I said previously that flow happens in stillness. And this is true.
Also true is that we can be in a flow state while moving.
An athlete on her game can be in flow state, and she is definitely not sitting still while playing. A musician can be in flow state. Same with a painter or a dentist or a hairdresser. Anyone doing any type of activity can be doing it in a flow state.
It seems to be a contradiction, but it’s not.
I’ll explain why in this article.
Obstacles to Flow State
One of the biggest obstacles to flow state are self-judgment and self-criticism. (Yes, technically 2 different things, but they often come together.)
There are two major ways we engage in the self-judgment and self-criticism that block our flow. One is obvious, and the other is a common practice done in the name of “productivity.”
This one’s pretty obvious. You know when you’re engaging in critical self-talk. Of course, nobody starts out life by engaging in self-judgment or self-criticism. We learn these ways of “disciplining” or “motivating” ourselves from the people who had influence over us when we were young: parents, teachers, mentors. If you received a lot of criticism growing up — for example, always told what you did wrong or what you need to do better for next time — that’s likely the way you speak to yourself now.
Of course, nobody starts out life by engaging in self-judgment or self-criticism. We learn these ways of “disciplining” or “motivating” ourselves from the people who had influence over us when we were young: parents, teachers, mentors.
The second way is tracking or recording what you do, and the details around it, like the time you start and finish, and hwat you did. This is something many high-achievers do in the interest of “measuring” so we can “manage” things better. It feels productive.
I confess that this is something I’ve done for years. When I first developed my morning fitness ritual, I began to record what time I woke up and what time I left my apartment for the gym. I then began to record what time I started and ended my workouts. And I carried this into the rest of my my day.
The tricky thing here is that there is some value in this practice — it you keep track of how long things take you, then you can plan better, because you know how long they take you.
I’m slowly working to wean myself of this habit of tracking and recording every moment of my day, because I’ve realized how much it traps me in the judgment mind.
I also noticed, over 6 years of extensive journaling and tracking of my activities, that the times I was in flow I did not engage in these rigorous tracking activities.
How Judgment and Criticism Block Flow
Previously I shared that to get into a flow state we need to feel rooted and have a sense of safety. Nothing here contradicts that.
Judgment and criticism interfere with our sense of safety, even when self-inflicted.
By the way, if you’re wondering whether this might contradict the advice to engage in meaningful reflection, it doesn’t. It’s one thing to reflect after you finish a project and consider what went well and where you can improve; it’s another thing to be criticizing yourself mid-task.
It’s the mid-process criticism and judgment that pulls us out of flow. Whether at the hands of self or others, this habit works against flow.
Time tracking and recording is a subversive form of self-judgment, because it sets you up for comparison to your ideal, or to your past self, which invites self-judgment and criticism.
I started to notice, for example, that if I was “off my times” I’d get angry at myself for missing my mark or “falling behind schedule.” Even if I didn’t explicitly comment to myself about this, marking the time invited self-judgment and criticism at a later date.
I realized I was measuring myself against where I believe I should be, or where I want to be. I’d leave no room for compassion, no space to just be where I was.
I was making myself wrong. And this is an invitation to self-doubt. It erodes self-trust. Watch someone in a flow state. Notice that you won’t observe any self-doubt.
Judgment and criticism are mind activities we engage in as a way to escape feeling our fears, either about the thing we’re doing or about something else.
Flow Requires Stillness, Even if You’re Moving
The critical thing you notice about flow states is that when you’re in them is that you’re not in your mind.
(In fact, you don’t even notice that when you’re in it, because the moment you notice it, you’re in your mind. More likely, you observe it after the fact.)
Flow states do not arise from the mind.
When you’re in flow state, you’re in the zone.
And when you’re in the zone, you’re also out of your mind. You’re in the present moment.
As water flows in a river, it isn’t pausing to look back at where it got caught up or what happened upstream or what might happen downstream. It just is where it is. It flows.
But even if you’re moving, there’s still stillness.
Flow happens when the mind is still.