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Hacking the Flow: finding focus, happiness, and purpose in the legal world

Updated: Mar 11

By Marco Imperiale


Introduction

One of the most intriguing aspects of neuroscience applied to peak performances is the concept of flow.

Goethe and Nietzsche spoke about “Rausch”. In martial arts we call it “Mushin”. The athletes talk about “being in the zone”. The naming can be different, but the key characteristics are pretty much the same. Losing cognition of space and time, ignoring the surrounding environment, achieving peak results through full focus. At the same time, we feel more creative, we are more efficient, and we retain and elaborate information in an unusual, but effective way. As Steven Kotler [1] - researcher and writer on the topic - would say, flow is when “we feel our best, and we perform our best”.


I guess that some of the readers experienced that status, maybe doing some intense research or writing a brief, but it certainly is not usual, and for most of the professionals I know it is becoming always rarer (if you don’t think so, reflect about it for a moment).

It started all with happiness…

Despite the considerable number of authors writing about the topic, the concept of “flow” as we know it comes from a Hungarian psychologist: Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi [2]. Csíkszentmihályi was a scientist interested in exploring people’s happiness, and what makes life worth living. His career-long research on the topic revealed that we don’t reach ecstatic stages and pure joy when we are doing a specific series of actions that provide us instant gratification (like watching our soccer team winning, doing shopping, eating a good meal etc), but when we are so “into” what we are doing that everything else loses meaning.

Since the early works of Csíkszentmihályi, the concept of flow has been developed and spread all over the world, also because of its potential for wellbeing. From athletes to musicians, from psychologists to corporations, flow research reached a wide number of professions, and the interest is rising. Everybody, in fact, is potentially interested in a strategy to achieve peak performances, find happiness, and unlock eureka moments.

Characteristics of flow

Being in flow is something more than being fully focused, even if for most of the researchers – including Csíkszentmihályi – focus is a necessary element in order to achieve it. Flow, indeed, is an altered state of consciousness, which is characterized by several elements.

The first one is the way we feel both during and after it. This is not only a subjective factor, but a biochemistry reaction. During and after the flow the neocortex shuts down and we have a strong boost in all the hormones related to happiness: dopamine, norepinephrine, anandamide, testosterone, endorphins. If we think about how much our daily work as lawyers is related with bad mood, anger, and stress, reaching constantly the flow could be life changing. Instead of letting our feelings dictate our actions, we could use our actions to dictate our feelings.


Another characteristic of flow is its addictive nature. This is why we like repeating adrenaline adventures (the most renowned flow enhancers) like riding a motorcycle, going on parachuting, downhill mountain biking etc. We like the feeling, the adrenaline rush, and how we feel after. Why stopping what makes us feel good?


Third, flow is characterised by ego abandonment. If we’re very much into something, the “me” element is not important, because there’s no space for reflection. As Morpheus from the movie Matrix would say “You have to let it all go. Fear, doubt, and disbelief”.


Fourth, its duration is variable, and dependent on the kind of activity that ignites it, but it will mostly lead to exhaustion after. This is why we feel very tired after a motorcycle ride, a

long brief, or an intense reading session.


Lastly, flow is truly achievable when we don’t think about it. The more we will be inclined to achieve it an obsessive way, the less we will be able to obtain it. For this reason, I wouldn’t focus too much on the achievement part.


How can we reach the flow?

The positive side of the coin is that flow is highly achievable. The negative one is that it requires a deliberate effort. And I guess that – for the professionals of the legal field – the effort will be not only deliberate, but substantial, especially considering our current working habits.


The first, and easiest, way to unlock the flow are adrenaline rushes. Downhill mountain biking, skiing, surfing, skydiving are all ways to release the flow. Mainly because of the high focus and the risk factor. A long series of adrenalin experiences could have – on our mind – the effects of years of meditation, especially regarding the “living in the present moment” approach. Richard Branson’s choice of doing kitesurfing before board meetings could be supported by a robust amount of research, indeed.


However, and assuming that not everyone has the inclination and the passion for this kind of experiences (and/or don’t want the risk of being injured), it is worth pointing out that we are able to recreate an environment that

“unlocks” the flow even in our daily working sessions.


First, it is necessary to being able to focus on only one thing. Multitasking, in other words, is not compatible with the flow.


Second, we need to avoid both external and internal distractions. This means on the one hand taking care of our environment – cutting out all the external distractions such as push notifications, social media, surrounding noises etc. At the same time, we need to silence our mind and thoughts with a full focus on what we are doing. As Lao Tze used to say, if we are focused on the past we tend to depression, if we are focused on the future, we are anxious, but in the present we can find the Dao. The idea is being so focused in the moment that nothing matters, even ourselves.


