What Is Flow?
Flow is a cognitive state where one is completely immersed in an activity—from painting and writing to prayer and surfboarding. It involves intense focus, creative engagement, and the loss of awareness of the self.
The process of flow was discovered and coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist. In the 1960s, Csikszentmihalyi studied the creative process and found that, when an artist was in the course of flow, they would persist at their task relentlessly, regardless of hunger or fatigue. He also found that the artist would lose interest after the project was completed, highlighting the importance of the process and not the end result.
After various interviews with poets, dancers, chess players, and others, Csikszentmihalyi wrote the book titled Flow and defined it as: “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
Despite being associated with creative tasks, flow can also be applied to education, sports, and the workplace. One of his key points about flow is that a person needs to push oneself out of the comfort zone to induce it. In education, this can be seen in challenging assignments that lead to learning. In the area of sports, athletes are pushed to the limit to improve mastery. In the workplace, a project can leave an employee feeling that they are “in the zone.”
Put plainly, it is the joy of doing something for the sake of the doing.
How to Achieve Flow
People may not realize it but, according to Csikszentmihalyi, anyone can find flow. Here are some key characteristics of the process:
- Clear goals at every step
- Immediate feedback to one’s actions
- A balance between challenges and skills
- No agony over failure
- A disappearance of self-consciousness and distractions
- A sense of timelessness or distorted time
- The process is what’s enjoyable, not the result
One can access flow by thinking of activities that would apply to this list. Popular examples include sports, dancing, painting, and yoga. However, any activity could work, from welding to chopping wood. Ultimately, flow is a delicate balance between the tension of anxiety and the tedium of boredom. Apart from setting clear goals, a person can engage in flow by becoming immersed and enjoying the immediate experience.
The Benefits of Flow
Flow appears to come with many benefits. It makes sense that people who engage in it have feelings of success, pride, and accomplishment—all of which encourage more learning and development. An activity done in flow is pegged as enjoyable or even ecstatic, though the joy isn't at the fore during the task because the person is too busy feeling immersed in the experience.
Flow is also a tool for better emotion regulation. When a person is in a state of flow, there is little need for doubts or anxieties about oneself or the world in general; even the uncertainties of life fall away. Through the process of flow, a person chooses to focus on a task and gain a sense of autonomy over time, body, and mind.
And because it’s a dynamic state, one has to constantly adjust the skill, challenge, and complexity required for the activity. With practice and intention, anyone could achieve the feeling of flow.