How to turn work and free time into spaces for growth

We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Going with the flow

Imagine you are skiing down one of your favorite slopes. Powdery snow flies up on both sides of you like white sand. Conditions are perfect.

You are entirely focused on skiing as well as you can. You know exactly how to move at each moment. There is no future, no past. There is only the present. You feel the snow, your skis, your body, and your consciousness united as a single entity. You are completely immersed in the experience, not thinking about or distracted by anything else. Your ego dissolves, and you become part of what you are doing.

This is the kind of experience Bruce Lee described with his famous “Be water, my friend.”

We’ve all felt our sense of time vanish when we lose ourselves in an activity we enjoy. We start cooking and before we know it, several hours have passed. We spend an afternoon with a book and forget about the world going by until we notice the sunset and realize we haven’t eaten dinner. We go surfing and don’t realize how many hours we have spent in the water until the next day, when our muscles ache.

The opposite can also happen. When we have to complete a task we don’t want to do, every minute feels like a lifetime and we can’t stop looking at our watch. As the quip attributed to Einstein goes, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That is relativity.”

The funny thing is that someone else might really enjoy the same task, but we want to finish as quickly as possible.

What makes us enjoy doing something so much that we forget about whatever worries we might have while we do it? When are we happiest? These questions can help us discover our ikigai.

The power of flow

These questions are also at the heart of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the experience of being completely immersed in what we are doing. Csikszentmihalyi called this state “flow,” and described it as the pleasure, delight, creativity, and process when we are completely immersed in life.

There is no magic recipe for finding happiness, for living according to your ikigai, but one key ingredient is the ability to reach this state of flow and, through this state, to have an “optimal experience.”

In order to achieve this optimal experience, we have to focus on increasing the time we spend on activities that bring us to this state of flow, rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in activities that offer immediate pleasure—like eating too much, abusing drugs or alcohol, or stuffing ourselves with chocolate in front of the TV.

As Csikszentmihalyi asserts in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

It is not only creative professionals who require the high doses of concentration that promote flow. Most athletes, chess players, and engineers also spend much of their time on activities that bring them to this state.

According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, a chess player feels the same way upon entering a state of flow as a mathematician working on a formula or a surgeon performing an operation. A professor of psychology, Csikszentmihalyi analyzed data from people around the world and discovered that flow is the same among individuals of all ages and cultures. In New York and Okinawa, we all reach a state of flow in the same way.

But what happens to our mind when we are in that state?

When we flow, we are focused on a concrete task without any distractions. Our mind is “in order.” The opposite occurs when we try to do something while our mind is on other things.

If you often find yourself losing focus while working on something you consider important, there are several strategies you can employ to increase your chances of achieving flow.

Strategy 1: Choose a difficult task (but not too difficult!)

Schaffer’s model encourages us to take on tasks that we have a chance of completing but that are slightly outside our comfort zone.

Every task, sport, or job has a set of rules, and we need a set of skills to follow them. If the rules for completing a task or achieving a purpose are too basic relative to our skill set, we will likely get bored. Activities that are too easy lead to apathy.

If, on the other hand, we assign ourselves a task that is too difficult, we won’t have the skills to complete it and will almost certainly give up—and feel frustrated, to boot.

The ideal is to find a middle path, something aligned with our abilities but just a bit of a stretch, so we experience it as a challenge. This is what Ernest Hemingway meant when he said, “Sometimes I write better than I can.”

We want to see challenges through to the end because we enjoy the feeling of pushing ourselves. Bertrand Russell expressed a similar idea when he said, “To be able to concentrate for a considerable amount of time is essential to difficult achievement.”

If you’re a graphic designer, learn a new software program for your next project. If you’re a programmer, use a new programming language. If you’re a dancer, try to incorporate into your next routine a movement that has seemed impossible for years.

Add a little something extra, something that takes you out of your comfort zone.

Even doing something as simple as reading means following certain rules, having certain abilities and knowledge. If we set out to read a book on quantum mechanics for specialists in physics without being specialists in physics ourselves, we’ll probably give up after a few minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, if we already know everything a book has to tell us, we’ll get bored right away.

However, if the book is appropriate to our knowledge and abilities, and builds on what we already know, we’ll immerse ourselves in our reading, and time will flow. This pleasure and satisfaction are evidence that we are in tune with our ikigai.
Beyond Our Abilities

Strategy 2: Have a clear, concrete objective

Video games—played in moderation—board games, and sports are great ways to achieve flow, because the objective tends to be very clear: Beat your rival or your own record while following a set of explicitly defined rules.