Third, the task has to be not too difficult, but not too easy. On a scale 0 to 10 of difficulty, let’s say it is a 7 or 8. If it’s 9 or 10, we won’t be able to complete it, and this will cause anxiety. If it’s 2 or 3, it will be too easy, and will lead to boredom.


Fourth, we need to be in this status for a long time. A seasoned practitioner could need 45 minutes or less, but a newbie, even more. Probably 1 to 2 hours. Of all the factors, this is one of the most underestimated, and one of the most relevant.

The aforementioned factors are the most important ones, but there are a series of flow enhancers, which are worth mentioning:

  • being curious. Doing what we are interested in.

  • being grateful. Gratefulness makes us feel positive.

  • being in control of what we are doing. This is why it’s easier to achieve flow during artistic performances or sport activities. Practicing a skill for hundreds of hours will put us in a comfort area where we are able to perform at our best in an almost-automatic way.

  • being creative. How about writing a brief in a mindful way?

  • being purpose-oriented. Focusing about the positive outcomes of our activities.

  • being able to fully express ourselves. Our performance will benefit from not having someone judging negatively.

  • having a clear, defined goal. The more it will be defined, the easier will be to focus.

  • receiving real-time, constant feedback. Feedback has to be considered in terms of receiving a clear indication of the quality of our performance, not in terms of having an external professional or coach judging us (for example, if I am playing pool, the fact of putting repeatedly the ball in the pocket will provide me real-time feedback and enhance my possibilities of reaching flow).

That said, when we experiment with flow in a normal working day, either during deep reading or writing sessions, we should take into account that we are humans, not machines. Some days we’ll be able to enter in the flow quite easily, in other days we won’t be able to do it despite our best efforts. It’s all natural, and it’s a skill we can develop. The more we practice it, the more we’ll be able to achieve it.


Flow killers

Most of the professionals I know have struggles finding flow. Some of them, never experienced this kind of status in a working day.


In the world of yesterday, being a busy professional was a signal of status and wellness. Now, research is showing that we should change our priorities. The true luxury is the possibility of dedicating our agenda to what we care about, and being conscious of how we use our time.


The focus emergency has been highlighted by many relevant scientists, such as Daniel Goleman [3] or Adam Atler [4]. Our minds experience blurriness, fatigue, and in the worst cases exhaustion. We tend to remember less and for a shorter time. We have more difficulties to read long and complex documents. Research on focus can be extremely useful not only to evaluate the risks of a distracted mind and the seriousness of the problem, but also in order to understand better flow killers.


The first one, and the most important, is the state of constant alertness which most of us live into. The easy rush of dopamine provided by social media scrolls, emails, food, etc. won’t be enough to satisfy our soul and providing sense of fulfilment. Moreover, and following Csíkszentmihályi’s research about happiness, it could be directly related with the constant rise of burnout and depression in the legal profession [5].


Another flow killer is the lack of purpose. Money can certainly be an incentive and a means to survive. But we need to be curious and interested in what we are doing. If we are not curious and we don’t want to retain information, we are not focused. It looks like a vicious cycle: we need curiosity to be truly focused, but we need focus to be curious.


Even lack of recognition can be really dangerous. Research provided by C. Duhigg [5] confirms that the reward element is crucial in terms of establishing good habits. Without proper recognition, we won’t be able to make the extra effort which is necessary to achieve flow.


The last flow killer is not being able to fully express ourselves. We need to find environments where we are not fearful of judgments. Where who we are and what we do are added values and something to be appreciated for, not a cost or an asset.


Is there a way to experience flow in the legal profession then?

That is a one-million-dollar question. I would say yes, but it will not be easy, also because in order to reach it we need to practice a series of deliberate actions. What I would like to point out, however, is not only the effect of flow on peak performances (which I consider a positive externality), but the direct relationship between flow and happiness. If the research of Csíkszentmihályi and Kotler is valid, indeed, we are directly relating our profession to a state of constant unhappiness. A distracted mind, characterized by stress, exhaustion, and sense of overwhelming, has to be considered as a curse, not a blessing. And the expression of an unsustainable situation [6].


Because of the unique characteristics of the legal profession, and also taking into account my experience in the field, I would suggest the following actions:

  • Putting in our calendar daily deep work sessions (more than one hour) whether for writing, reading, research, etc. I suggest early in the morning, because for most of the people the energy peak is before lunch. However, some lawyers I know are able to find flow only late in the evening, when they have already managed most of the daily duties. If even one hour are too much, it is good to start with a shorter amount of time (e.g. thirty minutes), and increase progressively. Maybe we won’t be able to reach the flow, but we will notice some improvements in terms of focus and productivity.

