What is flow experience?
Flow experience is a concept defined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe those moments when you are completely and totally absorbed in an activity. As such, everything else is forgotten. You have total concentration and nothing else matters. You are no longer aware of what is going on around you. The rest of the world is forgotten.
When you are in a flow experience, your focus is so complete that you forget all about sleeping and eating. You are not even aware of yourself; you are immersed in the activity you are engaged in.
Furthermore, since you are so engrossed in the activity, your experience of time changes. You are so absorbed that the past and future are forgotten. Time absolutely flies by, although you are not aware of this at the time. It is only when you come out of the activity that you notice how much time has passed.
You can have a flow experience with any activity that is mindful and requires you to actively participate in it. As such, good conversation, reading a novel, playing sport, working on your hobby, letter writing, gardening, even cleaning the house are examples where you can experience flow. Passive activities such as watching television and sport are not conducive to a flow experience. You will probably know when you have had a flow experience as you will get that feel-good buzz afterwards of having engaged in something engrossing.
Whilst you are engaged in your activity, you will feel completely in control and are not worried about success or failure. The activity feels effortless but engaging. To the objective observer the activity may look risky and demanding (for example, surfing), but not to you, the participant.
We all possess the ability to engage in flow experiences and the more we have, the happier we are.
Why is it important?
- Flow enables you to focus and have total control and concentration during a particular experience.
- Understanding flow enables you to focus your attention at will, rather than waiting for something to come and grab your attention.
- Your skills are being used at their very best — you are giving your all.
- It can help you achieve your goals, since you are free from intrusive thoughts and events.
- It will enhance your well-being and happiness.
- Understanding flow can help you understand why you are procrastinating on a particular issue. Have a look at the conditions needed for a flow experience and reflect on them in terms of the task you are struggling to commence.
The three conditions to a flow experience
Csikszentmihalyi stipulates three conditions that must be met in order to have a flow experience:
- Your chosen activity should have a clearly defined set of goals. This will help you focus your energy and give you direction.
- You want a good balance between your perceived skills and perceived challenges. The important point here is ‘perceived’ rather than actual. It is a mind-state. If you believe your skills far surpass the challenge, you will become bored as it will be too easy for you. Whereas, if you perceive the challenge as being too hard for you, you will become frustrated.
- Feedback is essential. It will enable you to modify your actions if necessary, to keep you in the flow. The feedback can be negative as well as positive. It can enable you to move on and progress (providing you have the skills to do so).
How to have more flow experiences
Flow can occur with any activity, provided it is mindful. What is important is how the activity is carried out. Take a look at the following tips to help you towards engaging in regular flow experiences:
- Avoid multi-tasking. Trying to do two (or more) things at once is no way to achieve flow. It is not possible to give your all to two tasks at the same time. This will reduce your enjoyment and quite possibly the outcome may be compromised. Try to cut down on multi-tasking even for the most everyday chores.
- Try not to check your email every five minutes if you are working on a computer. Choose a time to read it and give it your full attention.
- Limit your distractions. Is there anything in your environment that is preventing you from achieving flow? Temperature, noise, layout, objects, other people, level of light can all make a difference.
- Determine your goals and break them down into achievable chunks. Make sure these chunks are sufficiently challenging to keep your interest.
- Try new activities and develop new skills. The more your skills develop, the more pleasure you will receive. You may experience boredom or frustration early on. So take care to monitor your progress to check the activity is interesting enough and within your capability. Modify your goals if you need to.
- To keep experiencing flow with a particular activity you will need to increase the challenge — one that you believe you can meet. As your skills develop, the activity can become boring as it no longer requires as much attention. A new challenge will not only up your interest but enhance your expertise.
- How is your job? You spend a great chunk of your life in work, so you really want to obtain as many flow experiences as possible. If you are feeling bored, is there anything you can do to make it more challenging?
- Try to obtain regular feedback on what you are doing. It could be from yourself or another person.
- Avoid mindless activities which you do not actively get involved in — for example, watching television.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience.