June 29, 2010
Three Conditions Required for the Mental State of Flow
We’ve all been there before – you find yourself completely engrossed in a task, time melts away and you act on instinct, without consciously thinking. Many martial artists, Buddhist monks, sports stars among others routinely enter this state. Us mere mortals can also slip into this mindset doing everyday things like playing video games, developing software and even writing mega-awesome blog posts like this one (I think).
Flow: Completely Focused Motivation
This totally absorbing state of being is called flow and was researched and proposed by the Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Csíkszentmihályi (shown right) labeled flow as the mental state where you have “completely focused motivation.” While experiencing flow you are so focused on the task at hand that your conscious mind, emotions and everything else going on in your head are all aligned to help complete whatever task you are doing.
My first experience with flow was at a very young age while playing video games. I was on the final level of a game I had been trying to beat for around three weeks and could not quite manage to get it finished. My Dad watched me play for a few minutes and when I had come through an exceptionally difficult part of the game he said, “Wow, how did you do that?”
He was amazed at the blank stare on my face and how fast my little fingers moved across the controller. I realized that during the time that he was watching me, I hadn’t been focusing on my character in the game; I had simply been taking in the entire TV screen. When I really thought about it, I hadn’t been thinking about anything at all. My fingers moved from muscle memory and I was able to break through the barrier that previously had stopped me from beating the game.
Three Conditions for Flow
I now know looking back that this is an example of flow at its finest. So if flow is one of the best ways to get focused and get something done how do we get there? Here are Csíkszentmihályi’s three conditions for flow:
- You must be involved in a task that has clear goals. With clear goals set you have structure and direction. I was able to achieve flow when playing video games because I was really trying to beat a level, and the smaller tasks at hand all pushed me into the direction of my end goal. Writing words or code is no different – the logic in your head become keystrokes and appear on the screen because you are trying to express an idea straight from your mind.
- There must be a balance between the challenges and tasks at hand. You need to feel as though you capable of doing what is laid out before you but it can’t be so boring that you don’t care. When the task requires a high level of skill, is worth doing in your mind’s eye and is highly challenging you will achieve flow.
- There must be immediate feedback on your performance. This can generally come from your own intuition on the level of performance, video games obviously have this built in. Nevertheless, without feedback that you should adjust what you’re doing to the overall skill level of your task, interest may begin to waver. Consistently adjusting to nuances in the task at hand (if this is needed) can help you to stay in the state of flow.
The uses and implications of flow in education, work, sports and many other fields are huge. As anyone who strives to achieve things, it’s vital to understand that flow represents the ultimate level of focus and you should do everything possible to encourage it to do your best work. Elimination of distractions, having clear goals as well as being in a focused environment along with these three conditions above can help you to get more done and at better levels of quality.