Go with the flow

Go with the flow

Active leisure — as opposed to passive activities — restores and refreshes you. All you need to do is find an engagement and be in the zone

By Oksana Tashakova

Published: Fri 31 Aug 2012, 8:24 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 3:03 PM

How do you relax? Do you turn on the television, surf the Internet, take a nap? Do you meditate, paint, work out or garden? Are you able to relax when you’re not at work? Or do you over-schedule your time and multitask even when you don’t need to?

Passive activities like watching TV don’t really relax you. In fact, they can contribute to anxiety and fatigue. If you want to understand how to truly relax, to engage in leisure activities that refresh and restore you, watch a child at play.

When children play they are completely engaged in their activity: they’re wholly present in the moment. They’re not thinking about what they’re going to do next or what they did yesterday. They’re unaware of time passing. They experience what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi referred to as “flow”.

Flow experiences are very common occurrences in sports. Athletes describe these moments as being “in the zone”, when they are so engaged and present that they instinctively know what to do, what move to make. They are an integral part of the moment rather than standing outside of it.

Flow experiences are exhilarating and immensely satisfying. Can you remember the last time you were so engaged in what you were doing that you lost all track of time? Heard no inner criticisms or reminders? Didn’t care what anyone else thought of you and what you were doing? These are the kind of experiences you want to create in your downtime.

Registered nurse Mona Shattell describes the autoelic personality in her recommendations for creating healthy work/life balance for nursing students at DePaul University. The autoelic personality describes someone who lives in the moment and can gain the most pleasure from life experiences.

Shattell believes that we can all learn to become autoelic, that we can all learn to add flow experiences to our lives.

In order to create a flow experience, you must have a goal in mind, the activity must be within your range of skills, the activity must be adequately challenging so that it stretches your ability and you must learn how to be present. This last factor can be the hardest to learn. Many of us are addicted to being overly busy and multitasking. You must train yourself to pay attention to just one thing at a time and shut out distractions. Nature is often very helpful in terms of learning to be in the moment. Get outside and really pay attention to outdoor sights, smells and sounds.

Kraig Brock Schmidt, author of Mystic Microsoft, studied Microsoft employees and noted that some workers burned out within a few years while others lasted decades, energetically and vibrantly.

Schmidt thinks that those that burnt out worked hard and then indulged in completely passive activities during their leisure time. Shifting between these two poles made for unbalanced lives rather than true work/life balance. The employees that didn’t burn out worked hard but they played hard too.

Schmidt says balance is more complex than a simple scale or see-saw. Statesman Winston Churchill used to paint when he wasn’t working and he once said: “Change is the master key. A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of a coat by rubbing the frayed elbow; but the tired part of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not by merely rest, but by using other parts.”

Schmidt interprets this to mean that the key to balance is not to just be active or passive but to engage in activities that complement each other.

He recommends that you list your primary obligations: your job, family roles etc. Describe these tasks in terms of their quality. Does your job involve sitting in front of a computer? Dealing with numbers or words? Is it inside or out? Describe what these roles demand of you emotionally, mentally and physically.

Next, list activities that can provide balance to these activities or complement them. If you work indoors, you should plan a leisure activity that is outdoors. If you sit in front of a computer for work, you shouldn’t surf the Internet during your down time.

Schmidt gives a good example. A woman that works a data entry job described it as: sitting, lack of motion, small visual focus, detail-oriented and mentally draining, requiring careful attention, indoors, isolated and constant demand for energy and efficiency.

Schmidt explained to this woman that watching TV didn’t balance this woman’s job, that watching TV involved many of the same qualities: isolating, indoors, small visual focus etc.

In order to re-energise herself, Schmidt recommended that she plan leisure activities that could be done upright or involved movement, had wide, visual focus, were intuitive and flowing, were carefree and diffuse, were interpersonal and social, and were about experience rather than efficiency, that required short bursts of intense energy rather than constant attention and energy. Dancing, hiking and sports were all options that could help this woman to engage in the moment, re-energise herself and possibly create flow experiences.

Schedule active leisure time for yourself in order to gain the most enjoyment from your life.


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