Unfortunately, the objective isn’t quite as clear in most situations.

According to a study by Boston Consulting Group, when asked about their bosses, the number one complaint of employees at multinational corporations is that they don’t “communicate the team’s mission clearly,” and that, as a result, the employees don’t know what their objectives are.

What often happens, especially in big companies, is that the executives get lost in the details of obsessive planning, creating strategies to hide the fact that they don’t have a clear objective. It’s like heading out to sea with a map but no destination.

It is much more important to have a compass pointing to a concrete objective than to have a map. Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, encourages us to use the principle of “compass over maps” as a tool to navigate our world of uncertainty. In the book Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, he and Jeff Howe write, “In an increasingly unpredictable world moving ever more quickly, a detailed map may lead you deep into the woods at an unnecessarily high cost. A good compass, though, will always take you where you need to go. It doesn’t mean that you should start your journey without any idea where you’re going. What it does mean is understanding that while the path to your goal may not be straight, you’ll finish faster and more efficiently than you would have if you had trudged along a preplanned route.”

In business, the creative professions, and education alike, it’s important to reflect on what we hope to achieve before starting to work, study, or make something. We should ask ourselves questions such as:
  • What is my objective for today’s session in the studio?
  • How many words am I going to write today for the article coming out next month?
  • What is my team’s mission?
  • How fast will I set the metronome tomorrow in order to play that sonata at an allegro tempo by the end of the week?
Having a clear objective is important in achieving flow, but we also have to know how to leave it behind when we get down to business. Once the journey has begun, we should keep this objective in mind without obsessing over it.

When Olympic athletes compete for a gold medal, they can’t stop to think how pretty the medal is. They have to be present in the moment—they have to flow. If they lose focus for a second, thinking how proud they’ll be to show the medal to their parents, they’ll almost certainly commit an error at a critical moment and will not win the competition.

One common example of this is writer’s block. Imagine that a writer has to finish a novel in three months. The objective is clear; the problem is that the writer can’t stop obsessing over it. Every day she wakes up thinking, “I have to write that novel,” and every day she sets about reading the newspaper and cleaning the house. Every evening she feels frustrated and promises she’ll get to work the next day.

Days, weeks, and months pass, and the writer still hasn’t gotten anything down on the page, when all it would have taken was to sit down and get that first word out, then the second . . . to flow with the project, expressing her ikigai.

As soon as you take these first small steps, your anxiety will disappear and you will achieve a pleasant flow in the activity you’re doing. Getting back to Albert Einstein, “a happy man is too satisfied with the present to dwell on the future.”
Vague Objective
Clearly Defined Objective and a Focus on Process
Obsessive Desire to Achieve a Goal While Ignoring Process
Confusion; time and energy wasted on meaningless tasks
Fixation on the objective rather than getting down to business
Mental block
Mental block

Strategy 3: Concentrate on a single task

This is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles we face today, with so much technology and so many distractions. We’re listening to a video on YouTube while writing an e-mail, when suddenly a chat prompt pops up and we answer it. Then our smartphone vibrates in our pocket; just as soon as we respond to that message, we’re back at our computer, logging on to Facebook.

Pretty soon thirty minutes have passed, and we’ve forgotten what the e-mail we were writing was supposed to be about.

This also happens sometimes when we put on a movie with dinner and don’t realize how delicious the salmon was until we’re taking the last bite.

We often think that combining tasks will save us time, but scientific evidence shows that it has the opposite effect. Even those who claim to be good at multitasking are not very productive. In fact, they are some of the least productive people.

Our brains can take in millions of bits of information but can only actually process a few dozen per second. When we say we’re multitasking, what we’re really doing is switching back and forth between tasks very quickly. Unfortunately, we’re not computers adept at parallel processing. We end up spending all our energy alternating between tasks, instead of focusing on doing one of them well.

Concentrating on one thing at a time may be the single most important factor in achieving flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, in order to focus on a task we need:
  1. To be in a distraction-free environment
  2. To have control over what we are doing at every moment
Technology is great, if we’re in control of it. It’s not so great if it takes control of us. For example, if you have to write a research paper, you might sit down at your computer and use Google to look up the information you need. However, if you’re not very disciplined, you might end up surfing the Web instead of writing that paper. In that case, Google and the Internet will have taken over, pulling you out of your state of flow.

