Flow is Seductive

When to not stick to your strengths

I originally published this on my website at the beginning of the summer, a few months into quarantine.

Flow: The state of being fully immersed in your current activity for its own sake, often resulting in deep focus and enjoyment.

I thought Flow was gospel when I read it for the first time early last year. It brought vocabulary and explanation to something I often felt but didn't have a name for. And there are some really important lessons in it:

  • Distraction makes it difficult to reach maximum output.

  • Focus can actually be quite energizing. (Counterintuitive at first)

  • Happiness is cultivated, rather than something that happens to you.

The book also has a lot to say about simply and viscerally noticing your present experience and witnessing it fully. But I have some second thoughts, although I still really like the book. The subtitle The Psychology of Optimal Experience has some interesting unintended consequences if flow is what you try to optimize your life around to no end.

I have had the fortune to have been able to focus on myself for the last few months during quarantine. That is a privilege that is not lost on me. I have been, on average, in pretty good spirits and had a good routine going. I feel generally fulfilled, and have had plenty of time for optimal sleep and exercise, among other things. Something I have been thinking about recently is how quickly time is flying. I never know whether this is some signal of how my life is going because I have found it happens during both good times and bad times.

Rhythm and routine can be good: wake up → meditate → go on a walk → exercise → work → eat a healthy dinner with family → read a book → go to bed on time.

But rhythm and routine can also be bad: snooze → snooze again → eat food that makes me feel bad → be distracted at work → go to bed late.

I think forward to the few more months I'm going to be spending at home and think that's not so bad because the previous three went by so quickly. Why is that?
I believe it's because I have made relatively few memories in the last 3 months. I have been using 1 Second Everyday since mid-March. I try to record the most memorable moment of each day. These days, most of them are Zoom calls——and that's a bummer.

Flow is all the rage in startup land for trying to reach peak productivity. I was first introduced to the idea that flow might not be all it is cracked up to be by Courtland Allen on the Indie Hackers podcast. In one of the episodes (I can't recall which one) he talks about his experience working on his previous startup and how he spent 2 years coding for 16 hours a day. And at the time, it felt productive and rewarding. But he didn't remember anything from that time in his life and made very few memories.

That freaks me out. If that is the difference between me starting a wildly vs. mildly successful business, then so be it. But that may be a false dilemma.

Founders who are engineers will often go into a room, build for weeks and months, and when they come out they are shocked that they haven't built something that people want. It is seductive. It is seductive to stick to your strengths and to stick with what easily induces a flow state.

I'm going to try to avoid that.