October 4, 2021
Creating Flow: Finding Activities that Balance Challenge and Skill
by Steven Handel
Flow is a state of consciousness where action and awareness become one. It’s when a person is so fully immersed in an activity that they lose their sense of time and self. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it an “optimal state of experience.”
“Flow” is a concept in psychology first coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975.
Flow is defined as a state of consciousness where one is completely absorbed in an activity, along with a sense of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, often to the point of losing one’s sense of time and self.
In everyday language, people use a variety of phrases to describe states of flow such as being “in the zone,” “on the ball,” “in a groove,” “on fire,” or “on one’s game.”
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- Flow is defined as a state of consciousness where one is completely absorbed in an activity, along with a sense of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment, often to the point of losing one’s sense of time and self.
- Any activity can create a state of flow with the right mindset and approach.
- To create flow, an activity has to meet certain conditions, including these core factors:
- Intrinsic motivation - activities that you enjoy doing for the sake of doing, not necessarily for external rewards like money, power, fame, or pleasure. “Autotelic activities” - activities are more likely to elicit flow if they provide internal rewards and purpose.
- A balance of challenge vs. skill - “sweet spot” between challenge and difficulty vs. your current skill level. If something is too easy, you’ll get bored; but if something is too difficult, you’ll get frustrated.
- Focus on a singular goal - focused on a singular goal, blocking out all other concerns or distractions. In flow, often nothing else matters except this one singular goal – all distractions are eliminated – that’s why it’s described as a state of hyper-focus.
- Immediate feedback - Since flow activities are goal-oriented, they have to have a way of providing immediate feedback or progress. Having some way to measure progress adds a necessary element of direction and structure to the activity.
- Feeling the potential to succeed – In flow, a person always feels that they are being challenged, yet they believe they have the skills and determination to overcome those challenges. A person has to feel that they have the potential to succeed and they are always on the cusp of a major breakthrough or insight.
- Flow is a state of hyper focus where someone is “effortlessly” overcoming obstacles and challenges, so much that they become completely lost in the moment.
- To be “in the zone” with one thing often means “zoning out” everything else. In a state of flow, the activity you’re doing becomes your entire world where nothing else matters. Action and awareness become one.
- One of the most important attributes of flow is finding the “sweet spot” between challenge and skill.
- To maintain flow, you must be able to adjust the difficulty of an activity to fit your current skillset.
- If an activity is too boring, then you can make it more difficult by adding new rules or setting your own goals.
- If an activity is too challenging, then you can make it less difficult by focusing on smaller goals.
- Breaking down bigger goals into smaller and more realistic goals is one way to decrease the difficulty of a task and put you closer to flow.
- Remember, it’s important to feel that a goal is within reach during flow.
- One important thing to remember is that even activities where you have “low skills” or “zero skills” can still put you into a flow state if you set your goals at the appropriate level.
- As one learns new skills and improves themselves, they will have to continuously increase the challenges to keep themselves in a flow.
- Flow is not only an “optimal experience” because it helps us to achieve great things in life or be more productive, but also because it leads to a happier and richer life overall.
- Flow allows us to tap into our full potential and see ourselves performing at our best – it also gives our lives a greater sense of meaning and purpose.
- While it’s difficult to always be in flow (if not impossible), having at least one daily activity that creates flow is important for building a sense of confidence, purpose, and achievement.
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