Image by gwylow71
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi – what looks like the result of me randomly banging my forehead against the keyboard is actually the name of an academic who is one of the pioneers of positive psychology. He coined the term “flow” as a particular state of mind and concentration, sometimes also referred to as “optimal experience”. Since it is highly relevant to personal productivity, in today’s post I explain the core concept of psychological flow.
The easiest way to explain it is this: Remember the last time you were so immersed in a task that you lost your awareness of time? And then maybe you looked out of the window and were surprised to see it was already dark outside? Or maybe your growling stomach suddenly made you realize that you hadn’t eaten all day?
That state in which you are so concentrated and immersed that you forget everything around you, is flow.
While we don’t feel ecstatic, excited or aroused during this state of mind, the research conducted by Csíkszentmihályi suggests that we are happiest and most satisfied with our lives and ourselves when we experience flow on a regular basis. We are also at our most productive, in a state of flow.
Csíkszentmihályi identified nine characteristics that define the state of flow:
In case the image I chose for this post made you wonder what the hell motorcycle racing had to do with a psychological concept, here’s your answer: The conditions race drivers face are near perfect for experiencing flow.
It’s very clear to the race driver that the goal is to finish first. During the race, the driver’s concentration is completely focused on the race. While the race has many aspects – the car, the track, weather conditions, all the other vehicles on the track – the focus is still very narrow and clearly oriented around the goal of winning the race. The race driver will not be worrying about anything personal during a race, his self-awareness diminishes and it’s as if he becomes one with his vehicle. During the race, the driver is constantly getting immediate and direct feedback: He feels how his vehicle reacts to every one of his inputs and at least once per round, he gets feedback on whether he is shaving split-seconds off his lap-time or falling behind the competition. The race driver is constantly pushing himself and his vehicle to the limits, yet he always remains under control (unless he doesn’t, which usually results in a crash, accompanied by a distinct loss of flow, I would image). And finally, no doubt every race driver loves his job and finds it rewarding in and of itself.
The nine factors above are what is typically described by people who experience flow. Conversely, you can optimize any experience by making sure those nine factors are present or at least possible. You can remove distractions, you can find ways to get feedback, you can clearly outline your goals etc.
One of the most important factors is the balance between skill and difficulty. There is only a certain amount of leeway for something being either too difficult or too easy, before experiencing flow becomes impossible:
Imagine you were having a Tennis match against Roger Federer. What you would be experiencing, would be an extremely high difficulty level. The game would be frustrating for you since no amount of effort would get you anywhere.
Roger, on the other hand, would be experiencing a very low difficulty level – he would be coming to this match with a far superior skill-set and the game would bore him.
Both of you would not be able to experience flow in this match-up. Now imagine playing a Tennis match against your clone. Now that would be very challenging, but also a lot of fun. Because this match up would be perfectly balanced, it would be right in that middle band on the above graph, where flow can take place.
By the way, feel free to substitute a different sport for Tennis. I don’t play Tennis either, but Federer is the only internationally known super-athlete I could think of, off the top of my head.
I like the “balance between skill and difficulty” factor because it’s one you can often control. You can seek out tasks (and opponents) that are matched with your skill level and avoid over- or underwhelming situations.
Interestingly, it’s when skill and difficulty are balanced that we also make the most progress, learn extremely quickly and increase our own skill-level most effectively. This means we need to gradually adjust the difficulty upwards, as our skill grows, otherwise we get bored and lose the benefits of flow.
The research behind flow, and all the work Csíkszentmihályi has done concerning this concept is highly interesting and a story all of it’s own. If you would like to learn more about it, I recommend reading his book simply titled Flow.
Do you experience flow? Often? Do you feel like you could optimize aspects of your everyday life to make experiencing flow more likely? Let me know what you think, down in the comments! I’d love to hear (read, actually) from you!