At the end of last month psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi died. He will be best remembered for his work on the flow state and his book Flow. The flow state, sometimes called ‘in-the-zone’, occurs when we are fully absorbed in what we are doing, and time passes without our knowing. According to Csikszentmihalyi achieving flow states helps to make our lives happier and more successful. We all have the capacity to experience this state. I achieve it today sometimes when I am running a training or writing. In the past when I worked as an accountant, I often experienced the state working to produce a set of accounts or working on a particularly complex spreadsheet (yes, a little geeky, I know). I even experienced it during exams, but not all of them for sure. I also enter the state recreationally, playing computer games.
The flow state most often arises when we are engaged in a goal directed activity, where we receive feedback, the task has its own intrinsic meaning, we have personal control, and where our level of skill is being challenged by the task, but not over challenged. As the state develops, we become fully engrossed. Our other needs become negligible, we lose our sense of time passing and some of our reflective consciousness. That is to say, we lose our analysis of the experience, and the internal critic disappears. We just do without seeming to direct the doing very much at all. You’ll know this state when you have it.
Being in flow or in-the-zone is associated with high performance activities. Such as sports, musical performances, producing art, and acting. For me a high-performance activity is any activity that you have trained your unconscious mind to do, and then you must deliver that skill set, perhaps under pressure. As we enter flow we let go consciously, and pass agency to our unconscious mind. We allow ourselves to do what we know how to do without conscious interference. One of the tricks is to give our conscious mind something to do that is peripheral to the main task at hand. Timothy Gallwey the Harvard tennis coach, author of the Inner Game, and prime mover in non-sports professional coaching, would ask his conscious mind to watch the spin of the tennis ball as he played. This allowed his unconscious mind to do what he had previously trained it to do, without the conscious mind second guessing what he was doing. But it isn’t just in high-performance activities that we can access flow. The potential for the state can be found in other mundane tasks, providing that we balance our skill to the activity. High skill, low challenge can lead to boredom. Low skill and high challenge lead to anxiety.
Is the flow state something that we should actively seek? From personal experience I would say that it is a good state to be in. I get a sense of achievement and satisfaction from the activity completed in the state. There is a sense of harmony with existence. Having said that I don’t actively seek the state. Instead, I engage in activities that I have a skill set for and that interest me. Csikszentmihalyi said that as you access flow more often you “grow towards complexity”. What he means is that people flourish through their achievements and that they build their ability to deal with more and more complexity by operating more often in the flow state. The point here is that the flow state isn’t the objective. The objective is to engage in activities that you enjoy and that you are skilled at. And the positivity of the flow state tells you to do this more often!
For me the flow state is connected to the idea of acting on things in your life that excite you. If I do this for its own sake, then I am more likely to achieve flow. Use what excites you as a compass needle in your life unerringly pointing you towards your flow.
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
“It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi