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A Formula Of Flow
24th January 2022 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:13:59

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The second set of instructions comes from Hungarian writer Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi and his flow theory. Flow is about moving and working effortlessly, to the point that you lose track of time and are engrossed in your task. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? He lists a set of requirements for achieving flow, but we will focus on the elements of having your actions pointed toward specific goals, a balance of challenge and ease, and feedback to let you know that you are making a difference, thus keeping you motivated toward chasing that feeling.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.


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Transcripts

If you use them appropriately, though, formulas can be very useful. Another possible formula to consider is flow theory, originally introduced in the ’90s by psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi with his best-selling book, it may appeal to those who find flowcharts and checklists a little too robotic and joyless. Since its inception, the theory has spawned countless research papers and studies confirming its value in improving sports performance, gaming, creativity, and even martial arts.

This model takes into account the nature of both the task at hand and you, the person doing the task. The state of flow is described as one in which, rather than forcing yourself to soldier on in an activity that is mildly unpleasant but has to be done (kind of like eating a vegetable you hate), you do your work with a feeling of joy and ease, completely losing track of time. Most of us have in fact already experienced this flow state already, whether we were aware of it or not.

In flow, you are completely absorbed in the task in front of you, and your attention is not divided. What “flows” is the work itself, moving seamlessly, almost as though it was carrying itself along. People who experience flow while making art or engaging with a passion can find it feels almost spiritual at times, and a complete dissolving of self leads to nothing but the task coming to the fore. Crucially, in a state of flow, a lot of stuff gets done.

So how can you induce this state in yourself? The theory says that our experience of doing a task rests on two fundamental features: the “challenge level” of the task and the “perceived skill level.” These can each be high, low, or moderate and combine in various ways to produce states like boredom, worry, relaxation, and, if conditions are just right, flow. This concept can be visualized as a graph with two axes—challenge and skill—and the result of their possible combinations.

Let’s consider some examples. A task that is not at all challenging but is done by someone who perceives their skills to do that task as low is likely to lead to the emotional state of apathy. The higher that person’s perceived skill, however, the more the feeling shifts to boredom, then to relaxation at a very high level of perceived skill. This means that the same task of, say, sewing on buttons to clothes may leave some people feeling completely apathetic, while others will find the task easy and relaxing.

If the challenge level on the other hand is very high, but the perceived skill level is low, then you’re bound to feel some anxiety—makes sense if you continually feel unable to rise to the demands of the task! Increase your perceived skill and that anxiety calms down to mere arousal, which, with even more skill, eventually turns into that coveted state of flow. Flow is therefore a state where both the challenge level of a task and your perceived skill at doing it are high.

This is important. It means that tasks are not intrinsically satisfying or difficult or boring and so on. Rather, it is our unique relationship to them and how we rate their difficulty and our own skill in working with them that matters. Interestingly, easy tasks do not lead to flow—we need to be moderately or substantially challenged to enter this state. Likewise, there is seldom a sense of flow felt when we do work that doesn’t require skill—a sobering thought.

Wrapped up here in this theory are seemingly both the emotional and cognitive elements we’ve considered in previous sections. Work that is challenging enough but not too challenging doesn’t cause us to feel unconfident, and the fear barriers we’ve explored may well come down to our lack of perceived skill or the task simply being too hard or inappropriate for us.

If you want to reach that inspiring state of mastery, where even complex and difficult tasks seem effortless and joyful, you’ll need to continually be aware of how these two factors—challenge and skill—are interplaying. Seek a balance so that you are always where you need to be.

For Csíkszentmihályi, there are three key components that must be present if we hope to achieve the flow state. The first is goals. That we need goals to motivate and inspire us is no surprise. The flow should ideally be toward something—we are building a complex puzzle, composing music, untangling a challenging problem, or mastering a dynamic set of movements, all toward some clearly conceived end.

We’ve already seen how important it is that goals are SMART goals and that you’re taking the time to break them down into manageable chunks. As an example, you might find it helpful to have a mission statement hung above your home office desk or an inspiring photo or quote that reminds you of what you are ultimately trying to achieve. You may have a vision of your end goal that is encapsulated in a symbol or phrase that you pause occasionally to remind yourself of.

