What is Flow, anyway?

The term Flow is thrown around a lot these days but is rarely defined. So let’s try and clarify what exactly this word means.

Flow (Top right) is the goal, here. In “Flow” we are more productive, happy, and ordered.

Flow is defined by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as optimal human experience that results from internal order of consciousness. While it may get more complicated from here, the foundation is simple: flow is a state of being, an awareness that is in harmony.

Components of Flow

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi outlines 8 major components of the optimal experience. Here they are:

1. Activity is achievable

2. Full concentration on activity at hand

3. Task has clear goals

4. …and immediate feedback

5. Act with complete yet effortless involvement that removes worries from awareness

6. Sense of control over one’s actions

7. Sense of self-consciousness disappears

8. Time is altered

“Okay so that’s what flow is but what practical ways can we move closer to this optimal state where awareness and action meet?” — you, right now.

3 Practical pathways to Flow

Challenge yourself

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of ‘flow’ is that which you are involved with must provide an opportunity to utilize and grow skill. A real sense of challenge that requires a skill is needed to engage our awareness. If our skills outweigh the challenge, we feel boredom; if we feel our skills are no match for the challenge, we feel discouraged. Proactively engaging in challenging activities that stretch and test our skill level is key.

It is important to note that Csikszentmihalyi explains that almost all activities can be turned into a challenge. We need not necessarily acquire a new skill, but even harnessing or perfecting one we already may have achieved can be enjoyable. The most simple example is walking. Walking is so intuitive for most people that it is almost an unconscious experience and therefore provides no joy.

“Unless one sets goals and develops skills, walking is just featureless drudgery.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

By paying attention to the nuances of weight distribution, body position, direction, or the like one can transform walking into an exploration of awareness.

2. Seek out autotelic activities

Autotelic is a key word in Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s philosophy. It essentially means engaging in something for its own sake, without the infiltration of any ulterior intentions, goals, or motivations. The activity is the means and the ends itself. For example, someone who invests energy into a report at work in order to get a promotion can not achieve flow. The project probably will seem like a necessary evil, something that must be done to get to the real goal — payday. In contrast, one who invests her psychic energy towards the project, takes pride in her work for its own sake, can actually enjoy the project regardless of outcome. It stands to reason that autotelic activities are more enjoyable and productive.

3. Find your Cause

A key ingredient to achieving flow is dedication to something bigger than yourself. A purpose-driven person has “non-self conscious individualism”. This means they are intrinsically motivated to achieving their clear goals. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi defines this as a state of strongly directed purpose that is not self-seeking. Do something you are passionate about in the world for its own sake. Actively relate to your environment through interaction, a deep sense of involvement, and make an impact.

To Sum it up

  • Flow is defined as the optimal human experience. It is the result of internal order, balance, and progress.
  • Those who experience this state of enjoyment usually describe the 8 components mentioned above.
  • 3 Practical things we can do to move towards meaningful and enjoyable activities are:

1. Challenge ourselves the right amount compared to our skills.

2. Remember to make it autotelic.

3. Dedicate energies to that which is meaningful.