Going with the Flow

On Tuesday, my car got a flat tire. I drove on it for several miles, to the library, to the park, and back home, before I realized it was flat. I’d noticed that the car was hesitating a little more than I was used to, but since the parking break was down, I figured I was just imagining it. It was the strong smell of rubber that I detected while removing my son from his car seat that caused me to look at the tire.

Luckily, the place we got our four new tires last November offers free repairs. After the baby was down for his nap, I called them up and made an appointment for that afternoon, and then began psyching myself up for a trip to the tire place with both children. After a few minutes, I had a Wickedly Indulgent Thought: I would see if the babysitter was available that afternoon.

It was all too easy. Within five minutes, I was set up to have 2 free hours (well, they cost me $10/hour, but I’m willing to pay for freedom).

I left the children eating their snack with the babysitter and headed to have my Mommy Time at the tire place waiting area. Before I had kids, I hated waiting for car repairs. It was so boring and the place always smelled like tires and grease and stale coffee. The bathrooms were always dirty and there was always a TV on with daytime talk shows or some news channel with that incessant crawl that I can’t seem to stop staring at. But the tire place waiting room was like a little slice of heaven. There was no TV and aside from the tire smell, the only potential negative in my environment was the strong smell of alcohol exuding from the woman sitting next to me, and even that was more food for thought than it was an annoyance. And maybe I smelled because she changed seats as soon as another came available.

I read and I took notes and before I knew it, they were calling my name. I wanted to say, “Oh, that’s all right. I’ll just stay here for a little longer, if you don’t mind.” But instead I reluctantly reclaimed my automobile and headed towards home on a plugged and patched tire.

A couple of blocks away I had a second Wickedly Indulgent Thought: I had an hour before I needed to be home and there was a coffee shop right on the way. Without letting myself think too much about it (“…and besides, I’m only 3.5 blocks away from the house…”), I pulled into the coffee shop parking lot. Inside, I took my iced decaf soy latte, boldly sat at a table with a guy I didn’t even know (very European of me, I thought), and began to read a chapter entitled “drudge and flow” in Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (yes, this is another post about Gore’s book. Turns out I really, really liked it).

This chapter is about optimal experience—losing oneself in the balance between challenge and skill. In an interview with Wired magazine, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described optimal experience, what he terms “flow,” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

I noted in my journal that this is how I feel when I write.

Gore goes on to state that “when study subjects are deprived of optimal experience in their day-to-day lives, they get tense and guarded, they report sleep problems, they feel weaker and more irritable, and they have shorter attention spans.”

I noted in my journal that there might be some real benefits to making time to write every day. I had thought it was just a self-indulgent addition to dedicate November to writing, but here science was supporting my decision. But writing doesn’t always feel effortless. Sometimes it’s a real chore, and I’m nowhere near losing track of time while doing it. I wondered, what are the optimal conditions that could ensure (as much as possible) that my daily writing leads to a state of flow?

Apparently flow has five components:

  1. A challenging activity that requires skill. Check. Writing definitely meets that criterion.
  2. Concentration. Yes, this one might give me a little trouble. Gore quotes Adrienne Rich: “Motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible.” I glanced at my watch and my cell phone, wondered how the kids were doing, and went back to reading.
  3. Clear and achievable goals. Check. At least for November I’ve got clear and achievable daily and monthly goals lined up.
  4. The feeling of some level of control over the experience (“facing the truth of our lives and finding freedom within the confines”). Check. I’m pretty much totally in control of my writing. Or I can at least set it up that way.
  5. A break from self-consciousness. Another one that might give me a challenge. But perhaps if I’m quiet enough, I can sneak up and start writing without waking my inner critic. Or find some way to gag the killjoy.

I looked up from my note-taking and realized I’d lost track of time. I waited for my heart to calm again after I checked my watch and realized I still had 15 minutes left to get home. Then I smiled at myself as I realized that–while reading and writing about flow—I had experienced flow. I slurped up the last of my drink through the straw then headed for the car still smiling inwardly, grateful for the screw that had lodged itself in my tire and made it possible for me to have this unexpected little break in the day.

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