Have you ever had that feeling when you’re working on something where you are totally focused on the task and don’t notice time passing? This feeling of being completely absorbed and ‘in the zone’ is known in the field of psychology as flow. It has been described by one researcher as being the “optimal experience” under which to perfom (Csikszentmihályi, 1990).
According to Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2014), this state has the following features:
- Intense concentration
- Merging action and awareness
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness (loss of self-awareness)
- Feeling in control of your actions
- Feeling as though time is passing quicker than normal
- Feeling as though the task is rewarding
Whilst being enjoyable, research has shown that flow can also improve our performance in a range of situations, including sport, music and work (Young & Pain, 1999; Wrigley & Emmerson, 2013; & Bryce & Haworth, 2002). Flow is also commonly experienced whilst playing video games, and games are designed to make sure that players can stay in the flow state for as long as possible (Murphy, 2012) – which is what makes them so addictive!
However not every task can result in flow. If it is too hard, or so easy that we get bored and start to relax, we don’t experience flow. Researchers in Denmark have investigated the workplace activities which can result in increased feelings of flow, and found that taking part in planning, problem solving and evaluation predicted a transient flow state (Neilson & Cleal, 2010). These activities all fit into the above criteria – being hard enough to be interesting but not so hard that they cause feelings of frustration.
As flow has been shown to improve performance, are there any ways we can practice entering this state of mind?
Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi (2014) argue that entering flow is all about our attention, or more specifically our ability to keep our attention focused on the task at hand. If we want to enter the flow state then we need to make sure that the task is challenging, with clear goals and appropriate feedback on our performance to ensure prolonged motivation. If we meet the challenges of a task we increase our skill, which means we can attempt slightly harder activities with a chance of succeeding, meaning we stay in the flow state (see diagram above).
As well as helping us improve our task performance, there is evidence to suggest that flow can also have longer lasting positive effects (Demerouti et al, 2012). One study measured levels of flow during working hours and found that workers who experienced flow had more energy at the end of the day. When we’re busy or stressed at work, maybe it would be beneficial to structure tasks to help us enter a state of flow, both to improve our performance, and make sure we’re not too exhausted at the end of the day.
Bryce, J., & Haworth, J. (2002). Wellbeing and flow in sample of male and female office workers. Leisure Studies, 21, 249 –263
Csikszentmihályi, M. 1990 “FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” Harper & Row.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., 1997. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. HarperPerennial, New York, 39.
Demerouti, E., Bakker, A.B., Sonnentag, S. and Fullagar, C.J., 2012. Work‐related flow and energy at work and at home: A study on the role of daily recovery. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(2), pp.276-295.
Murphy, C., 2012. Why games work and the science of learning.
Nakamura, J. and Csikszentmihalyi, M., 2014. The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer Netherlands.
Nielsen, K. and Cleal, B., 2010. Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15(2), p.180.
Wrigley, W.J. and Emmerson, S.B., 2013. The experience of the flow state in live music performance. Psychology of Music, 41(3), pp.292-305.
Young, J.A. and Pain, M.D., 1999. The zone: Evidence of a universal phenomenon for athletes across sports. Athletic Insight: the online journal of sport psychology, 1(3), pp.21-30.
image reference https://www.optimoz.com.au/blogs/news/174434951-how-to-foster-the-flow-state