Flow

Published October 31, 2009 in Psychology and Mind Hacks - 6 Comments

Flow Moto GP Image

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.

What Is 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:

  1. Clear goals: In a state of flow, you know exactly what outcome you are working towards.
  2. Concentration: In a state of flow, you are typically concentrated on one thing and one thing only.
  3. Loss of self-awareness: In a state of flow, you forget about yourself, and all the things that normally bother your ego.
  4. No feeling for time: Your awareness of time diminishes or completely disappears when you are experiencing flow.
  5. Immediate feedback: An experience where you are getting direct and constant feedback on how you are doing is more likely to induce flow.
  6. Balance between skill and challenge: A task that is neither too difficult nor too easy is more likely to induce flow.
  7. Sense of control: In a state of flow, you feel in control.
  8. Rewarding: In a state of flow you will typically feel like the task you are doing is rewarding in itself.
  9. Becoming the activity: In a state of flow you feel like you and what you are doing are one.

Example

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.

Skill Factor

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:

Flow GraphImagine 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.

Experiencing Flow

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!

  • Interesting. I’m currently working using the pomodoro technique (25 minutes maximal focus, 3-5 minutes break). It helps me a lot although it’s far from the kind of flow you were talking about.

    • Hey Oscar, thanks for stopping by! I’d never heard of the pomodoro technique before. Googled it and will read up on it, though. I’ve been trying some similar “time-boxing”/Parkinson’s law type of time-management methods, but I haven’t had any breakthroughs yet.
      I think that most time-limiting methods are probably detrimental to flow, because flow has a lot to do with deep immersion. Not that that’s always a good thing, of course. I don’t expect to experience flow when filling out my tax form, so I might as well use a time-limiting method for something like that.

  • This is great news Shane – I often experience flow although only points 3 to 6 so I still think I have some way to go yet!

    • That’s great! Not all nine factors are necessary to experience flow.
      Personally, I have been busy with too many different things lately, to experience any deep states of flow. I’m currently working on removing distractions and single-tasking again.
      Thanks for commenting!

  • Tom

    Hello Shane. a wonderful website you have 🙂
    I came to realize that the concept of flow is the key to giftedness (which i’ve been reading about these weeks).
    When I was a kid, I used to experience flow almost all the time (I know now that this optimal state of mind is largely responsible for the accelerated learning). Unfortunately, along the years I seem to have lost the ability to maintain the flow (possibly due to the prefrontal cortex deterioration along the time which is an universal phenomenon). This is how I characterize my own experiences of flow in physiological and psychological terms:

    – For intellectual activities: vision broadening (i.e. peripheral vision), perception of brighten images (slowing of brain waves), auditory illusion of white noise, dramatic increase in mental speed (e.g. reflex, operation processing), sense of omniscience, surreal-ness and total awareness.

    – For creative activities: burst of inspiration, goose bump, body softening, impression perceiving, “rage” to express.

    I’m more concerned, however, about deliberately entering the state of flow (in the literature this quality is attributed mostly to one’s neurological basis, hence me attempting to challenge this assumption). So far I’ve partial answers to this but fail to tap into optimal state in every instances. Here are my partial answers:

    1) “pseudo-kinesis” (mentally imagining moving an object in your focus)
    2) Expand your vision as peripheral as possible.
    3) Removal of all perceptible pains and negative feelings followed by a period of deep relaxation until involuntary images are perceived.

    I hope these infos contribute to your pursuit of flow 🙂

    • Hello Tom,

      Thank you for commenting!
      I have also had the experience that whenever I am in a state of flow, I soak up information effortlessly. It’s a completely different experience from trying to learn something by force, so to speak.
      What you write about expanding the peripheral vision reminds me of martial arts, where you learn to unfocus and use your entire visual field to keep track of what’s going on around you. Needless to say, an actual fight isn’t very likely to produce flow, but a “friendly” competition match is.