by Deanne S. Gute
Work/Life Balance before the pandemic often seemed like an elusive quest. We wonder, how is the balance tipping now that many of us are experiencing both painful separations and togetherness overload? Can anybody’s experience feel optimal within a family trying to manage work, school, and leisure all under one roof?
One thing research on optimal experience—flow—has established for sure is how people navigate through anxiety or boredom and end up in “the zone.” It happens when we engage our skills to meet a challenge, focus our attention completely, advance toward goals, and act on feedback. In flow we feel most together and in control, time is flying, and we wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
That’s how personal flow experience feels. But how can you prep the ground to help flow flourish for everyone under your roof, both working together and apart? What’s the magic balance?
Watch Flow in the Family: Episode 1
Over time, we’ll share research with you that explores these questions. Sometimes, we’ll just show you. In this post, we're premiering our series Flow in the Family. In the video, fourth-grader Anderson, his mom, Tina, and his dad, Jon, are making it work at Maple Edge Farm in the US Midwest. Mom would normally be traveling and working for a community bank and Anderson would normally get on a bus and go to school. Like so many families, they’re making the most of the lockdown experience while homeschooling and worrying what the future holds. The lockdowns won’t last forever. We can learn something from their example that has importance beyond the pandemic.
Especially now when the most ordinary routines can feel like major risks, many caring adults are knocking themselves out trying to be fixers and boredom fillers. But have you noticed that the more you do for someone who can manage their own challenges, the more your stress rises? Flow can't happen when your challenge level is too high. Kids can't experience flow—or learn their true potential—when challenge is set too low.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi once remarked that flow comes easily to every child, because every child is a learning machine—until somebody convinces them that learning is boring and challenges are risky and hard. The key is striking a balance between Support and Challenge to enable everyone in the family system to flourish. That’s what’s going on at Maple Edge Farm. Here’s how:
Balance togetherness with independence. Make time and space for everyone to do their own thing alone, and time and space shared together.
Balance work and play. Make it hard to tell the difference. Challenge kids to make chores more like games.
Expect everyone to do their best, but let go of expectations as people grow and change. Discourage fear of failure while encouraging each other to learn from it.
Pay attention to what people care about and what fascinates them. Support each other’s interests while helping inspire new ones.
Allow people to be themselves and fill their time creatively, while also expecting them to follow rules and observe boundaries.
Two final points are crucial to remember in this age of global anxiety. The first is this: No challenge, no flow, including for the youngest among us. The full engagement of flow makes kids feel good about themselves. Makes them feel good about helping to care for and contribute to the family. Makes them feel good that they know how to do things. Makes them feel confident that when there’s a challenge to face, they can do something about it.
Second, you can have tremendous impact when you show kids how to find what’s fascinating and fun in the stream of everyday life, in both the easy things and the hard. Almost everything becomes more interesting when we actually pay attention to it. Once kids learn that, you’ll never have to worry about what to stream on Netflix or Amazon. When your kids find something to absorb them for hours, like Anderson’s Lego RV in the video, or they’re doing whatever chores need doing in your family, your attention is your own. When you engage your attention together again, you’ll have memories of time you spent together that are priceless, even if they didn’t cost you a dime.
And whatever next year’s challenges are, or next week’s, you’ll manage them together the best you can. And you may all end up enjoying the process.
Deanne S. Gute, PhD, is Executive Producer and writer at TheFlowChannel.com, a university learning center coordinator, and an organizational consultant. To learn more about building families for flow, see the article she co-authored with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Gary Gute, and Jeanne Nakamura: “The Early Lives of Highly Creative Persons: The Influence of the Complex Family,” Creativity Research Journal, vol. 20, 2008.