What the Heck is FLOW?

In Short: Flow is the science (psychology) of optimal human experience. Flow is perhaps better known as 'Getting in the Zone' among athletes and creative folk.

A Tad Longer: Flow, whether in athletic competition, creative arts, engaging work, or spiritual practice, is a deep and uniquely human motivation to excel, exceed and triumph over limitation.

What's the State of Flow like?

2011-07-06_Flow Book CoverMihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience describes flow as, "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought flows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Who founded it?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, noted psychologist and pioneer of the concept discovered it in his own search for happiness. He wanted to figure out "how to live life as a work of art, rather than as a chaotic response to external events." Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "chicks sent me high-ee")--I know, awesome last name, huh?--explains how when you're in a state of flow, anything you're doing can be truly awesome.

My Favorite Part of Flow

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's life work has been to study what makes people 'truly' happy. With the emphasis on truly, which separates what is commonly associated with happiness such as pleasure, an emotional state or even flow itself. Rather, the happiness he points to is the "continual challenge to go beyond oneself as part of something greater than one's own self interest." Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's other books involved looking further at flow and at the bigger picture of human evolution in time and offering a new paradigm on how human beings can become better versions of themselves. To someone like me who values, and continually strives for, self-improvement, the concept of Flow is more than intriguing, it has become part of my personal philosophy.


2011-07-06_Flow Graph
A visual graph of flow.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's flow diagram is above. You will notice that it takes the right blend of challenge and skills to produce the right environment for flow to occur. It was quite enlightening and accurate of my own experiences. Give someone a task that requires no skill but is overly challenging and they get anxiety. Think most entry 9-5 jobs. Give them a task that requires vast skills but isn't very challenging and your bored out of your mind. Think of a doctor's office with only one patient to treat a day. Boring. However, rocking it like goldilocks, 'just right,' primes the person to enter a unique state (FLOW) where their current skill set is maximized and their brain is fully engaged on an equally matched task.

The really fascinating part I noticed about the graph, and one that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi notes in his book, is the need to increase challenges or skills to get back in the flow zone. For instance, when a particular task becomes too mundane (you've figured it out now) or when the challenge escalates above your current skill level (unforeseen incident), you need to adapt and evolve in order to relish in the desired state of flow and maximum potential/productivity/creativity/ability.    

6 Tips for Finding Your Flow 

2011-07-06_Dr Flow1. Clear Goals

Knowing the expectations and having defined rules is essential. It seems limiting external variables or wayward thinking is paramount. 

2. Focus on a Single Task

Seems to fire in the face of multi-tasking and productivity gurus. The old saying was, "balance many tasks to get more done." The Flow way is to maximize your potential by focusing on one main task or groups of tasks at a time to really engage your whole skill set and attention.

3. Quick Feedback Loop

A direct or indirect feedback during an activity is vital so whatever behavior can be quickly adjusted on an as-needed basis. Think golfers. If they are slicing and they don't know why, they will probably keep making the same swing fault without knowing the true cause. If you had a professional coach there, you'd immediately get proper feedback and your bad mechanics would quickly adjust.

4. Balance of Ability Level and Challenge

As described in the chart above. Finding the correct combination can improve worker productivity and satisfaction or even increase your athletic performance.

5. The Activity is Intrinsically Rewarding

If you don't enjoy an activity, how are you going find flow, an optimal mental state? You're not. Sometimes you have to do things you don't want to, but if your activity is important to your future success, keep following the steps for best results.

6. Control Over the Situation

This is another no brainer. If you don't have some type of personal control over your task or activity...no flow for you.

How to Use Flow Concepts in Room Design 

Creative Spatial Arrangements: Make sure you have plenty of dry erase boards, pin walls, charts, and ironically NO tables. Dr. C found the act of moving around and standing had a more positive effect on entering flow. Obviously this isn't practical for everybody. (I did randomly just realize that I did my best studying by writing on a dry erase board while standing and then going back to my notes to check if I wrote it correctly.) When in doubt, ask what would Google do? They have a habit of pumping out some of the best creativity and innovation in the world and they didn't do it with cubicles and TPS reports!

What KILLS Flow?

1. Fearing what others think of you. Remember if people aren't criticizing you that means you're not pushing the envelope or doing awesome things. Don't fret. Let me guzzle Gatorade while you do what makes you happy.

2. Mundane daily routines. If you're not pushing your bubble or 'comfort zone,' you won't be experiencing flow anytime soon.

Hope you enjoyed your 4th of July Weekend!