Achieving flow

I’ve recently had a couple of thoughts about flow — that mental state when you lose all sense of time and whatever you’re doing (work, sport, art, whatever) seems to flow with almost magical ease. I’ve mentioned flow a couple of times more or less in passing, but today I want to have a deeper look, because learning (and perhaps especially that rewiring I was talking about in my last post) is most easily achieved if we can achieve "flow" (also known as being ‘in the zone’).

Let’s start with some background.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the man who identified and named this mental state, and he identified 9 components:

  1. The skills you need to perform the task must match the challenges of the task, AND the task must exceed a certain level of difficulty (above everyday level).
  2. Your concentration is such that your behavior becomes automatic and you have little conscious awareness of your self, only of what you’re doing.
  3. You have a very clear sense of your goals.
  4. The task provides unambiguous and immediate feedback concerning your progress toward those goals.
  5. Your focus is entirely on the task and you are completely unaware of any distracting events.
  6. You feel in control, but paradoxically, if you try to consciously hold onto that control, you’ll lose that sense of flow. In other words, you only feel in control as long as you don’t think about it.
  7. You lose all sense of self and become one with the task.
  8. You lose all sense of time.
  9. You experience what Csikszentmihalyi called the ‘autotelic experience’ (from Greek auto (self) and telos (goal)), which is inherently rewarding, providing the motivation to re-experience it.

Clearly many of these components are closely related. More usefully, we can distinguish between elements of the experience, and preconditions for the experience.

The key elements of the experience are your total absorption in the task (which leads to you losing all awareness of self, of time, and any distractions in the environment), and your enjoyment of it.

The key preconditions are:

  • the match between skills and task
  • the amount of challenge in the task
  • the clear and proximal nature of your goals (that is, at least some need to be achievable in that session)
  • the presence of useful feedback.

Additionally, later research suggests:

  • the task needs to be high in autonomy and meaningfulness.

Brain studies have found that this mental state is characterized by less activity in the prefrontal cortex (which provides top-down control — including that evidenced by that critical inner voice), and a small increase in alpha brainwaves (correlated with slower breathing and a lower pulse rate). This inevitably raises the question of whether meditation training can help you more readily achieve flow. Supporting this, a neurofeedback study improved performance in novice marksmen, who learned to shoot expertly in less than half the time after they had been trained to produce alpha waves. There are also indications that some forms of mild electrical stimulation to the brain (tDCS) can induce a flow state.

Some people may be more prone to falling into a flow state than others. Csikszentmihalyi referred to an ‘autotelic personality’, and suggested that such people have high levels of curiosity, persistence, and interest in performing activities for their own sake rather than to achieve some external goal. Readers of my books may be reminded of cognitive styles — those who are intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically usually are more successful in study.

Recent research has supported the idea of the autotelic personality, and roots it particularly in the achievement motive. Those who have a strong need for achievement, and a self-determined approach, are more likely to experience flow. Such people also have a strong internal locus of control — that is, they believe that achievement rests in their own hands, in their own work and effort. I have, of course, spoken before of the importance of this factor.

There is some indication that autotelic students push themselves harder. A study of Japanese students found that autotelic students tended to put themselves in situations where the perceived challenges were higher than their perceived skills, while the reverse was true for other students.

Interestingly, a 1994 study found that college students perceived work where skills exceeded challenges to be more enjoyable than flow activities where skills matched challenges — which suggests, perhaps, that we are all inclined to underestimate our own skills, and do better when pushed a little.

In regard to occupation, research suggests that five job characteristics are positively related to flow at work. These characteristics (which come from the Job Characteristics Model) are:

  • Skill variety

  • Task identity (the extent to which you complete a whole and identifiable piece of work)

  • Task significance

  • Autonomy

  • Feedback

These clearly echo the flow components.

All of this suggests that to consistently achieve a flow state, you need the right activities and the right attitude.

So, that’s the background. Now for my new thoughts. It occurred to me that flow might have something to do with working memory. I’ve suggested before that flow might have something to do with getting the processing speed just right. My new thought extends this idea.

Remember that working memory is extremely limited, and that it seems to reflect a three-tiered system, whereby you have one item in your immediate focus, with perhaps three more items hovering very closely within an inner store, able to very quickly move into immediate focus, and a further three or so items in the ‘backburner’ — and all these items have to keep moving around and around these tiers if you want to keep them all ‘alive’. Because they can’t stay very long at all in this system without being refreshed (through the focus).

Beyond this system is the huge database of your long-term memory, and that’s where all these items come from. Thus, whenever you’re working on something, you’re effectively circulating items through this whole four-tier system: long-term memory to focus to inner store to backburner and then returning to LTM or to focus. And returning to LTM is the default — if it’s to return to focus, it has to happen within a very brief period of time.

And so here’s my thesis (I don’t know if it’s original; I just had the idea this morning): flow is our mental experience of a prolonged period of balancing this circulation perfectly. Items belonging to one cohesive structure are flowing through the system at the right speed and in the right order, with no need to stop and search, and no room for any items that aren’t part of this cohesive structure (i.e., there are no slots free in which to experience any emotions or distracting thoughts).

What this requires is for the necessary information to all be sufficiently strongly connected, so that activation/retrieval occurs without delay. And what that requires is for the foundations to be laid. That is, you need to have the required action sequences or information clusters well-learned.

Here we have a mechanism for talent — initial interest and some skill produces a sense of flow; this motivating state is pursued by the individual by persevering at the same activity/subject; if they are not pushed too hard (which will not elicit flow), or held back (ditto), they will once again achieve the desired state, increasing the motivation to pursue this course. And so on.

All of which begs the question: are autotelic personalities created or made? Because the development of people who find it easier to achieve flow may well have more to do with their good luck in childhood (experiencing the right support) than their genetic makeup.

Is flow worth pursuing? Flow helps us persist at a task, because it is an intrinsically rewarding mental state. Achieving flow, then, is likely to result in greater improvement if only because we are likely to spend more time on the activity. The interesting question is whether it also, in and of itself, means we gain more from the time we spend. At the moment, we can only speculate.

But research into the value of mental stimulation in slowing cognitive decline in older people indicates that engagement, and its correlate enjoyment, are important if benefits are to accrue. I think the experience of flow is not only intrinsically rewarding, but also intrinsically beneficial in achieving the sort of physical brain changes we need to fight age-related cognitive decline.

So I’ll leave you with the findings from a recent study of flow in older adults, that has some helpful advice for anyone wanting to achieve flow, as well as demonstrating that you're never too old to achieve this state (even if it does seem harder to achieve as you age, because of the growing difficulty in inhibiting distraction).

The study, involving 197 seniors aged 60-94, found that those with higher fluid cognitive abilities (processing speed, working memory, visual spatial processing, divergent thinking, inductive reasoning, and everyday problem-solving) experienced higher levels of flow in cognitive activities, while those with lower fluid abilities experienced lower levels of flow. However, those with lower fluid abilities experienced higher levels of flow in non-cognitive activities, while those with higher fluid abilities experienced lower levels of flow.

High cognitive demand activities included: working, art and music, taking classes and teaching, reading, puzzles and games, searching for information. Low cognitive demand activities included: social events, exercise, TV, cooking, going on vacation. Note that the frequency of these activities did not differ between those of higher fluid ability and those of lower.

These findings reinforce the importance of matching skills and activities in order to achieve flow, and also remind us that flow can be achieved in any activity.

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