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Flow: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience

27 May 2011

± minute read

    Flow: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience
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Flow part 1: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience

Flow part 2: A practical guide to Flow

There appear to be at least 8 main characteristics of Flow. After these characteristics have been described you can take the Flow questionnaire presented at the end of this article. When answering these questions answer them in relation to your work. This questionnaire may act as an indicator for whether or not your work stifles or encourages Flow. Flow is not a singular construct, but is composed of various aspects that coalesce in order for the experience to be initiated. This article will discuss these elements. It is important to realise that Flow is an exceptional experience. It does not occur every minute of every day, but rather is the culmination of self-actualisation at work or home. Flow encompasses moments of extreme creativity, enjoyment, excitement and happiness. It is a moment in time that can be described as fulfilling, perfect, illuminating or empowering. In order to understand whether you experience Flow or do not, carefully review the characteristics and requirements of Flow presented below.

The Characteristics of the Flow Experience

1. Clear goals in the now:

For you to experience Flow, true goal clarity must occur. This is contrary to traditional goal-setting with the aim of attaining happiness in the future, but rather refers to how clear and active your sub-goals are for reaching the primary future goal. Focusing only on the future goal reinforces the ‘hedonic treadmill’ in which you move from goal to goal and may never be satisfied. You often hear people tell stories of how they worked very hard to reach a goal, only to find that once they reached it they have a new and more difficult goal which replaces the previous one. In this way people are never happy, but always seek the next ‘high’. For true happiness to occur, the steps taken to reach the goal (the more immediate sub-goals) should be enjoyed in and of themselves. In other words, you should enjoy what you are doing right now. If we take surfing for example, the sport is not as much about getting the best wave (the outcome or goal), as it is to surf the wave itself (sub-goals). If the surfer continuously searched for the best most perfect wave, he/she will always feel dissatisfied and Flow will not occur as the perfect wave is a rare phenomenon. Enjoyment permeates from the task itself and not only the task outcome. Similarly a manager should enjoy the tasks of managing as much as the goals set forth in a budget. The task should never become just about the budget (although this is an important goal for the modern manager) but should also be about the more immediate sub-goals that allow the manager to get to the budget (such as managing people, setting up strategies, planning etc). Too much of a traditional goal focus, and too little focus on the ‘now’ may result in poorer performance and a lack of goal attainment. This does not mean that you should become an absolute hedonist. Pleasure is only a small part of happiness. Constructive growth through challenge and development where steps are taken towards a goal is what is required. Working hard on a task and being aware of your level of growth and development is satisfying. This ‘betterment’ of the self and/or the environment is what should drive you. Flow is therefore not as concerned with performance, as it is with the experience of performance and whether this is a positive, building experience or a draining one.

2. Feedback is constant and immediate:

There is a complaint among managers and employees that adequate feedback on their performance is not often received. This is either because such feedback is non-existent, too general, or untimely. There is also a sense that people at work are unsure whether what they do actually matters within the larger context of the organisation, or the world in general. In short, for Flow to occur you need constant, real-time, feedback concerning your performance, and whether such performance has value in the micro (at work) and macro (within the world) environments. Consequently, if you receive constant feedback, you will feel that you are accomplishing something that matters and know how well or not you are accomplishing the task. This leads to satisfaction with the immediate tasks you are engaged with and allow you to see how these small steps become large leaps. However, feedback is not often provided adequately in organisations. For example, younger inexperienced employees often have a strong need for feedback. They need to know whether they are accomplishing a task correctly, are being productive and/or are making a difference in the larger scheme of things (there has to be meaning and purpose). On the other hand, senior employees may have developed strong internal standards. They constantly initiate a process of internal feedback regarding tasks and challenges based on internal standards and values, and may find too much feedback an irritation. These internal standards allow such individuals to self-guide and to engage in Flow without the need for external feedback from a manager. However, no matter how feedback is received (either from the environment, from teams, from the organisation, from a leader or manager, or from the self) all feedback must provide you with information regarding how well or not you are meeting sub-goals and goals on both a short-term and long-term level.

3. There has to be a balance between challenge and skills:

This is a clear recipe for work-engagement and motivation. When you have the ability to do a particular task and the task is easy, you may become bored and unfulfilled in the given task (see figure 1). However, if the task is too difficult and surpasses your ability to accomplish the task you may become stressed or anxious. It is therefore necessary to match task difficulty to your ability, skills, competencies or resources to deal with the task or challenge. If this occurs and there is a good match between your abilities, skills, competencies and resources (skills) and the challenge or task, you are more likely to experience work or task engagement and thus Flow (see the Flow Channel in figure1). Flow occurs when “challenges and skills are high and equal to each other” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003, p. 44). This is referred to as the ‘Flow Channel’. It is therefore a necessary task to ensure person/job fit for Flow to occur. If you are under-stimulated by a task or challenge or over-stimulated by the task or challenge Flow will not be achievable and you will either become bored or stressed. It is also important to realise that your abilities, skills, competencies, and resources are dynamic and not static. There is constant development and growth of these resources as you learn and build capacity. Mastery of tasks and challenges thus results in re-establishment of the resource/challenge threshold, where you may seek gradually more difficult challenges, as skills improve, or seek less of a challenge if you are incapable.  This is a dynamic process through which you either improve capacity, or reduce challenge. Optimally, improvement of personal capacity and personal growth are prominent objectives at work and should thus be measured and developed for optimal placement so that Flow may occur.

