#1347. Grow with the flow (1/2)

By pascaljappy | How-To

Feb 14

Putting to rest the mystical, getting into the neuroscience of flow, and how to use it in our photography.


Ironically, the very idea of flow creates a lot of resistance. Either because it is felt by some to be a mushy concept used by faux-gurus, or because of the impression that it requires some kind of insurmountable effort/innate jedi talent that destines its use to a happy few. The chosen ones.

Neither is true.

Flow is the natural state of our thinking mind, that years of mental malpractice have simply wiped away in many of us. But it’s extremely easy to bring back into our lives.


Before discussing the how, let’s focus briefly on the what and, importantly, the why. Why would you want to bring flow into your life?

The answer sounds like a Daft Punk song: Happier, Healthier. Or a Radiohead song: More productive. Or a DS song: More creative.

Don’t take my word for it. Trust Harvard. Trust UC Davis. Trust the National Library of Medicine. Trust Forbes.


Flow is a name introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, defining the state as β€œConcentration is so intense that no attention is left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.”

Our brains are physically wired to process one task at a time. In a state of flow, we are at our most productive. Amusingly, multitasking, that pesky concept worshiped by so many at workplaces driven by a culture of busy, is the least productive thing one can do to get valuable work done. And the most tiring. When switching from one task to another, the brain has to “upload” a whole new context associated with the new one, and archive the previous one, or forget it altogether. It’s no surprise that repeating this often and over long periods leads to (1) little actual work done (2) severe burnout.

Flow is the polar opposite of multitasking. It allows the brain to focus exclusively on one task only, ignoring distractions from the outside world as well as those from within, inner voices, self-doubt, self-criticism, … So, not only does a state of flow make us more efficient than multitasking, it is also beneficial for our mental health, relaxing, energizing.


In photography, I couldn’t care less about productivity or performance. There’s always a bigger fish, always a better photographer, always someone more devoted, more affluent, more talented, more involved …

DS is about the process and joy of photography, not about winning competitions or making a living. About making photography an enjoyable and fulfilling part of your life, with the side effect of making you a better photographer.

That’s my philosophy, my approach to life, and that’s why flow plays such an important part in my photography. Anyone who’s photographed with me will report I’m not particularly talkative at those times πŸ˜‰


This leaves the how. How do we achieve flow on demand?

This requires mastering our mind, which is a lot more about process than most people realize, more about repeating over and over than about will power or intrinsic qualities. This is not about blood lineage or about The Force. It’s open to anyone and easy. In a nutshell, you need to want to and follow simple steps.

And therein probably lies the rub πŸ˜‰ As it’s a lot less scary to look and feel busy and achieve nothing than to focus and fail. But we all fail, initially, and it is an important part of the process. We can’t let ego thwart our progress πŸ™‚ We need to … just do it πŸ™‚ (remember the “Self-consciousness disappears” part of the original quote?)


Practical steps and suggestions for achieving flow will follow in the second part of this post. But quick spoiler: having fun is a big part of success!!


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  • Michael Keppler says:

    An exciting topic and I’m already looking forward to the second part In my work as an architect, I can only carry out certain tasks in the flow. Not writing a bill of quantities in flow would take years and it would be full of errors. When I’m working creatively, at least when I’m not disturbed by phone calls and emails, I automatically get into flow. It’s a wonderful and incredibly satisfying state of extreme concentration and productivity.
    By the way, your black and white pictures here are absolutely fantastic!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Amazing! Thanks for that. I’d love your input on part 2, which is the practical steps.
      My daughter is in her final year of training to become an architect, in London. I hope she reads your comment! πŸ™‚
      Also, thanks for the kind words about the photos πŸ™‚

      • Zbigniew Czudek says:

        Unfortunately, even though I know several languages, English is not one of them, so machine translation. I apologize in advance for possible inaccuracies.

        On topic: Pascal, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I did amateur theatre for many years. At the beginning as a not very good actor, at the end as a principal and director. We traveled quite a lot in Europe, also to you, to Saint Louis.:-)

        Over time we organized and conducted workshops. They took place quite high up in the mountains, in beautiful nature, away from people. Just creating.
        They were mostly ten-day affairs. “Work” from morning to evening. From evening to deep night discussions, little sleep. And now I’m getting to the heart of the matter. There was a bit of fatigue when it was over, but never, after any vacation, have I returned to “civilization” more energized.
        Just energy.
        At first I didn’t understand why I was more tired after a job that fed me, even after one eight-hour day, than after ten days of something as intense as a workshop.

        Then I understood.

        It’s just FUN. Just pure JOY. And just plain FILLING.

        It’s that simple.

        And that, to me, is what is now professionally called flow.

        Then once the theatre, like everything in the world, is over, so is flow. But a bit of it comes out of the blue from time to time, and then I forget the world “out there” again for a while.

