How School Stole Your Flow

And how to get it back.

In the Book of Genesis, God condemns Adam and his descendants to a life sentence of hard labor. Previously, Adam and Eve had dwelled in the Garden of Eden, plucking fruit from the Tree of Life and wanting for nothing amid what economists call “super-abundance.”

But with the Fall, humanity was banished from Paradise: cast out into the world of scarcity and profound insecurity. Henceforth, man must toil to extract sustenance from nature. And for this, his reward will be a mere postponement of inevitable death. As God tells Adam:

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

As this Bible verse indicates, work has long been seen as a dreary business, even a curse. This view persists today, even for those who rarely break “the sweat of their brow”: knowledge workers who sit all day at computers in air-conditioned offices. For them, the suffering is more spiritual than bodily. No matter how physically comfortable he is, the Information Age worker is often wracked with chronic boredom and chronic anxiety.

Like Jim Halpert of TV’s The Office, many consider their work to be dull, meaningless, and beneath them, and so they wrestle with profound ennui. Jim copes by tormenting his colleague Dwight with elaborate pranks.

And like Peter Gibbons of the movie Office Space, many find their bosses, coworkers, and work demands to be so agitating as to make them nervous wrecks. In the end, Gibbons embraces Adam-style “sweat of his brow” work as a saving escape from the cubicle life.

Must work really be suffering of one kind or another: soul-crushing, if not back-breaking?

The Magic of Flow

Not according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In a series of books, starting with his 1975 Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, Csikszentmihalyi has shown that people can find joy and even fulfillment in their work if they facilitate “flow,” which he defines as:

…the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”

At the Harvard Health blog, Edward Phillips, M.D. elaborates on the characteristics of flow:

You lose awareness of time. You aren’t watching the clock, and hours can pass like minutes.

You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard, or the way you position a knife to cut vegetables, or the balance of your body parts as you ski or surf.

You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity — mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work, creating tiers of beautiful icing for a cake, or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation.

You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing.

You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless.

You would like to repeat the experience.”

Flow can be so intense as to be trance-like. Such “optimal experiences,” as Csikszentmihalyi also calls them, have been reported by people of all walks of life. Athletes call it being “in the zone.” Writers, artists, and musicians have spoken of being inspired, even possessed, by a “muse” since ancient times. Yet, even more prosaic occupations can be blessed with flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive research documents flow being regularly experienced by people ranging from corporate executives to assembly line workers. And adults reported flow experiences more often at work than at leisure.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, another essential characteristic of flow is that it is “autotelic,” as he explains in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding. Surgeons speak of their work: “It is so enjoyable that I would do it even if I didn’t have to.” Sailors say: “I am spending a lot of money and time on this boat, but it is worth it — nothing quite compares with the feeling I get when I am out sailing.”

The term “autotelic” derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self, and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”

In discussing how flow activities are intrinsically enjoyable, Csikszentmihalyi makes a useful distinction between “enjoyment” and mere “pleasure.” Pleasure is what we feel when we indulge in non-growth-oriented pastimes, like re-watching our favorite movie or compulsively scrolling through Facebook. In contrast:

Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. Playing a close game of tennis that stretches one’s ability is enjoyable, as is reading a book that reveals things in a new light, as is having a conversation that leads us to express ideas we didn’t know we had. Closing a contested business deal, or any piece of work well done, is enjoyable. None of these experiences may be particularly pleasurable at the time they are taking place, but afterward we think back on them and say, “That really was fun” and wish they would happen again. After an enjoyable event we know that we have changed, that our self has grown…”

Such “enjoyment” is a more sustainable and self-perpetuating source of happiness than non-challenging pleasures, because it involves a boost in self-efficacy, which in turn can motivate undertaking further activities that generate enjoyment and flow.

As Csikszentmihalyi explains, flow is the escape route between the Scylla and Charybdis of boredom and anxiety. When our endeavors are too easy — too far beneath our capabilities — we become bored. And when our tasks are too hard to accomplish — when they overwhelm our capacities — we become anxious.

But, when we voluntarily undertake a venture that is surmountable, yet that also challenges us to stretch ourselves to the limits of our abilities, and even to push those limits back, then we experience the thrill of accomplishment and newfound powers. An equipoise and creative tension between challenge and skill is the “sweet spot” where flow can occur. The Harvard blog post cited above includes this useful chart:

As Csikszentmihalyi writes:

Contrary to what we usually believe, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times, although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

More than anything else, children love to play, and a child at play is a child in flow.

A key word here is “voluntary.” Any effort imposed involuntarily by someone else is generally undertaken grudgingly and not enthusiastically, and so is antithetical to flow.

The Tao of Children

To understand how we can increase flow in our lives, it is helpful to consider the time in our lives when we experienced it most frequently: our childhood. More than anything else, children love to play, and a child at play is a child in flow.

