A couple years ago I wrote two posts on the emotional state where you get so lost in an activity you lose track of time, focused with all your attention. Hours pass without your noticing while minutes may seem like hours as you focus intently.
We like this state. A researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied it and named the state “flow.” He wrote a book on it that improved my life so I recommend it. We all want more flow in our lives and his book helps create it.
The first post a couple years ago very briefly summarized it and includes links to relevant Wikipedia pages and TED talks. The second describes a couple improvements on how to present flow. I improved my improvement and am copying most of that post here, along with the improved improvement.
Review: ten conditions of the Flow state
Ten conditions characterize the flow state (from Wikipedia, citing Csikszentmihalyi articles):
- Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
- Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
- A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
- Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
- Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
- A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
- Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
Improvement 1: simplifying finding and creating Flow
Knowing about the flow state is nice, but we want to create flow states, not just know about them. A list of so many properties complicates how to create it. We can simplify that list.
Some of the conditions result from being in the state. Others contribute to it. For example, the distorted sense of time, condition 4, results from the activity that put you in the flow state. You can’t tell if it will happen beforehand. Clear goals, condition 1, is usually a property of the activity that contributes to achieving a flow state. For example, playing chess has a goal of checkmating your opponent. Rock climbing has a goal of climbing the mountain.
If your main purpose in learning about flow is to improve your life (presumably the goal of everything you do), distinguishing the characteristics by cause and effect can simplify this goal. You can simplify attaining this goal by realizing only three conditions contribute to creating flow:
- Clear goals.
- Direct and immediate feedback.
- Balance between ability level and challenge (with both preferably high).
(You could add the sense of personal control and intrinsic reward of the activity, but to me they seem results more than causes. If you feel differently, you can add one or both to this list.)
If you want to create more flow, find activities with these properties. Avoid wasting your time with others. Once you start activities with these properties you can look for the other properties.
It seems easier and simpler to remember this short list. I hope it helps.
Simplifying how flow relates to other emotions
The next simplification is in his chart of the emotion resulting from levels of challenge and skill. Here is Csikszentmihalyi’s chart:
I represent it as below — not a big change, but it simplifies the relationships between states and adds the neutral state.
Now you can see Flow has the same skill level as Control but higher challenge. Csikszentmihalyi’s diagonal lines complicated the relationship between them, implying odd relations between states.
The neutral state shows that an activity with modest skill and challenge levels — the middle of the graph — you won’t feel a mix of the eight emotions Csikszentmihalyi implies where they all come together into a point. Instead you won’t feel any of them. You’ll feel other emotions. After all, we have far more emotions than just eight.
For example, while rock climbing (high skill and challenge) may create a flow state and walking around in circles in your room (low skill and challenge) may create apathy, something in between like, say, going for a walk after dinner, might not create any of the emotions on the chart. It might create satisfaction or enjoyment.
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