It has been scientifically shown that if we continually ask our brains to switch back and forth between tasks, we waste time, make more mistakes, and remember less of what we’ve done.

Several studies conducted at Stanford University by Clifford Ivar Nass describe our generation as suffering from an epidemic of multitasking. One such study analyzed the behavior of hundreds of students, dividing them into groups based on the number of things they tended to do at once. The students who were the most addicted to multitasking typically alternated among more than four tasks; for example, taking notes while reading a textbook, listening to a podcast, answering messages on their smartphone, and sometimes checking their Twitter timeline.

Each group of students was shown a screen with several red and several blue arrows. The objective of the exercise was to count the red arrows.

At first, all the students answered correctly right away, without much trouble. As the number of blue arrows increased (the number of red arrows stayed the same; only their position changed), however, the students accustomed to multitasking had serious trouble counting the red arrows in the time allotted, or as quickly as the students who did not habitually multitask, for one very simple reason: They got distracted by the blue arrows! Their brains were trained to pay attention to every stimulus, regardless of its importance, while the brains of the other students were trained to focus on a single task—in this case, counting the red arrows and ignoring the blue ones.

Other studies indicate that working on several things at once lowers our productivity by at least 60 percent and our IQ by more than ten points.

One study funded by the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research found that a sample group of more than four thousand young adults between the ages of twenty and twenty-four who were addicted to their smartphones got less sleep, felt less connected to their community at school, and were more likely to show signs of depression.
Concentrating on a Single Task
Makes achieving flow more likely
Makes achieving flow impossible
Increases productivity
Decreases productivity by 60 percent (though it doesn’t seem to)
Increases our power of retention
Makes it harder to remember things
Makes us less likely to make mistakes
Makes us more likely to make mistakes
Helps us feel calm and in control of the task at hand
Makes us feel stressed by the sensation that we’re losing control, that our tasks are controlling us
Causes us to become more considerate as we pay full attention to those around us
Causes us to hurt those around us through our “addiction” to stimuli: always checking our phones, always on social media . . .
Increases creativity
Reduces creativity
What can we do to avoid falling victim to this flow-impeding epidemic? How can we train our brains to focus on a single task? Here are a few ideas for creating a space and time free of distractions, to increase our chances of reaching a state of flow and thereby getting in touch with our ikigai:
  • Don’t look at any kind of screen for the first hour you’re awake and the last hour before you go to sleep.
  • Turn off your phone before you achieve flow. There is nothing more important than the task you have chosen to do during this time. If this seems too extreme, enable the “do not disturb” function so only the people closest to you can contact you in case of emergency.
  • Designate one day of the week, perhaps a Saturday or Sunday, a day of technological “fasting,” making exceptions only for e-readers (without Wi-Fi) or MP3 players.
  • Go to a café that doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
  • Read and respond to e-mail only once or twice per day. Define those times clearly and stick to them.
  • Try the Pomodoro Technique: Get yourself a kitchen timer (some are made to look like a pomodoro, or tomato) and commit to working on a single task as long as it’s running. The Pomodoro Technique recommends 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest for each cycle, but you can also do 50 minutes of work and 10 minutes of rest. Find the pace that’s best for you; the most important thing is to be disciplined in completing each cycle.
  • Start your work session with a ritual you enjoy and end it with a reward.
  • Train your mind to return to the present when you find yourself getting distracted. Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation, go for a walk or a swim—whatever will help you get centered again.
  • Work in a space where you will not be distracted. If you can’t do this at home, go to a library, a café, or, if your task involves playing the saxophone, a music studio. If you find that your surroundings continue to distract you, keep looking until you find the right place.
  • Divide each activity into groups of related tasks, and assign each group its own place and time. For example, if you’re writing a magazine article, you could do research and take notes at home in the morning, write in the library in the afternoon, and edit on the couch at night.
  • Bundle routine tasks—such as sending out invoices, making phone calls, and so on—and do them all at once.
Advantages of Flow
Disadvantages of Distraction
A focused mind
A wandering mind
Living in the present
Thinking about the past and the future
We are free from worry
Concerns about our daily life and the people around us invade our thoughts
The hours fly by
Every minute seems endless
We feel in control
We lose control and fail to complete the task at hand, or other tasks or people keep us from our work
We prepare thoroughly
We act without being prepared
We know what we should be doing at any given moment
We frequently get stuck and don’t know how to proceed
Our mind is clear and overcomes all obstacles to the flow of thought
We are plagued by doubts, concerns, and low self-esteem
It’s pleasant
It’s boring and exhausting
Our ego fades: We are not the ones controlling the activity or task we’re doing—the task is leading us
 Constant self-criticism: Our ego is present and we feel frustrated

