Procrastination and Flow Experiences: A Tale of Opposites

Procrastinators can't find their groove

Posted May 05, 2008

What is flow?
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term "flow" to capture the essence of an experience he heard his research participants, athletes, artists, musicians, and a wide variety of others over the years, describe. Csíkszentmihályi defines this state in a number of ways, and there is a great deal written about the topic. In an interview with Wired Magazine (chosen because it's instantly available to you here), he said flow is "Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Other blog writers for Psychology Today (e.g., Michael J. Formica or Pavel Somov) might describe these experiences from an Eastern perspective with something like, "being at one with things." It is not a new phenomenon, the notion that ego falls away and that the person becomes intensely present in the moment. Csíkszentmihályi has helped us focus on the experience from a distinctly Western tradition based on his research.

I won't write any more of an explanation of flow, as by now, this is a popular concept, and there is lots more to access on the Web if it's a new concept to you. I'll turn instead to a study of the relation between procrastination and flow. In doing so, I will define flow in terms of how it was measured in the study.

Flow and Procrastination: The research
Eunju Lee (Halla University, South Korea) conducted a study of the flow experience related to academic procrastination. Although his sample is limited in a number of ways (something he notes in his paper), the results are of interest.

Basically, Lee explored the relation among procrastination, flow and motivation as measured by self-report questionnaires in a student sample. His results revealed that flow was related to procrastination negatively, and it was more predictive of procrastination than his measure of motivation. To understand how flow is related to procrastination, we need to review just a little bit more about flow and the measure used.

Csíkszentmihályi defined a number of features of the flow experience, although any particular flow experience need not include all possible features. These include:

Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).

Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

Distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered.

Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

A sense of personal control
over the situation or activity.
The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging
(Source: Wikipedia)

Lee's measure of flow included these features, but he only included 5 subscales in his study. Here are the five with a sample item, so that you have a better feel for the measure.

Challenge-skill balance "I felt I was competent enough to meet the high demands of the situation."
Clear goals "I knew clearly what I wanted to do."
Unambiguous feedback "I had a good idea while I was performing about how well I was doing."
Concentration on the task at hand "My attention was focused entirely on what I was doing."
Loss of self-consciousness "I was not concerned with what others may have been thinking of me."

The results
Of these five features of flow, loss of self-consciousness and clear goals were the components of flow most highly related to procrastination in his regression analysis. The only other component related to procrastination in the regression was concentration on the task.

Lee summarized his findings like this, "The more students procrastinate in doing their academic work, the less likely they are to experience flow state in the learning processes . . . students who did not have clear goals, did not concentrate on the task at hand and had high self-consciousness showed high procrastination tendencies" (p. 12). Lee then laid out the potential implications of these results for educators in helping students define clear goals, concentrate and not be excessively self-conscious.

Finally, Lee focused on the subscale that he found related most highly to procrastination, namely self-consciousness. "High procrastinators were more likely to be concerned with what others may been thinking of them, how they were presenting themselves, and about their performance during the learning process" (p. 13).

The prominent role of self-consciousness combined with the issues of goal setting and concentration reflect a couple of psychological issues we've already discussed in this blog. First, self-consciousness speaks to the issue of concern, perhaps over-concern, about self-presentation and protecting one's sense of self. To the extent that this is the case, the negative relation between flow and procrastination may well be explained by self-handicapping. Individuals who are unable to let go of their self-conscious concern about what others might think are not prone to enter a flow state, yet at the same time may be prone to self-handicapping to influence what others think of them. Self-consciousness prevents the individual from losing his- or herself in the task at hand, and at the same time, increases the likelihood that task delay might be used strategically to protect self-esteem.

Self-consciousness also reflects a component of neuroticism. It speaks to the issue of personality. That is, self-consciousness can be seen as a stable individual difference that is related to both a lack of flow experiences and an increase in procrastination. To the extent that you would describe yourself as emotionally unstable and prone to self-consciousness, you're unlikely to experience flow in your activities, and, in fact, you're more likely to put off the task at hand as noted above.

Goal setting and concentration also takes us back to personality issues, particularly the major correlate of procrastination: low conscientiousness. More importantly, both goal setting and concentration are integrally related to volitional skills in our understanding of action (e.g., Kuhl, see the earlier blog on state- vs. action-orientations). It takes well-developed volitional skills to be able to set realistic goals that are challenging but don't exceed our ability, and to be able to maintain a focus (concentration) on achieving these goals. In sum, it takes self-regulatory abilities to avoid procrastination and to foster experiences that might be described as "flow." It's something that can be learned, but it may be easier for some people than others depending on things like your personality.

Concluding thoughts
Although I noted the various dimensions of personality and self-regulation that are involved in the relationship between flow and procrastination as demonstrated in Lee's study, I think it's important to take an even higher-order perspective on his results. His results are not surprising to us because procrastination is antithetical to flow, particularly chronic procrastination.

A life lived with avoidance as a central coping mechanism, a central way of being, is a life that rarely can find the deep joy inherent in a flow experience. The reason for this, as Lee's data seem to indicate, is that the individual clings too closely to a sense of self, a fragile sense of self at that. Self-conscious as an actor in the world, worried perhaps about his or her performance, the chronic procrastinator seeks to avoid failure and undermines a deep sense of being that is possible through "Being completely involved in an activity."

Of course, for dedicated readers of "Don't Delay," these final few words won't surprise you. The key to enriching your life with flow experiences and decreasing procrastination is the courageous act of choice - Choosing consciously to risk, to try, to just get started. Once you begin that task and trust yourself a little bit more, not fearing the "non-being" of the past or future, but allowing yourself to remain deeply focused on the present moment, there won't be any procrastination, there will only be now - you acting in the present.

As is noted in quite a few stories from the Zen Buddhist tradition, when you're finished your rice, wash your bowl. This is it.


Procrastination research
Lee, E. (2005). The relationship of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in university students. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 166, 5-14.

Background about Flow
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1988) Optimal Experience Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (2003). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Penguin Books.

Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999). Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers.