Finding flow in your work

Yesturday, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion on ‘how to live in the present moment’ with some lovely ladies at a Goal-Oriented Living Club meeting. This post covers the some salient points of the discussion (of those that I remembered or wrote down). And for your benefit has been slightly modified in order to make it more web- and reader-friendly.

Happiness is one of those goals for which everyone seeks. I’ve never yet met the person who does not genuinely want to be happy. However how are we to attain it? Often, it is said that one of the keys to happiness is living in the present moment. In fact, this teaching has roots that spread throughout time and religions. Two examples that are readily forthcoming are Zen Buddhism and Christianity.The essence of Zen is to gain an appreciation for living moment-to-moment, to understand the “infinite moment”. Koans, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”, are invoked in order to have one reflect deeply on these questions; this reflection becomes so deep that the meditator becomes fully engrossed in the moment, hopefully to reach enlightenment. More on meditation and Buddhism later.

The Beatitudes from the book of Matthew reveal a similar message:

“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. […] Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Ideally, this sort of contentment would come as easily as breathing, would be as natural as growing; however, most of us are quickly distracted from the now by thoughts of the future and past. Yet surely there must be some way to tap into this power of the present moment.

This is where “flow” comes in.

(This term is not my own, reference available upon request, however it does describe what we will be dealing with for the next bit quite nicely.) Flow is what comes about when you are fully engaged in an activity: one that captures most, if not all, of your attention. Such examples include, playing/listening to music, exercising, doing crosswords, writing, cooking, dancing, meditating, the list goes on. Usually such an activity is enjoyable because it is challenging, while not being frustrating.In engaging in activities that evoke flow, we hope to get in touch with the same awareness of now that monks engage in while meditating. Though it may not seem like it initially, there are concrete gains to be had from meditaion.

You may recall that there was scientific convention in 2003 where the Dalai Lama advocated (as he still does) the benefits of meditation and scientific inquiry into the same. Of course, research was done as well:

Last year Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin and a conference presenter, used an fMRI machine to map the brain of monk Matthieu Ricard.

While Ricard, a monk with over 30 years’ experience in contemplative practice, engaged in what Buddhists call compassion meditation, Davidson measured the activity in his brain. The pictures showed excessive activity in the left prefrontal cortex (just inside the forehead) of Ricard’s brain.

Generally people with happy temperaments exhibit a high ratio of activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area associated with happiness, joy and enthusiasm. Those who are prone to anxiety, fear and depression exhibit a higher ratio of activity in the right prefrontal cortex.

But the degree to which the left side of Ricard’s brain lit up far surpassed 150 other subjects Davidson had measured. No one knows whether Ricard might have exhibited the same results before he became a monk. But given that his readings were off the chart for happiness, Richardson believes that studying the minds of meditating monks can help us learn how meditation can mold our brains to develop happier and less-afflicted temperaments.

(Source: Wired)

What am I getting at here? Our “flow” is one form of meditation that will allow us to access this type of happiness. Flow may allow us to rewire our brains for a higher basal level of happiness.

Before I jump into how we may make use of flow, as a side note I’d like to ask: Do goals push people from this present moment happiness by striving for a non-existent future?

I would say no. Although goals are set for a future point in time, your goals should enrich your present moment. In thinking about them and in the process of accomplishing them, you can more easily practice that flow. In a way, the goals mediate your entry into these present-moment-enriching activities. Further, your thoughts regarding your goals should enrich you right now; goals are not valuable if they only fulfill you once they are accomplished.

As a personal example, one of my goals is to have a beautifully crafted essay to submit to a philosophy magazine here at Queen’s University (by March 31). My pleasure will not only come about once I have completed this work, this essay engages me whenever I write or even think about it: this goal enriches my now.

It sounds so appealing for those activities that we do for recreation. Is there a way to get this flow into our work? To put a spin on that: Can we make our flow times more productive?


In the same way that we have found something within engaging activities to flow with, it is possible to find this type of attribute in our work. It is in the framing of the topic, or how we look at it.

Back to my philosophy essay example, some may view the essay as work, something to be dreaded over and to be procrastinated upon. However, the creativity that is allowed to me, the challenge that it brings, does not allow me to think of this essay in a negative light.

In a similar way, we may bring a fresh perspective to our work. It is possible to find something within your math project, history essay, biochemistry textbook, to engage you.

Ah, I can already hear the scoffing even across the vast expanse of the internet. Hold on for a second.

