Marica's meanderings

Sunday, October 30, 2005


A couple of months ago I took this picture on a leisurely walk through the Wellington Botanic Gardens. This waterfall captured my imagination at the time because I was thinking a lot about the concept of flow and how to achieve it.

Nature and flow
Imagine my surprise when a few days later one of the online newsletters I subscribe to - elearningpost's Daily Links - had a reference to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of FLOW and how it applies to businesses. The article is entitled The Art of Work. Here is a brief extract:

An avid rock climber, Csikszentmihalyi took note of the special feeling he got while inching his way up a challenging rock face, and began thinking about it in terms of his psychology studies. Why, he wondered, was the entire field of psychology focused exclusively on the study of human pathology and dysfunction? What about the positive states, the moments when human beings are at their absolute best?

Csikszentmihalyi spent hours interviewing and observing exceptionally creative people, including leading chess players, rock climbers, composers, and writers, and normal folks as well, as they did their work. He also developed a unique research tool called Experience Sampling Method, in which his study subjects carried pagers for a week at a time. Beeped randomly eight times throughout the day, they wrote down what they were doing and feeling right at that moment.

Csikszentmihalyi, who with his white hair and beard resembles a tall and reticent Santa Claus, discovered that the times when people were most happy and often most productive were not necessarily when they expected they would be. Passive leisure activities such as TV-watching consistently ranked low on participants' scales of satisfaction -- even though they often sought out these experiences. Instead, people reported the greatest sense of well-being while pursuing challenging activities, sometimes even at work, and often while immersed in a hobby.

In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi found, people engage so completely in what they are doing that they lose track of time. Hours pass in minutes. All sense of self recedes. At the same time, they are pushing beyond their limits and developing new abilities. Indeed, the best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to capacity. People emerge from each flow experience more complex, Csikszentmihalyi found. They become more self-confident, capable, and sensitive. The experience becomes "autotelic," meaning that the activity actually becomes its own reward. "To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience," he says. One of the chief advantages of flow is that it enables people to escape the state of "psychic entropy," the distraction, depression, and dispiritedness that constantly threaten them.

So what happens if FLOW is blocked? Or should the question be, how do we reach a state of FLOW?

I have been struggling, and that is why I have not been writing. Life, work and my studies have all got the better of me. Being in a state of FLOW seems like some elusive dream. The prospect excites me because I know I have been there before. Everything seems like such hard work at the moment and the fire that drives me seems incredibly low. What is even worse is I am scared it may go out entirely.

This morning I woke up determined I was going to write a blog entry. I even had a phone call from a friend the other evening worried as to whether or not I was alright because she had noticed I hadn't written anything in my blog for quite sometime. There are so many things that have been formulating in my mind and yet I have sat in front of this computer screen and the words just wouldn't come. I keep searching online for some magical answer to help me get going again. Am I simply suffering from writer's block or is it something bigger? I need to find a solution. I hate being in this limbo when there is so much I want to do.

I have been discussing this situation with some of my learners. They have asked me how my studies are going and I told them they weren't. I explained how I was struggling to write up my research and how the words just won't come out, yet I know it is all there in my head. I must have a dam in there and I need to work out how to open the gates so the water can flow again.

One learner came back to me with some wonderful advice. She told me how in the past when this has happened to her she has used a dictaphone to record her thoughts and her ideas, and then used this as the starting point for her writing. I thought this was a great idea and I am going to give it a go.

Having these discussions with my learners has made me think about what we miss out on when we are distance educators. I don't really get the opportunity to know my learners as people or even have casual conversations with them. Every communication has a point and is directly related to their learning programme. They find out what they need and they are gone. Generally there is no idle chit chat.

I am reminded of the day I was in town doing some shopping and this woman ran across the road and hugged me. She was a former learner I had worked with in a face to face programme. She was so excited to see me and to tell me all the things that have happened to her - I heard about her job, her children, her husband's art etc. It was incredibly exciting to see that things have worked out well for her. I'm sad to say I don't have these connections with my distance learners. I could be standing next to one of my distance learners and not know it.

I hope FLOW happens for me soon. I need to be able to write up my Masters research. I need the words to flow out. I have already had to get an extension. I know once I get going it will all happen. I will immerse myself in it, time will disappear, it will be challenging but I will have something to show for the effort. The problem I have is getting started. I am going to take some time off work and hopefully have the luxury of being able to concentrate primarily on only one thing - getting the words out and producing my research in text.

I'll let you know how I get on.