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3 Ways Junk Flow Affects Your Life

You have likely heard the phrase “in the zone” many times, but have you ever heard of flow? Flow is the psychological explanation of what happens when a person is focused on a task and doing productive work. 

Don’t let the words task and work throw you off. One of the many benefits of flow is that when you experience it, the last thing it feels like in the world is work. 

Flow was introduced through the study of positive psychology by Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined and popularized the term to describe “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Essentially, you experience flow through the enjoyment you derive from an activity that provides such an optimal experience that your overall life is improved. 

Knowing what flow is offers insight to the saying attributed to Confucius, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” The work we do each day can provide the necessary conditions to achieve a state of flow. It can also be achieved by going to the gym, playing a sport, doing something creative, even trying out a new hobby. 

Seems odd, right? That a person can achieve flow both from work and play. When the activities we undertake challenge and test our individual skill set and provide motivation to set defined goals, allow awareness and control over what we’re doing, and feelings of accomplishment follow completion, we are meeting several of the components that characterize flow regardless if the task is considered work or not. 

However, a person's flow can be corrupted. When this happens it’s called “junk flow.” 

What is Junk Flow?

Junk flow describes unconscious habits disguised as flow. When someone becomes addicted to the routine of getting into flow, without the benefits of growing and learning, this becomes junk flow.

Junk flow can be a mindless routine that verges on a bad habit, like getting into a flow where you indulge in unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as binge watching TV.  But it does not always have to be a negative habit. Research has shown that even expert chess players experience negative flow. Once flow states no longer challenge us and allow us to grow, they become less useful for our life.

What Does Junk Flow Look Like?

For every person, junk flow looks different. What it has in common for everyone is that our flow states become consumed by superficial and rote activities. For example, constantly checking e-mail during work could be an example of junk flow. This is not a negative activity, per se, but when it is simply a mindless activity that is difficult to pull away from it ceases to be beneficial. 

During junk flow, your mind is oxymoronically focused but unchallenged and unaware. It becomes a distraction unto itself.

3 Things You NEED to Know About Junk Flow

Flow and Junk Flow Have Nearly Identical Effects On Our Brains

Unsurprisingly, no matter if the flow is “fake,” “faux,” or “junk,” flow states have very similar effects on our brain. 

During flow, psychologists note that our brain acts differently than during its normal state. This is why many individuals researched after being in a flow state report feeling outside of their body, outside of time, outside of physical space. 

During both beneficial, productive flow and harmful, junk flow, our brains show similar patterns. In a flow state, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the primary site of deactivation. Even though the prefrontal cortex is dedicated to impulse inhibition, self-control, and attention, flow usually is best achieved by inactivation of this area of the brain. 

Although it can be beneficial for productivity, inhibiting the PFC can cause the implicit mind to take over and unintentionally enter a state of junk flow. This can explain a lot about how productivity and distracted behavior are often one and the same. 

We Can Improve the Quality of Our Experience with Attention

Attention is a simple-sounding concept that has large implications on how we function and spend our lives. In psychology, attention is what the brain selectively focuses on in an environment. 

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi talks about how attention can shape the form and content of our lives. Many common personality traits simply boil down to our levels of attention, such as extroversion, paranoia, or level of achievement

In terms of determining good flow or junk flow, attention is the biggest tool that can help achieve desired results. Not only can one control their productivity outcomes but they can also improve their life as a whole. Individuals who experience flow often describe their experiences in a more positive light and are more connected with their identity and sense of place.

Flow Is Better Achieved in Groups

Some studies suggest not to flow alone. You are more likely to achieve a flow state around other people trying to flow as well. When you are alone, there is less likelihood that flow will be achieved.

Distractions are still possible when it comes to group work or studying. It may be easier to control distractions and achieve more when alone. But, there also exists the risk of falling into junk flow when left unaccompanied. Groups help reinforce the experience because joy and satisfaction are integral parts of flow states. Having shared experiences gives us the ability to talk about and relate to each other's individual joy and satisfaction which in turn can enhance our own.  

Reduce or Replace Junk Flow Through Planournaling 

There are plenty of tempting forces that can interrupt the flow state. Screens and unhealthy coping mechanisms exist all around us. 

For as much time as we spend “connecting” with others through social media, texting, or gaming, as noted by Shoba Sreenivasan, Ph.D., and Linda E. Weinberger, Ph.D., in Psychology Today’s post, Why We Need Each Other,In our advanced digital age, one of the prevalent concerns regarding the increasing emergence of loneliness is how we have become less caring of others.” 

If we spend time purposefully reducing or replacing junk flow activities that suck away our attention while doing little—if anything, to enhance our lives, and instead reinvest it into seeking out endeavors and people who challenge and motivate us it can be assumed that a happy byproduct would be increased connection and empathy. Don’t you think? 

Helping people to reduce or replace junk flow was a primary reason behind the creation of Binge Battle planournals. When something we are doing feels so darn good that we struggle with convincing ourselves that our time can and should be better spent, a little help to refocus our attention might be needed. Planournaling is that help; planning daily short-term goals that are purposeful and meaningful and later reflecting on the outcome of the actions you did, or did not, take to achieve them through journaling is kind of like conducting a self-administered mental health check-up. 

Reinvest your time for 30 days to explore and monitor your junk flow. Make an active choice to Fight the Suck and planournal. 

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