Genuine play exhibits all the classic characteristics of flow. For the child at play, time seems to distort, self-consciousness disappears, and attention is absorbed. In play, there is no fretting, reluctance, or inhibition, so the activity feels effortless, even though the player may be putting forth strenuous effort, say, to beat a video game level. A player might even have a pained look on his face as he pushes up against the limits of his current ability, and yet will later report having had the time of his life.

As psychologist Peter Gray wrote in his book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life:

The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of Yes, this is what I want to do right now.”

Play is the definitive “autotelic” activity: appreciated for the experience of the activity itself, as opposed to its output.

And play, like all flow activities, is largely free of boredom and anxiety. This is because the player is free to self-regulate the challenge to match and test her skill level.

Although play is autotelic, it is far from unproductive. As Maria Montessori wrote, “Play is the work of the child,” and what children are working on when they play is the production of their future, more capable selves. In other words, play is fundamentally about learning.

For very young children, play, work, and learning are all one and the same thing. The playing child is working to learn, even if that is not her conscious intention. The child may only be intent on seeking fun, but what she considers “fun” tends to be activities that advance her self-development. Anything else produces either boredom or frustration. This is thanks to the play instinct that all higher mammals have, the function of which is learning for the sake of surviving and thriving. As Gray, whose academic specialty is evolutionary psychology, writes:

From an evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s way of ensuring that children and other young mammals will learn what they must to survive and do well.”

When newborns pump their arms and legs, they are playing with their limbs, and in so doing, working to learn how to operate their bodies. When babies hear adults talking and then babble, they are playing with their voices, and in doing so, working to learn how to eventually speak. As Gray writes:

“Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing.”

And as Csikszentmihalyi writes, all of this play/work/learning is clearly done in a state of flow:

During the first few years of life every child is a little “learning machine” trying out new movements, new words daily. The rapt concentration on the child’s face as she learns each new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is about. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child’s developing self.”

How School Disrupts Flow

Csikszentmihalyi then notes a tragic tendency:

Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because “learning” becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out.”

Dr. Gray would say that he’s onto something. He writes:

Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling.”

It is schooling and adult interference in general that artificially severs and compartmentalizes play, work, and learning, and thereby disrupts flow in the life of the child.

According to the contemporary schooling mindset, play is neither work nor learning. Play is denigrated as a necessary outlet of childish energy at best and a waste of time at worst. Consider how opportunities for free play have dwindled for children. Recess has been cut back and afterschool free time is being displaced by growing homework loads and “overscheduling” in adult-directed extracurricular activities, tutoring, lessons, team sports, etc. As Gray writes, this is devastating for the child’s development:

“Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways. We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability. We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.”

For the school-minded, any activity freely chosen by the child, no matter how growth-inducing, is considered “mere play” in the denigrated sense. An activity is only deemed “work” and “learning” if it is involuntary and assigned by adults.

This trains the child to mentally associate work and learning with compulsion and obligation. Growth-oriented activities are thus drained of all their charm for the child.

With the advent of school, work and learning are no longer playful, self-motivated, and self-directed; instead, it becomes all about pleasing, appeasing, and impressing authority figures: teachers, as well as parents who are now little more than deputy teachers.

This is where the Scylla and Charybdis of chronic boredom and anxiety lurch onto the scene of work and study: boredom, because school assignments are about someone else’s agenda and not the child’s own; anxiety, because the child’s sense of self-efficacy becomes precariously dependent on the often inscrutable and fickle favor of adults. Constantly graded, evaluated, praised, and corrected for their behavior and performance, schoolchildren become neurotic about winning adult validation and/or evading adult censure.

As renowned educator John Holt wrote in How Children Fail:

There are very few children who do not feel, during most of the time they are in school, an amount of fear, anxiety, and tension that most adults would find intolerable. It is no coincidence at all that in many of their worst nightmares adults find themselves back in school. I was a successful student, yet now and then I have such nightmares myself.”

Instead of being drawn into self-development by self-oriented fun and fascination, the child is now prodded into it by other-oriented fear and guilt. This kind of motivation is unsteady, because the child naturally resents and rebels against it.

And it is counterproductive, because the anxiety regularly gets so bad that it triggers a fight-flight-or-freeze response: a mental and spiritual lockdown that precludes all productivity, learning, and growth. A child overwhelmed by homework, cramming for a test, or humiliated in front of the class by being stumped by a teacher’s math question is basically experiencing the same kind of biological reaction as a deer who spots a stalking predator.

Fight-flight-or-freeze reactions have an evolutionary function. But they’re only supposed to be triggered by life-or-death emergencies presented by mortal enemies. They’re not supposed to be constantly triggered by our own elders for the sake of learning. It is the play instinct, not the fight-flight-or-freeze instinct, that has evolved to motivate learning.

By constantly pushing our children’s panic buttons we are only killing their love for work, learning, and growth-oriented play and driving them into neuroticism.

There is little enjoyment or engagement in doing work against your will.

Worst of all, the child internalizes this tyranny. The echoes of the judgments of her teachers and parents merge and form the voice of her “inner critic” — what Freud called the “superego” — which may haunt her the rest of her life. The judgment of this inner critic can be just as withering, debilitating, and “lockdown”-inducing as that of any real-life censor.

