Have you ever had the experience when you have been totally engaged in a project at work and your partner calls, and you tell them you’ll be leaving work in 10 minutes, only to look at the clock a little while later and see that an hour has passed?
If so you were most likely in a state of flow.
Flow is not some mysterious experience, but rather a state many of us have experienced, often without realising it. You've certainly experienced flow many times during your life - such as when absorbed in a good book, movie or in an engaging activity. You're not alone, athletes, musicians, actors, writers and others experience flow too. When they do, they talk about being “in the zone,” “in sync,” "in coherence" or “in the groove.”
The term flow was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csíkszentmihályi who has spent 40 years studying peak performance states describes flow as:
“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
The Institute of HeartMath refers to flow as ‘coherence’. HeartMath Director of Research, Dr. Rollin McCraty, describes coherence (flow) as follows:
“It is an optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions operate in sync and are balanced. There is increased order and harmony in ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) activity and increased heart–brain synchronization.”
Flow = the blending of happiness and peak performance
Csikszentmihalyi calls flow the ‘secret to happiness’ because one of the important sources of human happiness is working on tasks at a suitable level of difficulty, that is neither too hard nor too easy.
As well as creating happiness, flow is an intensely creative, efficient and satisfying state of mind. It is the state of mind in which, for example, the best speeches are made, good software is developed, and the most impressive athletic or artistic performances are delivered. You can watch Csíkszentmihályi’s TEDx talk on why flow is the secret to happiness here.
The 8 characteristics of flow
The 8 characteristics of flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi are:
1. Clear goals
You know what it is you need to do. You need to know where the goalposts are for you to be absorbed in any activity. Clear goal setting allows the setting of micro goals which close the feedback loop sooner giving access to immediate feedback (see below).
The real pleasure lies in the journey towards the goal, not the achievement itself. The pleasure is in the eating of a nice meal, not actually finishing it. Don't worry about the end result; keep your focus on the process rather than the outcome of the activity.
Example: Rather than worrying about a looming deadline and having negative thoughts of whether you're going to make it on time or not, affecting your performance, you are fully engaged in the doing of the work and will meet the deadline as a result of this.
2. Immediate feedback
Clear goals tell us what we’re doing; immediate feedback tells us how to do it better. Immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step in the activity is important to reaching, and staying in, flow. Feedback on our progress in the moment is incredibly motivating.
The feedback doesn't have to be from other people, it can be from you yourself or even the actual task itself. You will know how things are going. If you're having a terrible round of golf then that's your feedback. In tennis, you get immediate feedback based on whether or not you win the point. If you're having difficulty balancing your spreadsheet then that's your feedback.
3. Challenge matched by skill
In flow we find satisfaction in challenging ourselves while taking part in an endeavour which is either creative or productive in nature, and requires a specific skill set which we believe we possess. We're not entirely comfortable - there is stretch component, but it's not too far out of our reach. We've got to feel that we can do the task. Research suggests that to experience flow the perceived difficulty of the challenge should be around 4% greater than our skill level.
4. Deep concentration
We become fully engaged in the activity and experience a focusing of attention. This is when people say they become one with the activity rather than watching and judging themselves or becoming easily distracted.
5. Being in the moment
We are totally present, with the past and future having no place in our focused conscious mind. People are often unable to recall exactly what they did or what was going on around them because of such focus. Others have the capacity to be fully present in what they're doing and yet be able to observe themselves in the action.
We feel we have control of our own performance. We don't have to have total control. We may be at the mercy of the environment but within that we have some control and are able to make things happen positively for ourselves.
7. Time distortion
Time is distorted. It can quicken or slow depending on what the task is. We're no longer on clock time. However, time has continued normally so when we come out of flow we may notice hours have passed like minutes. Hence the saying, "Time flies when you're having fun."
We lose our sense of self when we are in flow.
Csikszentmihalyi identified "clear goals;' "immediate feedback;' and "the challenge/ skill ratio" as the three most critical characteristics for creating flow.
Flow is a temporary state
Flow is a transitory state, it comes, and it goes. It would be near impossible for us to be in flow all the time because it’s an extremely expensive state for the mind and body to produce and maintain. It requires a lot of energy and a lot of neurochemistry and both need to be regularly replenished.
Being in flow is described as our optimal performance state. It can be characterised as engaging in challenges that stretch us but we are capable of meeting. It's possible to experience flow in any area of our life: work, relationships, sports, hobbies etc.
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as the ‘secret to happiness’ because working on challenges that stretch us is a major source of happiness.
You can't force yourself into flow. However, you can set up your environment so you achieve flow more consistently rather than haphazardly. I encourage you to look for ways that you can increase opportunities to get into the flow state.
If you'd like to explore how you can achieve more frequent flow states, enhanced performance and happiness contact me on 021 056 8389 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Book Now button below.
Wishing you lots of flow this week.
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress, overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of solution focused coaching, neuroscience, positive psychology and clinical hypnosis.