Being in the moment & flow

Have you ever looked up and taken notice of the people in a gym? How many people look distracted when they are there? Their minds somewhere else, trying to ignore the mindless and unending treadmill or elliptical work in front of them. Distractions are abound; TVs , magazines, books, and audio pumping into the ear drums. Do you think these people have purpose? Do you think they are working on something that is giving them happiness? I doubt it, and I fundamentally believe that the main thing that proper training does is give you a period in your day for involvement, not distraction.

Recently I listened to part of Matt Killingsworth’s talk about Happiness (Distraction: Are we happier when we stay in the moment?). By-the-way if you aren’t listening to NPRs Ted Radio Hour you are missing out. The TED talk is linked below:

Near the end of the talk he summarizes that his findings showed that involvement in your task is the largest correlate to happiness.  This is counter-intuitive to the thought that distraction from unpleasant tasks such as commuting, desk work, and working-out is beneficial.  He has found that even if people state the task they are doing isn’t very enjoyable, and they don’t want to be doing it, that they are happier if they are involved and conscious of their task.  On the flip-side, if they are distracted and putting their attention elsewhere, even when the subject matter is positive it does not elicit a “happy” emotion.

This notion of staying within the moment and the task at hand reminded me of a theory of “Flow”.  The theory was developed by a Hungarian Psychologist, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi.  All references to his work are paraphrased from the following book:

Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press

Per Csikzentmihalyi, Flow occurs when you were “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”.  Think of phrases such as “in the moment”, “looks effortless”, “in the zone”, “on a roll”, and “in the groove”.  It is a moment that takes you over and you are hyper aware.

Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.

Remember our post from last week talking about “A Why –”?  The reason for what you are doing needs to drive all work.  We won’t delve into this topic further; it just supports that without “A Why” you will always be lost.

The second two points play off of each other.  If your task gives you immediate feedback it will allow you to perceive whether the task at hand is doable, with your current skill set.  This is where the key to involvement comes in.  In all skilled athletic endeavors the individual “practices” by putting themselves in environments where they have a positive feedback loop and they can push towards more complicated/challenging movement.  This feedback loop is crucial to the proper development of the individual.  If your task doesn’t allow you to judge whether you are improving or not, it will leave the athlete anxious, worried, or apathetic.  Lets think, can you have a situation were you are getting immediate feedback without attention to what you are doing?  I would say no.

If the task allows for immediate feedback, and the individual is working within their current skill set they will feel in control.  Once we push the athlete to work in a challenging setting that pushes them towards the outer-limits of their abilities they will feel attentive and aroused.   Eventually when they are skilled enough, they will have the chance to slip into “Flow”.  This happens only when the task is difficult, and the individual is hyper aware of the task at hand.

That is not to say that only top level athletes or skilled artisans experience flow.  We all can work at the outer extremities of our abilities.  A task that may be easy for one, can be very difficult for another.  So, as long as you are working on the edges of your abilities in an environment that gives you immediate feedback, and you have “A why” you can experience flow.  Hopefully we all have experienced this feeling at multiple points in our lives.  It is VERY addicting.  For athletic endeavors it is the moment when your movement feels “right”.  When you are less skilled you can hit moments of flow more often because your are expanding your skill set at a much higher rate.   But the moments of flow are very short and fleeting.  As you get more experienced the time period between each moment of flow increases, but once you attain the feeling they last longer and longer.

To help conceptualize when certain emotions are felt during challenging and skillful work please see the chart below from Csikzentmihalyi’s book:

So, how does this pertain to our training?  We need to push the individual to be conscious of all their movement.  Besides for the obvious health/orthopedic benefits of trying to have more quality time in proper movement patterns, this requirement for attention self-motivates the athlete in the long run.  The complexity requires attention. This attention then allows for improvement at a higher rate, which then allows for awareness of the improvement. The awareness provides for a positive feedback loop and it leaves the individual wanting to drive more attention to their task.

Flow is addicting.  It can be fleeting but we strive to get back to that moment over and over again.  Without attention and care towards your movements you are just there for external factors.  You are one of those mindless drowns that moves without knowing how it feels to break the habitual indifference of a day.

Many times the hour we have in the gym can be the only time in the day we break from constant distractions. We can actually dedicate ourselves to improvement and filter out all the outside noise to do something simple, beautiful, and fucking hard.  We love to work hard.  Hard work, performed with a reason and with attention not only improves your physical well-being but transcends to your mental well being.

“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” – Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism

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  • John Donne – Meditation 17

    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee...

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