Flow and Undertow

You’ve probably heard of the term “flow” to describe a state where actions and thoughts progress smoothly and productively. It is characterized by ”energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Perhaps you’ve experienced it yourself from time to time. I believe I have, on occasion. Other times I find myself in a state I call “undertow.”

For swimmers and waders an undertow is a current below the surface of the water. It isn’t obvious when one looks at the water, and it moves in the opposite direction from the surface current. And it may move more rapidly. I experienced a physical undertow last summer while wading in the surf. Usually ocean surf comes in and goes out with about the same force, on this occasion the incoming waves were strong but the current as they went out was much stronger and almost knocked me off my feet. Undertow is also called rip-tide and can be extremely dangerous.

Metaphorical undertow won’t kill, but it is a waste of time and energy and a source of frustration. It happens when I am working on something and get sucked away from making progress on my task by minor issues. When I’m writing, it might be word choice, phrasing, formatting, checking references, etc. I had problems when I used pen and typewriter but using a word processing program exacerbates the problem ten-fold—there are so many changes that could be made so easily. Case in point: I wasn’t sure exacerbate was the term I wanted or how to spell it; tried spell check with no results and finally used a thesaurus to look up synonyms for exaggerate. Classic undertow.

But undertow happens to me at other times: cooking comes to mind. What do I want to make? Is this the best recipe or should I look for a better one? Oops, missing an ingredient or two—what can I substitute? Did I already add the baking soda?

Sometimes undertow starts because of my distractibility/perceptiveness. Noticing something outside my main focus can lead me away from a project; the further away I get the harder it is to get back just as if I was swimming against a strong current

But undertow is also a cause of distractibility/perceptiveness. It’s like being stuck in a traffic jam: when I can’t make progress in the direction I want to go in, I start to notice my surroundings and pay attention to them and not to my goal.

What does this have to do with parenting?

Our children also experience flow and undertow. And both of those states can make our job as parents more difficult. We’re usually the ones who interrupt the flow with chores, homework, meals, and bedtime. And the ones who have to deal with the frustration, delays, and tantrums which may result from undertow or from interrupted flow.

Flow and undertow in ourselves also affect our ability to cope with the demands of parenting, especially parenting while trying to accomplish other tasks.

What can help? Understanding what is going on in ourselves and in our children. We can do this by taking time to observe both our own behavior and that of our children.

What environments and activities facilitate flow for me? What about my children?

What environments and activities contribute to undertow for me? For my children?

What strategies can I devise for easing the transition when I need to interrupt flow or when it gets interrupted? What strategies will work for my children?

What techniques can help me and my children escape from undertow?

I hope these ideas can help you go with the flow and avoid the undertow.

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