A Flow Vacation

One summer, while living in Michigan, I had the opportunity to visit my brother for a month in New Jersey. Anyone in my family who makes this trip will pack the night before, wake up early in the morning, and drive the distance in one day. I planned on doing this. However, I did not pack the night before, and then I slept in late the next day. By the time I had packed, it was 3:00 P.M. At this point, the logical choice was to spend the rest of the day at my house and drive to my brother's the next day.

But.... I wanted to leave. So, doing what I wanted instead of what I consciously calculated was "best", I left. I realized, though, that I wanted to go swimming. The nearest lake was only 12 miles away, but it was in the opposite direction from my brother's. Therefore, it was illogical to go to that lake. Now stubbornly flouting my conscious calculations, I headed for that lake and had a nice time.

I ended up heading towards my brother's at 7:30 P.M. In driving towards my brother's, I had to drive near my house. At this point, it would have been very logical to head back to my house rather than start the trip. But I wanted to drive. Celebrating my ability to ignore all that was logical and instead do what I want, I kept driving. I drove about 200 miles that night. The drive was quite pleasant.

I slept that night in my car, which was very uncomfortable. At least the next day I got an early start. I stopped to swim in the afternoon. I would have made it to my brother's house that night, except that with 100 miles to go, a freeway exit sign pointed to a state park. I impulsively took the exit, slept that night in my tent, and swam in their lake the next day. I arrived at my brother's late the third day.

So, I managed to spend three days making what "should" have been a one-day trip. But I had enjoyed myself. And that's the goal in vacationing. The rest of my vacation followed this theme -- I listened for what I wanted to do, and I stubbornly did what I wanted, even if my conscious reasoning said it was not the best choice. On my way home, after my daily unscheduled swim, I planned on driving the expressways through Canada. But I realized I wanted to take a different route through Canada, following country roads. They took longer, and at times I wished I had taken the expressway. But the drive was more pleasant. I arrived home late that night and enjoyed some fresh corn I bought along the country road.

After reading Csikszentmihalyi, I realized I had been flowing. I avoided all of my conscious choices. Instead, I paid close attention to my urges, which were coming from my Inferential System, and I followed them

Vacationing is almost ideal for flow -- I rate it with sports, arts, crafts, and games as a natural flow activity, and many people choose vacationing for their first flow activity. Of course, flow is not magical, and I did not always enjoy all of the consequences of my flow. However, flowing is much better than whatever comes in second place.

How to Flow in Vacationing

There are two ways to flow. One is to perform the first alternative suggested by your Inferential System. This is especially useful when fast responses are needed. The second method, following your urges, is more suitable to the slow pace of vacationing, though of course both methods can be used.

Effective flow in vacationing has the same three requirements as effective flow at sports, arts, and crafts. First, you must attend to the task at hand. This should be easy at vacationing. Second, you have to avoid conscious calculations, such as planning and decision making. That's not so easy -- people are accustomed to planning ahead and consciously deciding what's best. So you must work hard to avoid planning and conscious calculations. Or maybe it's not too hard. What you must do is pay attention to what you want to do. Then, unless you have some very good conscious reasoning not to, you should do what you want to do.

Finally, one of the requirements for flow is having a broad goal. For vacationing, the broad goal is enjoying yourself. My goal in traveling used to be to get to my vacation destination as quickly as possible, when I would start then enjoying myself. Ha, tell me one reason why enjoyment should not be a goal while traveling.

Problems with Planning Ahead

There is nothing wrong with being prepared. If you bring money in case you need it, or a tent in case you want to camp out, that's good. It gives you more options when you flow. However, if you plan what you are going to do, then just follow your plan, you are not flowing. To have a flow vacation, you should try to minimize this kind of planning.

Planning ahead cannot take into account features of a situation that you don't know about. For example, you can plan to go swimming, but when you make the plan you do not know what the weather will be.

For vacationing, one of the factors you cannot know if you try to plan in advance is what you want to do. You change from day to day, and sometimes even minute to minute, in what you want. Sometimes you want to eat one food, sometimes you want to eat another, and sometimes you aren't hungry. Sometimes you want to exercise, sometimes you don't; sometimes you want to be alone, sometimes you don't. When you're angry, you might want to hurt your friend; most of the time, you don't. In general, your motivations at any given time can and will change. Experiments (Kahneman & Snell, 1992) have shown that people cannot predict how their wants will change.

How does this relate to vacationing? Suppose you are taking a boat cruise in the Caribbean. You might plan different activities for each day, thinking you are maximizing your enjoyment. Suppose one day your plan is to go snorkeling. If you find out it is raining that day, you will change your plans -- you aren't stupid. But what if it's windy? Your Inferential System might know that snorkeling on a windy day isn't that good, but if you don't consciously know this, you might mindlessly and stubbornly continue your plan, wondering why you don't feel good about it.

