How to Be Less Anxious and More Creative

In my junior year of college, I was a reckless party animal.

The kind that spends hours in the local coffee shop reading Nimzowitsch and practicing complex chess tactics.

Alone.

During these lengthy study sessions, I would be so immersed in my own mind that I’d completely forget about the outside world.

I experienced this same feeling of immersion and single-focused concentration during the three weeks that I spent designing and constructing the balsa wood shelf shown below. It was just me, a box cutter, and a hot glue gun being serenaded by endless episodes of Seinfeld. Homework, relationships, and even eating were unimportant matters.

Most of us can relate to being so immersed in something that all time, worries, and troubles melt like lemon drops.

This feeling is called flow state, or optimal experience, an idea coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and discussed in his bestselling book, Flow.

In flow state, nothing else seems to matter. We forget about our problems, burdens, and self-consciousness and focus entirely on the task at hand, which we do not for a reward but simply for its own sake.

We usually stumble upon this blissful state of mind by accident, but with knowledge and practice, we can learn to control our attention and achieve optimal experience.

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Left: c. 9/2014. Balsa Wood Shelf. Right: Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

How we direct our attention determines who we become.

How we invest our attention can either make us happy or miserable. Introversion, extroversion, ambition, and laziness are all products of how we structure our attention.

When our minds are idle, our thoughts become random and unfocused, typically pausing on things that are disturbing or worrisome.

To avoid this, we distract ourselves with whatever is available – television, social media, drugs, alcohol, and other mindless entertainment – so that we don’t have to face our own disturbing problems.

In order to rid ourselves of anxieties and fears, we have to control our consciousness. Only then can we learn to achieve flow state – a place where there is no room for worry and self-scrutiny.

It is not a battle against the self. It is really a battle for the self; it is a struggle for establishing control over attention.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow can come from physical or mental activities.

People may achieve flow through movement such as dancing, sports, sex, yoga, or martial arts.

It can also be found sensually through art, music, and food, or mental activities such as reading, puzzles, games, meditation, writing, and studying.

Flow Channel Diagram, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, courtesy of http://www.tolstoytherapy.com

Whatever activity you choose, it must provide a balance of skills and challenge. An imbalance of either leads to either boredom or anxiety, as shown in the graph to the right.

Your activity must also meet the following conditions:

  1. Has clear goals and rules
  2. Provides consistent feedback
  3. Requires intense concentration
  4. Is within your skill set
  5. Presents a surmountable challenge

By structuring your environment in this way, you can make it easier to achieve flow state and control your quality of experience.

When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of our concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Work is better than free time.

Work has a pretty bad reputation. Most of civilization sees work as a curse and avoids it at all costs.

But ironically, it’s easier to achieve flow state in a job than in free time because jobs have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges.

The key is to not feel like you are forced to work against our will. If you are, you’ll see any on-the-job success as serving someone else’s ambitions and as being irrelevant to your own goals. You can’t enjoy something if you feel like you’re forced to do it.

You can redesign your job to be more like a flow activity. Set small goals for yourself to beat – your fastest time, most errors fixed, least mistakes made, etc. When a job resembles a game, it becomes easier to “lose oneself” and enjoy the task.

However, having a great job only lays the foundation as flow state cannot be achieved through external conditions alone; it requires an inner choice to become more conscious.

Men are not afraid of things, but of how they view them.

Epictetus

Happiness is a matter of perspective.

We must develop an autotelic personality, or the ability to find enjoyment in situations others find unbearable.

A Nazi architect named Albert Speer sustained himself for months in prison by pretending that he was taking a walk from Berlin to Jerusalem and imagining all the sights and experiences along the way.

If people can learn to be happy in prison cells, on arctic expeditions, or in tedious assembly line jobs, we can do the same in our experiences.

When we strategically shape our external conditions and cultivate an autotelic perspective, we can learn to be happy anywhere and lose ourselves in our jobs, hobbies, and the pursuit of our personal goals.

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.

J.S. Mill

***To learn more about flow state and how to be happier, less anxious, and more creative, check out Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.***

***Also watch Mihaly’s TED talk titled Flow, the Secret to Happiness.***

***Be sure to FOLLOW this blog for more posts on business, psychology, and personal development.***

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