A game that you can’t stop playing

Wojciech Jura
Self-Awareness Community
5 min readNov 23, 2021


It’s a lifetime game.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Have you ever played a game that you couldn’t stop playing?

I almost dropped out of my studies when I started playing Civilisation.
I couldn’t abandon the kingdom I built over a few nights to study economics, and commuting to the university was entirely out of the question.

Defense of my cities against these Roman legions was on my mind. They came out of nowhere! How is it even possible they managed to get to my beautiful, safe island? Damn it! They must have invented a trireme. What to do? What to do? I guess I can play a few more hours without getting any food and stubbornly ignoring mother nature calls.

Interestingly enough, when I found a hack and could summon a tank or a sniper, it was fun but not for long. I got bored. Only many years later, I heard the expression “the key is to operate between boredom and anxiety.” The formula is valid in our lives as well.

“Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Professor Mihaly C came up with this idea of “flow,” something that you’re probably familiar with. It’s a state when you lose yourself entirely in work or play, and it feels like time flies by without us being aware of anything else.

Flow occurs when the task at hand matches the practitioner’s skill level, and it is difficult enough to provide a challenge but not so tricky that it overwhelms the practitioner. There is one more condition: you get immediate feedback about how you are doing at each step.

Each new task is likely to be challenging enough for a while. Later, if it starts to feel too easy, some extra pressure might be needed to help the person re-engage with their role. However, if it starts to feel much too difficult (increase in arousal/anxiety/stress), there’s a decline in performance, as explained by Yerkes Dodson law depicted on a diagram below.

Yerkes Dodson Law

The middle of the graph shows where people work at peak effectiveness. They’re sufficiently motivated to work hard, but they’re not so overloaded that they’re starting to struggle. This is where people can experience “flow,” the enjoyable and highly productive state in which they can do their best work.

Flow meets competence

The need that is fulfilled in the process of performing flow activities is that of competence. It is one of our basic needs (apart from autonomy and relatedness) that we must cultivate throughout our lives, starting with a school-age period.

It’s mainly parents’ responsibility to provide a child with adequate conditions during the early stages of development. Starting with early adulthood, it’s entirely on us how we set up our activities so that, ideally, they engage us fully and provide us with a genuine sense of accomplishment. It is therefore believed that a sense of competence motivates behaviors and actions.

If we set ourselves an ongoing series of challenging but ultimately achievable goals, we maximize our motivation and make the achievement meaningful, reflecting our capabilities. Each hard-won victory gives a new sense of self and a desire to strive for more. We build our competence.

Enter the Flow Channel

A series of goals structured in an intelligent way constitutes a flow that pertains to our whole lifespan. It is sometimes called “flow channel,” and the necessary condition is that both variables (skills and task difficulty) need to increase intelligently, just like with all the games that hook you.

For example, here’s a real scenario that came up in discussion with my client when he was investigating possible options in his career. Richard felt stuck in his comfort zone, a company he’s been with for years (point x on the diagram below). He was becoming more and more complacent. It is usually the moment we get comfortable and decide it’s good enough, and it’s the moment we settle and stop growing and challenging ourselves.

“Even for those who are “successful,” complacency draws the life force out of their veins and sucks away all their enthusiasm and zest for life.” Tommy Baker

For Richard, option A was to throw himself out of his comfort zone and accept a position with another company. There he would have to learn hands-on in areas where he wasn’t sure he was competent enough. That would probably translate into stress and anxiety and is represented by a point A on the chart below.

Adapted from M. Csikszentmihalyi

Taking advantage of significant opportunities often requires letting go of security and venturing into a profoundly uncomfortable unknown. Such a move, abandoning one’s comfort zone, is often compared to flying between trapezes: there has to be a moment when you are willing to let go of a trapeze and be in mid-air without any support whatsoever. Richard understood potential benefits but was not ready to face such considerable uncertainty.

While discussing the flow channel theory, Richard realized another possibility was staying in the same position but building required skills in the background. With time, he would be much better prepared to work in the new capacity in the new company. Yes, he would still experience some level of boredom (point B on the diagram), but he said he could probably accept that knowing that he’s building his skills required in the new, more difficult position.

Richard’s situation required some workaround. Ideally, Richard would have the possibility to change his position, which would be challenging enough but would not induce anxiety. Not having such an option, Richard chose to enhance his skills so that when he’s ready, he will return to the optimal point in his career (point F on the diagram). In summary, the whole idea is about having optimal conditions for flow in your life on an ongoing basis. It should feel like playing a game.

“So the question in most cases should be, Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve — they should require “stretching,” to use the current buzzword. But also, they should be within reach.” Peter Drucker

This short article is based on working with my coaching client, and his name is not Richard.



Wojciech Jura
Self-Awareness Community

I coach on Coach.me and via zoom on www.wojciechjura.com. My clients learn how to balance doing with being. Medium is my notepad.