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Flow. What is it and how do you find it?

"I kind of entered a flow state. I’ve been there before while climbing. You are not thinking ahead. You are just thinking about what is in front of you each second" - Aron Ralston

Aron might not know his name, but you may remember him as the guy who had to cut off his own arm to free himself from a fallen boulder whilst rock climbing in the Grand Canyon. An incredible story of resilience and survival. But today I’m talking about that flow state.

The other morning I ran across the road, dodging a tram (also known as the ‘ding ding’ in Hong Kong), I had just finished a coaching session with a client and I pulled out my phone to wrote this note to myself - 'When I’m coaching it feels like the universe stops around us and nothing else exists but me and my client. I have found my flow’.

What is flow anyway?

In my corporate job, a few years ago, I attended a seminar on ‘flow’. I remember being interested but found it hard to picture to imagine what it must feel like. Looking back, I was in my flow state then if I was either facilitating training or deep into designing a training program. I wasn’t distracted. Ideas would come more freely and I didn’t want to stop working on it or I wasn't thinking about much else at that time. But inevitably in the corporate world you can only work that way for so long before you get pulled away to a meeting or distracted by a phone call, a colleague or client.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian Psychologist that created or named the concept of flow, says in his work; Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow – described as ‘a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter’.

I would also describe it as passion, purpose, being present, stillness, listening, expanding.

Focus, Focus, Focus

I used to find it hard to stay focused. I still do. I have a serious case of ‘social excitement’. I like to be with people, I like to chat, problem solve together and learn from others. I like change and let’s face it, I like distractions. When I was working in the finance industry, I was pretty stressed most of the time, and like most of us, had a never ending list of tasks, projects and meetings. Distractions were sometimes welcomed because it took me away from stuff I didn’t really want to do and it gave variety. In today’s world its easy to be distracted. Technology, information, news, learning, friends, family are literally at our finger tips. Life is busy. Most of the time we are worrying about something in the future or over analysing about things that have happened in the past. Flow is about being in the present.

What does it feel like?

When I’m coaching with a client, it feels energising but peaceful, moving but still, slow and fast all at the same time. I’m not thinking about the past, the future, myself or what’s going on around us. Just listening, really listening, to the person in front of me. I’m not thinking about my phone, my emails, my calendar, my budget, my next meeting or my To Do list.

What doesn't it feel like?

I spent 11 plus years working in the finance industry; I attended, led and sat through a LOT of meetings. I’d often get distracted. I would be thinking about the next meeting in my diary, wondering when I was going to get my next coffee (or scolding myself for having too much already). Physically, usually I wouldn’t be able to sit still. Constantly moving, and shifting around in my seat. Fiddling with a pen. Wondering how I was coming across in to others in the room.

I'm enjoying the discovery of finding my flow but I had to do some things and change some habits to get there:

Here are 5 things that helped me:

1. Practice being still

Moving a lot or fidgeting can be down to many things, but often it is an outer reflection of what’s going on in our mind. Practicing yoga has made me more aware of and connected to my body, allowing me to be more centred and more still. Yoga has taught me about discipline, patience, slowing down, not rushing through something, using my body to calm my mind and that creating space in the body creates space in the mind. It doesn’t have to be yoga. Other forms of movement that create the same awareness and connection to your body are Qi-Gong, Tai Chi, Pilates, Dance, Martial arts like Judo, Capoeira, Karate, Kung Fu.

2. Meditate on it

I had never meditated before I started yoga, it crept up on me without me realising. The thought of it used to freak me out a bit. I didn’t want to ‘let go’ and the thought of sitting still and closing my eyes meant I was losing an element of control and wasting time that I could be using for something else. But it's made me more aware of my thoughts, helped me develop more inner-confidence, be calmer, more resilient and learn to trust my intuition, and, actually be more productive but in a healthier way. If you are starting out or need some help with a guided meditation; try a group meditation, there are usually groups running in yoga studios, health centres, etc. and quite often are free to join. iPhone apps are amazing. I use Headspace and Buddhify regularly. A friend of mine listens to podcasts on Spotify on her way to work.

3. Breathe

So simple yet so effective. Pause where ever you are; take a few deep inhales and long exhales. When we are rushing around from one meeting or appointment to the next; just putting both feet on the ground, your hand on your stomach and taking 3 deep breaths, feeling it in your belly, can do wonders.

It immediately reconnects your mind and body, regulates your systems and brings you back to to the present.

4. Write it down

I’ve always loved writing but used to hate reading back what I had wrote so tended to avoid it. When I started to burn out, I knew I needed to change something. I had so much on my mind that I needed to express it and make meaning of it somehow. I had a small notebook and when I had a few minutes I would just write down how I was feeling and questions I wanted to ask myself. I also read loads of articles that prompted my thinking. Try 27 questions to ignite your spark or 21 questions to help you uncover your passion.

5. Create space for yourself

It's hard to do get a sense of clarity or flow when you’re trying to multi-task, have too much on your mind, are constantly tired and low in energy. Creating space allows you to slow down, gives you space to think, to make decisions from the heart and not just knee-jerk reactions. This can mean carving out 10-20 minutes in the morning before work to enjoy making and drinking a cup of tea or coffee, read an interesting article on your lunch break, do a 5 minute meditation, listen to a podcast. When talking about his morning routine in a recent interview with Oprah, Tony Robbins said ‘if you haven’t got 10 minutes you haven’t got a life’.

It can also be taking a walk outside on your lunch break (without your phone - tricky but doable) or eating lunch without looking at Facebook. And if you can; take a weekend break, go on holiday by yourself, take a day out just to do some of the steps above or go on a retreat. We tend to think that retreats are a bit self-indulgent but creating space for yourself allows you to reflect, recharge and reconnect so you can go back out into the world and be a better leader/parent/wife/husband. I went to this yoga retreat for a week last year and it was the first time I had a been on a holiday on my own. I had the comfort of being part of an organised retreat but had lots of time by myself to think, write, meditate, appreciate nature.

What is flow to you? Have you found it? How does it feel and how did you get there?

If you are looking to find your flow and want to create space for yourself, join me for the Instant Pause in Hong Kong on December 3.

One day that makes a big impact.

Click here for more information on the Instant Pause.

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