind so deeply that we do not worry about the possibility of failure - simply because there is no cognitive bandwidth left for it. So instead of worrying, we experience this peak mental state with complete control over ourselves so that we can execute as perfectly as we can.

The Flow Model

Csíkszentmihály also developed a flow model, which displays there are 2 factors that determine the emotional state of a person during a situation. This in turn provides 8 types of emotional states one person can feel, based on varying challenge and skill levels. Only when there is a dynamic balance between these two levels is when we feel flow in our lives.

go with the flow model
The flow model from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, copyright © 1997, 1998, 2007.

Barriers preventing us to go with the flow

Csikszentmihályi also states that there are three reasons why flow is not acccessible to us in some moments.

The first reason is unclarity in one's goals and objectives. The vision might not be clear and how it is connected to the grand scheme of things. As a result, we also don't have the motivation to work on it with full engagement. The second reason might be that we are not able to receive feedback on our work, with an unclear relationship between your actions and subsequent results. The third reason is that we cannot access flow when we are engaged in an activity that doesn't spark us or that seems impossible to achieve.

In general these three reasons prevent us from entering flow state. Especially when the situation becomes too challenging in comparison with our skill level, arousal will start to arise. There is a positive side to this, because in some cases arousal and deliberate practice enable us to learn effectively. This is because you are operating just outside of your current skill level. But it can have draw-backs on your performance in various situations with emotional pressure when the stakes are too high.

Obtaining flow is not easy

The above list is a great starting point to achieve flow state and how we can introduce it into our lives. However, we cannot always ensure the right conditions for flow.

Yes, we can set goals and get clarity, but it doesn't necessarily mean we will suddenly enter flow state and work on it all the time.

Yes, we can have immediate feedback, but not all things in the world provide us with direct feedback to our actions.

Yes, we can try to perceive the challenge and relate it to our skill level, but that doesn't mean that it is an accurate perception of the skill we really need.

What we need instead is a way to apply the flow state to our whole life and attitude. Living life in flow would mean that you are aligned and synchronized with the opportunities that happen around you.

Being open to go with the flow

Sky Nelson-Isaacs explains the attitude of flow in his book "Living with Flow". He explains that our standard approach is to pursue actions with results that will have meaning to us. We reason beforehand what the selection is of our choices and later decide if they have been meaningful or not.

In other words, we create a preliminary coherent story of our choices and the results we set out to get and we act. Then after it has happened, we retroactively determine and evaluate the causal effect of what happened and why.

However, Sky continues by saying that the inherent downside of this approach is that we can never predict what will happen. We can only give meaning to what has happened and we are therefore blind to the future of possibilities that can arise before a certain event takes place. The only door we ever see is the one we take.

The possibilities and synchronicities in life

With an example it's possible to show how you can go with the flow to make the most of it.

Imagine you are late to catch a bus. You almost see the bus leaving so you run as fast as possible to catch it. The alternative is to take the next bus, but then you will be late for your important meeting.

Now, before you take action the first question would be; if you run, would you make it? Let's assume that there is a possibility you make it if you run, then the automatic action is to run. But this is assuming that you are solely responsible for catching the bus or not. Later more on why this is so important.

I now continue with this story and look at different scenarios possibly taking place:

You see the bus and you run. While running you realize you will not make it. What a disappointment. But all of a sudden, somebody delays the bus for one minute while getting out, allowing you to catch it. Hurray! So, what just happened?

First of all, the two separate events - you being late and the person delaying the bus - are not causally related. However, together they provide you with the unique outcome that you will still be on time for your meeting. It would be suitable to say that this person was at the right place at the right time.

Of course, you could not have known this would happen. That is why this type of coincidence is normally called luck, but it just demonstrates that the world we live in is a dynamic place and that not everything is predictable, especially the things outside of our control. Thus, although we can predict the result of our own actions, we cannot predict what we world will do - and if or how it will maybe help us catch the train anyway.

Good or bad luck doesn't exist

Now take a different ending with a negative 'synchronicity' of events. Maybe you could really catch the bus if you would run. But while running, a person suddenly blocks the way, causing you to fall and miss the bus. At this specific point in time your retroactive evaluation of the event would probably say you had bad luck right? This person was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But what if missing that bus means you would encounter someone you know on the next train, and this encounter would significantly change your life in a positive way? Then suddenly this person blocking the way person might have been at the right place and at the right time too!

The point of the story is that we will never know all the possibilities, mutations and different life paths we can take. But regardless, we should be open to any moment and any synchronicity.

Believe the cosmos is on your side

The previous example captures the unpredictability of the cosmos and it also gives us a clear conceptual definition what it means to go with the flow. It means being open to life's unexpected events, seeing the opportunities that arise on your life path and taking them. It's about trusting your instincts and making sure you are at the right place at the right time yourself.

This way, the cosmos can side with you and respond to your best intentions. This 'unfolding of the story' requires the right daily attitude so you can take full advantage of those moments. Don't fear change of adversity but embrace the possibility of each choice instead. Sky Nelson-Isaacs suggests we can use the LORRAX process to make us go with the flow.

The LORRAX process

The LORRAX process

If we want to embrace these synchronicities in life we have to be able to act on them. Sky Nelson-Isaacs explains that using the LORRAX process for this can help us make sense of life shocks disrupting our emotional state:

The purpose of the LORRAX process is to bring a balance of both receptivity and assertiveness to our decision-making process, or what I think of as a balance of feminine and masculine or yin and yang approaches. It is a dance of aligning with circumstances at the same time as we bring circumstances into alignment with us. We can’t just listen, and we can’t just act. Both are required.

- Nelson-Isaacs, S. (2019). Living in Flow

Determine your own path

Life is like a tree with branches of possibilities. Opportunities will come in which a few purposeful actions can bring you to a different branch of the tree. These are the moments in which you have to realize that you can choose for a new direction. You can change your lifestyle and see where you end up. It all starts with the humbleness that you can determine your own life path.

determine your own path

Change is about accepting possibility instead of fearing it, even though we are blind to the future of possibilities. Instead, learn to listen. As long as you listen, reflect, maintain the right attitude and take bold action - it means you are taking risks, and taking risks can massively pay off.

Ask yourself in moments of a life shock; how can I go with the flow? In times of pressure, regulate your emotions and then look for synchronicities, because they are definitely looking for you.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology. Springer.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., Elliot, A. & Nakamura, J. (2005). Handbook of Competence and Motivation. The Guilford Press.
Nelson-Isaacs, S. (2019). Living in Flow: The Science of Synchronicity and How Your Choices Shape Your World


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