by Arjuna Ardagh: For decades, I have been an on-the-road kind of guy giving talks, seminars, and training in many different countries…
I am usually clocking up tens of thousands of airline miles each year. But now I have become a more stay-at-home kind of guy. This summer I am going to wake up almost every day in my own bed, with our cats, eat greens from the garden, and live a regular regulated life. Since the publication of Radical Brilliance, I am focusing more on supporting people one-on-one who have a huge vision and want to make a big difference to the world.
My latest book Radical Brilliance describes the “Brilliance Cycle” which demonstrates how four different components contribute to true originality.
Guiding a number of my clients to complete projects, has shone a light on a simple fundamental relationship between two forces that are constantly weaving together through our lives: structure and flow.
We can understand the relationship between these two components by thinking about a river. In order for a river to exist, it needs two things: water and banks. The water is liquid, it is constantly moving from its source to its destination. The banks are solid, they stay put and, hopefully, nothing will cause them to budge. If extreme circumstances occasionally cause a bank to give way, the results are often disastrous.
Structure means anything that gives your life regularity, discipline, and predictability. Here are some obvious examples of things that we need in order to make life work (and to make a creative project work) that require an attitude of structure.
Regular daily practice and discipline: getting up and going to bed at more or less the same time every day.
Regular dedicated spiritual practice – whether you feel like it or not.
Regularly planned nutrition.
Regular daily exercise.
Budgeting-knowing well in advance where the money is coming from, how it is going to be spent over the next months, and putting structures in place to always maintain a reserve of three to six months overhead.
Making and keeping clear unambiguous written agreements. Important note: both the “making” and “keeping” are important here. Some people try to fudge this one by not making too many agreements, which consequently means not having to break them. That approach will not allow you to create incredible results in the world.
One of the most important things to recognize about structure is that it is generally not attractive to you because of “how you feel” in the moment. You cannot create structure based upon a pleasure principle. Instead, structure requires a much more long term approach: having a clear vision of where you want to be in two, five, or even ten years, and then taking actions on a regular basis, whether you feel like it or not, that are in alignment with your long term goals.
A great example of this would be your budget. It does not feel particularly pleasurable to put money aside for a rainy day when you can spend it on immediate gratification: like travel, or clothes, or meals. The discipline to save is entirely tied to delayed pleasure. The same is true of almost anything which creates structure. Making and keeping clear agreements can feel constraining. Hardly anyone I know “feels” like meditating, or doing yoga, or qi gong each and every day.
For this reason, trying to maintain structure in your life in isolation is almost certainly destined to failure. That is why, historically, people have gone to monasteries or ashrams (or even joined the army…): because trying to maintain regular structure in a group setting with accountability is extraordinarily much easier than it is alone.
If you are an entrepreneur, or writer, or anyone who wants to make a creative contribution, this is one of the primary reasons why getting coached or mentored is absolutely necessary. The only truly effective way to maintain structure in our lives is to report to someone on a regular basis. Jonathan Robinson cites research where your chances of keeping your word around disciplines in daily routine jump from about 23% to 87% when you have an accountability partner.
Flow means your capacity to live wild, natural, unplanned, and free, responding fluidly to each and every moment. It “feels” way much better than structure, partly because it is more natural. Dolphins, wolves, cats, dogs, and even fleas flow all day. As far as we know, all the other 2.3 million species of mammal that are still around live lives of flow, except for animals kept in captivity. Animals do not make agreements, and therefore, they do not break promises. They do not know how to read a clock, let alone the screen of a smartphone. Equally, other species do not have money or possessions or written laws.
We have created structure to be able to interact with each other around the co-creation of complex tasks because structure is a by-product of the human mind, and the need for accomplishing things in the world.
Many people feel resistant, because structure appears to impede flow. Flow happens when you can do whatever you want, in whatever way you want, whenever you want. We all feel more the sense of “going with the flow” when we travel. Any time you free yourself up from a fixed address, create a situation where you are free to move around, whenever and wherever you want, (particularly if you can make those decisions at the last minute), increases feelings of flow.
Freely sharing intimacy with others irrespective of the boundaries of a traditional relationship like writing, making music, creating art that is not part of some kind of bigger project, are times we experience more flow. The same goes for honoring messages from the body about when to eat, sleep, and exercise.
If you want to make a big impact in the world, you may have too much or too little structure, and you can also have too much or too little flow.
Too much structure means that every moment of the day is scheduled with a complex web of agreements so “your time is not your own.” Having a lot of structure in this way is not necessarily stressful (as many people assume), and can actually be quite relaxing, because you know exactly what to do and when to do it. The price you pay for too much structure is not the build-up of stress, but the diminishing of authentic creativity.
