Total immersion: getting into flow

This week I gave myself a new photography challenge: I had signed up for a photographers night at the London aquarium, and Tuesday night found me waiting for the doors to open with some trepidation.

Searching the internet beforehand for pearls of wisdom about aquarium photography, I’d discovered there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement except on one point – it was going to be difficult.

Still I was surprised by the range of technical challenges on the night.  The big issues were essentially low light levels, distortion and speed of movement.

For the first hour all the images I shot were terrible – they divided pretty evenly into black or blurred. But as I experimented and adjusted settings, I gradually relaxed and began to enjoy myself.  I was starting to get images I liked.  (I’d better say upfront that the images I most like to create are not the kind where people say “Oh that’s a nice picture of a lesser spotted brown catfish”…)

In this more relaxed state I got into the zone (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state, which I referred to in Overwhelmed: an overwhelmingly female affliction?), completely absorbed in what I was doing.   

In Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi says “the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

But what is flow?

Csikszentmihalyi describes it as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”  Flow is experienced as complete immersion in an activity, a sense of effortless action and time flying (or standing still).

I’ve experienced this state most often when I’m fully engaged in a photography project, when I’m reading a good book and when I’m totally focused on a challenging piece of work.

This is consistent with Csikszentmihalyi’s findings that people most often experience flow when they’re at work or engaging in their favourite hobbies.

Why does it matter if we actively seek out the flow state or not?  

Because setting ourselves a challenge, pushing ourselves to achieve a set goal and working towards that goal in a focused and determined way not only gives us an intense and rewarding experience in the moment, but can increase the quality of our work and our quality of life.  

By expanding our ability to focus exclusively on one important thing – ie “single-tasking” instead of giving scattered attention to everything – we can become more productive at work (or play), reduce our stress and experience calm and happiness.  Flow can help us to accomplish more of what matters and achieve our goals.

My personal aim for my night at the aquarium was to capture impressions and the emotions I felt seeing these beautiful and extraordinary creatures so close to me.  In the end, I came away with some images I really love which will always evoke that night.  

What’s more, I faced up to the challenge of doing something outside my comfort zone.  I stretched myself, I learned a lot  in the process and I experienced deep satisfaction.  And as the research suggested, I also felt good about myself afterwards and motivated to move forward productively in other areas of my life.

You can find more information about Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the flow state at  You may also like my post Never stop learning – my dog grooming challenge which addresses the benefits of stretching ourselves and continuous learning.

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