Flow

Flow diagramI want to introduce another concept that complements the mind like water goal of Getting Things Done and the mindfulness aspect of mental readiness.  Flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the state that you are in when you are totally focused on what you are working on.  Sometimes its called being “in the zone”.

The horizontal axis in the picture shows the level of skill someone has when performing certain tasks.  The vertical axis shows that task’s level of challenge.  If the tasks are not very challenging and the person’s skills at these tasks are low, then that person is at the A1 state.  If the tasks remain at the same challenge level, the person will eventually move to A2 where he or she will be bored.  If the challenge levels of the tasks are raised and the person’s skills remain the same, he or she will reach A3 where the person will become anxious.  The key in either the A2 or A3 situation is to get back in the flow channel by either increasing the challenge or increasing the skills.

Csikszentmihalyi says the flow state can happen to someone when they are working, reading, writing, drawing, playing games, etc.  Any number of experiences can produce the flow mental state as long as the actions meet certain criteria.

Not all of the following characteristics have to be present in a task in order to produce a flow like state of mind, but some of them must be there.  He lists the key characteristics that can produce flow as:

  • The task must have a chance to be completed.
  • The task must allow us to concentrate on what we are doing.
  • The task must have clear goals.
  • The task must provide immediate feedback.
  • The task must produce deep but effortless involvement.
  • The task must allow us to exercise a sense of control over our actions.
  • The task must cause concern for the self to disappear.
  • The task must cause our sense of time to be altered.

I did not link to Csikszentmihalyi’s book because it is not very good.  It is out of print, and I do not suggest that you go search for it.  The book is filled with vague, new-ageish terminology like psychic energy, harmony, entropy, negentropy(?), integrated selves, etc.  He also seems to suffer from confirmation bias when looking for examples of the flow state.  It seems like he has a preconceived notion of what activities produce flow and what activities do not.  He then chooses the characteristics of these activities that match his flow definition and ignores the other attributes.  For example, he says that people do not get into the flow state when they watch TV.  But flow can happen easily when listening to music.  He says that you have to listen to the music instead of just hearing it.  And that is about the extent of his argument.  But the same argument could be applied to television.  You have to watch TV instead of gazing at it.  I can see what he is getting at.  TV does seem to not lend itself to that kind of state of mind.  However, Csikszentmihalyi failed to explicitly state why it does not.

But even with all the book’s flaws, the main thesis (that he expands upon for close to 300 pages) is undeniable.  Tasks that have the above characteristics do seem to produce an enjoyable flow like state of mind.  There are only four characteristics in that list that are actual requirements for a task to meet.  The other four items are feelings that the flow state produces once you are in it.

Here are the requirements for the tasks:

  • The task must have a chance to be completed.
  • The task must have clear goals.
  • The task must provide immediate feedback.
  • The task must allow us to exercise a sense of control over our actions.

Csikszentmihalyi explains why a sense of control is necessary for a task to be a challenge by stating:  “Only when a doubtful outcome is at stake, and one is able to influence that outcome, can a person really know whether she is in control.”  You could have a task of changing the channel on the TV.  The goal would be to successfully change the channel up one station.  The immediate feedback would be the TV changing channels.  The task has a high probability of being complete.  But the task does not exercise a sense of control over your actions.  The outcome of the task is not very doubtful, so you don’t feel like you are in control.  And you do not feel like you have exercised a skill to meet a challenge.

The thing that really interests me is how GTD’s next actions meet these requirements perfectly.  The next action for any project that you want completed must be the very next physical thing that you have to do.  Focusing on a physical action gives us clear goals and provides immediate feedback.  As long as you keep the action simple enough it will have a chance to be completed.  And as long as you don’t make the action completely trivial it will allow you to exercise a sense of control.

Photo courtesy of Wesley Fryer 

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