Sunday 26 February 2012


Have you ever been so absorbed in what you were doing that you lost all track of time? Got so involved in your task that you forgot to eat? or didn't notice you needed the toilet?

some of the re-potted bits and bobs
It happened to me today. I'd decided to repot the rose Alex had bought me for valentines day, and a few other bits and bobs while I was at it. But I ended up spending near enough 5 hours out in the garden sweeping, pruning, potting, weeding...just pottering about by myself.

Before I'd gone out there my mind had been whirring with various things, as usual. What I needed to do today, tomorrow, this week, month, etc. What the scales had said this morning after a week away. Going back to work. Appointments I need to arrange and rearrange. Whether the third trampolining session in as many days had hurt my back or not. Whether to get my useless tenants out of the flat or not, the cons and cons of letting them stay vs eviction... Nothing new or unusual, just a normal day inside my head.

But I noticed that while I was out in the garden, concentrating on the task in hand, my mind went quiet. In fact it went so quiet it didn't even bother to let me know when I was hungry, thirsty, achey or tired or remind me to take a photo for my other blog.

Apparently this is called 'flow', a term coined by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow really means being 'in the zone', getting so lost in the task at hand that we focus on nothing else, so our one track minds don't have room to think about anything else. Any negative thought patterns or George like gremlins are silenced, we stop thinking about how we feel and about what's going on around us, we stop being self conscious and are totally in control.

And the good news is, those of us who experience 'flow' regularly tend to be happier.


But hold on, as soon as I'd finished gardening, and noticed how hungry/achey/tired I was, the cogs in my head started to whir again, and round and round went all those same thoughts from before. So was the gardening really helping to make me overall more happy as the concept of flow would suggest, or had it just helped distract me for a few hours?

I had a closer look at Csikszentmihalyi's flow and discovered something fairly crucial missing from today's gardening experience.

Today when I was in the garden I was totally absorbed in what I was doing and I was being physically active...both good for dopamine levels and positive energy. It was something a bit different for me. Another tick.  It was rewarding because I was outside in the fresh air, messing about in nature, I got stuff done and the garden looks better now than it did.

All good so far.

But I also wasn't really sure what I was doing, or if I was doing it right, and until the plants flower or don't flower I won't know if I was successful. And even then I wont know why or how or what to do differently next time, which is actually quite frustrating and unnerving, especially for somebody who has never much liked doing things I'm not very good at.

Turns out, then, I wasn't really experiencing true 'flow' as Csikszentmihalyi describes it today because not only was the task not properly aligned to the level of skill, but the crucial element of immediate feedback re success or failure was missing. This was interesting for me because I already know that I'm somebody who needs a lot of feedback. No wonder it felt more therapeutic last time when all I was doing was watering and dead heading!

Ok, so bum. No flow for me.

But, wait a minute, am I not experiencing 'flow' every time I go out with my camera? When I go out taking photos I get just as lost in the activity as today, and can wander around for hours without noticing the time and forgetting to eat, but I can also see there and then the photos I'm taking and whether they're any good or not, and if not, try again, and that adds a whole other layer. Plus I actively enjoy taking photos and I'm not bad at it, so another two more layers on top. I honestly feel more calm and rested after a good old photo session, more so than I did after today's gardening episode. Ah ha! So that's good, I'm regularly experiencing flow when I go wandering with the camera...had I just done that earlier today instead of getting all covered in mud I might actually be feeling better in general right now and would have had a photo for my other blog as well. Ho hum.

All of this said, I'm still glad I did the gardening thing and am pretty sure pottering about out there was a lot better for me than sitting around on my arse doing nothing all day, in lots of ways.

Firstly it was on my list, and now it's not on my list anymore, and we all know list ticking is good for the soul. Secondly,  who knows what level of catastrophising my brain would have worked itself up too without being forced to shut up for a few hours earlier. Plus I wouldn't have had the chance to distract myself for another few minutes writing this otherwise, would I? Weirdly writing about it has added to the sense of achievement somehow, like it's served another purpose other than just pushing some mud about.

And it's given me an opportunity to test drive not only Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow, but also to prove first hand Dan Pink's theory of motivation from mastery, as now all I can think about is finding me some gardening lessons so the next time I feel the urge to get all green fingered I can do it safe in the (as it turns out very important) knowledge that I'm actually doing it right!

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