Flow in Japan: Takumis, engineers, geniuses, and otakus

What do takumis (artisans), engineers, inventors, and otakus(fans of anime and manga) have in common? They all understand the importance of flowing with their ikigai at all times.

One widespread stereotype about people in Japan is that they’re exceptionally dedicated and hardworking, even though some Japanese people say they look like they’re working harder than they really are. There is no doubt, though, about their ability to be completely absorbed in a task, or about their perseverance when there is a problem to be solved. One of the first words one learns when starting Japanese lessons is ganbaru, which means “to persevere” or “to stay firm by doing one’s best.”

Japanese people often apply themselves to even the most basic tasks with an intensity that borders on obsession. We see this in all kinds of contexts, from the “retirees” taking meticulous care of their rice fields in the mountains of Nagano to the college students working the weekend shift in convenience stores known as konbinis. If you go to Japan, you’ll experience this attention to detail firsthand in almost every transaction.

Walk into one of the stores that sell handcrafted objects in Naha, Kanazawa, or Kyoto and you’ll also discover that Japan is a treasure trove of traditional craftwork. The people of Japan have a unique talent for creating new technologies while preserving artisanal traditions and techniques.

The art of the takumi

Toyota employs “artisans” who are able to make a certain type of screw by hand. These takumi, or experts in a particular manual skill, are extremely important to Toyota, and they are hard to replace. Some of them are the only people who know how to perform their exact skill, and it doesn’t seem as though a new generation is going to take up the mantle.

Turntable needles are another example: They’re produced almost exclusively in Japan, where you can find the last remaining people who know how to use the machinery required to make these precision needles, and who are trying to pass on their knowledge to their descendants.

We met a takumi on a visit to Kumano, a small town near Hiroshima. We were there for the day, working on a photo essay for one of the most famous brands of makeup brushes in the West. The billboard welcoming visitors to Kumano shows a mascot holding a large brush. In addition to the brush factories, the town is full of little houses and vegetable gardens; heading farther in, you can see several Shinto shrines at the base of the mountains that surround the town.

We spent hours taking photos in factories full of people in orderly rows, each doing a single task—such as painting the handles of the brushes or loading boxes of them onto trucks—before we realized we still hadn’t seen anyone actually putting bristles into the brush heads.

After we asked about this and got the runaround several times, the president of one company agreed to show us how it was done. He led us out of the building and asked us to get into his car. After a five-minute drive we parked next to another, smaller structure and climbed the stairs. He opened a door and we walked into a small room filled with windows that let in lovely natural light.

In the middle of the room was a woman wearing a mask. You could see only her eyes. She was so focused on choosing individual bristles for the brushes—gracefully moving her hands and fingers, using scissors and combs to sort the bristles—that she didn’t even notice our presence. Her movements were so quick it was hard to tell what she was doing.

The president of the company interrupted her to let her know that we’d be taking photos as she worked. We couldn’t see her mouth, but the glint in her eye and the cheerful inflection in her speech let us know she was smiling. She looked happy and proud talking about her work and responsibilities.

We had to use extremely fast shutter speeds to capture her movements. Her hands danced and flowed in concert with her tools and the bristles she was sorting.

The president told us that this takumi was one of the most important people in the company, even though she was hidden away in a separate building. Every bristle of every brush the company made passed through her hands.

Steve Jobs in Japan

Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was a big fan of Japan. Not only did he visit the Sony factories in the 1980s and adopt many of their methods when he founded Apple, he was also captivated by the simplicity and quality of Japanese porcelain in Kyoto.

It was not, however, an artisan from Kyoto who won Steve Jobs’s devotion, but rather a takumi from Toyama named Yukio Shakunaga, who used a technique called Etchu Seto-yaki, known by only a few.

On a visit to Kyoto, Jobs heard of an exhibition of Shakunaga’s work. He immediately understood that there was something special about Shakunaga’s porcelain. As a matter of fact, he bought several cups, vases, and plates, and went back to the show three times that week.

