Achtung! There has been a significant change in your peripheral vision. Your curiosity judges this change monumental enough to break your focus, take command of your motor functions, and haul your line of sight a few degrees to the left. Your eyes settle upon the digital clock, which has just “struck” 12:00. It must have lost power — that can’t be right. Can it? As your mind returns to this world, you realize that you haven’t had dinner or even left your chair for over 6 hours. You then examine the extraordinary amount accomplished during this time and are overrun with feelings of pride and satisfaction.
This is flow. Sometimes described as the feeling of “being in the zone”, flow is a concept first proposed over thirty years ago by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the mental state of an individual performing an activity in which the following is experienced:
- An intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- A merging of action and awareness.
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
- A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
- A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
- An experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding.
I first recognized and identified having this extraordinary experience many years ago while programming — much in the way described at the beginning of this article. I certainly had experienced flow many times prior to this, though without realizing it. Some of the activities that have elevated me to flow include soccer, programming, cycling, mountaineering, and playing guitar. Many of the most incredible moments in my life, moments of total happiness and fulfillment, have been the result of complete, uninterrupted immersion in these pastimes.
Until that epiphanic night, flow was just a seemingly random feeling of exuberance that I would attribute to “having a good day”. For the first time, it crossed my mind that this was actually a higher state of being and that there might be a way to repeatedly reach this place. While we cannot force ourselves into flow, Csikszentmihalyi gives us some conditions that must be met to achieve it.
One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
With a description of the location and the guidelines to reach it, why not seek out specific activities with the deliberate goal of reaching flow? Instead of channel surfing through the Ganges River that is cable television, why not learn to paint? Rather than stalk pseudo-friends on Facebook, why not pick up crochet? If you are lucky enough to do something for a living that is conducive to flow, why not do everything in your power to eliminate the obstacles that are keeping you from reaching it?
Get your flow on.