5 Steps to Discover Flow

Discovering Flow states can help you improve your performance and overall well-being.

5 Steps to Discover Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

In his memoir Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, Five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, and twelve-time All-Star Bill Russell describes the experience of playing in competitive games.

"Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical," he writes. "When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level.… It would surround not only me and the other team, [but] even the referees.…
At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn't feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself.
I'd be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion.
During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I'd want to shout to my teammates, 'It's coming there!'—except that I knew everything would change if I did.
My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me.
There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.… On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I'd still be as free and high as a sky hawk."

Bill Russell was experiencing what Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls Flow, a peak experience that he believed everyone could discover. One that can help you improve your performance and overall well-being.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly was born in Italy in 1934 and grew up in war-torn Europe. When he was seven years old, he was sent to an Italian prison camp where he learned to take his mind off his situation by playing chess. During this time, he started paying attention to how people struggled to do the same and maintain a normal life after their possessions and safety were destroyed.

As he got older, he started searching for the meaning of life, which led him to study philosophy and religion. However, after sitting in on a lecture by the legendary Carl Jung, he decided psychology was his best chance at figuring out his question.

Csikszentmihaly sought to discover what activities produced the most profound enjoyment and greatest satisfaction to understand happiness. He wanted to learn when they felt and performed at their best. He interviewed people across different cultures and ages, experts in their fields to everyday professionals.

He found that regardless of culture or environment, when people were at their best and felt their best, they felt experiences similar to Bill Russell's description above. He also found that people who were most happy in general consistently worked toward and therefore had more of these types of experiences.

The quality of experience kept them motivated while doing challenging activities that stretched their abilities and involved elements of novelty and discovery. His subjects kept using the word "flow" to describe their experiences, so Csikszentmihaly coined the experience Flow.

Steps to Flow

In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihaly describes Flow as;

"A sense that one's skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.

An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous."

Csikszentmihaly believed Flow is what makes life worth living. It's a state that demands effort to achieve but is intrinsically rewarding and results in personal growth. The more you work toward experiencing Flow, the more enjoyment you will feel and the better you will perform.

While many athletes and expert performers typically describe experiences of Flow, Csikszentmihaly believed it was an experience everyone can have if following the proper steps.

He gives five steps to discover flow experiences.

1) Set an overall goal and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible.

"The reason it is possible to achieve such complete involvement in a flow experience is that goals are usually clear, and feedback immediate." -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Goals set your intentions, and Csikszentmihaly says that intentions are the force that keeps information in your mind ordered. Intentions arise whenever you desire something or want to accomplish something. They are also bits of information, shaped either by biological needs or by internalized social goals.

The more specific the goal, the better. But in some creative activities, where goals are not set in advance, Csikszentmihaly says that you must develop a strong personal sense of what you intend to do. Then, once you have progressed to a certain point, you should know whether you are achieving what you want or not.

2) Find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen.

"The key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. The activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding. Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person's skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding." -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Csikszentmihaly says the kind of feedback you work toward is in and of itself often unimportant. What makes feedback valuable is the symbolic message it contains: that you have succeeded in your goal.

3) Keep concentrating on what one is doing and keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenge involved in the activity.

"The concentration of the flow experience - together with clear goals and immediate feedback - provides order to consciousness, inducing the enjoyable condition of psychic negentropy." -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

In everyday life, we are the prey of thoughts and worries. However, because most jobs, and life in general, lack the pressing demands of flow experiences, concentration is rarely so intense that thoughts and anxieties can be automatically ruled out.

But only a very select range of information can be allowed into awareness. Csikszentmihaly says that pursuing a goal brings order in awareness because a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else. These periods of struggling to overcome challenges are what people find to be the most enjoyable times of their lives.

Focusing on the moment is key for enjoyment. However, problems arise when people are so fixated on what they want to achieve that they cease to get pleasure from the present. When that happens, they forfeit their chances of contentment.

4) To develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available.

"Any activity contains a bundle of opportunities for action, or "challenges," that require appropriate skills to realize. For those who don't have the right skills, the activity is not challenging; it is simply meaningless." -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

Csikszentmihaly writes that when all your relevant skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, your attention is entirely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess psychic energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimuli.

But if your skills are not enough to deal with the situation, you will be overwhelmed and flooded with anxiety. So if you are feeling anxiety (A3 below), the way back to flow requires that you increase your skills (A4) or lower your challenge (A1).

5) To keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

"One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated, and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them." -Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

You can also lose your opportunity for Flow if you are bored. If you are bored because you don't have enough challenge for your skillset (A2), you have to increase your challenge (A4) to work your way back to flow. You enjoy things most when you are just on the edge of what you are capable of.

Csikszentmihaly studied over 3,000 chess games in which players would fill out their enjoyment level in each game, and each player had a rating that determined their skill level. He found that people typically enjoyed games where they played someone about 10% above their skill level.

He believes that the challenge of the activity are what force you to concentrate. This is our natural state as we are built to adapt to our environment and external demands. If we didn't have this built-in enjoyment of a challenge and what's beyond our normal capability, our ancestors wouldn't have survived, and we wouldn't have progressed as much as we have.

Overall, Csikszentmihaly believes that Flow is a state we work toward. It isn't a state we experience all the time, but the more we work toward it, the more we experience it. The more we experience Flow, the more enjoyable our life is, and the better we perform.

But to him, it isn't only about improving our condition, but it improves our ability to make contributions to those around us, writing; "Flow is important both because it makes the present moment more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind."