Can Flow be a worthwhile goal?

People all over the world report being frustrated with their job. In this report about the office workers in UK, 97% of people reported frustration with work. When you ask people why they continue to work in the job that cause them being frustrated, the most common reason is that of money and security. In the modern times, the predominant goal for people has become money and the related security that it brings. Is there a way to explore doing more interesting work keeping in consideration this constraint of money?

Let us first understand what are we getting in the bargain when we give up the pursuit of money and the related security. Most people choose these as goals because they can not think of anything else as a replacement. To understand what could be a potential replacement, we can look at the resultant issue that we pointed out in the beginning of this article. If job frustration is something that we want to avoid, we have to understand the opposite emotion to frustration.

If we look at job frustration from a closer distance, it is the emotion that is caused by lack of engagement with work. When you try to engage with work and do not find it interesting for many reasons, you can not get completely engrossed in the work. The lack engagement or engrossment switches the mind on and off - we are entering a region of speculation here - and the cost of switching on the brain causes what we call as frustration.

So what would be opposite to that phenomenon? We do not have to speculate here fortunately. It is a well studied psychological phenomenon, known as "Flow". Flow is a state of the mind when the mind is completely engrossed in an activity. Try and remember watching a movie and you can not hear what your friend said. It is because you are so focused and so engrossed that your listening to anything else is switched off. In the flow state, you literally forget yourself and become one with a task. It is found by many researchers that flow is associated with many positive things about emotional and physical well being. You can read the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for more details about this phenomenon.

So, there indeed is one candidate for replacing money. Replacement for seeking money is seeking the state of flow in your work. It is what Warren Buffett talks about when he talks about "Tap Dancing to Work". It is a state of your minute to minute engagement with the work at hand. It is what you do every moment. Most of the happiness research tracks this state of mind of an individual to give idea of his or her overall well being. Flow does seem like a worthwhile goal for an individual.

How to seek jobs that can give you flow is a harder question. There are many jobs that can inherently conducive for flow. Programming, writing, painting, research, reading are some of the obvious candidates. Jobs that have frequent interruptions may seem to be the ones without the possibility of a flow. Jobs like sales, customer service, accounting can seem like ones that may not have flow since they may require attention switching. If you look at them closely, even they would have their opportunities of getting into a flow state. A sales person can completely focus on the conversation with one customer. She can focus while researching about the ways to pitch the product to that customer. There are many opportunities in a job to get into the flow that one seeks.

It also becomes clear from the above thought process that one can combine the goal of earning a decent living with the goal of getting into a flow state more often in a job. It may not be a natural thing for one to do and hence one may have to strive initially to get into such a state, but it would become habitual later once one is used to it. Being in such a job where you are in a flow state for longer periods of time would also have many positive effects for your health and wellbeing. That would in turn bring down your illnesses and your health in the older age, something that a lot of people are worried about when they think of retirement.

A life with flow is certainly a better life if you can manage the constraints of earning a decent amount of money and managing your time. It makes every day worth looking forward to. It is not an either/or when you think of flow with a job. One has to be intentional while planning the whole journey and iterate multiple times to get the overall rhythm right. If you do, you would be "tap dancing" to work. As you get more comfortable with the monetary constraints, either by saving a lot or by reducing your necessities, you can get into the areas that you thought were unviable due to lack of money in those areas, but had a higher chance of flow. As an example, if you liked traveling or researching aliens, but did not do it because you did not have money, you could try it now. As your life shifts more to activities that maximize flow, and earn the requisite income, you would be more motivated, and more ready to try more such activities. It would be a virtuous circle of getting more and more flow in your activities and getting rid of things that you do not like to do because they do not give you that focused concentration and the pleasure one gets in doing activities that earn you that flow.

Just as closing remarks, most successful people enjoy what they do, but also understand that they can not just engage in activities for the sake of enjoyment. They have to do some complementary activities that may not be enjoyable. Over a period of time some choose to go the money/fame path, some go the "Maximize the flow" path. It is a choice, and one does not have to make it in a day. You make the choice over a period of time, intentionally.

All the best in building a life full of interesting activities.