The Mental State of Flow And How to Achieve It

In psychology, flow is a mental state in which one is completely immersed and engaged in an activity, wherein one is fully focused, energized, and enjoy the activity in which one is immersed in.  The most extreme (yet typical) example of flow is when artists are fully immersed in their paintings, not sleeping or eating for days to paint.  Another example is be an author writing for hours on end without a break.

In other words, flow state is a state of hyper-focus, essentially ignoring everything else not related to the task.

The term flow was first coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s.  Although flow theory was postulated by Csikszentmihalyi, others before him have talked about this specific mental state.  One of Bruce Lee’s most famous quotes from his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do might have alluded to the state of flow:

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Psychologists have known for a while that the human brain can only attend to a certain amount of information simultaneously.  According to Csikszentmihalyi, the precise amount of information we can attend to is 126 bits of information per second.

How much information is that?  Just having a conversation with a friend takes about 40 bits of information per second, essentially 1/3 of our brain’s capacity to process information.  So when talking to someone, we are able to allocate a little more than 80 bits per second of information to something else.  However, when one is in a state of flow, all 126 bits of information processed goes completely to the task at hand.  That is why in in flow state we lose awareness of all else as there is no more attention to be allocated.

How to Know You are in a State of Flow

Flow state can be attained for performing any activity that requires active participation.  In addition, flow is most achievable when a person is doing the activity out of love and intrinsic motivation.  So in other words, it is hard to be in a state of flow if one is working on a project one does not love or have inherent interest in.  In his theory, Csikszentmihalyi identified the following six components that indicate a state of flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the activity
  2. Merging of action and awareness of the current task
  3. The temporary loss of ability to reflect
  4. A sense of personal control and ownership over the activity
  5. A distortion of subjective time
  6. The experience is internally rewarding in and of itself

When all six of these experiences are combined, then one is said to have achieved a state of flow.

Achieving Flow

When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi originally postulated flow theory, he stated the following three conditions must be met in order to achieve flow state:

  1. The individual must be involved in an (active) activity with a clearly defined goals and a clear way to measure progress.  Defined goals and measured progress adds an element of structure to the activity.
  2. The activity must have feedback that is both clear and immediate.  The feedback allows the person to adjust performance to maintain the state of flow.
  3. The individual must have a balance between perceived challenges of the activity and his or her own perceived skills pertaining to the task.  Essentially, there needs to be self confidence in being able to do well with the task.

In the late 1990s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also published a model illustrating the skill level and challenge level required in order to achieve flow state for any given activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi flow model challenge skill


As seen from the illustration, in order to get into a state of flow, one’s perceived skill level for the task has to be high and the perceived challenge of the activity also has to be high.  In other words, the individual’s skill level should be high relative to the task and the challenge level is high relative to the individual’s skill level.  Thus the challenge level and individual skill level is relative to the person.

As the model shows, if the skill level and the challenge level does not match, then the individual can be in many emotional states while doing the task, anywhere from apathy, worry, anxiety, and boredom, to relaxation, control, and arousal.

Subsequent to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi publishing the flow model, Owen Schaffer (who worked under Csikszentmihalyi) refined the model in 2013, noting seven important elements required in order to facilitate flow state:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are currently doing
  4. Knowing what is needed to be considered “done”
  5. An activity with a perception of high challenge
  6. Skills that are perceived to be high relative to the activity
  7. Freedom from distraction or disruption

Personalities Ideal for Achieving State of Flow

In his flow theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi also postulated that people with specific personality traits are more prone to achieving this state of flow.  These personality traits, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, are curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing tasks and activities out of intrinsic motivation and reason.  A person with all these traits are known to be autotelic, described as “having a purpose in and not apart from itself.”  People who are autotelic are distinctly different those who are externally driven, where things such as money, power, fame, and even comfort are the main motivating force behind actions and activities.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes an autotelic as one who “needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding. Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of routines. They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside. At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life.”

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