Flow - Serena Williams

A Flow Primer

Posted on Posted in Happiness

“Everything now comes of its own accord, pouring out, without will, effortlessly, purposelessly…At this level, I have called the person godlike because most gods have been considered to have no needs or wants, no deficiencies, nothing lacking, to be gratified in all things.” Abraham Maslow (1)

Flow. On fire. In the zone. Optimal experience. Deep engagement is the state where time either slows way down or speeds way up. You stop thinking and your actions flow effortlessly and automatically. You have no worries and nothing can stop you. You are at your most athletic, most imaginative and most connected. You may have experienced this peak state while playing a sport, creating art, listening to music, participating in a stimulating conversation or reading an engrossing book. Research into flow has revealed that this is an attainable state that results from the conditions of our activities and our minds rather than some magical force. Now that we know it’s repeatable, we want more of it. 

Across decades, cultures and borders, ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and other flow researchers have interviewed thousands of people about how they felt during their best experiences. Startlingly, what they have found is not a diversity of descriptions reflecting the broad range of attitudes and activities, but instead that everyone experienced their peak moments in a surprisingly similar way. The flow experience can happen on the couch, while performing a mental activity like reading, or flying through the air on a pair of skis. And while the exterior activities may differ, the interior experiences do not. 

Activities enable this state of deep engagement when:

  1. Distractions are eliminated or ignored. Deep engagement is a state where your consciousness becomes effortlessly focused, when you’re swept away by the activity. Constant interruptions or distractions make this impossible.
  2. Your mind has time to settle. It takes a while to immerse yourself in a task. You won’t be as deeply engaged during minute 1 as you will during minute 45.
  3. “Goals are clear.” In order to be deeply engaged in what you are doing, you need clarity about what you are trying to accomplish. If you stop to think about what to do next, you pull yourself from your focused state. A basketball player knows the outcome she is trying to achieve (win the game), but also is driven by a continuous stream of clear goals along the way (steal the ball, dribble past the opposing player, make a shot) and so doesn’t have to keep assessing what the next step should be (2).
  4. “Feedback is immediate.” If you can’t find out if your clear goals are being met in the here and now, you’ll distract yourself wondering how you’re doing. The feedback can either come from the activity itself (if the basketball player steals the ball, she knows she accomplished the goal) or from the internal sense of the actor. An artist is more likely to enter flow if he can auto-critique his work rather than needing to finish a piece and then ask someone else if it is good (2).
  5. There is a “balance between opportunity and capacity.” “Flow occurs when both challenge and skills are high and equal to each other” (2). This is similar to the zone where we learn best: right at the edge of our abilities. 
Csikszentmihalyi’s Map of Everyday Experience

When these conditions are met, “when we begin to respond to an opportunity that has clear goals and provides immediate feedback, we are likely to become involved in it, even if the activity itself is not very ‘important’ – such as a game, a hobby or a stimulating conversation. When the involvement passes a certain threshold of intensity, we suddenly find ourselves deeply into the game, the pursuit, the interaction”: we have achieved flow (2)

Here is how flow feels:

  • “The present is what matters.” A flow activity demands all of our conscious attention so our worries about what we said yesterday or what we have to do tomorrow are forced from our minds. We live deeply in the present moment. (2).
  • “Control is no problem.” People in flow sense that they are in complete control of the activity. They know that their abilities can match the challenge. This is not confidence as a personality trait, but rather an experience of confidence as a result of the activity and the ordering of conscious attention.
  • “The sense of time is altered.” This seems to be the element of flow that people most readily identify with. Expressions like “time flies when you’re having fun” or the experience of seeing a touchdown pass in slow motion reflect that fact that we experience time subjectively and “in flow, the sense of time adapts itself to the task at hand” (2).
  • “The loss of the ego.” Again, because the activity requires all of our conscious energies, it leaves no room for us to think about ourselves. We intuitively know that if you square up for the game winning shot and are thinking about whether you look cool, there is no chance you’ll make it. Although we spend much of our mental energy considering ourselves and how we are perceived, that melts away when we are deeply engaged. 