The second required component is balance. This is the part where you find a perfect blend of challenge and skill level—having one drastically outweigh the other isn’t likely to create flow. Remember, however, that it’s perceived flow, and it only comes down to you. If a task that everyone thinks is easy feels difficult to you, then it’s a difficult task, period. Likewise, don’t go on other people’s appraisals of your skills—go on your own (all the more reason to make sure you’re not working with a low self-esteem). The thought of doing difficult tasks can be quite daunting to those prone to procrastination, even if their skill level in that task is high. However, this where the underlying philosophy of the flow state can help. Csíkszentmihályi and his team, through their research, found that the best moments in people’s lives never came about when they were relaxed. They appeared when their capabilities were pushed to the limit in an effort to achieve something they knew to be difficult. So, if you find yourself intimidated by the thought of doing difficult tasks, know that these are precisely the kind of things that will give you a sense of meaning and purpose that simple tasks never will.

Finally, the third component is feedback. People need to have direct and honest feedback immediately so they can adjust and improve. It’s easy to see why—nobody wants to labor away with no idea of whether they’re on the right track, if they’re improving or getting worse, or indeed if their efforts are appreciated or making any noticeable difference.

Granted, many goals are not something you can realistically expect to get feedback from others for. In this case, “feedback” means your own deliberate awareness of your progress and your own ability to appraise yourself and ask both what you’re doing right and what needs to improve. Keep track of your progress (perhaps alongside your goals you’ve put on the wall) and regularly pause to appreciate how far you’ve come. Be honest about how you could be better, and actively ask, “What am I not seeing here?” Similarly, feel pride and accomplishment when you do well—internalize that sense of competency. This gives you the opportunity to rebalance your challenge versus skill as your skills improve.

Besides these three components, there are other things you can do to make entering a flow state easier. First, remove all internal and external distractions. External distractions are things like constantly checking your phone, social media/non work-related tabs on your work device, noise in your environment, etc. Internal distractions refer to issues like the stress or anxiety you’re feeling at a given time. If you have too much on your mind, entering a flow state is going to be close to impossible. There are several habits you can take up to help you manage your thoughts, such as meditation, journaling, practicing positive self-talk, etc.

Second, make sure you’re not hungry and have had enough sleep before sitting down to work. This will affect your concentration levels significantly. Not ensuring your physical needs are taken care of will make it easier for even minor distractions to ruin your flow state.

Setting goals, balancing challenge to your current skill set, and regularly checking in to receive feedback will go a long way to cultivating that supremely enjoyable and productive state called flow. In this state, you can achieve more… and enjoy the process. Granted, you’re not going to experience joy and ease in every task you have to do throughout the day, and it’s unrealistic to expect it. But if you’re experiencing procrastination often, look at the problem through this lens and ask whether the challenge and skill levels respectively are too high or low. Remind yourself that there is no universal way that we respond to tasks—we are all individuals with individual limits and strengths. Ask how you are managing with a task and adjust it as necessary.

Be aware, however, that this model doesn’t account for being too challenged. In the graph, the challenge level rises indefinitely, but in the real world, there are likely to be hard limits. Keep a realistic definition of “challenging.” You should be able to actually attain and achieve your goals, without feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or bad about yourself. Challenge doesn’t mean repeatedly subjecting yourself to the experience of failure or doing things at breakneck speed. This will only lead to anxiety. So keep in mind that you may actively need to decrease the challenge level of a task to feel more productive—permanently or at least until your skills can match it.

As an example, consider a young athlete training for his sport. His coach understands that he needs consistent, appropriate challenge to develop his skills and strengthen his body. Daily drills and exercises could be followed, but when the coach notices that the athlete is beginning to panic often, feeling nervous or stressed, he takes it as a sign that either the challenge is too high or the skill is too low. He eases off the pressure and works on developing the athlete’s confidence again with more drills. Similarly, when he notices the athlete getting bored or breezing through exercises, he ups the challenge a little. He notices that when the balance is right, and he is consistently giving feedback on how well the athlete is meeting his goals, the state of flow comes easily, and training becomes productive and enjoyable.