• Dr Mark Atkinson

The power of flow

Updated: Nov 6, 2018

Can you think of a time in your life when you were completely immersed in the moment? Have you been so engrossed in something that you completely lost track of time? If so, you were in, what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (chick-sent-me-hi) calls ‘flow’, an intense and effortless state of complete absorption with the present moment.

Flow occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose your sense of self - you are alert, productive and strong, but completely unaware of time, hunger or bodily discomfort. I experience ‘flow’ as if being carried by the moment, as though I am riding a wave. Most activities provide an opportunity for flow, for example reading a book, dancing, playing with your children, painting a picture or participating in sports. However it is not the activity itself that provides flow, but the balance of skills and challenge that we have in relation to the activity. For example if I was asked to knit a jumper and provided with instructions to do so, its highly likely that I would soon become anxious, frustrated or bored, quite simple because I don’t have the skills or desire to knit. However ask someone who has been knitting for years, and who enjoys knitting, to knit a jumper they will more than likely take up the challenge with relish and very probably enter a state of flow. In his book Flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the ingredients of flow:

1.       The experience occurs usually when we are involved in tasks that we have a good chance of completing.

2.       We are able to concentrate fully on the activity.

3.       The task has clear goals.

4.       The task is such that it gives us immediate feedback on how well we are doing.

5.       Our involvement is ‘deep but effortless’ and this ‘removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life’.

6.       There is a sense of exercising control over our actions.

7.       Concern for the self disappears’ but paradoxically our ‘sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over’.

The Benefits of Flow

Flow not only feels pleasurable and good, it also provides respite from worry, negativity, stress and chaos. After a ‘flow experience’ most people report a stronger and more buoyant sense of self, plus an increasing desire to repeat the experience. This of course is extremely useful when it comes to mastering new skills and challenges.

The Potential Pitfall of Flow

Because you lose touch of who you are when in flow, it puts you at risk for acting in ways that are disconnected from your values and your conscience. For example you can be in the flow whilst beating someone up or committing a crime. Flow experiences can also be addictive because of the natural high. If your flow experience is preventing you from fulfilling your obligations or restricting your engagement with life, take those as strong warning signs that you need to find some balance. For example I had a client who entered flow by playing a certain computer game for hours on end. The computer game provided gradually increasing levels of challenge, but her commitment meant she had the skills to effectively respond to the challenge, a potent recipe for ‘flow’ however it eventually developed into an addiction. The tell-tale sign was that she started to neglect her physical health by sleeping progressively less and forgetting to eat.

How to increase Flow

Train Your Attention

How distracted do you get? Can you hold your focus and concentration easily? When you start a task, how soon do you start thinking about an unrelated task? In any given moment you are being exposed to billions of different pieces of information. Obviously you can’t process all of them and be aware of them at the same time you would simply be overwhelmed with information. So to make our life more manageable, we filter the information coming through to us and one way in which we do that is through attention, through what we focus on. Your experience and therefore quality of life is directly related to what you focus on. To enter the state of flow, your attention needs to be exclusively on the task in hand. If you are painting a picture or writing a report, you need to be focusing exclusively on doing that. Not asking yourself ‘what time is lunch?’ If you are under-challenged relative to your skills, then your mind will wonder onto other things, if you are over-challenged relative to your skills then you will over-focus on your own failings and probably experience a fair amount of self-criticism.

To train your attention and concentration try the following exercises:

1.       Close your eyes and imagine a blackboard in front of you. Now count from 1 to 100, imagining each number appearing in white on the blackboard as you count forward. When your mind wanders, start again at one. After a couple of minutes doing this, record the maximum number that you reach. Next time you try the exercise; see if you can beat your previous score. 

2.       Get yourself a watch or clock, with a second hand that indicates how many seconds are going by. Sit down, hold it in front of you and keep your full attention on the second hand as it goes around. The moment your attention goes elsewhere, as it will, return back to the second hand. Most people when they start this can manage just a couple of seconds, but with a little practice, you should be able to hold your focus for at least 60 seconds!

3.       Follow my mindfulness practice suggestions

Identify your Moments in Flow

One of the most immediate ways to increase flow is to identify those flow experiences that already exist and then to do more of them, with the caveat they you will need to probably adapt them in order to keep yourself challenged. Write down a list of flow experiences below. I have provided a list given to me my one of my clients as an example.

1.       Playing with my five year old daughter

2.       Preparing dinner

3.       Talking to my best friend

4.       Playing cards

5.       Going for a walk in the woods

Engage in Fun Enjoyable Activities for at least 20 minutes a day

One of the keys to accessing flow is to enjoy a particular activity for its own sake, i.e. it’s not the result that matters, but your ability to enjoy the moment with the activity. Put another way, you are not trying to get any thing out of the experience, because the experience is intrinsically rewarding, you are doing it because it is fun. Think back over the last couple of weeks, months and years and write down a list of activities that you are have really enjoyed. This can include anything from playing with your children, tending to your garden to playing cards/chess, reading a novel or cooking a meal.

From this list and using any other ideas that you might have choose an activity that you are going to do each day.

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© 2020 by Dr. Mark Atkinson.