Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Helps You Find Hours A Day To Write
I first came across Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on flow when I was a high school student in the late 1990s. It changed my life by helping me:
Notice what activities lead to flow
Spend more time on those activities
Fast forward 20 years, and I can say that 70% of my work days are filled with flow as I learn, think, write, and teach on topics that I’m fascinated by. Furthermore, in my leisure time, I find time to sauna, cold plunge in the ocean, and go on long walks with my dogs every day–all of which are flow triggers for me. This lifestyle wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t learned to value flow, which led me to design my life for it.
Over the last year, I’ve revisited many of Csikszentmihalyi’s books, and I’ve watched all of this YouTube interviews and speeches. In this second reading, I’m seeing a whole new level of depth I missed before. As a result, I’m seeing a whole new level of possibility for my life.
My goal in this post is to share what I see now that I overlooked before so you can see new possibilities for how flow can transform your life. If you don’t know what flow is, you can get a quick primer here.
In this video, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents a life-changing idea...
What if we took the roughly five hours between work and sleep everyday and turned it into FLOW TIME?
Said differently, what if we turned our end of day leisure time into flow time?
In this article, I’ll explain why this is such a powerful question, and I’ll provide a game plan based on Csikszentmihalyi’s research…
Today’s Game Plan
We need to rethink leisure time
Why turning daily leisure time into flow time is such a big idea
Path to flow #1: focus on activities that consistently produce flow
Path to flow #2: transform everyday experiences into flow activities via fun challenges
Half the journey is getting started
How to get started on hard things when you have low energy
How I find hours of writing time daily between 5pm-10pm (for paid subscribers)
How I avoid flow-destroying activities that waste hours a day with 10 life-changing tools (for paid subscribers)
We Need To Rethink Leisure Time
SECTION SUMMARY In Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi presents a fairly radical set of ideas related to leisure time: 1. Leisure is a new phenomenon historically, and we suck at it 2. There is a big cost to sucking at leisure 3. Making the most of leisure is a skill that can be learned 4. You can make the most of leisure time by incorporating flow
#1. Leisure is a new phenomenon historically, and we suck at it
One of the problems we face at this point in history is that we haven’t learned how to spend free time in a sensible way.
The evidence suggests… free time is more difficult to enjoy than work.
#2: There is a big cost to sucking at leisure
Most people view leisure as a time where we don’t have to do anything and we just relax and feel great. The brutal reality is that leisure time is actually damaging for many. Csikszentmihalyi writes…
Yet this is a concern that many have expressed ever since the mid-century. In 1958, the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry ended its annual report with the conclusion: “For many Americans, leisure is dangerous.” Others have claimed that whether America succeeds as a civilization will depend on the way we use free time.
It has been reported that holidays and vacations are periods of increased mental disturbance. For workers who have identified with their jobs all their lives, retirement is often a transition to chronic depression. In our ESM [Experience Sampling Method] studies we find that even physical health is better when a person focuses on a goal. On weekends, when alone, and with nothing to do, people report more symptoms of illness.
All of this evidence points to the fact that the average person is ill equipped to be idle. Without goals and without others to interact with, most people begin to lose motivation and concentration. The mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety.
In order to avoid this undesirable condition, the person resorts to strategies that will ward off the worst of psychic entropy. Without necessarily being aware of it, one will seek out stimulation that will screen out the sources of anxiety from consciousness. This might be watching TV, or reading redundant narratives such as romances or mysteries, or engaging in obsessive gambling or promiscuous sexuality, or getting drunk or taking drugs. These are quick ways to reduce chaos in consciousness in the short run, but usually the only residue they leave behind is a feeling of listless dissatisfaction.
#3. Making the most of leisure is a skill that can be learned
Having leisure at one’s disposal does not improve the quality of life unless one knows how to use it effectively, and it is by no means something one learns automatically.
#4. You can make the most of leisure time by incorporating flow
Human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new. Most activities that produce flow also have clear goals, clear rules, immediate feedback—a set of external demands that focuses our attention and makes demands on our skills. Now these are exactly the conditions that are most often lacking in free time.