Not only is flow an incredibly enjoyable state, it’s also when we maximize our performance. In a study by McKinsey, top executives reported that they were five times more productive in flow than they were normally (3). With that level of productivity, you could polish off a typical 8 hour work day in an hour and thirty six minutes. 

“Researchers now believe that flow sits at the heart of almost every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, and accounts for significant progress in the arts” (4).

So how can we harness knowledge about flow to experience greater life satisfaction?

  1. Do more of the activities that put you in flow. When you read the description of flow, you probably thought, “I feel that way when I ________.” Well, do  ________ more. If you increase the amount of time you spend in flow, you will increase your life satisfaction and train your brain to more easily return to that state.
  2. Find new flow activities. Many of us waste our leisure time on activities that are not deeply engaging. Watching a tv show and empathizing with the characters can be engaging. Channel surfing is not. Learning something on the internet can be engaging. Mindlessly thumbing through updates of a social feed on your phone is not. Sport can be engaging. Art can be engaging. Unfortunately, our “feel like” instincts are not calibrated to motivate us to seek out a flow activity when we get home from work. Often we want to “tune out” or “turn off.” Ironically, though a flow state may take physical or mental effort to get into, it is the best way to “turn off” because we crowd anxiety out of our consciousness as we melt into the activity. That’s why you feel more relaxed after a hard workout than you do after watching Jersey Shore. The workout truly gave your mind a chance to relax.
  3. Add flow conditions to activities you have to do. There are some things you just have do, that aren’t naturally “enjoyable.” However, decades of research have shown that if you can meet the conditions of flow (no distractions, time to settle, clear goals, immediate feedback, match between difficulty and skill), then flow is possible. Adding quality rules or artificial deadlines to a task can help make it a meditative, flow-inducing experience. When I was a consultant, I would schedule meetings to share progress with my team at a time that would require me to stretch myself and put my full attention into a task in order to complete it. I found it made my work higher quality, more efficient and more enjoyable.
  4. Take control of your cell phone. A cell phone is an incredible tool that greatly enhances the quality of your life, provided that you control it, rather than the other way around. While it is capable of vibrating every time something remotely related to you happens in the world, the constant interruptions will ensure that you never become in engaged in life. I recommend turning off any notification that is alerting you to something that does not require your immediate attention. For me, that is everything but the phone ringer. I answer email 1-2 times a day and I have yet to experience any problems as a result of not answering an email the minute it arrived. When I am out with friends, I usually leave my phone at home or turn off the ringer. This isn’t a self-discipline austerity plan; it enables me to to enjoy life more.
  5. Choose not to be distracted. In my work, I have heard repeatedly from people that they find it hard to stay focused because other things keep popping into their mind. This reflects a misconception of what focus is. Focus is not about never having a thought other than the task you are working on. It is about not indulging the random thoughts. An effective technique for work is the Pomodoro Technique, which is a fancy name for setting a timer for some amount of time – say, 25 minutes – and then only working on the task at hand while the clock is ticking. You don’t take phone calls, go to the bathroom, check www.natsinsider.com or anything else. When a random idea pops into your head, you ignore it and refocus or make a note to think about it later and refocus. One study found that the most productive ratio was 52 minutes of focused work to 17 minutes of break time.

Your life is what you experience consciously. Deep engagement or flow is a state where the fullness of your attention rests on what you are doing, on what is actually happening. That this state has been described by mystics and prophets for centuries as the experience of the divine should not be ignored. Flow experiences are our most genuine and complete experiences of life. By cultivating your ability to enter this state, you are sowing the seeds for a more productive, more fulfilling, happier life. 

This post is part of a series on the three elements of happiness: mood, meaning and engagement.



(1) A. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

(2) M. Csikszentmihalyi, Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning

(3) S. Cranston and S. Keller, “Increasing the ‘Mean Quotient” of Work,” McKinsey Quarterly

(4) S. Kotler, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance

(5) M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Photo credit: Edwin Martinez, “US Open 2013 Part 2 651“, adapted

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