The Paradox of Flow

The Polymath's Pill (11/05/2020) by Project Impero — Pill #5

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke


Have I?

In 1686, a man named Humphrey found himself struggling to fall asleep. He was secretary to a well-known scientist of the time; for many years, they regularly performed alchemical experiments in the hopes of creating the elixir of immortality or the philosopher’s stone, a magical element capable of turning base metals into gold.

But this weekly ritual had come to a halt. Recently, his friend had started acting quite erratically, as if possessed by an idea; he would not work on anything else —let alone with anyone else— and was barely eating or sleeping at all. Worryingly, Humphrey tells us about this period in his journal:

“He is so serious upon his studies; I go into his chamber, find him surrounded by a mess of papers, remind him he has forgotten to eat, and he replies: 'Have I?' Then when he takes a walk in the garden, he often makes a sudden turn, runs up the stairs, and starts writing without giving himself the pleasure to sit down on a chair.”

What Humphrey didn’t know back then was that his boss had been busy producing one of the most important works in the history of science. As it turns out, Humphrey was secretary to none other than Isaac Newton, the genius who, for almost two years, locked himself and and wrote Principia Mathematica, a scientific masterpiece in which he put forth his famous law of universal gravitation.

That’s why Isaac Newton put all alchemy work aside: he had already found the elixir of immortality — indeed, it was the greatness of his work that would render him eternal.

Shut The Hell Up

Okay, maybe you haven’t discovered gravity, but I’m sure you’ve also had this feeling of losing yourself in your work before. Maybe you were jogging, public speaking, or rushing through a project right before the deadline. The point is, if you’ve experienced it, you’ve been witness to one of the major secrets to living a beautiful life.

When he wasn’t busy spelling his name, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi spent years researching a phenomenon he called Flow. When in Flow, people become so involved in their tasks that they forget about everything else. He found out our nervous systems can only process so much information (~110 bits/s), so when a task requires all of our attention, our other physical senses —like hunger or tiredness— are put on “pause”.

Time and time again, Flow has been proven to induce a profound sense of happiness and satisfaction in those who just experienced it. Even more, it’s been shown that those who spend more time in the “flow state” develop better concentration, self-esteem, and even greater health (1, 2, 3).

If you think about it, Flow is kinda paradoxical. On the one hand, you become intensely aware of the present moment. On the other, your existence suspends itself as if you weren’t there at all. A psychologist would call this ‘full awareness without conceptual thinking’. A neuroscientist, ‘a sudden decrease in your brain’s Default Mode Network activity’. In any case, they both mean basically the same: the little voice inside your head finally shuts up.

I’m convinced that the experience of Flow goes way beyond lab coats. In my eyes, it’s the perfect fusion between our Apollonian and Dionysian forces, and the key to individual apotheosis, the elevation of the self to godlike stature… but that’s a story for a different day. For now, let me give you some basic tips on how to achieve high-quality Flow often.

Five Rules To Flow

Give a damn. It’s infinitely easier to enter the flow state when we engage in tasks that are autotelic (autós = self, télos = purpose), meaning, that motivate us intrinsically, rather than with external rewards. This is why artists and athletes are particularly prone to entering flow: even if fame, power, or money didn’t exist, they would still paint, they would still write, and they would still train their hearts out.

Stretch it. The task at hand has to be challenging, but not too challenging — just a little more than you’re comfortable with (some research estimates 4% harder is the optimal point). The most rewarding episodes of Flow are those in which you were put to the limit and managed to produce some of your best work as a result... not when you were watching TV. If you don’t know how to implement this, start by setting a strict time limit on your work (see Parkinson’s Law).

Disconnect. It takes quite a bit of effort and “warming up” to achieve flow, but just a tiny distraction to lose it. There’s a reason why so many people get their most productive work early in the morning or really late at night. If you want to perform genuinely deep work, your phone should be off, headphones on and the door shut. Also, you shouldn’t be hungry nor physically uncomfortable when starting up.

Calm down. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the little voice inside your head won’t leave you alone. In these cases —assuming there’s nothing you genuinely need to attend to— some of the most effective things to do are to either go for a walk, get a workout in, write some Mourning Pages (see section VI) or do some boxed breathing for about 5 minutes.

Pop it. Once you get good at Flow, consider adding some caffeine and l-theanine into the mix. Caffeine (the most famous drug in the world) wires you up, whereas l-theanine (an amino acid found in tea leaves) calms you down. When you combine them, they work synergistically and will help narrow down your focus, as opposed to just feeling overactive and jittery. It works wonderfully.


The most creative and intense moments of your life take place without your conscious attention. Contrary to what many people believe, a beautiful life is not one full of passive and relaxing moments, but one designed to help you voluntarily face your limits and feel belittled by the tasks it bestows upon you.


As always, thank you all for being here,
Santiago

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