In the last article, I explained what flow is and why it can be such a positive state. In this second part, I will summarise the best practical techniques to promote it, drawn from the works of psychology theory and research. These include a myriad of ways in which to structure the external environment as well as one’s inner world.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. 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 thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.” – Csikszentmihalyi
Getting in the zone (flow) is a state of deep interaction with the environment, in which the task at hand absorbs one’s entire attention and consciousness, to the point that the self, time, and almost everything else is forgotten momentarily. Of course not any task we come upon leads to flow - and that is surely a good thing! Still, sometimes it would be nice to experience flow during that cumbersome, boring activity that we nevertheless value deeply. If only we could make it more enticing and intrinsically motivating…
1) Closely match the challenges to the skills
Flow occurs best when a task - possibly any kind of task - presents the right level of challenge to one’s skills. If it is too challenging, the person needs to stop for a moment and either think consciously about how to move next, as for example when an inexperienced driver struggles to remember when to push the clutch and when to let go; or get overwhelmed by the difficulty and even give up.
Flow requires a certain level of automation and a perception of control. To promote it, it is then important to choose an appropriately challenging task. But it is also important to understand that flow does not need to happen immediately or all the time. In fact, striving for a state of constant flow is unreasonable, given the energy costs associated with such an active mental state. A more realistic plan requires a succession between moments of flow and relaxation.
2) Then stretch them just a bit
The most significant refinement of flow theory to come from empirical research was the understanding that flow is more likely to happen, not when a skill is perfectly aligned to the challenge of the task, but when both are just a little above what was normal for the individual.
This led to the understanding of flow as having a function of skill-stretching. On the other extreme of the spectrum we find the state of apathy, in which skills and challenges are matched, but at a very low level. Comfort is thus much more likely to generate apathy than flow.
Let’s see how the these two ideas apply in the real world: Imagine someone starting to learn how to surf. He got interested in the sport after watching one of the best athletes in the world tube riding. His first instinct was to buy a board and try the exact same move, which obviously ended in failure. He then readjusted his expectations and went to the basics of getting up on the board, still on the sand. At first, he almost had verbally guide his leg and foot to their positions, like the instructor explained. With some practice, these movements became more automatic and fluid; he no longer had to think about what to do next, it just happened. It even felt nice to be doing those exercises. But, more importantly, his mind was now free for the next challenge: go into the water. He had correctly matched the challenge to his skills.
Once on the water, it started all over again, with him struggling to even remember what the movements to get up were. With time he got better at it and started to experience flow. It was really pleasurable! It didn’t last long though. While still trying to perfect the movement, flow had vanished for good. He was becoming frustrated and even thought of giving up. Fortunately, his instructor had the right idea of challenging him to do something more difficult: start turning on the top of the waves. He complained he was not ready for it, but eventually acquiesced. Surprisingly, the flow state returned once again! He had succeeded in pushing himself just over his average skills.
3) Carefully structure the goals of your task
As we have hinted in the previous point, our brains are oriented towards goal achievement, and they are wired to reinforce us whenever we complete a self-determined goal. This mechanism plays a central role in the pleasure that accompanies flow and in making it such a motivating state.
Flow works wonderfully for tasks that have clear short-term goals and that provide immediate feedback on completing them. Games, sports, and motor tasks generally fall under this domain and because of that, it is easy to achieve flow while performing them. But some tasks, like writing prose or learning a craft might be a little bit more problematic. They often require repetitive long work, and results can only be measured after such a long time that it is easy to miss any progress made.
Fortunately, psychologists have found a way around this issue: by setting relevant goals close together, so that in a single session one is likely to complete at least a few of them. This could be applied in writing, for example by setting sessions of 30 minutes of working, so that timing becomes an indicator of progress; or by alternating between periods of writing and editing, which usually provides immediate and tangible feedback.
4) Avoid interruptions
This one is quite obvious, but also paramount. Flow is a state of monolithic attention towards the present action. So strong, in fact, that even self-awareness is lost during it. Distractions of any kind hinder this process, forcing one to restart the focusing of attention after dealing with the distraction. It is in planning ahead to prevent distractions - internet notifications, phone calls, a friend coming by, and so on - that one can probably make the biggest impact in fostering flow.