And finally, suppose you just don't want to go snorkeling that day? What is the point of snorkeling if you don't want to? How is that maximizing your enjoyment? Of course, you can pay attention to what you want and abandon the plans of snorkeling if you don't want to snorkel. But then, what was the point of making a plan?

Usually, your changing wants should be conquered, not catered to. If you usually value money, but one day don't, you should not go on a spending spree that one day and ruin the rest of your life. If you usually value a friendship but are momentarily angry at your friend, you shouldn't do something to ruin the friendship just because you are momentarily angry. But in vacationing, the goal is to enjoy yourself. So this is the rare situation when you should cater to your changing wants, not fight them. The ability of flow to adapt to changing wants is probably the most important advantage of flow in vacationing.

And Some Advantages of Plans

Some people do no planning for a vacation. One student said he decided where to go after he got to the airport. In Australia, they have the custom of the walkabout, in which a person just "walks" around the country, with no planned destination for no planned length of time. An Australian couple on a walkabout in the U.S. flabbergasted a reporter who found them in a bus stop deciding where to go next.

But vacations usually require some planning, such as making reservations for where to spend the night. Fortunately, planning does not eliminate the possibility of flow. There are always gaps in a plan -- unspecified methods of completing the parts of the plan. For example, I might plan to visit the Lincoln Memorial for exactly two hours, but I might not plan what I will do for that two hours. Or, I might plan to drive to a particular destination, but not plan which route I will take or what stops I will make. Flow can occur in the gaps of the plan. For example, I can flow while at the Lincoln Memorial or while driving to a particular destination.

Therefore, planning and flow coexist and intertwine. However, the more extensive and detailed the plan, the less room for flow. Also, a plan is a narrow goal for your Inferential System to try to accomplish. When you try to follow your plan, you will not be open to other actions outside the plan which could accomplish broader goals. So try to minimize your planning to when it is needed.

A Problem with Looking for the Better Choice

Suppose you think of something you want to do. Then, instead of flowing (and just doing it), you try to think of something even better to do. What can be the harm? It seems like you either think of something better, which is good, or you don't, and no harm is done.

But there are problems with trying to find a better choice. First, if you don't think of a better choice, you have wasted your time. Second, if you think you have found a better choice, you could be wrong -- it is not necessarily the better choice. For a variety of reasons, your Inferential System's first output can be the best.

But suppose you really do think of a better choice. Even then, you are not always better off. Now you know two enjoyable things to do. And that's a problem. You can agonize over which to do, but agonizing is not fun. Then, while you are doing one of the activities, you are aware that you are missing the other. That's not fun.

Sometimes you can plan to do the second activity when you are finished with the first. But that means you have a plan to do the second activity, and plans have their problems. Anyway, you don't want to be thinking about the second activity while you're performing the first -- that's not a recipe for either flow or enjoyment. (And with flow, you still could perform the second activity after the first, if you still wanted to.)

So don't make trouble for yourself. If you think of something fun to do, just do it. Don't try to think of two fun things to do.

Flowing for a Day

Everything that has been said about vacationing applies to just spending a spare Saturday trying to enjoy yourself. In fact, it is an interesting exercise to budget a day for flowing.

One student reported: "One Sunday I decided to try to flow all day with my daughter to have fun. So before I did this I had to realize why I didn't do this more often with her and then eliminate this reason. I came to the conclusion that I quite often impose a time limit upon myself, and that this time limit often prevented me from enjoying myself. So I had to get rid of this before trying to flow with her. So I said to myself, 'There is nothing else I have to do today and everything else (like laundry) I can do with her around and still flow.' I also had to remind myself that I was not going to run out of time and not be able to do the laundry etc. So all day we played together and really did whatever came to our minds first. It turned out that we had a really nice day and became a lot closer."

To play the flow game right, you do have to decide that day what you want to do. You might think you know exactly what your Inferential System will suggest. If your expectations are right, that's okay -- flow doesn't have to lead to unusual or unexpected behaviors. The goal is just to enjoy yourself. But your Inferential System might suggest something unexpected. One student set aside a spare Saturday for flow, making sure she had plenty of money to take the train into New York City. When the day came, she wanted to work. So she stayed home and worked, and she had a very enjoyable day.


Vacationing -- or any time devoted to just enjoying yourself -- is ideally suited to flow. Your broad unchanging goal is enjoying yourself. So just focus on enjoying yourself and being in the present.