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Consider lockdown, the absence of usual jobs and accustomed social interactions, homeschooling kids who are climbing your legs or the walls and interrupting your focus in their own efforts to combat boredom. Those are a lot of flow-breakers right there.
Yet it’s possible to enter a flow state even during an extended quarantine. In fact, a recent study under review, “Flow in the Time of COVID-19: Findings from China,” examined whether flow or mindfulness might be useful coping resources during this stressful period. The researchers included four from the University of California, Riverside, including lead author Professor of Psychology Kate Sweeny, and five from Chinese universities. The study had 5115 participants in Wuhan and other major COVID-19-struck cities complete an online survey assessing experiences of flow, mindfulness, and well-being.
As you would expect, the longer the quarantine, the poorer participants’ reported well-being. The key finding, though, was that flow—but not mindfulness —made a significant difference in well-being. People who experienced high levels flow showed little or no association between quarantine length and low scores in the domain of well-being.
While mindfulness is part of many meditation practices and is a useful tool in psychology, medicine, and healthcare, it may be the antithesis of flow. Whereas flow reduces self-awareness and awareness of your environment, mindfulness draws your attention to internal and external experiences.
If you’re coping with a situation in which you want time to pass more quickly, flow is wonderfully distracting. Longer periods of confinement and isolation tend to exacerbate worries and the stress of uncertainty, with little else to think about. But if people engage in activities where their attention is fully required, a long stretch of days and weeks under quarantine feels more tolerable.
Although this study did not ask which particular activities brought on a flow state most reliably, it has been found in copious flow research by Csikszentmihalyi and others that flow activities are highly idiosyncratic. What it takes are activities that provide some challenge but are not too hard nor too easy, and that offer feedback on your progress. The creative arts are perfect for finding this balance, but so are learning geometry or a language, as are more mundane tasks if you can find or manipulate the challenge in them (as in, how many socks can you pair up before the egg timer goes off?).
When people are unable to perform their usual jobs from home, all that unaccustomed unfilled time can loom uncomfortably. Even a skim of social media will show that some people are getting far less done than they feel they should be accomplishing, in spite of all this unstructured time on their hands. And maybe that’s part of the key: we need to structure our goals and our time, even a little, to find ourselves slipping into a flow state.