What is flow?

If we perform an activity and are totally and completely immersed in it, that is called flow. This activity is one we enjoy because it is just right for us (i.e. there is a perfect challenge-skill balance) and because we are very motivated to perform that activity. While in a flow state, we are so fully concentrated and focused that we think about nothing else than about the activity we are performing.

We are so immersed, in fact, that we do not notice we’re in a flow state until after it has passed.

The concept was discovered by Hungarian-American psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (please don’t ask me how his name is pronounced). As a leading researcher on ‘positive psychology,’ he studied happiness and creativity.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, we are all in a flow state from time to time, and these are the times when we are happiest. We are so immersed that time itself, our self-consciousness, pressures, and worries do not seem to exist. We are fully focused on the task and one step seems to come naturally after the one before without us having to struggle.

The ideal environment

This is what we need for flow to occur:

– There must be a balance between the difficulty of the challenge and our skills. If the activity is too easy, we get bored. If the activity is too difficult, we lose interest and give up.

Let me use knitting as an example once again, as I love knitting. 😉 If I do my 150th scarf exactly the way I did the other 149 scarfs before it, this is BORING. If I have never knitted before and start with a complicated pullover with a hole pattern, I’m likely to give up long before I reach the sleeves.

– We are (at least in part) intrinsically motivated to perform this activity. Meaning: We want to do it because we find it interesting and rewarding and because we enjoy the result.

Let’s say I knit because it helps me to relax and because I want to have cool socks that I couldn’t buy anywhere.

The opposite is ‘extrinsic motivation.’ This is where we perform an activity simply because someone else tells us or wants us to. We do it only for the expected reward, e.g. money or good grades.

I’m not saying that extrinsic motivation can never be present for flow to occur. I had a lot of fun writing several of my term papers at college even though I had to write them. But it were generally the ones where I had been able to choose the topic freely.

In order to experience flow, our main motivation must come from within ourselves, must be the sheer enjoyment of and interest in what we are doing.

– We are confident that we will get at the solution but we do not quite know what it is going to be. We are still curious.

– We get instant feedback and don’t have to wait before we can continue.

– Flow requires a safe environment where we feel comfortable, unobserved, and undisturbed. Distraction is a no-go.

Ever since I started working full-time, I found that it is possible to use time on buses and trains for writing if it is the only time where you can do so—provided you get an empty seat and don’t have to spend the entire ride like a canned sardine. It’s not the best possible environment, but I’ll take what I can get and sometimes pour ideas into my little notebook while I travel. But if it comes to really working something out, I do need more concentration. That’s just not possible in such busy places. I cannot write if I feel the person next to me is looking over my shoulder reading what I’m writing. I cannot write when kids are screaming or someone is yelling into his cell phone.

One of my psychology professors (my minor subject at college) taught us that it takes about 15 minutes to fully enter a flow state. If we are interrupted or distracted, counting starts at zero again. Thus, if we are interrupted every few minutes, we never fully enter flow and are far from reaching maximum satisfaction or achievement.

Caution, though!

Flow has a reputation of being addictive because it makes us very happy, 😉 and even if it is positive stress, it is a time when we are alert and exhaust our energies. Another one of my psychology professors rightly pointed out that positive stress is still stress. So, make sure to have enough moments of relaxation in between flow experiences to refuel your energies.

Why bother with flow?

Understanding flow experience helps us to be creative. It is the moments when we have had an idea and are working it out. It is also the time when many new ideas are created in the process of development.

We get lazy too easily and simply forget to set new, challenging goals for ourselves as we get better. However, in order to be content and happy and creative, we need to get going and take on challenges that suit our abilities and interests.

More Information

For more info on flow, I recommend Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on life satisfaction and flow or to read one of his best-selling books on the topic. I haven’t read much he wrote, but I really liked what I did read.