Being in flow


Certain expressions serve as Guideposts. They provide words to live by. I’ve got one for today that applies beautifully to absolutely any situation.

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well!”

The long version goes like this:

In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention: I therefore carry the necessity of attention down to the lowest things, even to dancing and dress.

— 1746. Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, in a letter to his illegitimate son

Thank you, Earl!

His idea is a good one! His letter is apparently this particular phrase’s “earliest known use.” However, I am sure the idea behind it has been around as long as people have been doing things. We could probably find a hieroglyphic reference to a paraphrase if we looked hard enough.

What is “doing something well”?

It’s logical to ask just what “doing something well” means.

I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean doing something mistake-free. Mistakes are allowed and are part of the process. Perfectionism means seeing life in terms of a straight line and feeling discomfort when the path deviates. However, observation shows that nature is more attuned to curves.

Moving in curves means being in the process: starting in one direction, learning something, and adjusting. Doing it well is most certainly about living the journey. The best outcomes flow out of learning how to orient to the process.

Being in flow

Being in the process is what makes a mundane task noble. Both the outcome and the task itself take a back seat to how it is performed and the mental state of the performer.

What matters is the process. How you take the steps to the outcome becomes the new endpoint. Process orientation is another way to say being in the moment.

The principle is the same whether we’re talking about the way one carries a bag of groceries or the way one approaches embarking on a whole new phase of life. It’s the same if you’re applying it to the reading of an email. It goes something like this:

Realize you have already begun. You’re in it now. So pause… and bring your whole self into the process. Put yourself into it more deliberately. Feel yourself take a breath or two. It’s a small movement. It could be imperceptible if you weren’t looking for it, but it’s has big results. You make a decision that has to be re-made continuously. You don’t arrive. You connect to the process of arriving, continuously. It looks like this:

  • Focus your attention and presence on your task. Feel yourself sink in.
  • Drift (inevitably, we drift into a less attentive state)
  • Realize you’ve drifted
  • Re-focus your attention and presence
  • Repeat ad infinitum.

Maybe you drift for long periods of time — days, weeks, months, years. Maybe you learn every day to focus your presence once, twice, or several times. It’s all part of the process. It’s all practice.

You engaging in the process more deliberately is doing it well. Enjoy the flow when you do it well. Also, know that being out of flow is part of the process too. The discomfort of being out of flow is the eventual motivation to realize and refocus.

Don’t judge any of it. Just keep practicing and building. We’ve got nothing but time.

“Let all that you do be done in love.”

— 1 Corinthians 16:14

(I knew I could find an earlier reference.)