Even “free time” becomes corrupted by the school-imposed framework. Growth-oriented play starts to seem too much like school, and so play tends to degrade into “leisure” pastimes like passively consuming media. “Enjoyment” disappears from life, with only fleeting “pleasure” left to ameliorate the daily grind.

Flow cannot happen under such conditions. There is little enjoyment or engagement in doing work against your will. Involuntary laborers are always watching the clock. Self-consciousness can never disappear when you are apprehensive about outer judges and inner critics. Far from being focused and absorbed, your mind tends to wander and seek refuge in distraction from tasks performed grudgingly. School’s constant rotation of activities for the sake of “well-roundedness” is also antithetical to focus and absorption. And without concentration and immersion, activities can never start really “clicking.”

School-generated neuroticism follows the child into adulthood and distorts his attitude toward work, learning, and play. He is unable to adopt a playful approach to his work, he studiously avoids study — rarely ever reading another book after graduation — and his “play” is largely limited to the couch-potato variety. His life is starved of true enjoyment and flow.

Moreover, thoroughly schooled adults tend to view bosses and other adult relationships through the same prism of resentment, anxiety, and dependence as their childhood authority figures. School-minded bosses see this as their role as well. This, combined with the continued nagging of the inner critic, makes the modern adult feel perpetually harried. 

Fight-flight-or-freeze responses continue to be a regular part of life throughout adulthood. But the human body and mind are not equipped to handle such constant infusions of the stress hormone cortisol, which again is only meant for emergencies. So chronic stress will eventually break one’s physical health as well as his mental health.

This is not the way it has to be. This is not the unavoidable “human condition” in a fallen world. When children are unschooled, work, learning, and play are never sundered. As Gray’s work has indicated, unschooled children tend to immerse themselves in a passion or a succession of passions. They revel in growing mastery and eventually become enamored with translating their mastery into self-support and independence. They seamlessly transition from non-remunerative play/work/learning into remunerative play/work/learning. As adults, they regularly find joy in their work, they never stop learning, and they never stop partaking in growth-inducing play. And they’re not wracked by chronic boredom and anxiety.

Deschool through Deep Work

Even if you weren’t unschooled, you can still rediscover your flow by deschooling yourself, which entails reuniting work, learning, and play.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is embracing what author Cal Newport calls “deep work.” As Newport is quoted in Entrepreneur.com:

Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” he says. “You work on it as hard as your brain is capable for an extended amount of time without any distractions.” Working on something while in “deep work” mode will produce much better results than working with distracted, fragmented attention — what most of us do every day. “Most people don’t go five or ten minutes without glancing at their phone or inbox,” says Newport.

Newport argues that deep work is the most valuable kind of work, because:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Deep work is an effective deschooling exercise, because if you immerse yourself in a challenging task for long enough, boredom and reluctance diminish, your inner critic becomes quieter, your anxiety about outer judges subsides, and your self-consciousness recedes. As you get into it, the activity becomes more autotelic and enjoyable, and feels less like a boring and/or stressful obligation. You are more able to focus on the craft itself, revel in increasing mastery, and enjoy the pursuit of excellence.

The deeper you work, the more you learn. And, paradoxically, the deeper you work, the more it feels like play. As computer scientist Seb Paquet has said (paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke), “Any sufficiently advanced kind of work is indistinguishable from play.”

Eventually, deep work will pull you into a flow state. Moreover, the deeper you work, the more value you will produce, and as a result, the more opportunities you will be offered for flow-friendly work.

Here are some tips for engaging in deep work and finding your flow:

  • Focus entirely on one challenging task. Refrain from multitasking. This means not indulging in the constant “quick checks” of social media, email, etc. that have become a way of life for so many.
  • Block out distractions. Find a sanctuary of solitude where you won’t be interrupted or tempted into diversion. Set your devices to “do not disturb.” Quit all extraneous applications and set your primary work application to “full screen.” Even turn off the lights if you need to.
  • Work on the challenging task for an extended period of time. If necessary, start with baby steps and ramp up. Do ever-increasing intervals of concentrated work separated by short breaks. Start with a 15-minute interval, and then double your time with every subsequent interval. If possible, try to ramp up to 2-4 hours of concentrated work. As you build your concentration muscle, eventually that will be more than enough time to achieve a flow state.

By the way, after a period of writer’s block, this “ramped up interval” method worked like a charm for me, and helped me enter multiple flow states while I wrote this complex, ambitious essay coherently interweaving the key lessons of three different books of seemingly divergent topics. And, as difficult as it was (at times, even painful), writing it has been by far the most enjoyable, edifying, fulfilling, and thrilling highlight of my week.

It is an accident of history that the rise of markets and high technology liberated much of humanity from back-breaking hard labor just as the rise of mass schooling yoked us with soul-crushing neuroticism toward work, learning, and play. But if we deschool ourselves and unschool our children, then work need not be a curse, but can be a joyful, flow-filled blessing.

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