  • Being curious about what we do. If we are working on a boring task, and we can’t change our daily activities, we can focus on what makes that specific task intriguing, different, unique.

  • Find meaningful, and purpose-related work. That’s a hard one, especially for some legal areas, but we can work on it. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the client

  • Empathising with a professional who’s experiencing a tough time. Realizing the impact of our work in the wider spectrum. If we look through the empathy and the impact lenses, even a due diligence can be full of meaning. The more my experience in the legal field, the more I believe that it is not a matter of finding purposeful and meaningful work, but finding purpose in our work

  • (Sounds like a trick, but it can be effective) Finding flow outside of the profession. The effects of flow are long lasting. If finding it during our job is not doable, how about finding it outside and leverage on the positive hormonal rush in our body? For someone it can be running in the morning, for others dancing, doing yoga, or meditating during lunchtime. Whatever works for us, is good.

  • The most important one. Consider it as a priority. If we don’t’ consider flow as a priority, we won’t be able to reach it.

Now, I guess that for someone even the aforementioned suggestions are already too much. For this reason, I wrote a series of quick tricks, which maybe won’t be able to help us reaching immediately the flow, but at least will make us reflect about productivity and inefficient in a smart and dynamic way.

  • Journaling daily about our feelings and status. Having been a diarist for most of my life, I can’t stress enough the benefits of constant journaling, both in terms of career progression and personal growth.

  • Being realistic. It is better to put in our agenda 20 minutes of deep work and being committed, than putting 60 minutes and not being able to achieve what we wanted. In the first case, reaching the goal will facilitate dopamine release, providing us energy to do more in the following days or weeks, in the second case we will be more frustrated and ashamed (which are, by the way, not only negative feelings but also flow killers).

  • Taking a break if needed. We are not robots. And even the best symphonic pieces would be unlistenable without the breaks. Problem is, we tend to overestimate what we can do in a week, and underestimate what we can do in one year. If a break is not manageable, we can plan in advance a longer weekend.

  • Putting the phone in silent mode. If this is not doable (e.g. because a partner requires our availability, or because we have a family issue), we can select only specific contacts as “relevant”. Most of the smartphones allows this option.

  • Finding a quiet environment to work in.

  • (My favourite one) Spoiling ourselves! Reaching flow requires commitment and struggle. We should reward ourselves for the effort.

Conclusions

I wish I could close the article on a positive note, but unfortunately, while I was writing it, my feelings were quite the opposite. With our current hectic working schedules, the rising number of emails, and the need to solve real-time complex legal issues - we are losing a great opportunity to find focus, purpose, and – therefore - happiness. The post-pandemic scenario, with its information overload, uncertainty, and constant exposure to negative news, complicated immensely the situation.


Data about depression, burnout, and quiet quitting in the legal profession are showing us that our current habits are not sustainable in the long term, and we need to seriously intervene on them. We tend to forget that the professional and the human being are not separated one from the other. Flow, therefore, could be the reason to start a positive reaction inside and outside ourselves.


If I have to find a positive note, it would be related to the concept of neuroplasticity. Research is showing us that - with proper efforts - we can rewire our brain, and that’s exciting. Even after years of pushing notifications, stress, and exhaustion, our brain will always be ready to be happier, more purposeful and fully focused. It’s just up to us. And it only takes a little bit of effort and a little bit of faith in ourselves.

 

Notes

[1] S. Kotler has written quite extensively on the topic. I would suggest starting with the book “The Rise of Superman. Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” (Amazon Publishing, 2021)

[2] M. Csíkszentmihályi wrote a significant number of books and articles on the topic. I would suggest starting with “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (Harper and Row, 1990)

[3] D. Goleman, “Focus. The Hidden Driver of Excellence” (Harper Collins, 2013)

[4] A. Atler, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (Penguin Press, 2017)

[5] C. Duhigg, “The Power of Habit” (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012)

[6] It is interesting that – while I was writing this article – K. Turner wrote an opinion for the Washington Post, whose title is emblematic “Want to be Happy? Then don’t be a lawyer” (article available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/01/20/jobs-happiness-lawyers-nature/)

 

About the Author

Marco is the founder and managing director of Better Ipsum, a consultancy focused on legal design, legal innovation, and legal well-being. He is also a frequent keynote speaker (100+ national and international events). A true legal design and innovation pioneer,


Marco wrote (with Barbara de Muro) the first Italian book on legal design and lectured the course on legal design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. At Harvard, where he graduated as Fulbright Scholar, he also worked as visiting researcher.


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