What does “Going with the Flow” mean?

  • Does it mean we simply react to our surroundings?
  • Does it mean doing what we want at whim?
  • Does it mean avoiding confrontation?


A Dilemma

Intuitively, we know that being interested in work can make a big difference. We are much more inclined to invest ourselves, search for ideas, and try new things when we feel engaged. Meanwhile, forcing ourselves to do much of anything can make for poor quality, resentment, and more.

For these reason’s we might decide that working by whim is useful. In fact, a case against task management itself is, “What if I don’t want to do whatever I’ve written?” It is an excellent question, that in actuality requires the practice of one’s abilities to confront and address work to answer it. In fact, I’d argue that much of Creating Flow with OmniFocus was in no small part my attempt to solve this question.

But even when a task appears, we cannot follow it as would a robot, nor should we ignore it in some contempt of our past selves for having written it. Either direction is problematic.

Without forethought about where we are going, our mind can drift or sprint between several places at once without finding direction, let alone conclusion. Focus becomes weak, and strength is lost. At the same time, we must be wary when “going with the flow” is used as a means of avoiding the responsibility of making a decision.

So how do we solve this dilemma? How do we both do work with planning and forethought as well as fuel the playful state of mind that whim can encourage?


The Power of a Settled Decision

A crucial component of doing solid work is found in a session’s initial phase: Decision.

When we work well, we are fully there, fielding and building with resources of thought and feeling. When creating, we often aim to bring broadly different worlds into our singular crucible of attention.

For this reason, it is important to decide where “there” is. Otherwise, we easily drift, “multi-task”, and become caught in the whims of the world or mind. We may “go with a flow” but not one we have created. And, as the whims of the world or self are consistently in conflict with each other, the flow we’ve gone with is doomed to taper, even if we have momentarily succeeded in catching some wave.

This would seem to contradict flow as described by some athletes. For example, a professional soccer player, Lionel Messi, says, “I never think about the play or visualize anything. I do what comes to me at that moment. Instinct. It has always been that way.”

However, he does make a clear decision to be playing the game itself, to play on a certain position, to be there with certain teammates, etc. In addition, there are clear boundaries to the sport–rules, written and unwritten, that he has practiced until they have become a part of his fiber. Within those bounds, he decides to play a particular game and to be on the field when it is time to be there.

Sessions of solid work begin with a clear decision. The process is not one of forcing ourselves to do anything. A clear decision does, however, take time. We need to fully rest our mind on the sense of pressure, the sense of desire, the sense of other work, the sense of this work, and whatever else that comes to mind to make a fully mindful decision.

When we fully allow thought and feeling to settle, decide on the work ahead, and consciously set aside all else, we are more accurately saying:

“This is where I want my mind to be.”

We can then much more easily let our mind be there, until we decide again that we are fully ready to leave. When we have that full control to simply be with our work, that playful, flow state has a much greater chance of appearing, whether we have set a strong challenge or a light hearted romp in front of us.

When seeing a task we’ve written to ourselves that says “Do X”, it is crucial in the moments before doing the work to actively and consciously decide that this is truly the work to do. If not, we might consider: What about it is problematic? How can we adjust it so that it is more reflective of the conditions needed? Are we addressing the anxiety or other negative feelings that might lead to procrastination?

The iterative practice of building a trusted system helps us form a confidence that we can actively guide flow. Doing so lays solid ground for our mind’s travels. A well constructed task system or outlined calendar can give us trust that we’ve arranged much of our work well. But, the present moment is still a singularly unique moment, and its acknowledgement is powerful.



For an in-depth discussion on easing the process of decision, consider: