In my writing summer class, we are beginning the Emotional Intelligence (EI) Unit. I love this subject. So many conflicts among groups could be avoided if we all just had a bit more EI. One of my favorite aspects of this subject (and there are so many awesome ones, it is difficult to choose a favorite!) is flow.
What is flow? My beloved Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary defines flow as “an easy smooth and uninterrupted progress or movement” in thought, ideas, or rhythm. My own personal definition is that flow is happening when everything is going smoothly and effortless. In writing, flow happens when the ideas stream forth, and the words seem to almost form themselves. In the classroom, flow happens when the students are engaged and understand the topic while enjoying the process. I strive to have flow. I absolutely love flow!
Unfortunately, flow doesn’t happen without extreme effort. Moreover, sometimes, no matter how much time and energy we put into a task, there is just no flow! Those times can be particularly frustrating. Once you know what flow feels like and the productivity and excellence it can generate, it is super difficult to settle for less.
So, how do we create flow and how do we handle it when flow just doesn’t occur?
Like so many other things, there is a formula for flow. Here it is: when a person’s skill level is equal to or slightly below the attempted task, flow can occur.
FLOW = SKILL LEVEL AND TASK LEVEL ARE EQUAL OR COMPATIBLE.
No, not so much. Skill level varies from individual to individual and even within one individual performing different tasks.
Take me for example. Since as I teacher I create all kinds of curriculum handouts and such, I am pretty good with MS Word. Moreover, I’m a writer and self-publisher too, so I know quite a few tricks. My skill level is up to most tasks. When I’m writing in word, I’m usually flowing along. But not always. As I progress in my activities, I raise the bar and try new things. Then, my skill level is no longer equal to the task; I am below level. When this happens, I get frustrated and anxious. There’s a formula for that too.
When a person’s skill level is lower than the attempted task, frustration and anxiety can occur. The further the distance between the two, the more frustration that will occur.
FRUSTRATION = SKILL LEVEL IS BELOW THE TASK LEVEL
Well, then, why push it? Once you find your flow, why not just stay there and merrily flow through all the tasks? Good question. Once you find your flow, you feel great. Everything you are doing goes well. It’s like you are on the top of the world! So, why not just stay there forever?
Boredom is why. Yes, you can actually get bored with the flow. Hard to imagine, I know, but it’s true. When a person’s skill level is higher than the attempted task, boredom occurs.
BOREDOM = SKILL LEVEL IS ABOVE THE TASK LEVEL
The more time you spend at a particular level, the more your skill develops through repetition and effort. Your skill level grows and grows, but the task stays the time. Sooner or later, you will outgrow the task and encounter boredom.
Let’s look back to my example. Simply creating resources for my classes and running a website used to be fun! It used to get me in FLOW. But, over time, I got better and better. The tasks got easier and easier; boredom set in. Teaching alone wasn’t fun anymore.
So what did I do? What do you do once you get good at something and start to get bored? Attempt a harder task, which then, of course, results in FRUSTRATION until you reach the FLOW, that will eventually become boredom and then whole circle repeats.
It’s an endless cycle as we search for that amazing feeling, that sweet spot we call FLOW.
Let’s look at the cycle in action.
Here’s a real-life example of the flow cycle.
I’ve been working on my latest book, Editing Academic Texts Verb Form, for about 18 months now. Because I have been teaching grammar, writing, and editing for since 1999, knowing what I wanted to say at first was easy. I was smack dab in the middle of FLOW. Ooooo, how I love to FLOW!
Even when I was blocking out the chapters and deciding how to organize the material while talking students, I was still in FLOW. It was difficult, of course, but manageable.
Eventually, I hit the wall of FRUSTRATION in the nitty-gritty aspects of formatting. I seriously seriously hate formatting page numbers. I make so many mistakes. The stupid numbers give me nightmares. My personal skill level in managing anything to do with numbers is lower than low. So, for the last few weeks, my FRUSTRATION level has been ginormous! But, I knew it would not last. I have techniques to get through that period and slowly move back to FLOW by learning something new and increasing my skill level to meet the task. And then it happened. Wednesday night at 11:32 pm (way past my normal bed-time), it all came together. All the videos I’d watched, the help pages I’d read, the examples from Eric and Joe I’d looked at- it all came together. I got it. My skill level jumped. I did it! Ahhhhhh, once again, the FLOW.
Have I mentioned how much I love FLOW?
Now, all the tiny little details are being resolved, and I’m getting bored. I’m rather sick of this book, this project. It’s been 18 months after all. I’m not quite all the way to BOREDOM, but I can see it up ahead. I’m planning to enjoy my FLOW for a bit longer, get the book out for the fall semester, and then dive into the next book, Editing Academic Texts Verb Form. As I do so, I know I’ll cycle through all three stages again and again, but I will definitely enjoy the FLOW as long as I can.
What tasks are you trying in your life right now? Are you experiencing FRUSTRATION, FLOW, or BOREDOM? Keep in mind that none of the stages last.