This comes a lot more smoothly once you open your mind to it. So you are asking: “how can I find flow in a subject as boring as biochemistry/history/whatever?” Maybe it will not come from the material itself, but from the process of reading and reviewing. In focusing purely on your text, you are bringing yourself to a different level of awareness. During a different activity, say playing music, try to notice how you feel while in that flow state then bring it to your work. It is something you have to experience to understand.

Another tip to help you get into this flow state (with work or with anything): Remember that all work you do is productive. Don’t worry about doing a perfect job right away.

Initially, do what you want, when you can, how you can. Don’t worry about not completing enough or every little thing. In thinking about all these other things you are detracting from the essence of what you are doing, you are losing the flow.

Just get in there. You can work about perfection later. If you have given yourself enough time you can tweak things afterwards: edit the introduction, review a section, practice measures 17-24, etc. And you will have enough time.

Why am I so confident that you will have enough time? Usually you don’t have enough time because you delay on starting it. Why do you delay? Generally, because you are worried you will (a) not do a perfect job or (b) you hate it. If you start with small expectations and by doing the parts you like initially, you will start to get into it (“the appetite comes with eating”), and you will do much more than you thought possible, even while enjoying it!

So try it! Seriously. This mentality is tremendously productive and fulfilling. If you have some questions or comments about it, feel free to email me or comment below and we can jive.
(One of the comments that I received before this post was that I didn’t elaborate on how one can integrate this flow theory into practice. I tried doing that in this post; yet if you feel that it is still lacking, email me and I’ll see what I can do. I find in most posts like these – mine and other’s – that showing it’s practice is the part that always needs the most elaboration.)


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Upholding positivity / Fighting negativity

We’ve all done it: said something, in fact, said many things negative about a person, academic course, decision, and everything else. It’s very easy and tempting to fall into it. Yet when we let others’ negative comments affect who we are and what we do, it may damage us emotionally and decrease our potential.

Maybe some personal examples will help us to understand how this happens; I’ll deal with my two favourite topics: fitness and the MCAT (Medical Collage Admission Test).

In previous years, I would have to say that I was not a physically fit person. My frame was a big on the large side, rather the huge side. Now that I’m starting to do the math, from grade 10ish to now (3rd year university), I’ve lost roughly 40-50 pounds. Wow. That’s not the point though. Before, and even now, people would talk about how hard it is to workout, how hard it is to eat healthy food, blah blah blah. Frankly, this was a little discouraging.

A wise person once said this, and it has served me well for my life: Screw them.

Let’s use some good ol’ logic here: What do other people know about your abilities? More than you? No way. Do other people understand your true potential? We aren’t even fully aware of our own potential, how could someone else possibly understand yours?

Even past unsuccessful attempts are not indicative of future successes. Chester Carlson searched for 10 years to find a company to buy his xerographic device: later to become Xerox Co. Charles Dickens came from working 10-hour days sticking labels on bottles to become one of history’s most famed authors.

So we know people can’t know about our true potential, but they also are probably not experts in the field they’re bad-mouthing. People are quite willing to talk about how hard the MCAT is, but do they even know what the 4 sections are? Do they know what it’s like to take a test of that length (6-8 hours)? The funny thing is: not that bad. Didn’t expect that, eh?

It’s important to remember not to take the advice of self-proclaimed experts. When it comes down to it, we are all unique, and another person’s perspective/ability/knowledge will not be the same as ours. What other people “know”, may not apply to you.

Hopefully, you can see why we don’t need to let other people’s negativity affect us. However, what we say to ourselves is important too. In the same way that repeated actions would build into skills such as throwing a ball, repeated thought patterns can strengthen neural pathways to make them flow more smoothly. Keep thinking in a negative way, it will be very easy to continue thinking negatively.

But as always, there is hope: Start thinking more positively (less negatively) and those negative pathways will degrade and positive ones will start to develop in their place.

So the big question: How can we foster positivity (in our external and internal environment)?


  • Avoid consistently negative people: sounds a little harsh, but we are talking about your mental health here.
  • Interrupt negativity: you can be more elegant by gently guiding a conversation to a different topic or perspective; you could just yell, “MOO!”


  • Positive logic: positive thinking isn’t about mindless self-affirmation, we are too smart to blindly let that chanting enter our conscious and subconscious. Positive thinking should be based in logic. Remember why something is actually easy, beneficial, interesting, etc. Critically analyze your positivity; you are surprisingly good at it.
  • Positive people: if you can find them, consider yourself truly lucky. They are the sorts of people that can turn your day around and that light the world for those around them. In the same way that people would be glad to be around them, try to be positive yourself, so that people are glad to be around you. Remember: no one wants to hang around a person who constantly talks about the bad aspects.

