Are you familiar with flow theory? Mihail Csikszentmihalyi (guess how many times I had to double check the spelling of that), a Hungarian-American psychologist, presented the theory in the mid 70’s. In his seminal paper, simply titled “Flow”, Csikszentmihalyi did his doctoral research on male artists in the mid-60’s and was puzzled at how they seemed to get lost in their work but upon finishing would set it aside and completely lose interest in it (Carl, n.d.) Studying this phenomenon led Mihail to coin “flow theory” to describe the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
Flow and Habit
The usefulness of learning to put yourself in a flow state can’t be overstated! Have you ever read a book, written a blog post, or painted a picture and completely lost track of time? Your rational mind almost seems to shut off as your creative mind goes to work, taking over your body and focus. The same thing happens when you get up in the morning to get ready for work or drive your car to a familiar place. You get in your car, put the keys in the ignition, and before you know it you’re at your destination without having any recollection of what you had just done. The fact that you didn’t crash your car into a road sign is evidence that something is going on in our minds that we are not conscious of.
Habits capitalize on this system but many, I’d wager most, people don’t understand this or don’t know how to purposely create new habits. In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg (2012) writes that creating a new habit is comprised of 3 things: cue, routine, and reward. Actively learning to utilize these functions to automate parts of your life frees up precious minutes in days that already seem too short (Hyatt, 2019).
Those of us who are intimately familiar with addiction are also intimately familiar with step 1 of the habit framework, the cue. Cues can be many things: location, time of day, people, scents, etc. For example, I intermittently fast from 8pm to noon the next day and right around 11:55am my mouth starts salivating and my stomach starts rumbling. My body knows that food is coming! It takes effort to resist a cue versus the effort it takes to perform other tasks that aren’t cues. This is why quitting alcohol and drugs is so difficult for addicts, the cue is so powerful that the effort required to resist it requires us to tap into reserves of willpower that have dried up by our normal drinking time (called the witching hour by many; usually after work or school where we’ve been making decisions all day and using up our energy stores). So, the first thing you need to do to set up a new habit or change an old one is to identify which cue you want to use.
The routine step should be fairly obvious; you identify what you want to happen when your cue appears. Say you want to wake up, make your bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, and go to the gym in the morning. That is the routine you want to follow. Your cue could simply be your alarm going off. Or it could be the first step in the routine, making your bed. Habits are forged by performing the same routine after the same cue over and over again. Also in Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”, Duhigg gives a case study on a girl who bit her nails obsessively to the point that her fingers bled! She was fortunate enough to find herself in the care of forward thinking psychologists who gave her a test: every time she had the urge to bite her nails she would put a check mark on a piece of paper and then do something else such as sit on her hands or go for a walk. In just a couple of weeks she had completely stopped biting her nails! The power of routine should be obvious by now. I use it many times a day to save mental energy for more important things.
Cue and routine are useless without some kind of reward to solidify in your reptile brain that the habit you’re creating is good for survival. Scientists are learning more and more how essential dopamine is in everything we do. While the exact mechanisms aren’t fully understood yet, we do know that whenever you perform a task that your brain considers good for survival, it releases a flood of dopamine which starts to solidify that activity in your mind as a routine. Again, hearkening back to drugs and alcohol, not only do narcotics artificially increase dopamine levels, they also make your brain resistant to dopamine so it needs to release more and more. This forms an almost impossible to break habit. Even upon abstaining from drugs and alcohol, many addicts must replace the habit with something else for a time because the dopamine association is simply too strong to just “quit”. The reward for drugs and alcohol is pure, unfiltered pleasure. That’s a difficult result to combat!
So what can we use as a reward in our new routine? It could be anything you enjoy that you are able to get regularly. Some activities (like doing drugs, unfortunately) are pleasurable in themselves so become their own reward. For example, I feel great after going to the gym. It sucks while I’m working out, struggling through pain and anxiety, but afterward I feel like I’m the king of the moon. I decided to go one step further, though, and after every gym session I reward myself with a smoothie. For someone who doesn’t eat sugar, this is a huge reward. My brain loves it, let me tell you.
In my opinion this is the most difficult part of creating a new habit because it’s difficult to think of things that genuinely bring me pleasure without having to spend money or do something I shouldn’t be doing. I have found a few, though. I’m a huge gamer nerd so I used that as a reward for completing my allotted study and homework time in the day. I don’t let myself game or veg out in front of the computer until my work is done. It took about two weeks for this to kick in and stop giving me a negative feeling, but now it’s effortless. When I feel like I want to play a game, I study. It’s insane.
Where Flow Comes In
So, coming full circle, flow takes over once you’ve solidified this habit in your mind. You don’t think about performing the routine you’ve set up, you just do it when you meet your cue. I don’t think about studying; when I want to play a video game, a feeling comes over me that I need to study first and I just do it. Now, I won’t say my brain completely shuts off during this because obviously I need to retain the knowledge I study, but it’s a strange feeling almost like I’m not in control of my decision to study. I had the same eerie feeling right before I drank 15 Coronas and hid the bottles under my bed! I encourage all of you to try this out, especially if you’re still struggling with addiction. It really does work although it takes a lot of effort on the front end. You may fail a few times but don’t give up! Eventually you’ll find the cue and reward that is right for you.
Carl III, W. (n.d.). Flow – a theory of optimal experience: history and critical evaluation. Theories of communication. doi: 10.1.1.93.4724
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
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