Too little structure means that you become unwilling to put aside any form of short term gratification at the expense of long term accomplishment. Too little structure is really synonymous with being a “rebel without a cause.” An aversion to structure means that you fight against boundaries or river banks of any kind, whether they were decided upon by you in a moment of greater responsibility, or imposed by the outside.
Now here is a super important caveat that very few people recognize right away: Minimizing structure in your life does not necessarily lead to greater flow. If that is the only thing you get from this article, it was worth your time to read it. Lots of structure does not equate to less flow, and lots of flow does not require less structure. You can easily have no structure and no flow in your life, but you can also have lots of structure and lots of flow. In fact, to make any meaningful sustained contribution to the world you need to have high levels of both structure and flow (few quick examples: Steve Jobs would not have reinvented personal computers without tidal waves of both structure and flow, Larry and Sergei would not have pulled off Google, etc, etc, etc).
There are times in life where minimal structure is fantastic. I spent months backpacking around Europe when I was 17 without any structure at all. Each and every moment was a new unplanned adventure.
The biggest price we pay for having low levels of structure is that it erodes trust in relationship. If you are unwilling to create or honor agreements, particularly around money, people will gradually find excuses not to play with you anymore. If you are frequently late, stand people up, or require people to flow with your shifting plans, there is a point where the irritation you create in others starts to overshadow the inspiration, no matter how charming and creative you are.
You can also have excessive or inadequate flow.
Too much flow means that your whole being is bursting with new ideas each and every moment, and you simply cannot capture it all. If the flow dial is turned up too high (characterized by excessive release of dopamine) we get addicted to the next bright shiny thing. Consequently, nothing gets completed with a level of professionalism and quality that really make it worth sharing with the world. You can recognize someone with excessive flow not so much because they are halfway through their epic work, but because they keep starting new epic works and projects, none of which move forward to fruition.
Inadequate flow is often the by-product of too much stress. Quick reminder: this does not necessarily mean too much structure, you can have low levels of flow also because of too little structure. As soon as we feel overwhelmed by all the things we have initiated with all the foggy agreements we half entered into without thinking, the sense of too much initiating and not enough follow-through causes flow to shut down.
You can be very creative in a limited way with an imbalance between flow and structure. For example, it is quite easy to post a couple of paragraphs on Instagram and snap a nice picture from high flow and low structure, but you will never write a book that way. It is quite easy to create a business and make a lot of money with high structure and low flow, particularly if you pinch someone else’s good idea, but you will never have the satisfaction of being connected to the mysterious source that way.
Honestly, when I review all of the different people I have worked with, almost everybody comes into coaching with some form of imbalance between structure and flow. Worst case scenario is low structure and low flow. This would be somebody depressed, scattered, anxious, and in a rut. More frequent scenarios are high structure and low flow, or high flow and low structure. What we aim for, and what is absolutely necessary if you want to make a meaningful contribution, is high structure and high flow living side by side. In my humble opinion, it is virtually impossible to achieve that without getting support. This is probably one of the primary reasons to make sure you are engaged in an ongoing commitment with a coach or mentor who you trust: someone who has a track record of creating the kind of outcomes you are looking for and supporting other people who are looking to do the same.
Here are a few key practices you can begin to move your life towards high structure/high flow scenario.
- Maintain a regular morning discipline or “sadhana.”
This could include waking up at the same time every day no matter what, spending at least 30 minutes in silent sitting, and having some sort of movement, whether it is dance, yoga, or Chi-Kung. Without some kind of discipline in this way, your chances of getting sucked into a black hole of societal chaos are too high to be worth the risk.
- Take a day or week for yourself.
Switch off the phone, unplug the computer, and follow the wise example of your cat or your dog. Spend a day just being. The idea “I do not have the time” is simply not true. Everyone who tries it reports that taking a day to unplug creates more time in the rest of the week. Sounds illogical? Try it.
- Take some time to evaluate your life for ideal flow and structure levels.
I suggest you journal this and take some time for it. Relationships…finances…health…business: for each area you can think of in your life, even down to specific relationships or projects, find the areas that need more structure or more flow, and which ones need less.
- Do not trust your mind.
Both flow and structure can become addictive. An excessive amount of either one can create a craving for more. Make sure that you have an active and overt conversation with someone skilled in evaluating flow and structure frequently.
- Regularly establish long term goals.
It is important to know what you would like your life and your contribution to look like in two, five, and ten years. That vision may change after a few months, but do not allow it to change every day or even every week. When you have a “true north” in this way, it allows you to reset the rest of your life and the decisions you make on a daily basis to be in alignment with where you want to be.
I hope this has been helpful. I have discovered that finding this correct balance between structure and flow in each and every area of your life is absolutely essential to creating successful outcomes.
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