5) Stay away from external rewards
While parents, teachers and managers might believe that external rewards are the best ways for motivating someone to work on a complex task - and it does seem intuitive - flow theory actually predicts the opposite effect. The best performance and levels of engagement happen during the psychological state of flow, and as we have discussed before, this state is defined by a total overlap of attention and the task at hand. When we introduce an external reward (or punishment), we divide our attention. During the task, in which we could be totally immersed, we will start thinking about the external reward: how much more work is needed to achieve it; is it still worth it after all this work; what will I do with it. The moment this happens, flow ceases to exist.
“The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.” – Csikszentmihalyi
The idea of microflow activities was introduced by Graef in 1975. It encompassed trivial, automatic behavior patterns that require low skill, but which are intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable. Such is the case of doodling, some sorts of chatting, stretching exercises, or foot-tapping, among others.
While not meaningful in themselves, these tasks have the power to structure attention for complex tasks. For example, if an important lecture fails to absorb one’s full attention, a microflow task like doodling can help by stopping attention from wandering somewhere else.
Some early studies showed that blocking these activities had negative effects on the concentration and even the well-being of its practitioners. But in the following years, this idea was mostly ignored. Only recently have some researchers returned to this concept. One study conducted in 2010 showed that doodling had positive influences on memory retention during a boring task.
Two studies in the late 90s showed:
These studies led to the definition of the autotelic personality. According to Csikszentmihalyi, it is someone “who tends to enjoy life” and “do things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal”. These people are thought to have a myriad of psychological traits, such as a general curiosity and interest in life, persistence, and low self-centeredness, all of which facilitate flow.
Another study conducted around this time by Hektner demonstrated that autotelic individuals differed from “non-autotelics” in that they found situations of apathy (low challenge and low skill demands) particularly aversive. In 2000, Abuhamdeh’s research hinted that people with these traits actually experienced less stress and strain in tasks that require high skills and pose big challenges - i.e. flow tasks.
When trying to understand the origin of autotelic personalities, some researchers pointed to the role of the family. The concept of autotelic families emerged from a series of studies by Rathunde with talented adolescents, who mostly described their family environment as a complex one, which simultaneously provided both support and challenging prompts. Moreover, when compared to other types of families that only provided support or challenge, these adolescents reported feeling better about themselves and more in control of their actions, as well as enjoying more productive activities such as studying.
In 1998, LeFevre studied a large and heterogenous sample of adult workers, who reported that work was dominated by experiences of challenge, efficacy and control, while leisure periods were filled with moments of apathy. Nevertheless, these workers said they wished to pursue more periods of leisure if given a chance. This finding, that some tasks might promote flow but fail to be motivating, was clearly at odds with flow theory.
Even more contradictory were the conclusions of another study reported by Csikszentmihalyi in 1997, which showed that middle and high school students found passive activities like watching TV to be more motivating than work periods, such as assisting to academic classes and doing paid jobs. This despite the fact that most of them considered the latter activities to evoke more concentration, be more important for the future and for a better self-esteem.
What those authors were missing, and later researchers elucidated, is that flow is mostly a product of self-determined goals. As such, tasks imposed by others, be it teachers or bosses, are unlikely to promote flow because they fall outside of the individual's autonomy and hinder any sense of control.
A second missing link in these studies was the fact that flow requires a positive affect. A factor that was probably absent in the spirits of these unmotivated students and workers. As we have discussed in the last article, joy usually accompanies the state of flow; what later studies added is that joy may also be a requirement to flow.
In this series, we tried to briefly cover the origins of flow theory, some of the conceptual refinements made during the last decades, the first links between experience and brain activity, and highlight some of the many factors that can potentiate or hinder this state. To conclude the second part of this series I would like to leave here a quote from Albert Einstein, written to one of his closest collaborators - one that I think encapsulates the value of flow:
“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”
Abuhamdeh, S. (2000). The autotelic personality: An exploratory investigation. Unpublished manuscript, University of Chicago.
Andrade, J. (2010). What does doodling do?. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(1), 100-106.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow. New York: Basic.
Graef, R. (1975). Flow patterns in everyday life. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. (pp. 140-160). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Graef, R. (1975). Effects of flow deprivation. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. (pp. 161-178). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hektner, J. M. (1997). Exploring optimal personality development: A longitudinal study of adolescents (Doctoral dissertation, ProQuest Information & Learning).
LeFevre, J. (1988). Flow and the quality of experience during work and leisure. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience (pp. 307–318). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. In Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer Netherlands.
Rathunde, K. (1996). Family context and talented adolescents’ optimal experience in school-related activities. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 6, 605–628.
Rathunde, K. (1997). Parent–adolescent interaction and optimal experience. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 26(6), 669-689.