Getting Jazzed for Real

When the work is just right. I’m jazzed. I’m thinking large, with focus, fluency, and flexibility. I lose all track of time. I lose myself in what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter who’s around — thinking and working is fun. If I’m writing, I tear through the pages with rhythm that makes music in my head. The force is with me.

That’s called flow. It’s the feeling of optimal experience.

Almost everyone has been there.

What most people don’t know is that it’s been studied and, if you understand it, you can make it happen more often. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has worked decades on the psychology of happiness, creativity, and fun, but he is most known for his study of flow, optimal experience.

Wikipedia says this about Dr. C’s work.

. . . [in] Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow—a Zen-like state of total oneness with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi . . . described 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. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

In the groove, in the zone, time slips away; action follows action naturally. It’s as if what we do is what was meant to be. It’s exhilarating.

Did you ever notice that you get in the zone when you’re perfectly prepared for a task — one you’ve been waiting for? When it’s “bring it on” kind of task, you’re likely to jump into a flow state.

Flow happens when your skills are matched to the challenge before you. If the task is too easy, you’ll be bored. If it’s too hard, you’ll have anxiety.

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Match your talents with your challenge and you’re more likely to be in a flow state.

Some folks also believe that mindfulness meditation, yoga, and martial arts seem to improve a person’s capacity for flow.

Flow is an amazing feeling. Optimal experience. I was having one when I wrote this. Now you know what I mean when I say I’m jazzed. Really.

Wanna jam on an idea or two?

Liz Strauss writes at Successful Blog — where she’s often jazzed about writing and thinking curious thoughts.

View Comments (10)
  • Wow, freaky. I was only listening to a podcast the other day that had a section on flow. I thought it was a great concept and you have just reinforced my impression from the first time around.

  • Ok, lets jam Liz

    When it hard too hard? ‘Flow’ needs a bit of a challenge, doesn’t it?

    Feeling you are getting there; yes I’ll get there, although it’s harder than what I normally do (= boring = no flow) and in the process of succeeding this harder task I enjoy myself so much ‘flow’ follows me till the task/challenge is finished (and beyond even).

    So, when is hard too hard?

  • Hi Kerry!
    Do read the book — the old fat, on the new one written for the mass market, self-help group. It’s really fascinating. I’ve read all of his books. Flow and Creativity are the two I recommend most. :)

  • Hi Karin!
    Yeah, jamming with you would be fun!
    Hard is too hard when it puts you a on a learning curve that is too steep for the skill set you have. Your focus shifts from the task you are doing to what it takes to lear it. For example, you can’t get into flow riding a bike, if you’re focused on the valiant attmept to keep the bike balanced as you pedal.

    Kicking normal work up a notch, by chaning the timing or adding a new dimension can freshing the challenge and make it exciting again. Normal work is also a good reason to develop a “push the easiest work you have down one level” model of getting work done, because as you improve the person below you takes on the new challenge so each of you has the renewed opportunity to read the flow state again.

  • Hi Liz

    Sorry, the email notification somehow must have gotten ‘jammed’ ;-) (i.e. didn’t receive them, so ‘late as usual).

    Too steep, that’s the right word IMHO. It does need to ‘rise’ a bit, not too flat though. Strange analogy really: flow – speed? – normally comes when the ‘road’ goes down, but in this case the ‘road’ should go up.

    You do need to feel the rise ‘kicking’ in your legs (every tried to cycle up a hill, then you know what I mean).

  • Hi Karin!
    The steep learning curve gets in the way of flow, you are so right on that one. Cycling is a fine analogy. When I get a rhythm going, I can actually feel I become part of the movement of the machine. :)

  • Great post. I’m really into this idea of Flow. Im both a musician and runner. Sports people call it The Zone but its the same experience. Ive read quite a bit of Dr C’s work on Flow and creativity. I can also recommend a book call ‘Zone Mind, Zone Body’ by Roy Palmer. Although its related to sport I found many practical techniques that help with my music. Very practical and readable.

  • When is hard too hard?

    Sometimes non-zoneness isn’t telling you that you’ve taken on too much, but your simply not good at doing that. In managing people, most managers take the tact of trying to improve their employees’ weaknesses. The best ones, however, (well, I hope they are the best ones), challenge the employees, but focus on dividing up the work to play to people’s strengths. Workers=happy, sucessful, and in the zone.

    This can apply to blogging/writing too. If there’s a block, then maybe you shouldn’t try to force it at all (okay some days there’s no good material and you have to make do). I suggest collecting a couple of weeks worth of stuff and noting whether you felt great writing it or not. Choose the best ones and I bet you’ll find that those had the best response. Try to do more of that.

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