This continues from Part 7 of our discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s eight “characteristic dimensions of the flow experience” outlined in his book The Evolving Self.
#7 – Altered sense of time, which usually seems to pass faster.
An altered sense of time is not a cause of flow state but an effect that is reported by many when they have entered into flow.
This change in perception of time is something we can all readily identify with. We may recall a time, perhaps quite recently, when we were so engrossed in an enjoyable, skillful activity that we lost track of time passing. Minutes or hours could have gone by before we noticed it.
Boredom is one of the top three complaints swimmers have about the practice of swimming. This altered sense of time is the antidote to boredom. Setting up flow delivers this antidote.
In the pursuit of flow, it’s not that we are seeking a way to make time pass faster because the present moment is so unpleasant. What we want to do is to make this activity so enjoyably engaging, even when difficult, that is becomes completely worth the effort to stay deeply focused upon. When we can see ahead that a great deal of difficult work needs to be done, with high attention, with hundreds or thousands of successful repetitions, and done with consistency over days and weeks and month, then our mind and motivation will greatly benefit in this moment from having a fading awareness of passing time. Boredom is no longer a part of our experience.
Task-Oriented Rather Than Time Oriented
This altered sense of time occurs because we are task-oriented rather than time-oriented. It is more important to get the work done a certain way (get it done well, according to your quality standards). We want to achieve a certain quality through a certain method, more than we simply want to get the quantities checked off our workout list.
Instead of the task being, “Swim 10x 100 at 1:30 pace with 15 seconds rest” and just thinking about pushing hard until it’s done, we provide very specific assignments for our conscious mind and motor control. Instead, our task would be something like: “Slide your entry arm quietly, smoothly into the water and to your target for at least 8x 100, holding 18 SPL and 1.20 tempo. Do 2-4 more repeats if it is going really well”. There is no room left for thinking about the past or the future, or even paying much attention to discomfort; there is only room in the consciousness for focusing on accomplishing this quality standard under very precise conditions – and this would be just within reach our capability if we maintain absolute attention on the task.
The mechanical division of time that rules our daily schedules is one obstacle that interferes with flow. For instance, students in school often report that just as they are starting to get involved with a subject that is interesting to them, such as an art project or a science experiment, the bell signals the end of the fifty-minute period, and they have to change classes. Similarly, the spontaneous, organic work patterns of craftsmen and artisans were disrupted two centuries ago by the requirements of factory production and replaced by rigid schedules. But in flow, the sense of time again becomes a natural feature of one’s total experience, rather than an arbitrary restraint that ignores what we do and how we feel about it. (p.186)
What lesson can we draw from this? We have to face the reality that most people have just an hour or more, a few days a week in which to practice their swimming. But how we arrange our activities in that time frame, how we assign attention, what we give priority to determines whether we can slip into flow or not, whether we alter our sense of time.
If we have set up a practice task that triggers flow and are getting so much out of it, why not stick with it longer, delaying or skipping the next task? Or we can plan to do fewer tasks in each practice so that we have freedom to give more time to each one, giving more opportunity to slip into flow and stay there when things are going well.
Difficult Work Made More Enjoyable
Think of other skillful activities in your life which your mind enjoys in the act of doing them, that you wish could last longer, or wish you could do more frequently because of how enjoyable it is?
Now think of your swimming goal, and imagine the work that is required over the next weeks and months to get to the level of performance you desire. Describe that goal not only in terms of what quantities you must become capable of swimming, but what qualities you must acquire to make it feel good too. These may add up to a lot of work – more than you’ve ever done before. Wouldn’t you appreciate inserting this same sense of enjoyment into that everyday training experience so that the work was something you look forward to rather than an unpleasant price you must pay to get to a reward only available at the end?
There is a way to make this happen: set up a task which requires you to totally engage the mind with clearly defined quantity and quality objectives that you can pay attention to and affect and consistently learn from – even if you experience failure.
You describe your goal in terms of the skills you need to acquire, things that are learnable. You spread those skills out into a sequence you can work on in an orderly manner. You set up training activities that allow you to work on small pieces of each skill (‘micro-skills’ as Coach Terry calls them). You use focal points to direct your attention and to create very specific commands to individual body parts. You use objective and sensory measurements to give you direct and immediate feedback letting you know in each moment that you are getting closer or farther away from your ideal. You keep your attention on this feedback and on your actions during the entire activity, and make adjustments to your performance as you go.
And then sense of time alters, even disappears for a while. A long practice no longer seems so long. A difficult set of tasks no longer seem so difficult. The amount of time spent in practice over days and weeks no longer feels like a sacrifice; it feels more like something vital and energizing to daily life.
It makes me wonder if our common sense of passing time – where we spend most of it in our imagination about the future or the past, bouncing from one emotion to another – is really the distortion and flow state is closer to real, natural sense of time we are entitled to live in.
This altered sense of time in flow is something we can access regularly, if set up practice to trigger it.
To read the other parts of this series:
- Part 1 – Finding Flow In Swimming
- Part 2 – Flow Requires Preparation
- Part 3 – Flow Requires Clear Goals
- Part 4 – Flow Requires Opportunities To Act
- Part 5 – Flow Requires Full Attention
- Part 6 – Flow Requires Sense Of Control
- Part 7 – Flow Alters Sense Of Time