“Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” – Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
What Is Flow?
Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that time seemed to stretch, everything became effortless, and you emerged surprised by your own ability? Whether it was catching a falling plate or excelling beyond your wildest dreams, these moments where we glimpse upon our greatest self are scientifically referred to as ‘flow’.
Psychologists and researchers, helped by the recent movement of positive psychology, have studied flow more in the last two decades than ever before.
In business, corporations such as Patagonia, Toyota and Microsoft are testament to flow’s significance, by making flow integral to their culture and strategies. So, what do the findings from other curious minds that have walked this path before tell us?
“Flow sits at the heart of the majority, if not all, of the greatest athletic performances — and those achieved without flow would have been made even more memorable via the experience” – Sue Jackson
When talking about peak performance, it is only respectful to start with Abraham Maslow, one of the ‘grandfathers of peak performance’ academia. He describes the common states during peak performances as, “the individual experiences an expansion of self, a sense of unity, and a meaningfulness in life. The experience lingers in one’s consciousness and gives a sense of purpose, integration, self determination and empathy”.
Csikszentmihalyi, to many the ‘godfather of flow’, was responsible for coining the term through his studies of happiness and peak performance. Flow first came to Csikszentmihalyi’s attention while he was studying artists for his postgraduate thesis. As the artists worked they seemed to go into a trance-like state. To his surprise he found that the end product or outcome was less important to them than the process of doing the work itself, suggesting that external rewards were less important than intrinsic rewards or feelings.
Csikszentmihalyi’s described flow as “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like jazz music. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the upmost…The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Susan Jackson, to many the ‘aunty of flow’, describes flow as “a state of consciousness where one becomes totally absorbed in what one is doing, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and emotions…. a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred…flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing”.
We can find flow in small everyday experiences or intense unforgettable experiences:
A common question we receive is ‘how does flow coaching differ from other forms of coaching?’ To answer this question and show how flow coaching is actually very inclusive of many other approaches we have created the below diagram.
The diagram is intended to give a brief overview of where flow sits in relation to other common approaches. Please note that the landscape is continuously moving, and there are many areas that have been left out.
More About Flow
Flow can be experienced in any human endeavour, from the tasks of daily living to demonstrations of outstanding levels of performance in sport and the performing arts. Having interviewed many athletes at the very top of their sport, I have found a consistent theme of performers valuing their experience of flow, appreciating the opportunity to speak about their experiences (rather than their results), and being motivated to have more flow in their performances.
The following quote by an elite athlete illustrates how motivating an experience flow can be:
“Flow is what gives you the buzz to keep doing what you are doing, keep doing the sport. Because once you’ve got it, it just lifts you. Once you lose it, it can be a real slog until you get it back again. And once you’ve got it back again, and you’re just grooving along, everything’s going well, that’s great. That’s just what you want it to be.”
Flow occurs when everything comes together in one’s experience, creating a psychological state of total absorption in the task at hand. Once flow is understood, the pathway to enhanced performance becomes clear, as the flow model provides a practical pathway to an optimal psychological state.
Knowing the conditions that set the stage for its occurrence puts flow into the realms of an attainable psychological state, rather than a mystical experience that occurs if luck is on one’s side.
Flow is an optimal state because it involves being totally focused in the present moment. When in flow, nothing disturbs or detracts from this concentrated state. Neither external nor internal distractions take up mental space. This present-moment focus is congruent with the aims of increasing mindfulness, and thus by helping individuals to be more mindful, psychologists may also be helping create the conditions for flow.
Why does flow matter? Because quality of experience in what we do matters, and it is often when we are placed in a challenging situation that we have the opportunity to experience total involvement in what we are doing.
With thanks the above text is taken from Susan Jackson’s writings at https://www.psychology.org.au.