4 Ways to Go With the Flow (Even When It Seems Impossible)

The skills that can help you chill, or at least disengage.

Posted Jun 03, 2016

Blend Images/Shutterstock
Source: Blend Images/Shutterstock

The first thing I do in the morning is check my to-do list. I have been using the same app on my phone for the last seven years. But something was different today. The app received a major facelift last night. And when I opened it this morning, I could barely recognize it as the same app. New features were added, old ones had been removed, different terms were used to describe the same concepts, and tasks appeared on the screen in a new order. After fumbling with my phone for several minutes, I found the app unusable. I got really frustrated, put my phone down, and tried to go through my day without it, all the while worrying about all the things that would be left undone. 

Next, I took my laptop, got on my bike, and went to my favorite café to do some writing. As soon as I arrived, I checked my movement-tracking app to see how long I had been biking, only to realize that my app had tracked nothing. This is an app that normally doesn’t leave me in peace. It tracks every step I take, remembers where I stop, and even tells me what I did when I stopped! No privacy at all. But today, after more than an hour on the bike, it kept no record of anything. I muttered some ugly words under my breath, and ordered my favorite iced tea. But they told me they couldn’t make it for me. I was given a reason, but the bottom line was that I wasn’t getting my tea. With my emotions spinning, I stood there thinking about all the ways in which my familiar routines had been challenged. An updated and ugly app, sluggish and uncooperative movement tracking app, and now, no iced tea. 

As I was about to snap at the barista, the woman behind me in line told me that sometimes we just have to go with the flow. At that moment, I had a flashback: Two days before, I had been interviewed by a columnist on creativity. I explained how creative people challenge themselves by disrupting the flow intentionally so that they can find new ways to respond to it. And now, here I was, unable to go with the flow and becoming angry with a poor barista because I couldn’t have my tea. I had to quickly regroup and put what I knew to practice so I could go with the flow.

But what does it mean to go with the flow?

It means being able to respond to changes and disruptions calmly and creatively. It means being cool-headed, flexible, and adaptive. It means being able to shift your priorities without abandoning your goals. It also means being open and playful. 

Going with the flow requires a special kind of creativity. And just like other aspects of creativity, it is a skill you can develop. So how can you learn to go with the flow?

1. Chill: Create the emotional distance you need. 

Strong negative emotions need to subside in order to allow your creativity to kick in. Give yourself a few seconds to create that emotional distance. Use your body to calm your mind. Here are some quick ways to do that: 

  • Take a few deep—really deep—breaths.
  • Close your eyes and picture your favorite pet or your favorite place in the world.
  • Repeat to yourself your favorite mantra or song.
  • Smile, and even laugh with yourself about how quickly you turn into a hothead.
  • Start speaking in a much softer tone.

You will be surprised at how those adjustments in your physiology can have an immediate impact on your mood. And when your mood is under control, your creativity kicks in.

2. Assess the urgency: Is this a battle you want to pick? 

Think about how important it is to get what you want in this situation: Is this a big problem for you right now? Is it your problem to solve? Is this the right time to solve it? Is it worth spending your resources on? What will happen if you don’t get what you want? Will there be serious consequences? Will it create problems for you or for someone else? Can you live with the alternatives for now? If this is something that you eventually have to deal with, can you put it on the back burner and deal with it another time? If the answer is yes, move on to the next step.

3. Be a good sport: How can you make the situation better?

Going with the flow means being agreeable, cooperative, and helpful. This may not be the best time to demonstrate your strong debate skills or your assertiveness. This is the time to show how easygoing you can be and how much you care about everyone around you. If someone is not being cooperative, indulge them and follow their lead. Take your ego out of the situation. By choosing to give someone else the right of way, you are making a conscious choice to keep the peace. That doesn’t make you weak or submissive—it makes you gracious and kind.

4. Disengage: If you can’t go with the flow, scram.

Swimming against the current is exhausting, especially if you are trying to drag other people along with you. Sometimes it’s just not possible to go with the flow, and a better option is to get out of the flow entirely. If you find yourself unable to relax and to be a good sport, the best strategy is to leave the situation alone. You can either physically remove yourself from the situation or focus your attention on something else.

What do you do to go with the flow?

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