Why Turning Daily Leisure Time Into Flow Time Is Such A Big Idea
SECTION SUMMARY 1. Five hours every day is 80,000 over our life 2. 5pm-10pm is a weird middle zone time that could go either way 3. Leisure time can be perilous 4. There’s a huge opportunity to fill leisure time with flow activities
#1: Five hours every weekday is 80,000 over our life
If we stop work at 5pm and don't go to bed until 10pm, that's five hours every weekday. This turns into 1,300 hours a year, 13,000 a decade, and 80,000+ over our life.
To put this number in context, during these 80,000 hours we could put our life on a whole other trajectory by…
Starting new hobbies that bring joy and richness to our life
Getting into incredible shape, which extends our life by years
Becoming world-class in many new skills or competent in 100+ new skills
Exploring new career paths that are a better fit for us
Spending more quality time with family and creating memories that last forever
#2: 5pm-10pm is a weird middle zone time that could go either way
We’re tired, but not tired enough to take a nap (and it's too late in the day).
We have energy, but often not quite enough to do something enriching consistently.
We want to relax, and we want to do something.
We want the freedom to do whatever we want, yet we do best when pulled to do one thing.
Bottom line: there is great peril and great opportunity in this middle zone time.
#3: Leisure time can be perilous
During this middle zone time, if we’re not careful we mindlessly waste hours on social media and TV. As we do so, we venture from enjoyment into “regretted user minutes.”
Research also shows that evenings are when people are most likely to indulge in bad habits (drugs, alcohol, poor eating) or get into fights.
Csikszentmihalyi summarizes the risk of this time in his book Finding Flow:
It is not that relaxing is bad. Everyone needs time to unwind, to read trashy novels, to sit on the couch staring in space or watching a TV program. As with the other ingredients of life, what matters is the dosage. Passive leisure becomes a problem when a person uses it as the principal—or the only—strategy to fill up free time.
Whereas people regret too much passive leisure time, people feel more fulfilled as they spend more time on flow activities:
In a large-scale study in Germany, it was found that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television. The most flow was reported by individuals who read a lot and watched little TV, the least by those who read seldom and watched often.
#4: There’s a huge opportunity to fill leisure time with flow activities
The middle zone time holds promise for flow on a few levels:
It's a lot of time
Flow can give us a second wind. What's powerful about flow is that once we're in it, it gives us energy intrinsically
We don't have the same time pressures and expectations of the workday (depending on the age of the kids if we have them)
There aren't any expectations on us to create a result, be efficient, or make money
Wouldn’t it feel amazing to turn a huge chunk of the 80,000+ lifetime hours of middle zone time into flow time?
Imagine spending way more of your life in a state where you lose your sense of time, get fully immersed in what you’re doing, learn new skills, and grow as a human being.
In the past, I thought that turning this middle zone time into flow time wasn’t possible, because I didn’t have enough energy. What I now understand is that flow provides a source of intrinsic energy that can give us a second wind.
Furthermore, the more I understand flow, the more I understand that it is a skill we can cultivate in almost every area of our life.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Recommends Two Ways To Find Flow
In this clip, famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi broaches the idea that there are way more opportunities to integrate flow into our life than we probably realize.
To help us think through those opportunities, he breaks down two paths to enter flow:
Focus on activities that consistently produce flow
Transform everyday experiences into flow activities via fun challenges
Path #1: Focus on activities that consistently produce flow
He recommends the following activities, which require skill, focus, and purpose:
Physical (gymnastics, jogging, martial arts, biking, hiking, sports)
Symbolic skills (art, poetry, painting, music)
Mental (meditation, reading)
Combo (dance, yoga)
Hobbies (woodworking, etc)
Other (driving a car, convos with friends & family, nature)
Or one could simply do an inventory of all of the things in our lives that predictably take us into a state of flow.
