Self Study and Efficiency: Why the Flow State is Best

Many students have wondered how they can best use their time while studying.  This can be thought of as efficiency; you want to use less energy to learn more in the least amount of time possible.  This is understandable since energy and focus are limited resources that need replenishment and time is a resource that can be marginally increased but ultimately not replenished.

My favorite state is that of “flow.”  I want to be able to enter a productive state where I am so blissed out by the work that time does not seem to be a factor.  I am engrossed in solving a problem that is just beyond my abilities.  I have an ideal state of energy times focus, which equals productivity.  This state is best utilized in conjunction with deliberate practice if you are learning a new skill such as coding or a foreign language.

There are tactics, techniques, and procedures that can help you get to flow quicker and stay there longer.  One of my favorites is to time everything so that I can avoid distractions.  Often I will use 25-minute blocks of time with a physical timer so that I can focus on one task and one task only.  Then I alternate 2-minute and 17-minute breaks between these 25-minute blocks.  I think it is important to say that I hold these blocks of time sacred, whereas if I find myself distracted from that one task I gently guide myself back.  If I have to use the internet related to my work at hand, I will be very specific about what I check then quickly return to my task.  This is all because I actually do get distracted very easily, and my own experience is that a more focused person is a more successful person.  I avoid loud music, although I have used many different genres in the past to get into a state of flow.  Honestly, my current favorite thing to do is play a video with logs burning in a fireplace.  I have no idea why this works for me at this point, but it does.

A question we all want to answer is how flow state applies best to language learning.  There are several ways.  It can be as straight forward as using Duolingo, Memrise or flash cards for immediate feedback and efficient tracking of what you have learned.  You will find yourself so absorbed in getting to the next level or pushing past the latest plateau that you can become driven and almost obsessed about doing so.  This can be thought of a state of “flow.”

If you are lucky enough to have a partner (treat them well) then you should probably discuss the approach with them for optimal results.  You don’t want them taking a break just as you are cresting on a certain subject.  Study at the same time every day.  There is always a physiological aspect to our learning, and at least your body can become accustomed to the routine.  Flow can be rather addictive, and your body will respond well knowing that it is going to get its “fix.”  Your brain will not always respond well if you are truly learning and progressing in your language.  This is normal.  The brain wants to avoid suffering, which is natural and not necessarily a weakness.  This can mean pulling the covers back over your head at 5 a.m. or finding a way to learn a really difficult word so that you don’t ever have to encounter that flash card again.  Flow helps you cope with such suffering by at least removing most cognitive realization that it really is suffering.  It feels pleasant and answers seem to come from outside of you as if you are receiving a sense of inspiration from beyond yourself.

Maybe you are curious as to where to go for more information.  There are courses that help you achieve this flow state.  I have never tried them, but if you are particularly prone to distraction or just love to analyze psychological phenomena like me, then maybe they could be a good idea.  Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s seminal work on the subject is a must.  Although, honestly, it is not an easy read and he has in fact given some talks on the same subject which may help you ease into the subject.

Good luck on your learning journey.  A final thought is that this state is not something that can switch on and off.  You have to transition from an unfocused state to one of deep focus.  This is not always an easy task.  You are “fumbling towards ecstasy” (an album by Sarah McLachlan) and some days will be easier to find this than others.  However, anything, with regular practice, becomes markedly easier.

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