Does it flow?


Go with it...

Have you ever been… in the zone … in the pipe … in the groove … with your head in the game … on the ball … lost in concentration … in hackmode?

Hearing about the ‘experiencing self’ from the post on Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk, made me think of the concept of Flow developed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (apparently pronounced Me-high-ee Cheek-sent-me-high-ee). When watching artists and composers as part of his research he would often see them so intent on their work that they were oblivious to the outside world. I can remember that feeling from times in the past when I did a lot of painting. Sometimes I would start soon after I woke up and when I finished it would be dark outside and I’d be stiff, starving and desperate for a pee. I hadn’t noticed anything apart from what I was creating.More recently, I tend to experience flow moments when I’m training or working with clients.

I wonder if Flow moments could be included in the Peak Experiences that Abraham Maslow talked about in his hierarchy of needs (the term was later changed to Transendence Needs).

Csíkszentmihályi talks about Flow happening at times when you are working on something highly challenging but for which you have developed a high level of skill through constant practice. Different levels of skill and challenge produce different experiences. Mihály (I can’t face typing his surname again!) suggests that we might be able to access flow experiences by concentrating on the adjacent zones. Arousal occurs when we are engaged in something that stretches our abilities and we feel a little out of our depth. Practising the necessary skills might lead to Flow. Control occurs when we are using high level skills on something that is only mildly challenging. Flow might come from consciously increasing the level of challenge.


Chart showing skill level versus challenge level producing various regions: flow, control, relaxation boredom, apathy, worry, anxiety and arousal

Which region do you spend most of your time in?

I think this is could be a really useful tool to use with clients, getting them to think not just about the skills they think they have but also to think about the types of challenging situations they enjoy using those skills in. I can imagine clients thinking about their past experiences and placing them on the chart. We could then talk about whether it would be possible and/or preferable to move that activity into a different region.

Since coming across the idea of Flow, I have started asking questions such as:

  • Can you think of situations in which you have completely lost track of time because you were really engaged in what you were doing?
  • What sort of activities prevent you noticing time passing?

Some questions for you…

  • When have you experienced Flow?
  • Do you think that this is a useful concept in helping people to think about their career choices?
  • How else could you use this idea with clients?

Further stuff

For those of you who liked the TED talk in the recent post, here’s another one from Mihály himself.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2008) Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial.

Also see these interesting blog post:

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  1. #1 by Renita Kalhorn on 16 March 2010 - 18:21

    I totally agree that it makes sense to make career choices that involve activities that are personally conducive to flow (if you love spending time alone researching/writing, don’t choose a career where you have to interact with people all day!).

    However, I also believe that we can get in the flow on a regular basis, no matter what we are doing and regardless of our level of passion — cutting carrots, for example. It’s just a matter of creating focus and calibrating the challenge with our ability.

    • #2 by David Winter on 17 March 2010 - 11:06

      Hi Renita

      From my understanding of what Csíkszentmihályi says about Flow, it happens when we are undertaking highly challenging tasks in which we are highly skilled. I’m not sure how chopping carrots in itself meets the requirement of being highly challenging (although the speed and precision with which some chefs chop vegetables might contradict what I’ve just said).

      Maybe chopping carrots as part of the complex and challenging process of preparing a meal can induce Flow.

      Otherwise, perhaps we are instead talking about Mindfulness. This is to do with being entirely present in the current moment and to have a heightened awareness of your sensations, thoughts and emotions in the now. Unlike Flow, Mindfulness does not have to be linked to a specific challenging task or the use of highly developed skills. Maybe Flow is a specialised form of Mindfulness.

      Anyway, those are just my perceptions from my limited reading, but I would welcome further insights.

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