A Practical Guide To Entering Flow - Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow Principles

Science-based content to help you achieve your goals

The most famous researcher on flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has studied flow for more than 40 years investigating hundreds of research subjects. He believes that flow is not only a secret to productivity, but also to happiness. He reckons that flow is a state of pure absorption in the task. You will forget both time and your surrounding — and nothing but bliss will fill your body. You might experience this when playing an instrument or doing sports. But they are everywhere, hidden, yet to be discovered by you. In this article, I plan to deconstruct Csikszentmihalyi’s abstract principles and add practical recommendations to help you reach flow whenever possible. Especially during work, people tend to feel unhappy, bored and unfulfilled. This is why this article focusses on flow in work.

1. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback

Be sure that you know exactly what the outcome of your focus session should be. You shouldn’t aim for a certain number of lines of code or a certain number of words. You should rather aim to solve a certain problem or to finish an article. This helps you to not ‘overfit’ by just trying to write as much as possible. Keep the big picture in mind and let your curiosity guide you.

Moreover, it must be apparent that you’re getting closer to the goal. Don’t try to solve vague tasks without a clear goal. You must know that you’re truly getting closer to some end and be able to gamify the activity of getting closer to it. For instance, when I do research for our articles, my goal is to have a full picture of a certain phenomenon. I won’t stop until I have the feeling I fully grasp a topic. Until then, I read research papers, google, draw, write and think. Every moment, it feels like I’m solving one piece more of the puzzle — an essential requisite of flow.

2. A high level of concentration on a limited field

Whenever a distracting thought pops up, write it on your to-do list. When you’re bored, there might be two reasons. If your goals weren’t bold enough, try to adjust them so that the task gets challenging. If the task itself is way too boring, do another task. It is crucial to do something your excited and curious about. It is also vital to have one single task and one goal to complete. If there is more than one field, spending more time on the problem will not get you closer to that specific, targeted goal.

Indeed, there is a lot of research on as to why you should be excited during problem-solving sessions. For instance, during excitement, your brain releases dopamine, which drastically helps your brain to build new neurons and synapses, thus improving your learning ability [1]. In those cases, less can be more. People who are excited build significantly more connections in their brain in shorter amounts of time due to higher dopamine release. I can only recommend availing yourself of these scientific findings. Designing your life in a way that most tasks excite you does not only make life more fun, it makes you smarter and more productive! No matter how boring the task is, there is always something exciting you can find. Even if that makes the task longer, it helps you concentrate and learn more. Think long-term!

3. Balance between skills and challenge

You shouldn’t aim for a goal that is out of your reach. Think of playing the piano or any other instrument. Imagine you’re playing a new piece. If the piece is too difficult, you’ll give up quickly and won’t get into a flow state. If it’s too easy, you can play it without having to focus much; and you will get bored. However, if it’s in that sweet spot, where you are highly challenged, but just skilled enough to succeed, you will experience an ‘edge-situation’ that will keep you focussed and will help you to maintain flow. Look for that balance when you are planning your work. For instance, set yourself a bold time limit that can only be achieved when you’re highly focussed. Working against time can be fun, especially if it’s a made-up deadline.

4. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.

If the task is challenging but out of your control, like gambling, it will be more difficult to get into a flow-state. When you gamble, you’re playing with luck; your skill has nothing to do with the outcome. It should be clear to you that what you are doing is getting you closer to the goal and you’re not relying on something else beyond your control.

5. Feelings of serenity

This is what we would already call flow, even though there are much more intense states of it. You will notice clear contentment after a while, which is a very good sign and should keep you going. Try not to reflect on that feeling. Appreciate it and maintain the focus. It is a signal that what you’re doing is right. I experience this very often when doing research for Unlimitix. I feel exhilarated, but calm. This is how work should feel in general. It is within your freedom to design, choose and plan your tasks in a way that maximises serenity.

6. Timelessness; a distorted sense of time

Try to eliminate any time indicators around you. You can hide the clock on both Windows PCs and Macs. During this state, you are far from noticing what actually happens with you. In retrospect, hours might appear like minutes or minutes like hours. To some people, time feels condensed, to others it feels expanded. In any case, time will be distorted during flow. You will have no idea when you are actually experiencing flow, but you will strongly notice it afterwards. This is a good sign. It means that your practice of flow pays off.

That’s why it’s so important to lock away your phone, put away any other clocks and hide clocks on your PC. I plan for flow phases in the evening when I am done with all of my deadlines. I hide all of my clocks and therefore loose my sense of time at one point. If I am not tracking my sleep, I do not check the time afterwards and go to bed directly. I might have worked until midnight, 2am or 3am. I don’t care. The feeling of not knowing exactly how long you slept can be incredibly cathartic — and your flow experience will be highly optimised, too.

7. The melting together of action and consciousness

After a couple of focus-phases you should truly feel how rewarding and joyful those sessions are. Distraction, fear or worry will be completely eliminated and you will have a feeling of ‘becoming one with your actions’. This is a truly joyful experience and defines the perfect flow phase. Once you’re having such a feeling you are experiencing flow on a deep level. During the task, you won’t be able to reflect on it on a meta-level, since you are eaten up by the activity itself.

8. The autotelic quality of flow experiences

This sounds complicated but is very easy to understand. ‘Auto’ is Greek for ‘self’ (random fact: And German for ‘car) and ‘telos’ is Greek for ‘goal’. Autotelic means that the activity itself is just as important as the goal, i.e. goal and activity will merge naturally. Interestingly, Ludwig von Mises describes this phenomenon in his book ‘Human Action’ as activities with instant gratification [2]. He notes that this has to be distinguished from work, since real work only offers mediate gratification. Hence, flow helps you to turn your work, whatever it is, into leisure.

This is what makes flow such a beautiful phenomenon. It feeds our ego as well as our rational mind as it allows us to reach our goals with greater pace. Because of its autotelic character, though, flow is also instantly rewarding by its very nature. Many people trade short-term for long-term happiness. How much should we suffer now in order to have a better life in the future? Thanks to flow, we don’t have to answer this question [3].

Actionstep

Create your own flow check-list or use ours and amend it if you wish. As with all things in life, consistency is key. The more structured and consistent you’ll be with your approach, the more flow experience you’ll have. Your flow check-list is not only a mere-productivity tool. It is your key to happiness and fulfilment in work and private life.

Make also sure to check out these articles (1,2,3), too. Note that this is article four in a whole series of articles. You can find the subsequent articles as well as articles regarding other topics, such as sleep, on our website. After you have read our articles, not only will you have a thorough understanding of your body and your inner workings, but you will also be able to put that knowledge into use and apply it flexibly throughout your live to design your individual plan of winning life.

Souces

[1] Pickering, D. & Gray, J. (n.d.). retrieved from: https://research.gold.ac.uk/8445/1/strelau.pdf

[2] Von Mises, L. (1966). Human action: A treatise on economics.

[3] Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row, ISBN 0–06–092043–2