Jobs returned to Kyoto several times over the course of his life in search of inspiration, and ended up meeting Shakunaga in person. It is said that Jobs had many questions for him—almost all of them about the fabrication process and the type of porcelain he used.

Shakunaga explained that he used white porcelain he extracted himself from mountains in the Toyama prefecture, making him the only artist of his ilk familiar with the fabrication process of porcelain objects from their origins in the mountains to their final form—an authentic takumi.

Jobs was so impressed that he considered going to Toyama to see the mountain where Shakunaga got his porcelain, but thought better of it when he heard that it was more than four hours by train from Kyoto.

In an interview after Jobs’s death, Shakunaga said he was very proud that his work had been appreciated by the man who created the iPhone. He added that Jobs’s last purchase from him had been a set of twelve teacups. Jobs had asked for something special, “a new style.” To satisfy this request, Shakunaga made 150 teacups in the process of testing out new ideas. Of these, he chose the twelve best and sent them to the Jobs family.

Ever since his first trip to Japan, Jobs was fascinated and inspired by the country’s artisans, engineers (especially at Sony), philosophy (especially Zen), and cuisine (especially sushi).

Sophisticated simplicity

What do Japanese artisans, engineers, Zen philosophy, and cuisine have in common? Simplicity and attention to detail. It is not a lazy simplicity but a sophisticated one that searches out new frontiers, always taking the object, the body and mind, or the cuisine to the next level, according to one’s ikigai.

As Csikszentmihalyi would say, the key is always having a meaningful challenge to overcome in order to maintain flow.

The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi gives us another example of a takumi, this time in the kitchen. Its protagonist has been making sushi every day for more than eighty years, and owns a small sushi restaurant near the Ginza subway station in Tokyo. He and his son go every day to the famous Tsukiji fish market and choose the best fish to bring back to the restaurant.

In the documentary, we see one of Jiro’s apprentices learning to make tamago (a thin, slightly sweet omelet). No matter how hard he tries, he can’t get Jiro’s approval. He keeps practicing for years until he finally does.

Why does the apprentice refuse to give up? Doesn’t he get bored cooking eggs every day? No, because making sushi is his ikigai, too.

Both Jiro and his son are culinary artists. They don’t get bored when they cook—they achieve a state of flow. They enjoy themselves completely when they are in the kitchen; that is their happiness, their ikigai. They’ve learned to take pleasure in their work, to lose their sense of time.

Beyond the close relationship between father and son, which helps them keep the challenge going each day, they also work in a quiet, peaceful environment that allows them to concentrate. Even after receiving a three-star rating from Michelin, they never considered opening other locations or expanding the business. They serve just ten patrons at a time at the bar of their small restaurant. Jiro’s family isn’t looking to make money; instead they value good working conditions and creating an environment in which they can flow while making the best sushi in the world.

Jiro, like Yukio Shakunaga, begins his work at “the source.” He goes to the fish market to find the best tuna; Shakunaga goes to the mountains to find the best porcelain. When they get down to work, both become one with the object they are creating. This unity with the object that they reach in a state of flow takes on special meaning in Japan, where, according to Shintoism, forests, trees, and objects have a kami (spirit or god) within them.

When someone—whether an artist, an engineer, or a chef—sets out to create something, his or her responsibility is to use nature to give it “life” while respecting that nature at every moment. During this process, the artisan becomes one with the object and flows with it. An ironworker would say that metal has a life of its own, just as someone making ceramics would say that the clay does. The Japanese are skilled at bringing nature and technology together: not man versus nature, but rather a union of the two.

The purity of Ghibli

There are those who say that the Shinto value of being connected with nature is vanishing. One of the harshest critics of this loss is another artist with a clearly defined ikigai: Hayao Miyazaki, the director of the animated films produced by Studio Ghibli.

In nearly all his films we see humans, technology, fantasy, and nature in a state of conflict—and, in the end, coming together. One of the most poignant metaphors in his film Spirited Away is an obese spirit covered in trash that represents the pollution of the rivers.

In Miyazaki’s films, forests have personalities, trees have feelings, and robots befriend birds. Considered a national treasure by the Japanese government, Miyazaki is an artist capable of becoming completely absorbed in his art. He uses a cell phone from the late 1990s, and he makes his entire team draw by hand. He “directs” his films by rendering on paper even the tiniest detail, achieving flow by drawing, not by using a computer. Thanks to this obsession on the director’s part, Studio Ghibli is one of the only studios in the world where almost the entire production process is carried out using traditional techniques.