        And I take pictures:-)

  • David says:

    Hello Pascal
    A true and profound article. Very much enjoyed the images.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I think if I was ever mad enough to go rock climbing, I’d be thinking of rock climbing the whole time, till I found myself safely back at the bottom again! Same goes for bunjee jumping or jumping out of aeroplanes!

    Because my photography is one of my hobbies – and one that I take quite seriously – when I pick up a camera my mind is totally focused on photography. Usually planned these days, although not always – some of it by its very nature is spontaneous. But I often find myself thinking of the subject long before I take “the” photo, even if I take a few exploratory shots to help me straighten out my ideas and objectives.

    Travel can become very much like that film “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium!” Shooting away at everything you pass because you might never be in that spot ever again. Which often spoils the end result. Mostly [?!] photography reflects the amount of time/thought and effort that’s put into creating the image. Which is probably just my way of saying “yes, I agree with you”.

    • pascaljappy says:

      That’s the point. When you go rock climbing, you think of nothing else but rock climbing. That’s extraordinarily cleansing, mentally. I’m glad you can recreate this experience through photography πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Don’t worry – I had a school friend who came from Mount Gambier – and one day, staying with him, we went rock climbing. Once we got started, there was no way back – and the way forwared was extremely daunting. Especially doing it with our bare hands, and no rock climbing gear. The mind’s focus was wholly and solely on getting to the end of the climb – absolutely nothing else existed.
        I don’t know which was worse – that, or the day we went caving and I got stuch – he had to go and find his father, to get me out of the cave. And suffering acutely from claustrophobia didn’t help much either.
        Not which whether to tag the rock climbing episode as “absorbing” – or “terrifying”.

  • Jon Maxim says:

    This really resonated with me and I realize why I gravitate to DS so much. You said:
    “DS is about the process and joy of photography, not about winning competitions or making a living.” Unfortunately, I am surrounded by photographers that DO think it is about winning competitions or making a living and I am tired of that influence. However, they are also good friends of mine so I do not want to avoid them, and we do have some interests in common. I have to make a lot of effort to keep myself in my zone…
    I wonder, is that the same as flow?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Jon, I suppose the world needs competitive people. But my youth was one big tennis competition and I’ve never played tennis since, because I hated the idea of competing again. We live on the brink of nuclear war, because of competition. People in Paris are being chucked out of their homes because of competition (the coming olympic “games” – I’d love to understand where the word game comes into play here …)

      I far prefer problem solving, project management, collaboration. But that’s just me πŸ˜‰

      Yes, to me, staying in the zone is the same as flow πŸ™‚

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    At the risk of sounding I am going to introduce something mystical into the conversation I am going to say

    Follow your own shuhari.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Well, one of my most intense experience of flow happened when I started karate, years ago. You have to focus so hard not to hurt yourself, or others, or get hurt, that the world outside of the sparring ceases to exist. I would go into class full of my daily worries and come out completely energized and “cleansed”. After that, it immediately became obvious why it is considered to be a Zen art.

  • Pascal Ravach says:


  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    First – to my mind – very special photos!

    I think flow is instinctive.
    Young children just have it when they get deeply interested in something.
    You can see it on their body language and in their eyes that, so to speak, the whole child is not in its body but at the point of interest.

    ( I very rarely see grown ups that way in normal social situations.)

    And if too well meaning grown ups constantly tell the child what not to do and what and how to do – instead of just teaching them about how things work and the skills they need – the child runs a high risk of losing its capacity for flow.
    At least, that’s my personal belief.

    I clearly remember my first _conscious_ intense experience of flow.
    It was in the written math exam in the middle of my second year at university. I’d become to lazy as the first year was more of an extension of school math. I hadn’t adapted to the sudden higher abstraction level and came far too unprepared. Luckily the problems were rather elegant in their way to concentrate on a certain subject. And after some thought I realised that some of the problems could be solved by my school math plus a couple of tricks. I’ve rarely enjoyed doing math like I did those hours!
    And solving three I barely passed.
    But, of course, I totally failed the oral exam!
    And I knew how not to learn math!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, so flow cannot solve everything πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ But it was a cool experience nonetheless πŸ™‚

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Aye, and with’t flow I wouldn’t ‘ave solv’d no nuth’n..
        And I didn’t know it was called flow until many years later.
        ( I remember my mother telling me, that when I as a child was caught up in a good book I wasn’t aware of anything around me.)

        • Zbigniew Czudek says:

          Yes, yes, Christian, and yes again. Thanks for the reminder.

          Reading books as a kid. Completely falling into other worlds. And a rude awakening to reality at the cry of “come on, let’s go eat dinner!!!”

          And when I was kicked out of the statistics exam.
          But I HAD to take it in three days.
          Three days of self-forgetfulness in a dorm room. Just stats, almost no sleep, little food. And statistics, statistics and statistics.

          Yeah, those were good times:-)

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