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Have you ever started a task or practice, found yourself fascinated and engaged, and later looked to the clock to be surprised that time had passed so quickly?
You may have been experiencing a state of flow!
What is Flow?
Flow fascinates me: it’s a phenomenon that seems to draw on the science of productivity as much as it does on passion. According to positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the leading expert on the topic), flow occurs “when your challenges are higher than average and your skills are higher than average,” resulting in a pleasurable experience where we feel as if “existence temporarily is suspended.” He further described flow to a Wired interviewer as “[b]eing completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole body is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Csikszentmihalyi outlines eight conditions for experiencing flow. These include:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
What Are Examples of Flow?
When Csikszentmihalyi began his study of flow, he interviewed professionals—particularly creatives— about their practices. He asked these people “what made their life meaningful and worth doing.” While we may tend to connect the practice of flow to productivity, it’s important to remember that it occurs when we’re focused and engaged in tasks that challenge and satisfy us.
I experience flow the most when I practice the following activities:
- listening to jazz or classical violin music
- reading novels
- researching things I am interested in
- listening to intriguing podcasts while I’m commuting
- making collages from magazines
- creating concept maps
- writing without pressure of a deadline
How To Increase Your Flow Experience
Using Csikszentmihalyi’s eight criteria as a guide, it’s possible to increase our potential for experiencing flow. By reviewing his conditions, I identified a list of my own prerequisites that will enable me to experience flow more successfully. These include:
- setting clear goals with directions on how to achieve them
- breaking long-term or large tasks into short, achievable tasks
- limiting distractions, like my phone/watch/computer
- body comfort, including sitting position, hunger/thirst
- setting reasonable stakes for my actions (not working close to deadline)
- privacy from interruptions
Using Csikszentmihalyi’s eight conditions for flow as a guide, write down what activities enable you to experience flow. Also note tasks that you think could cause you to reach a state of flow.
Review your list and then reflect on why you chose those specific tasks. Are there any patterns to your list items? Journaling on this exercise or chatting with a friend about it will increase your self awareness about what makes you tick and what makes you get lost in the flow zone.
Once you’ve identified some flow practices, look back at the conditions list and generate a second list of ways that you can set yourself up for flow success. Here are some questions to guide you in making this list of prerequisites:
- What tools/practices usually help me concentrate?
- How can I make my goals clear and specific?
- What does an intrinsic reward feel like for me?
- What makes my tasks feel easy and effortless?
- How can I increase challenges if I feel bored?
- How can I flex my skillset if I feel bored?
- What helps me feel in the moment and engaged?