Those who have visited Studio Ghibli know that it is fairly typical, on a given Sunday to see a solitary individual tucked away in a corner, hard at work—a man in simple clothes who will greet them with an ohayo (hello) without looking up.

Miyazaki is so passionate about his work that he spends many Sundays in the studio, enjoying the state of flow, putting his ikigai above all else. Visitors know that under no circumstances is one to bother Miyazaki, who is known for his quick temper—especially if he is interrupted while drawing.

In 2013, Miyazaki announced he was going to retire. To commemorate his retirement, the television station NHK made a documentary showing him in his last days at work. He is drawing in nearly every scene of the film. In one scene, several of his colleagues are seen coming out of a meeting, and there he is, drawing in a corner, paying no attention to them. In another scene, he is shown walking to work on December 30 (a national holiday in Japan) and opening the doors of Studio Ghibli so he can spend the day there, drawing alone.

Miyazaki can’t stop drawing. The day after his “retirement,” instead of going on vacation or staying at home, he went to Studio Ghibli and sat down to draw. His colleagues put on their best poker faces, not knowing what to say. One year later, he announced he wouldn’t make any more feature films but that he would keep on drawing until the day he died.

Can someone really retire if he is passionate about what he does?

The recluses

It is not only the Japanese who have this capacity; there are artists and scientists all over the world with strong, clear ikigais. They do what they love until their dying day.

The last thing Einstein wrote before closing his eyes forever was a formula that attempted to unite all the forces of the universe in a single theory. When he died, he was still doing what he loved. If he hadn’t been a physicist, he said, he would have been happy as a musician. When he wasn’t focused on physics or mathematics, he enjoyed playing the violin. Reaching a state of flow while working on his formulas or playing music, his two ikigais, brought him endless pleasure.

Many such artists might seem misanthropic or reclusive, but what they are really doing is protecting the time that brings them happiness, sometimes at the expense of other aspects of their lives. They are outliers who apply the principles of flow to their lives to an extreme.

Another example of this kind of artist is the novelist Haruki Murakami. He sees only a close circle of friends, and appears in public in Japan only once every few years.

Artists know how important it is to protect their space, control their environment, and be free of distractions if they want to flow with their ikigai.

Microflow: Enjoying mundane tasks

But what happens when we have to, say, do the laundry, mow the lawn, or attend to paperwork? Is there a way to make these mundane tasks enjoyable?

Near the Shinjuku subway station, in one of the neural centers of Tokyo, there is a supermarket that still employs elevator operators. The elevators are fairly standard and could easily be operated by the customers, but the store prefers to provide the service of someone holding the door open for you, pushing the button for your floor, and bowing as you exit.

If you ask around, you’ll learn that there is one elevator operator who has been doing the same job since 2004. She is always smiling and enthusiastic about her work. How is she able to enjoy such a job? Doesn’t she get bored doing something so repetitive?

On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the elevator operator is not just pushing buttons but is instead performing a whole sequence of movements. She begins by greeting the customers with a songlike salutation followed by a bow and a welcoming wave of the hand. Then she presses the elevator button with a graceful movement, as though she is a geisha offering a client a cup of tea.

Csikszentmihalyi calls this microflow.

We’ve all been bored in a class or at a conference and started doodling to keep ourselves entertained. Or whistled while painting a wall. If we’re not truly being challenged, we get bored and add a layer of complexity to amuse ourselves. Our ability to turn routine tasks into moments of microflow, into something we enjoy, is key to our being happy, since we all have to do such tasks.

Even Bill Gates washes the dishes every night. He says he enjoys it—that it helps him relax and clear his mind, and that he tries to do it a little better each day, following an established order or set of rules he’s made for himself: plates first, forks second, and so on.

It’s one of his daily moments of microflow.

Richard Feynman, one of the most important physicists of all time, also took pleasure in routine tasks. W. Daniel Hillis, one of the founders of the supercomputer manufacturer Thinking Machines, hired Feynman to work on the development of a computer that could handle parallel processing when he was already world famous. He says Feynman showed up on his first day of work and said, “OK, boss, what’s my assignment?” They didn’t have anything prepared, so they asked him to work on a certain mathematical problem. He immediately realized they were giving him an irrelevant task to keep him busy and said, “That sounds like a bunch of baloney—give me something real to do.”

