Flow is that state where we lose ourselves in our work.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author, dissects what “flow” is and how we can reach it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, together with Martin Seligman, is often considered one of the founders of Positive Psychology, which is the branch of psychology studying happiness, satisfaction, and self-development.
How to Reach Flow
These are the steps you need to reach a flow state:
- Clarity of goals: your work must have a purpose and an end state. If your work is too big, you must identify smaller goals
- Immediate feedback: immediate feedback help us staying fully focused by “gamifying” our experience
- Engage at the edge of your ability: when it’s too difficult we become frustrated and when it’s too easy we’re bored. Right in the middle is where flow happens
- Do it because you want: you can’t reach a flow state when you are executing orders you are not happy to follow. Doing it without direct expectations for material rewards is even better
- Mental mastery: ultimately it’s up to you to enter flow. It requires a certain control of your mind which you can achieve with trials and errors, meditation and training
Csikszentmihalyi indeed invites people to look for opportunities in our lives in which we can create ourselves the elements of flow.
For example, instead of just folding clothes out of boredom, focus on doing it better, or quicker.
While shopping, focus on doing it in the most efficient way possible.
How Flow Feels Like
How do you know if you are reaching flow?
Here is how flow feels like:
- Total immersion: during flow you don’t even realize what’s happening around you
- Focus and concentration: you are fully focused on your task
- Time flies: when you’re in flow you don’t even realize about time passing by, so it feels like time flies
- Feels good: flow is a rewarding state in itself. It gives you a sense of control over work which spills over to a sense of control over your life. And you don’t care about problems, worries and what others think of you
A few personality traits are more likely to get you into a state of flow.
- Growth mindset: people with a growth mindset are more likely to seek and enjoy challenges (check out “how to develop a growth mindset“)
- Clarity of purpose: find a goal in what you’re doing, find a goal and a WHY for your life (also read “Start with WHY” and “Man’s Search for Meaning“)
- Openness to criticism: being ego-resilient and open to honest feedback allows you to take all feedback and opportunities for improvement (also read “Thanks for The Feedback“)
- Locus of control: feeling like you are the one who chooses what to do and you have the power of changing your life’s predicament
- Focus: being able to focus on one activity at once without distractions is a crucial element for reaching flow (also read “The One Thing” and “Essentialism“)
Flow Is Enjoyment, Not Pleasure
Pleasures are reactions to specific actions which are good for our survival or procreation.
Food and sex are a typical pleasure.
But a life chasing pleasure can lead to addiction and never moving forward in life.
Enjoyment instead makes us better people while we are also feeling great.
I only partially agree with this one. In the end, this is a major over-simplification. Read my “criticism of Flow” below.
Real Life Applications
In my opinion, there is one crucial lesson learned to improve your life:
- Internalize that you always have a choice
You cannot enter flow when you are following orders or when you are doing things that you don’t really want to do.
And it’s not just about “flow”, it’s about efficiency, mood, life pleasure, and success as well.
This was a major issue for me: the moment the alarm rang I hated it and felt like I was “forced” to get up and prepare for work.
The moment I forced myself to change the attitude I became happier and more effective.
Always remind yourself that you have a choice. And if you are doing something, it’s because you are choosing to do it.
I enjoyed the book, yet I also have some important criticism of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”.
Here are the main ones:
- Flimsy connection between flow and happiness?
Since XXX, “flow” has been included in Seligman’s happiness formula in his best-seller “Flourish“.
And while flow certainly wouldn’t make anyone sadder, I also don’t see how it can be a central part of a happy life.
The author says that the best moments in our lives occur during flow, but that’s his own personal feeling and he has no data and no other way of backing it up.
- Flow has limited utility when mastering a craft
Today it seems to me that everyone is obsessing with “flow”. Yet, by the author’s own description a state of “flow” is only achievable when you’re doing a task you’re already good at.
There is no point in seeking “flow” when you’re learning, which is what you should probably be doing most of the times unless you’re already world class (and let’s face it: we’re probably not there yet).
- Flow is not easily applicable to all realms of life
Some activities, like team activities, are more easily conducive to flow. And some activities, by presenting immediate and obvious feedback, are also more conducive to flow.
That also means that some other activities are not as easily conducive to flow.
And personally, I found some recommendations to reach flow anytime and anywhere borderline ridiculous.
Trying to grocery shop or fold T-shirts to achieve flow didn’t seem like it adds anything to live.
I personally feel it’s much better to grocery shop while listening to some music and/or looking and interacting with the people around.
- Silly differentiation between “pleasure” and “enjoyment”
The author seems to have an agenda to raise “enjoyment” over “base pleasures”.
And he says that pleasures don’t make us better.
To me that’s hogwash. Sex, a pleasure, does make you better with physical activities and, as any woman can tell you, there are ways to improve your technical skills so it’s not true that pleasures don’t make you improve.
And even eating can be seen as a skill or, as well, as an art. Slowing down to enjoy it for longer for example, or chewing better which will help you digest better.
- Why should you do anything without expecting something else?
One of Csikszentmihalyi’s tenets for “flow” is doing it without any expectations of receiving anything back.
I don’t think it’s realistic -or even advisable- to simply “do things without expecting a return”.
What’s the point of doing anything if you don’t expect something as a result or as a consequence of your hard work?
I am writing this summary because I expect it will be helpful to people reading it.
If not that, it will be helpful to make myself remember the crucial steps to reaching flow.
And if all goes well, it will help me do both while also contributing to making me financially independent.
And I think there is nothing wrong with that -and I don’t think it stops me in any way from achieving “writing flow”.
I have listed a lot of criticism for “Flow”. Yet, I also believe that the ability to focus fully on one’s own work is crucial to success.
And also to happier, flourishing life.
That’s what I am grateful to “Flow” for: giving me a few pointers to make it easier for me to fully focus on a specific task or activity.
Mihaly TED Talk
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also has a TED talk on flow:
If Csikszentmihalyi is in flow and experiencing “enjoyment” he is surely hiding it well there 🙂
Flow is a hugely popular concept these days so I was very curious to review the original work.
I liked it, but also found that “flow” has a limited scope (or, better: it’s been so over-hyped that it expanded beyond its original scope).
For example, if you want to learn and improve, you shouldn’t be focusing on reaching flow, which only happens when you’re already good at something, but you should focus on your weakness.
Working on your weaknesses is not necessarily enjoyable, but it’s what will take you forward in life.
In my opinion, since flow is so dependent on so many variables which are not always under your control, it’s not good to obsess over “flow”.
Instead, it’s better to focus on total immersion in your work (also read: Deep Work).
The two are similar, but total immersion does not necessarily need all the steps that Csikszentmihalyi lists in “Flow” while giving you all the same benefits.