Get in the Flow

October 27, 2015

- Bill Haynes

Have you ever been so absorbed in something you lose all sense of time? So focused that you don’t notice extraneous stimuli? So engaged in a challenging mental or physical activity that you feel at one with it, and when it’s done find yourself unwittingly smiling? If so, you were in the flow.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes how people are happiest when they are completely absorbed in an activity. They feel most fully alive when they are in the flow.

“There are many things that involve focus, dedication, and hard work that can lead to flow in our lives like learning a new language, running a marathon, being able to snowboard down a steep trail, or learning to play the piano.”

The author discusses the flow state and offers guidance on how to avoid falling prey to being constantly buffeted by an overload of external stimuli, by disregarding extraneous information and focusing on what’s important. He says this conscious choice to be mindful of the big picture goal and enjoy each moment that contributes to achieving that goal brings more control and happiness. He says, “How we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depend directly on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experiences.”

As the amount of information and the pace and methods of its delivery continue to expand, so too do the demands of absorbing, prioritizing and acting upon that information. We’ve all feel at times so flooded with data and tasks that it’s hard to keep focused on our goals. That’s why the insights in “Flow” are even more timely today when the book was written a quarter of a century ago.

Csikszentmihalyi says there are seven common elements to being in a flow state, which he elaborated on in a Ted Talk:

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing – focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality.
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well we are doing.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable – that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity – no worries about oneself and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.
  6. Timelessness – thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.

Csikszentmihalyi says we are happiest when we are focused on challenges that stretch our capabilities. “For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

He says the most positive memorable events in our lives are the things we worked hardest for. “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is this something we make happen.”

There are many things that involve focus, dedication, and hard work that can lead to flow in our lives like learning a new language, running a marathon, being able to snowboard down a steep trail, or learning to play the piano.

It’s good to have a goal, but enjoying the journey is even more important. “The goal in itself is usually not important; what matters is that it focuses a person’s attention and involves it in an achievable, enjoyable activity.”

The author provides insights into how to integrate flow into all aspects of one’s life, including work, which he addresses in more depth in “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.” He says the flow state is achieved at the border between boredom and anxiety, “when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”

When work can be made to resemble a game with “variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback,” the more it will be enjoyed. When a worker has the skills to tackle a challenge that requires concentration they are happier and more creative.

In the documentary movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” the elderly proprietor of a tiny sushi restaurant in Tokyo loves what he does, dreams about creating new sushi dishes and constantly strives to improve every day. “Immerse yourself in your craft,” he says. “Like anything, if you work hard, you will get good over time.” Get good he did. And people noticed. The restaurant received a Michelin three star rating.

In a recent novel, “The Painter,” by Peter Heller, the narrator describes the flow state he achieves when he paints, “It is not a fugue state. I’ve heard artists talk about that like it’s some kind of religious thing. For me it is the same as when I am having a good day fishing. I move up the creek, tie on flies, cast to the far bank, wade, throw into the edge of a pool, feel the hitch the tug of a strike bang!—all in a happy silence of mind.”