Path #2: Transform everyday experiences into flow activities via fun challenges
SECTION SUMMARY 1. Create our own rewards & punishments beyond our environment 2. Concentrate more deeply 3. Transform adversity into enjoyable challenge 4. Let go of the result and focus on the journey 5. Learn to be in solitude
I especially appreciate way #2, because it's so easy to forget our incredible ability to transform our everyday experiences. Furthermore, transforming these experiences provides the greatest opportunity since our life is primarily filled with them.
To this end, I combed through Csikszentmihalyi's works and extracted six approaches he recommends to transforming everyday experiences into flow activities...
#1. Create our own rewards & punishments beyond our environment
To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external.
#2. Concentrate more deeply
If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.
Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.
#3. Transform adversity into enjoyable challenge
Of all the virtues we can learn no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.
#4. Transform boredom into enjoyable challenge
Transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble.
#5. Let go of the result and focus on the journey
The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.
#5. Learn to be in solitude
One of the books I wrote, Talented Teenagers, with two of my students, is a study of 200 young high school students as they moved through high school. All of these kids initially were seen as having very high talent in math or music or art or science. And as you see them year after year as they moved through high school, one of the the greatest obstacles that they encountered was the ability to be alone so that they could practice their instrument or read their books, etc.
Those talented kids who didn't have the ability to be alone to tolerate solitude, they became average instead of developing their potential. And that is true of adults too.
We try to fill our day with activity, with interactions, even if they don't mean much, but because we are afraid of being alone. In the long run, it contributes more to entropy than to flow.
Now that we understand the opportunity of flow time and how to cultivate it, we need to take action…
Half The Journey Is Getting Started
In a large-scale study of teenagers, Csikszentmihalyi found a confounding paradox:
Students preferred flow activities more
But they did them less than passive leisure activities
He asked the students why in a survey. Csikszentmihalyi summarizes their response:
The typical teenager admits that biking, or playing basketball, or playing the piano are more enjoyable than roaming through the mall or watching TV. But, they say, to get organized for a basketball game takes time—one has to change clothes, make arrangements. It takes at least half an hour of often dull practice each time one sits down at the piano before it begins to be fun.
In other words, each of the flow-producing activities requires an initial investment of attention before it begins to be enjoyable. One needs such disposable “activation energy” to enjoy complex activities. If a person is too tired, anxious, or lacks the discipline to overcome that initial obstacle, he or she will have to settle for something that, although less enjoyable, is more accessible.
Later, Csikszentmihalyi summarizes the cold start problem of going from low-energy to high-energy activities:
Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.
The mind is not going to fall into ordered and enjoyable patterns of experience unless one spends energy to give consciousness shape.
Bottom line: In other words, most of the time, the problem isn't our overall energy to do something. It's the initial energy to start a flow activity that's the challenge.
So now the question becomes, how does one solve the cold start problem?
How To Get Started On Hard Things When You Have Low Energy
The most helpful mental model that I’ve come across for getting started on hard things when I’m low energy comes from Stanford researcher BJ Fogg. This 2-minute video gives a solid overview of his #1 model…
In short, if you want to do something hard:
Break it down into “baby steps”
Start with the easiest baby step
Get consistent at this one step
Move on to the next slightly harder step
It’s one thing to understand a model of how to do something. It’s another to actually do it.
It’s one thing to understand how to generally apply a model. It’s another to specifically apply it to thought leadership.
Therefore, what follows are two case studies from me on how I specifically find time for thought leadership activities in my leisure time. I have refined these strategies after years of trial and error so that I get extra hours every day for thought leadership. Furthermore, the tools have literally saved me 1-2 hours from distractions every single day as they completely remove temptations.
Case Study #1: How I Find Hours Of Writing Time Daily Between 5pm-10pm (For Paid Subscribers)
Strategies To Find Flow Time 1. I choose topics that make me feel like a kid in the candy store 2. I use content buckets, not content calendars 3. I incorporate each part of thought leadership into my lifestyle 4. I get in the car and go somewhere