So they sent him to a nearby shop to buy office supplies, and he completed his assignment with a smile on his face. When he didn’t have something important to do or needed to rest his mind, Feynman dedicated himself to microflowing—say, painting the office walls.

Weeks later, after visiting the Thinking Machines offices a group of investors declared, “You have a Nobel laureate in there painting walls and soldering circuits.”

Instant vacations: Getting there through meditation

Training the mind can get us to a place of flow more quickly. Meditation is one way to exercise our mental muscles.

There are many types of meditation, but they all have the same objective: calming the mind, observing our thoughts and emotions, and centering our focus on a single object.

The basic practice involves sitting with a straight back and focusing on your breath. Anyone can do it, and you feel a difference after just one session. By fixing your attention on the air moving in and out of your nose, you can slow the torrent of thoughts and clear your mental horizons.
If we want to get better at reaching a state of flow, meditation is an excellent antidote to our smartphones and their notifications constantly clamoring for our attention.

One of the most common mistakes among people starting to meditate is worrying about doing it “right,” achieving absolute mental silence, or reaching “nirvana.” The most important thing is to focus on the journey.

Since the mind is a constant swirl of thoughts, ideas, and emotions, slowing down the “centrifuge”—even for just a few seconds—can help us feel more rested and leave us with a sense of clarity.

In fact, one of the things we learn in the practice of meditation is not to worry about anything that flits across our mental screen. The idea of killing our boss might flash into our mind, but we simply label it as a thought and let it pass like a cloud, without judging or rejecting it. It is only a thought—one of the sixty thousand we have every day, according to some experts.

Meditation generates alpha and theta brain waves. For those experienced in meditation, these waves appear right away, while it might take a half hour for a beginner to experience them. These relaxing brain waves are the ones that are activated right before we fall asleep, as we lie in the sun, or right after taking a hot bath.

We all carry a spa with us everywhere we go. It’s just a matter of knowing how to get in—something anyone can do, with a bit of practice.

Humans as ritualistic beings

Life is inherently ritualistic. We could argue that humans naturally follow rituals that keep us busy. In some modern cultures, we have been forced out of our ritualistic lives to pursue goal after goal in order to be seen as successful. But throughout history, humans have always been busy. We were hunting, cooking, farming, exploring, and raising families—activities that were structured as rituals to keep us busy throughout our days.

But in an unusual way, rituals still permeate daily life and business practices in modern Japan. The main religions in Japan—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism—are all ones in which the rituals are more important than absolute rules.

When doing business in Japan, process, manners, and how you work on something is more important than the final results. Whether this is good or bad for the economy is beyond the scope of this book. What is indisputable, though, is that finding flow in a “ritualistic workplace” is much easier than in one in which we are continually stressed out trying to achieve unclear goals set by our bosses.

Rituals give us clear rules and objectives, which help us enter a state of flow. When we have only a big goal in front of us, we might feel lost or overwhelmed by it; rituals help us by giving us the process, the substeps, on the path to achieving a goal. When confronted with a big goal, try to break it down into parts and then attack each part one by one.

Focus on enjoying your daily rituals, using them as tools to enter a state of flow. Don’t worry about the outcome—it will come naturally. Happiness is in the doing, not in the result. As a rule of thumb, remind yourself: “Rituals over goals.”

The happiest people are not the ones who achieve the most. They are the ones who spend more time than others in a state of flow.

Using flow to find your ikigai

After reading this chapter you should have a better idea of which activities in your life make you enter flow. Write all of them on a piece of paper, then ask yourself these questions: What do the activities that drive you to flow have in common? Why do those activities drive you to flow? For example, are all the activities you most like doing ones that you practice alone or with other people? Do you flow more when doing things that require you to move your body or just to think?

In the answers to these questions you might find the underlying ikigai that drives your life. If you don’t, then keep searching by going deeper into what you like by spending more of your time in the activities that make you flow. Also, try new things that are not on the list of what makes you flow but that are similar and that you are curious about. For example, if photography is something that drives you into flow, you could also try painting; you might even like it more! Or if you love snowboarding and have never tried surfing . . .

Flow is mysterious. It is like a muscle: the more you train it, the more you will flow, and the closer you will be to your ikigai.    





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