Feeling Good About Yourself (the Frugal Way): Find Your Flow

Amanda writes in with one of those good mailbag questions that
ends up being its own post because it deserves a longer answer:

How do you handle those days when you just feel bad about
yourself and just need a perk or a treat? Like your boss yells at
you a bunch and you feel stressed out and burned out and you just
go do something that makes you feel good for a little bit? I
usually go get something to eat (not the best) or go buy

Here are the four most common things I do when I’m feeling
down in the dumps, I’m alone and don’t have a social contact to
connect with, and just want to feel better for a little while.

I’ll often read a book. I’ll just go into our sun room – a
nice room with lots of windows – and just read for a while. I
usually will read a page turner, something that’s not
particularly thought intensive but not thoughtless, either. I
usually choose literary fiction (I’m just finishing up Barkskins
by Annie Proulx at the moment), epic fantasy, or science

I’ll go on a hike, usually at a particular state park that’s
reasonably close to where I live that has really wonderful hilly
hiking trails. I’ll just go on a walk in the woods and somehow I
feel better.

I’ll play a “just one more turn…” computer game. These
are usually really involved computer games that require a lot of
thought and focus to play well, so I tend to get lost in them. The
ones that usually attract my attention are Factorio, Civilization,
Rimworld, Stellaris, and Europa Universalis.

I’ll practice martial arts at home, particularly taekwondo.
Going through a long routine of taekwondo movements gets me into a
flow state surprisingly well.

There are a few other things I do occasionally if the mood
strikes me. I’ll exercise really vigorously. I’ll play a
solitaire board game. I’ll make some sort of food item. I’ll go
on a long walk.

What do all of these things have in common? It’s certainly not
spending money.

Every single one of them is about getting into a “flow

So, let’s back up here. A “flow state” is when you’re so
engaged with an activity that you literally lose track of time and
place. Have you ever been so engaged with doing something that you
totally lose track of time and then all of a sudden you “snap
back” to reality and you’re just stunned at how much time has
passed? That’s “flow state.”

The thing is, flow state feels tremendously good and, I’ve
found, the aftermath feels tremendously good, too. The psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi actually wrote a book about flow state,
entitled Flow: The
Psychology of Optimal Experience
, and that subtitle is a big
clue. Optimal experience.

I find that whenever I am able to get into a flow state, I
thoroughly enjoy myself and I feel incredibly good afterwards, a
feeling that lasts for a while. This is doubly true when I do it
without anything hanging over my head – no impending deadlines or
other responsibilities weighing me down. For example, I’ll
sometimes get into a flow state when I’m doing work tasks with
deadlines, but while those flow states feel good, they also
completely wear me out. A flow state doing something I enjoy
without deadlines or without a strict need to do it makes me feel

It’s possible to “lose track of time” without getting into
a flow state. This can happen when you’re watching a television
program, for example. You’re not really deeply engaged with the
thing; rather, you just kind of zone out for a while. To me, this
isn’t invigorating, but very exhausting. Think about how you feel
after a day of just watching television.

Again, it’s worth noting that getting into a “flow
state” doesn’t cost anything; it merely requires you to be
doing something that you enjoy doing that’s engaging enough that
you completely lose track of time and place.

So, to summarize, the one thing I do to improve my mood
when I’m feeling down is to do something purely for enjoyment
(but also not easy or thoughtless) that’s likely to put me into a
“flow state,” where I’m so engaged with it that I lose track
of time and place for a while.
When I come out of that
state, I always feel better and, more importantly, I feel ready to
tackle real life problems. (That is, if I don’t just dive back
into that “flow state.”)

As you can see, there are a wide variety of specific
activities I can do that cause this to happen, so I consciously
choose activities that do not require much expense.

For example, I know that from previous experience, I can get
into a flow state while golfing, and I can also get into a flow
state while working in a wood shop, but the expense of both of
those things is tremendous. The startup costs of a proper wood shop
are incredible (though it’s not too bad afterwards), while

golf is an infinite path of expenses
. So, even though I know
those things can put me in a flow state, I skip by them.

What about other treats, like eating some ice
Sure, those things can give an immediate burst of
“feeling good,” but that burst fades really quickly. I’m not
left in a state where I feel good and motivated to tackle things
after other kinds of splurges. Thus, over time, I’ve
learned to not turn to those things that just give a quick burst of
pleasure and fade immediately because they don’t really
In fact, I usually end up feeling worse.

What if you don’t have the time for something that
gets you into a “flow state”?
If that’s the case,
then clearing out a window for it becomes my big short-term goal.
“If I get X, Y, and Z done in the next two hours, I can do this
other thing for an hour or two.” I deeply enjoy those flow state
activities that I have, so they tend to work really well as
short-term motivators.

So my answer to Amanda is this: If you want a frugal way
to boost your mood, find some things in your life that you enjoy
that bring you into a “flow state” without requiring you to
spend money and make them a regular and accessible part of your
For me, “flow state” activities are the most
reliable things I have in my life for feeling good in terms of
things I can easily draw on when I’m alone or when I’m with

For me, as I noted earlier, reading, hiking, gaming, and
practicing martial arts gets me there most of the time, and
vigorous exercise, cooking, and long walks also work.

Of course, those things won’t necessarily work for you.
If you don’t instinctively know what gets you into that
kind of “flow state,” you should try a lot of things that you
view as fun that don’t come with a sticker price.
are infinite
things to do out there that are interesting but don’t require you
to spend money

I’ll offer up my daughter as an example because, well, she’s
actually right across the room from me as I’m working on this
article, so I asked her. She thought about it and she said the
things that get her into that kind of state are painting, playing
the piano, reading, and playing soccer.

I asked my oldest son as well, who was in another room nearby,
and he told me that the things that work well for him are playing
soccer, reading, doing taekwondo forms, and learning something

There are some overlap in those answers – we’re family,
after all – but some big differences as well.

I’m not going to share a big list of fairly random ideas, but
I’d suggest, for starters, trying things that your family and
good friends really enjoy as low cost hobbies, as well as seeing if
there are any groups or classes for free in your community that
might help you dig into a hobby. You can discover those kinds of
groups and activities using Meetup, the local library, and the
community calendar that’s probably on your city’s website.

After I finish up this article, revise it a little, and then
submit it to the website, I’m actually going to do one of those
things listed earlier – namely, I’m going to practice taekwondo
for half an hour or so. I’ll deeply enjoy the practice itself and
I’ll probably slip into a flow state, so I’ll set an
“emergency timer” for about an hour after I start just to make
sure I don’t completely disrupt my day, and when I’m done,
I’m almost certain I’ll feel really good and ready to tackle
much of what’s left on my to-do list for today.

There’s truly nothing better I’ve found for lifting my mood
than doing things that get me into a flow state. I think you may
just find the same to be true in your own life.

Good luck!

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Feeling Good About Yourself (the Frugal Way): Find Your Flow

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Feeling Good About Yourself (the Frugal Way): Find Your Flow