Observations on Flow, part II: two improvements

May 26, 2011 by Joshua
in Awareness, Education, Fitness, Models, Visualization

Following yesterday’s primer on flow, here are two simple ideas to bring more flow. If you’ve read only Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book, they may be new. The Wikipedia page on flow but not Csikszentmihalyi’s book covers the first. The second is new, as far as I know, though small.

Recall the ten conditions of the flow state (from Wikipedia, citing Csikszentmihalyi articles):

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Simplifying finding and creating flow

Sure, knowing all about the flow state is nice, but most of all we want to create flow states. A list of ten properties makes it hard to figure out how to create it. Well, we can simplify that list.

Note that 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. The existence of 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 the main purpose of 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 of the conditions contribute to achieving a flow state:

  1. Clear goals.
  2. Direct and immediate feedback.
  3. Balance between ability level and challenge (with both preferably high).

If you want to find new sources of flow in your life, look for activities with these properties. Don’t waste your time with other activities. Once you find and begin such activities, then 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 observation is that his chart of the emotion resulting from levels of challenge and skill could be simplified.

Challenge versus Skill

Csikszentmihalyi’s representation of the emotional state resulting from level of challenge and skill

I represent it as below (sorry I don’t know how to do color and fading EDIT: See a color version of this graph here!). Not a big change, but it simplifies the relationships between states and adds the neutral state.

Skill versus challenge

My representation of the emotional state resulting from level of challenge and skill (EDIT: See a color version of this graph here!)

Now you can see flow is supposed to be the same skill level as control but higher challenge level. With those diagonal lines from before, the relationship between them was complicated. To someone experienced with interpreting quantitative graphs, those diagonal lines implied all sorts of crazy relations between emotional states.

The significance of the neutral state is that when you are neutral with respect to challenge and skill, other emotions will dominate over the ones here. Obviously eight or nine emotions are a tiny fraction of all human emotions.

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1 response to “Observations on Flow, part II: two improvements

  1. Pingback: » Observations on Flow, part I Joshua Spodek

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