Since I’d like to emphasize this even further, I’ll reiterate: Positive thinking is not a passive, mindless idea. Positive thinking is fierce, logical tool. It is not smiling when you are truly miserable; it is taking the good that can be found and taking what you can from it.

So I’ll challenge you: This week (and for your life if you can manage it) strive for positivity and avoid negativity.

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Joshua’s Goals

Alright guys, here is a badge from showing my productivity over the past 7 days:
Joshua's Personal Score Badge

It will be updated live, whenever I update my productivity.

What do I call productivity?

  • Doing school work
  • Exercising
  • Praticing guitar
  • Working on club stuff, or my other web site

I’m also dabbling with another online graphing program, but I haven’t found a way to make it really user-friendly. More on that later.

So check in here, if you want to see my progress. If you care enough, you can bookmark just this post by clicking the permalink below and bookmarking that page.

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First meeting

The first (and best) meeting for the GOL! Club will take place on Wednesday, October the 4th at 7PM in Goodes Hall: Room 303.

I must say, it is probably one of the most attractive rooms that’s available to book. The building in general is really attractive too.

In this meeting we will be finding out our true goals, setting those goals correctly and hopefully we will get to planning and implementation. Basically, this is an important meeting.

By the way, free Timbits! There is no reason you shouldn’t come. Everything to gain, nothing to lose.

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More links and tips


While there are many health tips I could give you, nothing beats the basics. Even though we would all like to think ourselves quite healthy, it never hurts to look at the fundamentals.

Here are 10 Healthy Eating Tips for College, from the University of Oregon.

If you are trying to lose weight, I have a lot of little tips and tricks I’ve used to shed quite a few pounds. However, like much of life, there is no easy way out. Reduce caloric intake, increase your activity level.

There are ways to make that easier though. When grocery shopping, just don’t buy that bag of chips, or pound of bacon. If you pick it up, just put it down right away. Imagine the effects it will have on your health and figure. That usually helps.

To increase your activity level, nothing helps like having someone engage in a sport with you or go to the gym with you. Intramural sports are easy to pick up, and they require little talent. Come watch me play volleyball if you don’t believe me.

Having a good workout partner is priceless. They will motivate and encourage you to push yourself that extra inch. If you need some more tips or want to go to the gym with me (and you go to Queen’s), just email me, and I’ll see what I can do.

Time Management

Here is an area (among many), where goals are needed. The basic reason most people do not have enough time, is that they are spending the majority of their time on tasks that do not move them to any goal or purpose.

Once we have goals in place, it is a simple matter of asking yourself: Will this task move me towards my goals, or away from them?

If my goal is to devote more time to my studies and thereby do better in school, then will watching Grey’s Anatomy move me to my goal or away from it?

Sorry all you Grey’s Anatomy fans, but I think you know the answer.

There are many systems out there to manage your time — these will probably be covered in later posts and meetings — but fundamentally it comes down to priorities and self-discipline.

Are you willing to do what it takes to get what you want?

If so, get out there and do it! This post is done, start now!

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Some useful links

I will note as many “possible goals” that people have listed on the club’s sign-up sheet, and some tips or links to accompany them.

Med School and Law School

Assuming you go to Queen’s University,  Career Services offers workshops regarding applying to medical/law school. You can even schedule appointments to talk about your choice of a profession, they will help guide you in reflecting on who you are and what is right for you.

Just click on the link and go the the Career Services Navigator in the upper left, then login and register for an appointment or event.

As well, there are many Test Preparation companies (such as Kaplan and Princeton Review) that will offer free shortened mock tests for the MCAT and LSAT, just to see how you are doing.

If you have some questions about the MCAT feel free to email me.

World Domination

Before one attempts to dominate the world, I feel that they should be well-versed in the history of those before them. Wikipedia is always good for a lesson. From there, one should have a mastery of the ways of the ninja.

Now find a good brainwasher, and things will pretty much fall into place.


For now I can recommend Learning, The Gravy Way, which I must admit I’m biased towards because it is my site. It does offer a lot of specific and mindset related tips to improve your learning.

As well, if you go to Queen’s, the Learning Strategies Development offers some workshops and lessons regarding things like notetaking and studying for midterms.


I will leave the links here for now. Tomorrow, I will add some more regarding time management and health.

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Clubs’ night on Tuesday and Wednesday

Clubs’ night will be on this Tuesday and Wednesday at Grant Hall from 5-9PM. If you’d like to hear more about this club, or just talk to me about anything, I’ll be there.

Hope to see you there!

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