This essay was first published on Caitryn McCallum's website. Republished here with her permission.
I shy away (flee) from anything that promises to “increase my productivity” and “maximize my output. This may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve accumulated sufficient self-awareness to know that: 1) I’m a fairly functional individual, and that 2) if ‘working smarter’ and ‘working harder’ are on the table, I’ll want to choose ‘smarter’ but will likely forget that smart is possible when approaching most tasks in life. When my dear friend and co-heart-in-life Haley told me about Flow Club in March 2021 (“it’s a community to get your best work done, be in more productive flow, and meet people, too”), I immediately wanted to take a nap. I think my brain associates words like “maximize your output” with “don’t rest until the task is complete”, which I perceive as a threat, so I want to lie down (of the flight/fright/freeze stress response, I choose freeze). Furthermore, I was skeptical because I initially thought Flow Club was an app or another zoom call and I’m in the phone-relationship phase of wanting to call it all off, cry for the hours wasted, and take some time for myself.
Luckily for me, the privilege and honor of meeting Haley Bryant in college means that at this point in our lives, I will subscribe to anything she forwards and show up to anything she invites me to.
My work is in epidemiology and over the course of the pandemic, there were some weeks I might be physically at the hospital for our COVID study, and some weeks at home on my laptop in excel for hours. The days and hours began to fade together. During solely-work-from-home weeks, I found myself wondering by 11 AM if I’d washed my face earlier that morning, and wondering at the end of the night if I’d showered earlier that day. So many of us didn’t feel alive, which Adam Grant wrote about in his New York Times piece on languishing: a term coined by sociologist Cory Keyes, as “the not quite depressed, but not thriving” state. It was the most-read NYT story of 2021, reflecting how we collectively felt.
I’ll venture that others living alone, too, might feel languishing — the ‘neglected middle child of mental health’ — with additional layers of complexity. As the deep isolation of the pandemic hit, I started walking to the grocery store or local bodega to buy something I didn’t really need. Checking out, I could say “hi, how’s it going, no I don’t need a bag, thanks so much.” Come Friday, this was the first in-real-life human interaction I’d had all week.
I by no means comprehend what it’s like to be a frontline healthcare worker during these COVID surges: they are a collective trauma that we haven’t begun to understand, that many of my colleagues continued to face again recently with Omicron, and I cannot personally speak to. My own experience simply inspired some curiosity:
1. How can our understanding of the nervous system and mind-body connection teach me why I feel so strange (anxious, depressed, unable to self-regulate) in isolation, on the bodily level?
2. Why is it difficult to remember things during isolation – or even during periods of decreased human interaction?
So I consulted my go-tos: google and the On Being podcast with Krista Tippett, and I discovered an article and an episode that became a lifeline for me. A few takeaways concerning our nervous systems, mind-body connection, and our memories during the pandemic greatly shape my understanding of how I can work as a human, to experience the full spectrum of being more fully human, going forward:
1. Humans self-regulate with other humans. Our nervous systems have a harder time being at ease in long absences of human connection (isolation as torture leverages this in extreme cases). In What’s happening in our Nervous Systems?, host Krista Tippett acknowledges this, I find beautifully: “And so, collectively, we were faced with this impossible choice — that the very thing that makes us human, which is our physical connection to other people, was the cost of keeping each other safe” during the pandemic.
2. Brief and seemingly meaningless forms of connection have a profound impact on our brain’s memory. An example of this is sharing a weekend debrief with a colleague in the coffee break room – this ‘episodic memory’ can “help us consolidate our memories of what happened to us.” (Claudia Hammond, BBC). Socializing – even for brief moments – triggers the memory.
3. Beyond the general anxiety and depression rates that increased over the course of the pandemic (mental conditions that inherently cause decreased memory), the hippocampus region of our brains specifically felt it too. The hippocampus controls forming spatial memory as it relates to navigation. Humans are wired to find our way home – our survival depends on it (the study of the London cab drivers revealed that the hippocampus region of the brain is larger for those who use their navigation skills daily, when compared to controls who didn’t drive taxis). Working from home though, there’s “less to tag your memories too to help you distinguish them” and our hippocampus decreases in functionality, meaning our memory isn’t the same” (Hammond).
Luckily, our bodies and minds are resilient. I started to join Haley in flow sessions, and eventually in April started hosting sessions too. The recipe for flow club is:
1. Five (5) minutes to verbally share with (at most) 8 other members in the session the task or goal you’re looking to accomplish over the next 50 minutes.
2. Fifty (50) minutes to work on said task(s) with video on. Everyone is muted, and the host shares music that inspires creativity, productivity, and flow.
3. Five (5) minutes to come back together as a group and share our progress.
I’ve found some basic yet hugely benefits to Flow Club’s influence on increased productivity, which I know many members share and, thus, we keep returning:
1. Accountability: I’ve verbalized and written down a plan for work during the first 5 minutes with the group, and I will share how I did at the end of the session (remaining 5 minutes). This specific time, with these people, sets me up for success.
2. Presence: Staying on video allows me to be more present with my work - there are fewer mind-numbing twitter refreshes (or hopefully none at all), there are fewer mindless trips to the fridge, gazing into the depths of the shelves and wondering if the words for the difficult email I need to write is beyond the almond milk? And fewer instagram rabbit holes in which I learn how to sprout an avocado plant from an avocado pit but then also ~20 minutes later wonder what day it is and how much time I’ve wasted when I realize the email is still not written. My video is on in flow, I’m at my desk and getting it done.
3. Humanity, restored. Incidentally, when Adam Grant wrote on languishing, his prescriptive antidote was to get into flow state, and to set time boundaries with work. Flow Club is a win-win for one’s productivity: the task is completed more efficiently, and there is time for more desirable activities. It’s also the space to set identity-based habits, à la James Clear (in Haley’s 7 am flow, I write the word ‘meditate for 10 mins’ in my task list, which means I actually meditate. Thus I’ve used morning sessions to transcend into a highly enlightened individual (obviously).
Furthermore, in a time when the hours blurred, Flow gave me structure to my day, and the episodic stories triggered my memory. The brief chats prior to and following muted work time are evidence of this: I’d remember cofounder Ricky’s funny dad joke from earlier that day was tied to a 10 am flow, or that I’d discovered instrumental covers thanks to Matthew’s sessions in the early evening before I shut down the day’s work. I then created the space in my day to walk outside around the block, which only helped increase the prefrontal cortex functioning too.
I will follow my best friend Haley anywhere, but now I will follow Flow Club anywhere too. The community has given me a sense of humanity during what we are experiencing collectively as a very difficult time. I see the success in Flow not solely measured in the aggregate hours that members come together to work, but the exponential increase in productivity over time due to really getting into the flow of bearing witness to one another’s small wins and ultimate success. I also see its impact based on the hours gained to be a human, away from our work and computers, because we could finish the task and be done for the day.
As a researcher, I’d love to collect that data some day. For now though, the only evidence of flow’s positive impact on my life is in the feeling I have that I’ve worked a bit smarter today than yesterday. That Flow Club, I truly believe, has had a positive effect right down to my brain’s memory and my nervous system. I thank Haley for (including me on yet another adventure) as she started leading with them. I thank Ricky and David for seeing all of us when they created Flow Club.
See you soon in flow 🌊