My early experience of flow as a child was with playing with lego bricks, designing imaginary worlds, it came back later when I started to surf and it followed me when I moved into rock climbing, and then at work during coaching sessions or public speaking.
We all have experienced it, it is rather elusive though and it happens more often by chance than by design, so what exactly is flow? Is it something we should look to have more of? And if yes, how?
Flow was introduced for the first time in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a positive psychologist who was interested at the time in studying peak performance and as he observed and researched people who seemed to perform at their optimal performance, they had in common to experience a complete absorption in the present moment.
When you are in a flow experience, the following occurs:
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Action merges into awareness and loss of reflective consciousness, you lose the awareness of yourself as an individual
- A strong sense of control
- Distortion of temporal experience with a psychological perception of time which passes much quicker than in normal life
- Activity is intrinsically rewarding and motivating, the end goal is a mere pretext for giving your pleasure in doing the activity
To happen, you need to be doing an activity where the level of the challenge is just a bit above of your skill level. If the task is too easy for the skill level, you will experience boredom (too easy) and if the task is too much above your skill level then you will feel anxiety and discouragement (too hard).
But when challenge and skill levels are proximal (close together), there is harmony between thoughts, feelings wishes and actions. This deep congruence between these different elements results in flow or the complete absorption in the present moment.
From the above, you can infer that flow is a complex phenomenon as when you improve your skill level, the level of the challenge has to also increase by the a similar increment otherwise you will become bored.
We all differ in our capacities to experience flow, and even when we experience it, it varies in frequency and quality. Furthermore, the right balance between skill and challenge is necessary but not sufficient for flow to happen. This variation on how much flow we experience is linked to our personality and there is a personality trait which is suitable for experiencing flow, and it is called the Autotelic personality. The key aspect of this personality profile is to engage in activities for their own sake rather than in order to achieve an external goal and the following elements encourage the emergence of flow:
- Curiosity and interest in life
- Low self-centeredness
Recent research has shown the benefits that flow experiences have on individuals, it correlates well with:
- More commitment and achievements
- More development of talents
- More self-esteem and work satisfaction
- More resilience in the face of adversity
So having more flow is definitively a positive element in our lives and the question is how to create the conditions to have more of it?
Two types of intervention can be distinguished to improve flow: (a) those seeking to shape activity structures and environments so that they foster flow or obstruct it less; and (b) those attempting to assist individuals in finding flow, coaching for example is very suitable for helping you having more of this state .
Below, I share how individuals can develop the right conditions for flow to happen:
- Choose work or activity you love…because if you don’t the condition for flow will not be met
- Make sure it’s challenging, but not too hard…too easy and you will be bored, too hard and you will be discouraged
- Find the right time as it should be a time when you have lots of energy and can concentrate. Are you more of a morning or evening person for example
- Clear away distractions to be able to stay with the task so find the right place for attempting flow
- Learn to focus on that task for as long as possible develop your attention and concentration level, this doesn’t happen in a day but takes practice, the more you do it, the easier it is
- Enjoy yourself; keep it fun and light while doing your activity, notice when you are happy.
- Keep practicing as it will only improve with time.
But as we all know, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing and the state of flow can also lead to addiction (very prevalent in gaming for example) or for destructive activities, so learn to experience more of it but choose carefully your activities from which you derive it.
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