Flow and Gendered Work

My husband is on call for Tier Two support for his job for the next week or so. It’s not a part of the job he loves, as he feels tethered to the house. But worse, he has a deadline on an art project and he doesn’t feel like he’s safe to dive into an art project when he knows he’s going to have to context switch from tech support to art.

As is my wont, I started analyzing it and got into pulling a thread about flow states and gendered work.

What is flow?

Flow is that state in which you have a task that is challenging, but that you have a high confidence that you can accomplish it. But more than that, as you are working on that task, you are completely engaged – mentally, physically and emotionally to the point that you tend to lose consciousness of time and self.

How does flow work?

Flow is when you are fully engaged. We experience it many ways. I experience it often when I am swimming. For that matter, I am experiencing it now as I am writing an article I am excited about.

That’s the point. You’re getting into a task. Maybe you’re painting a picture, or maybe you’re building a house. It might be that you’re analyzing why the plumbing keeps stopping up and what to do about that faulty sump pump in the basement. But you’re into it. You’re utterly focused and you might not be conscious of the outside work. Often physical discomforts or sensations not related to the task fade away and you’re utterly and completely in that moment.

The cool thing about it, in my opinion, is how it tends to engage the whole being. It’s intellect and emotion and physicality all wrapped up together and working together in an integrated and smoothly-functioning system. When it is interrupted, it can feel upsetting or jarring.

To achieve flow:

  1. You are working on something with a clear set of goals and rules for progress. It does require structure.
  2. Your task must give clear and immediate feedback. (I know, it would sound like writing wouldn’t work for this, but hey, I am seeing words marching across the screen as I am writing this, so I can see that I am accomplishing something.
  3. There should be a good balance between the perceived challenge and your perceived skills. Basically, you feel like it’s a stretch, but that you can do it.
  4. You should not be forced to context switch and change to tasks irrelevant to the primary task at hand.

How does flow contribute to human advancement?

The geek who has been working all night on a programming problem and then is surprised by someone who points out that dawn has come and they haven’t slept is probably experiencing flow. This is the state when your brain is working at optimum. There have been several studies that link the flow state to optimum learning, and to scientific and creative advancement.

Basically the flow state is where we learn, grow and create.

Why does gender make a difference in flow?

From a purely psychological standpoint, it kind of doesn’t. From a sociological standpoint, it makes a great deal of difference. How we approach work, how we are trained to see work, and what kinds of work we are expected to do are heavily gendered in our society.

Traditional “women’s work” is often broken down into small chunks. Making a bed doesn’t take long. Cooking a meal is often broken down into work times and waiting times. If you have small children, you probably fantasize about being able to go to the bathroom or take a shower without little hands knocking on the door. Certainly women are expected to be on call1 to respond.

Thing is, if your time is subject to constant interrupt, flow is hard. One of the reasons I adore swimming is that no-one bugs me during that time. A flow state is very easy to enter during this time, and it feels good enough that I order my own life in ways to invite it.

So, back to my husband. He’s on call. He could be interrupted at any minute and he’s deeply conscious of it. What is he doing while keeping an ear out for those interrupts? Things that don’t require flow – cooking, cleaning and doing laundry.

Women’s work.


1 Yes, I went there.

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