Flow is not necessarily always in the "forward" direction - often there is ebb and flow, as at the Ocean's edge. Can you be as comfortable in the ebb as the flow? It is equally valuable.
Flow is not necessarily always in the “forward” direction – often there is ebb and flow, as at the Ocean’s edge. Can you be as comfortable in the ebb as the flow? It is equally valuable. Photo by Julie Fraser at Cherry Grove Beach, SC, USA.

How often have you wished you could get in a flow? For me, I always pictured that as the rapid flow of a river. Flowing, always moving in one direction. But no longer. Now I see flow as more like that along the ocean’s edge…. Flow and ebb, constant change.

And yet, I often find I’m tempted to try to keep pushing in the direction of the original flow – trying to resist the ebb. As futile as that might sound thinking about tidewater, it is how most of us are trained. When things seem to stop moving in a “forward” direction, we are trained to put in more effort.

Take Ebb Breaks

What we learned is actually counterproductive. Last February, the BBC published “An effortless way to improve your memory.” The way is to take 10-15 minute breaks when memorizing something. This is hardly new research. The article lists a study from 1900, and many more current ones.

Mindfulness is one way to give yourself those breaks. Taking a few minutes to release the thinking mind and simply noticing what is true in your senses can not only support memory, but also mood and general health.

And the break need not be simply sitting still in silence. A walk in nature, exercise, listening to music, a nap, or just relaxed moment for the mind to wander into a daydream can all work. The key seems to be to minimize distractions. Turn off the phone, walk away from the desk, and just allow what is there to come to you naturally.

Nature Knows

Taking a break is one thing, but it’s also true that most processes need to have a ‘downtime’ or pause included as well. This is only natural. With most flows, there is also an ebb or perhaps a cycle. Create processes with movement and rest in turn, effort and relaxation.

Success comes from mimicking nature: allowing the natural cycle, not pushing forward through the backward or still times. There is no butterfly without a caterpillar crawling into a cocoon, no flower in spring without the rest of winter, no inhale without exhale.

Set Up Work for Ebb and Flow

This sounds easy. Yet in the work environment, it’s essential to review what might be working against the natural ebb and flow.

  1. Expectations. One aspect is that in most work environments, people are expected to look busy. Apparently even taking a lunch break can look bad, but be productive according to this Forbes article. If this is true in your workplace, it is worth raising the issue. Plenty of research shows that productivity and engagement go up with more breaks. Or, as Microsoft discovered, shorter work weeks can also boost productivity.
  2. Metrics. Some front-line jobs do require the employee to be physically present during every moment of their shift. But many jobs that measure people by “clocking in and out” do not require that rigor. Paying people for their time often degrades the value of the work they do, or could do if encouraged to use their creativity and initiative. Every organization should review the metrics they use for each position to ensure they make sense.
  3. Mindset. Many people were raised with the belief that working hard was adding value. Resting was not necessarily seen as essential – but it clearly is. Awareness. Perhaps next time you gain a benefit from a break or a rest, make a note. Literally write it down if you can. What was the before and after feeling? What did you accomplish, learn, or remember? Creating a new mindset is not easy, but with time, you can begin to see the benefits.
  4. Processes. Be sure that your work processes, timelines and expectations factor in breaks, reviews, re-grouping, and other aspects of ebb. Not just in the “worst case scenario” but in EVERY process design. There are moments where it’s flowing forward clearly and others that might appear to be a pause. The flow can also be called the Zone. I wrote about this here several years ago. The cycle includes down time and breaks.

Ebb and Flow for 2020

So for 2020, if you want to be in the flow more, be sure to allow the ebb. Relax in those times when pushing forward seems not to work… or even sooner. Feel the pull of the tide, in and out. Expect that change in energy, forward, still, or back.

It’s the dawn of a new decade. Will you keep pushing when the natural flow says to back off, to ebb? Will you rest and gather your energy for another push in the flow?