We live in a world where our attention is constantly being pulled this way and that. Multitasking is now considered a virtue, and as a result we seem to be starving ourselves of truly rich and immersive experiences. In this article, Tom Cochrane argues that we should seek to reclaim such experiences through pursuing the state of flow. He explores the philosophical ideas which underpin flow, whilst outlining how we can best achieve this state.
It is often said that we live in distracted times, where both social media and our jobs pull our attention in a dozen different directions at once. People often complain of finding it hard to concentrate on tasks for more than a few minutes before another email pings us, or we feel the temptation to check Twitter or Instagram—just for a few seconds—until we find ourselves half an hour later wondering what sent us online in the first place. Perhaps this is happening to you right now.
A possible antidote to this modern ill is the state of flow. Flow is a peak experience in which we become intensely absorbed in a single activity. It was first systematically described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). Yet there is a long history behind the idea. As Edward Slingerland notes in his delightful book Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (2014) there are a number of parallels between flow and the ancient Chinese concept of wu wei (literally ‘non-action’ but more clearly ‘effortless action’). For the sake of this article however, I’ll concentrate on Csíkszentmihályi’s account, which describes flow with the following 9 features:
1. Action-awareness merging: A lack of awareness of self as separate from the actions being performed.
2. Loss of self-consciousness: Concern for the self disappears and the person becomes one with the activity.
3. A sense of control: A sense of exercising control without actually trying to be in control.
4. Transformation of time: A loss of time awareness or time disorientation.
5. Autotelic experience: An intrinsically rewarding experience involving a deep sense of enjoyment.
6. Concentration on the task at hand: Narrowing of focus and the centring of attention on a limited stimulus field.
7. Clear goals: Goals either set in advance or developed out of involvement in the activity are clearly defined.
8. Unambiguous feedback: Clear and immediate feedback concerning performance in relation to the goal(s) set.
9. Challenge-skill balance: The requirement that there be a balance between ability and the demands of the task.
On reading this list, you may wonder if you’ve ever experienced flow. I expect most humans have experienced pretty intense absorption, but there is something magical about features such as the dilation of time or the disappearance of the self. These are rare at best. In fact, serendipity may be another significant feature of flow. We cannot reliably get ourselves into this state. If that’s the case, flow may be less of an antidote to modern distractions than a diagnosis of how we fall short.
Let us consider how achievable the above features of flow are. As I see it, the first 5 features only tell us what flow is like to experience and are not parameters that we can set in any straightforward sense. We cannot, for instance, deliberately transform our experience of time, or achieve a sense of control without trying to be in control. In contrast the latter 4 conditions tell us something about how flow is generated. In particular, it is relatively straightforward to engage in a task that has clear goals and which provides clear feedback on how well we’re doing. We do this every time we perform a piece of music or play a game of football.
The moment we succeed in a task, we set our sights higher, threatening to plunge us into the ‘boredom’ zone if the task is not updated. Or, if the task becomes steadily more difficult, our ability may fail to keep up, shifting us into the ‘anxiety’ zone
An explanation for the difficulty of flow is likely to focus on the skill-challenge balance condition. To find a task that is just about difficult enough to fully engage one’s ability yet not exceed that ability may require a precarious balance. It seems to me, however, that there are some activities that typically push us to the extent of our abilities. Individual artistic creation is one. If one is writing a story, one can form goals to produce work as complex as one’s ability. Some sports also seem to allow this. If one is running, one can aim to run at precisely the speed of which one is capable. If one is walking in the woods, one can admire all the little environmental details to the extent of one’s ability and interest in doing so. Social activities, such as having a conversation or having sex can also, given a willing-enough partner, enable free exploration to the extent of one’s ability or interest.
Another difficulty of the skill-challenge balance may be a tendency towards hedonic adaptation. Perhaps the moment we succeed in a task, we set our sights higher, threatening to plunge us into the ‘boredom’ zone if the task is not updated. Or, if the task becomes steadily more difficult, our ability may fail to keep up, shifting us into the ‘anxiety’ zone (see diagram below).
Flowchart from Csíkszentmihályi (1990, p.74)
However, I do not believe that we hedonically adapt so quickly. The various activities I just mentioned all involve some exploration over time. That is, they require fairly continuous attention to new details, and do not become boring simply because we are successful.
The skill-balance condition certainly presents significant constraints on the achievement of flow. However, I think these conditions can be met more easily than we should expect if flow is so wonderful and yet so rarely achieved. Instead, I believe the difficulty of flow is best explained by the condition of attention fulfilment. Attention is a mental faculty that we control if we control anything about our minds at all. However attention is reliant upon our goals, both those we presently adopt (such as the goal to finish this article), and those that emerge from sub-personal systems (such as the goal to satisfy hunger). In the background, we possess thousands of goals that could draw on our attentions at any moment, should they become relevant to our situation. Merely smelling food can alert our standing goal to be well-fed. A tiny pang in the bladder can alert our background goal to empty it every so often. The computer desktop icon can alert our goal to check our emails. Seeing a friend’s name can alert our goal to maintain that social relationship. Our flexible receptivity to these goals is an important feature of our minds, enabling us to navigate complex environments, but it is also a barrier to concentration and flow.
It is a first step then, to try and free ourselves from the stimulation of alternate goals. Step away from the computer or at least remove those distracting icons from view. Anticipate the ways your body can nag at you. This is common-sense. Yet even if one sits in a blank room, with a full stomach and an empty bladder, one’s mind is liable to wander, bringing thoughts to mind that alert one to various interests that one has. In fact, the task in which you seek flow is itself liable to bring to mind various associated goals.
I believe then, that the best tasks for inducing flow are those in which one can incorporate a wandering mind; where one can follow a train of thought and make productive use of it in achievement of one’s aims. Fairly open-ended creative activities are best for this, such as musical improvisation, free-flowing writing or painting. Conversation with a flexible partner is also great for this.
Our flexible receptivity to goals is an important feature of our minds, enabling us to navigate complex environments, but it is also a barrier to concentration and flow
These, it must be noted, are probably not your work tasks. Work tasks are rarely intrinsically rewarding and rarely encourage the open-ended pursuit of thoughts and sensations. Instead, the activities that afford flow are what you can go to for relief from your work tasks, and the stressed, distracted state of mind more generally. In this respect, flow can function like meditation, providing mental clarity and refreshment of a distinctly joyful kind.