4. Deepened Concentration:

When you have goal-clarity, intrinsic motivation, receive constant feedback, achieve mastery and improve your capacity to deal with challenges; you will start to enter into deep levels of concentration. In this state, action and awareness merge, time has no meaning, and self-consciousness is completely focused on the task. The ‘outer world’ no longer exists as you are completely immersed with the task or activity. People who work on a project for hours without taking a break, or who are so enthralled by what they are accomplishing that they are difficult to distract from the task, are all experiencing a state of deep concentration. Deep concentration can be differentiated from day-to-day concentration in which you move from interest to interest without much conscious control. In this state you require a lot of conscious effort to remain engaged on a task or topic. Think about a time when someone started talking to you about their interest, and it all just went over your head.  Deep concentration on the other hand, often happens only when you are in control of consciousness. In this immersed state accomplishing the task becomes almost automatic, easy and spontaneous and being distracted from the task becomes difficult.  Therefore, deep concentration will focus all mental activity into one specific field of vision and keep it there. In this way all mental energy becomes involved in a particular task or activity and thus improves your ability to be more productive and competent when accomplish the task. Deepened concentration and immersion is a side-effect of energy control. When enough psychic energy is freed from intrusive or negative thoughts you are more able to channel all your energy (focus) onto work tasks and thus experience deep levels of concentration and engagement.

5. A focus on the present:

When you are in a state of complete concentration so that all that matters to you is the task at hand you are experiencing another element of Flow. You focus on the present without any thought of the future. You are able to let go of your worries and problems in favour of complete concentration on the task at hand. It is as if you are able to leave your life behind and enter into some alternate reality where complete focus on the present is all that matters. It is for this reason that the task/activity in which you may become immersed is described as a form of escapism where joy and ecstasy prevail. In most cases, if a person is left to their own devices and there is no challenge or task on which to focus, the mind may often wander to the arenas of self-worry and rumination. In this way focusing on the present allows you to overcome a challenge, build resources and grow, while escaping from self-critically negative pasts and futures. Just think about all the possible future challenges you may think about when given too much ’down time’ or the past events you may get stuck on because you feel you have not acted appropriately. When engaged, these elements become arbitrary.

6. There is a strong sense of control:

When flow occurs you may feel as if you are in complete control of yourself, your consciousness, the task or challenge at hand, and even others. This ‘control’ can only occur if you are completely immersed in an activity and if you are able to devote all your mental concentration to that activity (control is presupposed by deep concentration). If you experience this you feel as if you have power over the activity, task or challenge and that you are able to manipulate all variables related to this activity. This is in strong contrast to a world where change, economic instability, climate change and countless other variables reduce your control. The key element of Flow and the control perceived during a Flow experience is such that you experience control, and yet almost function automatically, as if driven by the task or activity. In a sense it is the highest point of adaptability in which you are able to move seamlessly from task to task, or challenge to challenge, and develop the necessary skill, competency and ability to meet constant demands. It is as if you are guided by an ‘invisible hand’. This can be attributed to 1) the high level of mental concentration that exists during Flow, and 2) the matching of personal resources to the task or challenge.

7. Time becomes arbitrary:

There is a very clichéd phrase: “Time flies when you’re having fun”. This phrase embodies what happens to your perception of time when you are experiencing Flow. During the Flow experience you concentrate and enjoy tasks to such a degree that a massive amount of ‘absorption’ takes place. Therefore, an accurate sense of time seems to wane and you experience time as having a faster rate of progression. This absorption is preceded however, by some form of mastery. You have to be skilled, able and competent enough to be able to immerse yourself in the task you are accomplishing and thus pay attention to vastly more information than the uninitiated are able to. Think for example how immersed a seasoned chess player can become when playing chess, as opposed to a novice. An accountant, for example, may see so many details, nuances, and data in a financial ledger that working through three or four pages of the ledger contains so much information that results in such high levels of immersion and concentration it could take such an expert an entire day to analyse those four pages. Whereas  a psychologist would probably see only limited information in those four pages and lose interest after 5 minutes (this is not a true reflection of all psychologists). In this way a fast progression of time indicates that Flow is occurring, however this ‘experience’ of the Flow dynamic is heavily dependent on whether or not the previous conditions of Flow (such as concentration, clear goals, and feedback) have been met.

8. The loss of ego:

During Flow everything unrelated to the task, challenge or demand is pushed out of conscious awareness. This includes a sense of self. Thus when you experience Flow you forget your social personae with all the possible obligations these personae presuppose. Anything about the ego (self) is forgotten unless it relates to the task in some way, or might be needed to accomplish such a task. In teams and work-groups this loss of ego results in a seamless integration of team members where everyone seems to easily and spontaneously interact and focus on the objectives set before them. The squabbles or differences you may have no longer matter because you no longer function on an individual egocentric level. Everything is dependent on the task at hand. Thus, on the individual-level there are no longer worries about entitlement, status or appearance, but rather complete focus and immersion on the task, challenge or demand. In this way Flow when experienced in teams and within your own life may result in superior team and individual functioning (because of the task-focus) than if  teams/you remain egocentric, self-cantered, or self-obsessed leaving less time and attention for the task, challenge, or demand and more for squabbles, politics and power-plays. In Part 3 the advantages to Flow will be discussed and your score interpreted. This will indicate whether you are either someone who experiences high levels of Flow and whether you are  happy and content with your life and have high levels of self-actualization; or whether you are unable to generate Flow because you are overwhelmed or bored with life and are not engaging in tasks that match your interests.

Please remember to keep your score handy for interpretation in the next web-post.

Practical guidelines will then be presented on how you can increase Flow in your work and personal life.

Flow part 1: An Investigation into the Optimal Experience

Flow part 2: A practical guide to Flow

References and Resources:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow the psychology of the optimal experience: steps toward enhancing the quality of life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York, NY: Basic Books. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety: experiencing flow in work and play. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass Publishers. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (2006). A life worth living: contributions to positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.    

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