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Finding Flow in Woodworking

Gary Rogowski of the Northwest Woodworking Studio is our guest on The Modern Woodworking Association Podcast again this week. Near the end of our conversation we had a discussion about getting into a Flow State when we work.

This is something that’s come up over and over again in the creative podcasts and blogs that I consume. It‘s described as this magical place where only those most "in-tune" with their craft can visit. There’s only a hint of truth to this. It takes some practice, but it’s not impossible for beginners to get there.

The biggest barrier most newcomers face in finding Flow is the overwhelming nature of starting something new.

There are too many things to think about and remember.

One of the keys to getting into this state is to have just the right amount of challenge to keep your brain occupied. If you're tempted to quit, it's too hard.

The opposite is true as well. If you find your mind is wandering during a task, it's too easy.

This is why you won't find a pro in Flow State while they're feeding a pile of boards through the thickness planer.

So you need to find an exercise that balances your mind on the line between boredom and impossibility. Gary suggested his 5 Minute Dovetail Exercise. He originally created it as a way to help woodworkers get their head into the shop. A transition to help you let go of whatever was troubling you in the outside world. He's found that it makes an excellent warm up for a shop session. And, after a few practice rounds, the nature of the task supplies just enough challenge to get your brain in the right place to find Flow.

Flow hates interruptions. So be prepared.

French kitchens are dedicated to Mise en Place. I found too many ways to translate this literally. So let me just stay that the system relies on gathering all the necessary tools and ingredients for each dish before you begin. You don't want to be searching for that bottle of white wine after you've tossed your prawns into the pan.

For a woodworker, this could mean pulling all the tools you'll need out of your tool chest and putting them in a rack or under the bench. This does two things for you...

  • It forces you to think through the steps ahead of time.

  • It ensures you won't have to break concentration to go searching for a tool you left in some dark corner of the shop.

Mise en Place will make it easier to get yourself into Flow and help you stay there longer.

Like Inspiration, Flow needs to find you working.

It's a stop along the way, not the beginning or the destination. The more often you get into your shop and spend time with tools in hand, the more likely you are to find yourself in Flow.

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Gary made an interesting observation. One that I hadn't considered before. You don't feel a flow state when it's coming on. And when you're in it, you're too absorbed to know that it's happening. You really only notice when it's over. You look up from your bench and realize that you should have stopped to eat hours ago.

So don't try to force it. Set the stage and hope that you find yourself looking back on an enjoyable performance.

If you're interested in learning more about the science behind Flow States, Gary recommends that you read Flow by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is a book that has been on my radar for a long time. I finally ordered a copy this morning.

Or, if that's tl/dr, you could watch Csikszentmihalyi's TED Talk.

If you're interested in listening to our interview with Gary Rogowski, you can listen here or search for Modern Woodworkers Association wherever you get your podcasts.

This is the part where most bloggers would inform you that their posts may contain links to affiliate sites. But I'm not gonna do that. Because the Joint Effort is #NeverSponsored.

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