The following is the second post in a four part exploration series on the known stages of Flow as defined by the Flow Genome Project, an organisation dedicated to furthering the research on optimal performance and human potential. This builds on the extensive research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In my last post, I explored the first phase of the Flow cycle, the Struggle Phase. An oft frustrating and derailing phase, the Struggle phase is where the hard work is put in.
After the Struggle, the next phase of the Flow cycle is the Release phase or what Herbert Benson referred to as the Relaxation Response. Jamie Wheal, co-author of Stealing Fire and Executive Director at the Flow Genome Project, says that there needs to be physical movement during this phase. You need to take a break, to change the channel on your work so that your subconscious can take over. You are not actively thinking about your thinking. This step is incredibly important as it leads to flow. But it is often an underutilised strategy. For many people, taking a break is seen as a negative. The struggle is a badge of honour worn where14 hour work days and 80 hour work weeks are seen as the measure of a successful person. The research says otherwise. According to Margaret Heffernan, author of Beyond Measure, 8 hours is the optimum amount of working hours. Any longer and there is a decrease in productivity.
Take a break and make it a walking break
The break is key to performing better at your work. It will help you work through challenging situations or problems and generate new ideas. “Downtime aids insights”, author Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “as it provides your conscious brain time to rest enables your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complete professional challenges.” The downtime is also better if it is a walk. According to research from Stanford University, walking can increase your creative input by about 60%. This strategy was utilised by some of the greatest thinkers of our times, Archimedes, Henri Poincare, Steve Jobs, the list goes on.
“The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. The stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity.”
Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation
After a period of intense struggle, get up and go for a walk. Leave your phone at your desk and walk at a brisk pace. Don’t think, just let your mind wander. Look around at your surroundings and take it all in. If you can, go for a walk in a park or in nature. Fresh air, sunlight and an increased heart rate will make you feel so much better and will help breed serendipity.
When to go for a walk?
The best time is right in the middle of your struggle. This helps bring on the Zeigarnik effect.
In 1927 Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik demonstrated that people have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks. Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds.
Stopping in the middle of a task and leaving it incomplete allows your subconscious to continue to percolate on it. You minimise the window of your struggle but it is still working in the background. It is also working in the background with more information to draw from. Too often, we take a break when a task is complete. This works well but your brain will not continue to work on it. Put the breaks on in the middle of a struggle and get out for a walk. You’ll be amazed at the difference. When you are walking, let go of thought and allow your brilliant brain to continue to do what it does best.
Another great time to go for a walk is when you need to know more about a problem or find ways to solve a problem. Genchi genbutsu is a Japanese saying made famous by Taichii Ohno from Toyota, grandfather of the Lean Manufacturing process, and it translates to “actual place, actual thing” or to “get out of the building and see”. Instead of trying to solve the problem from afar without all the information, get out of your seat and go see it for yourself. See the problem with your own eyes. Talk to the people who are impacted by the problem. Get the information first hand and this will lead to more informed solutions. Too often, we hide behind an email or in a meeting and work with assumptions. Seeing it with your own eyes allows you to deal in truths and this makes for better solutions.
The Release is necessary to allow your brain the opportunity to develop and grow. We have put in the hard work during the Struggle phase and now we must allow our body time to recover and grow. Creating breaks in your day or week allow you to be a better thinker and work towards getting in the optimal performance state of flow.
The next post will be a deep dive into Flow.