Most of us are creatures of strong habits. They fill our day with customary activities and familiar faces. Habits help us to survive and thrive by reducing risks. The problem is that they might choke off spontaneity, or “flow.”
Flow as peak experience
Flow is a term used by motivation theorists to describe some open-ended activity that is absorbing and interesting for its own sake. Wandering around a flea market searching the wares for bargains without knowing in advance what one may find is one example.
According to motivation theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1), optimal experience occurs when we take on challenging tasks that are purposeful and provide immediate feedback. Such activities give us a sense of being in control and inspire feelings of excitement and deep involvement.
Peak experiences might seem to be the opposite of mindlessly habitual activities such as sorting letters or mowing the lawn. Yet, there is a surprising connection between habitual acts and peak experiences.
The intersection of peak experience and habits
Whether the challenge is fly fishing, or rock climbing, many hobbyists enjoy those activities best for which they have developed well-honed skills. (Csikszentmihalyi would put this the other way about maintaining that if we enjoy such peak experiences that we are motivated to acquire the relevant skills to be good at them).
So it appears that we are willing to work hard at honing skills for activities that we undertake for their intrinsic rewards. This requires a willingness to put out considerable time and effort in order to master and improve some hobby whether it is shooting hoops or playing a musical instrument.
The key to mastery of such skills is determined practice, i.e., good work habits. So there is an apparent contradiction where habits set the stage for peak experiences. Work habits are like the sandwich bread that holds the meat of optimal experience.
Applying habits versus flow to work settings and creativity
For people who are really involved in their job, working hard and meeting objectives comes naturally. It requires effort, of course, but they are not fighting themselves every step of the way. Instead, they feel calm and focused and their day passes in a blur of pleasantly stimulating activity.
Such people tend to be workaholics and many feel far happier, calmer, more stimulated, and in control of their lives when they are working than on their days off. Working can be an avenue to peak experiences and such experiences are potentially addictive which is why some people work compulsively and go far beyond the call of duty.
A similar phenomenon applies to more conventionally creative activities such as writing fiction, or painting. The point is that the most successful creative people generally have good work habits and take a disciplined approach to their art. Ernest Hemmingway was a terrible drunk yet postponed his alcoholic excesses until he had completed his allotment of writing for the day. In this way, he produced a steady output. Good work habits are a feature of most successful creative writers..
Regular work can seem deadening. Yet, there is a complex relationship between work habits and optimal experiences.
Work habits may be compared to the starting handle that was once used to crank the engines of cars to get them started. Once the effort of turning the handle is invested, the engine responds by coming to life. Similarly the disciplined application of some craft can elicit peak experiences unless a person happens to work under extreme duress (e.g., a sweatshop) that destroys their intrinsic motivation.
The dull grind of work is not really separate from creative flow and peak experiences after all.
1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). The psychology of optimal experiences. New York: Harper and Row.