29 August 2008

On Blood and On Flow

I cut my finger with my rotary cutter this morning. I was working on my morning piece, fully absorbed in my work, when I swiped the open blade on the index finger of my left hand. It immediately started to bleed. I was annoyed, not because I cut myself, but because dealing with the cut was a distraction. Not wanting to pause to find a bandage, I grabbed a tissue, wrapped it around my finger, and secured it with painter's tape. On I continued with my work.

As I was finishing up, I realized that my reaction to the cut was not typical. I can be a bit of a drama queen when it comes to injuries and pain. My family won't let me forget the time I sliced my finger while cutting a bagel. I was near hysterics thinking I needed stitches. My mother calmed me down and took a look, only to find that it was little more than a scratch. No stitches were required, just a bandage. So, to cut myself, feel annoyed, and then calmly grab the nearest bandage makeweight was not a normal reaction for me.

That's when I realized that I had spent the morning working in a state of flow.

Flow is a state of full concentration and deep enjoyment that people achieve when fully absorbed in an activity. You may recognize this state from your own experiences: when working on a task you feel alert, strong, aware, the work feels effortless, and your self-consciousness disappears. Decision making becomes effortless and creativity abounds. You stop questioning and criticizing and instead just do. Your sense of time distorts: it may seem to stand still or pass in a flash. You feel a sense of ease and transcendence where you achieve a sense of oneness with what you are doing. Flow is a state of optimal, human experience.

But the really cool thing about flow is you can create conditions that encourage flow.

You want to find work that you love, that you believe to be important. It's much easier to achieve flow when working on something that matters to you, that can grab your attention and awareness fully.

Your task should be challenging, rather than comfortable, but not so difficult that it becomes frustrating. This requires understanding your current ability level and skill set and choosing work that stretches them, without completely outpacing them.

Your environment should be free of distractions. Let your family know you're working and ask them to give you a couple hours of quiet. Turn off cell phones and email. Feed the cat or walk the dog before you begin, so your fuzzy friends don't make demands on you.

You should work within your own peak hours. We all have times of day when we feel bright and energetic and other times when we are sluggish and uninspired. Encourage flow by working during the hours when you feel your best.

Practice patience and focus on the work you are doing. Don't worry about whether or not you are in flow--that's not the point. Instead, pour yourself into your work and let yourself be with it.

For me, my Early Morning Club has had an unexpected side benefit. I find myself entering a state of flow more easily and more frequently. Just this morning, for example, I lost complete track of time. I began working at 7:20 a.m. and cut my finger at 8:35 a.m. I had no idea that much time had passed.

Looking at how my morning club is constructed, it's no surprise that I've been entering flow. I am working on things I love, fiber arts and quilting. I'm gradually increasing the complexity of my designs. I started with very simple composition, but my pieces have become more involved as I've started stretching myself. I work in the morning quiet, before my husband awakes. And I've kept at it every morning for six weeks, patiently practicing and practicing and practicing some more. Without even realizing it, I created the perfect conditions for flow.

The irony is it took a spot of blood to understand that flow is what I've found.

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