The Art of Flow
Achieving and maintaining flow is precarious
My most intense experience of flow was during my penultimate freedive to the bottom of a 30-metre tank.
There was only now. In fact there was no then, or no future, only what is. I approached the bottom of the tank, 30 metres down, without a sense of urgency, or a thought, I must return to the surface. There was only that single point in time, this was a journey outside of time.
I have been fascinated by the abilities of freedivers – those who dive to significant depths underwater without aid from breathing apparatus — for some time, and more so since learning to scuba dive.
At a dive show in Birmingham, I had listened to Patrick Musimu, who in 2005 reached a depth of 209 metres on a single breath. He used a weighted sled to set a new, ‘unofficial’, world record in the No Limitscategory of freediving. Full of emotion, yet amazingly calm, he stood at the podium describing the dive — we were transfixed by the incredible poetry of the journey he had made. Sadly he later died while training, highlighting the incredible dangers of the sport.
This sense of flow, this feeling of being our very best, and outside of the normal passage of time, can occur in sport, art, education, or work. For me, I get a sense of it, often fleeting, during a run. I’m always left feeling there is more, so close, not quite reached.
These times are free of effort when movement becomes as easy as rest. During these moments we are beyond tiredness. It feels so easy, the elements, the landscape, the brain, and body seem to work together – in harmony.
I relish these times. For me, they tend to occur most over long distances, when I feel I can keep running forever. This mental state, or emotion perhaps, is captured perfectly in the ‘Bone Games’, by Rob Schultheis.
In beautiful prose he describes an accident whilst climbing a mountain. When injured by a fall, he knows he must get off the mountain quickly before it becomes too late in the day. Despite his condition, he descends the mountain climbing well beyond his usual limits.
“I know my limitations, and I was climbing way, way beyond them. One small part of me trembled with fear and fatigue, cried out to be rescued, to be whisked away to any place other then this bleak precipice. The rest, confident, full of an insane joy, reveled in the animal dance of survival, admired the brilliant crystals in the granite, the drunken calligraphy of ice crystals… was totally possessed by the act of mountaineering, rejoiced in the immense vertigo of the place. It was like certain dreams I have had…”. “The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life…”.
He spends the rest of the book trying to replicate the conditions that led to this state of flow.
Once you have tasted something that good, it is hard to let go. We have all had fleeting moments, where we are outside time, performing at our very best, faultless performances with ease.
Though the passage is about his descent from a mountain, flow is not specific to mountaineering, or extreme sports, indeed we have all had such feelings, in many, varied, mundane situations. Even painting a wall, or fixing something, or making a model, can lead to full immersion. Time passes unnoticed on a task, and by the end, we have performed beyond good, and arrived at something that only our very best self can produce.
There are conditions that detract from a flow state and these include boredom where a challenge is too low, or anxiety, where a challenge is too high.
The balance to reach and maintain flow is precarious.
For those lucky few, achieving a flow state is easier than for others — these personalities are described as ‘autotelic’. Research has suggested that such individuals are drawn to challenges and high activity situations that both encourage growth and provide stimulation.
It has been suggested by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a central proponent of flow, that playgroundscould be built that help individuals achieve, and maintain a state of flow.
In education a process of (modest) over learning, might achieve an optimal, integrated, flow state in education.
The act of learning is likely to require ongoing monitoring, and realignment to ensure the balance between perceived skills, and task difficulty are maintained.
The potential benefits of being ‘in the zone’, are immense. Being able to produce your best work and learn quickly with a deep understanding can lead to deep personal enjoyment and maximize our time, energy and resources.
So how do we achieve flow?
Csikszentmihályi claims that flow can occur in any activity we are fully engaged in, and most likely where the challenge is at the very limits of our expertise.
For us to reach our optimal performance we must therefore:
- Be fully involved, working towards a clear, defined set of goals
- Receive clear, regular feedback — it allows us to continuously fine-tune our actions, altering course if necessary to maintain the flow state
- Maintain a balance between our perceived skill in the task, and the actual skills necessary to perform at the required level.
The above are not to be treated as separate needs, but rather togetherform a greater, integrated whole.
And finally, a few additional pointers, modified from Cal Newports’ “Deep Work” that may also assist the path to flow, especially in education, are as follows:
- Develop a ritual around important pieces of work. For example, a particular type of music to aid immersion, or a desk layout that becomes part of our custom around optimal performance.
- Find somewhere appropriate to study, or perform the task. For example, it might be we move to a particular part of the house, or coffee shop. Some may benefit from absolute silence, and others a general background noise, allowing the most focus.
- Removal of distractions. Smart phones, and associated social media will interrupt the flow. Be hard on yourself, move them away, and agree not to check them.
- Embrace passion for the task. Find something in what you are doing that you can love. It could be the challenge, or perhaps the monotony, that allows peaceful concentration and excellence.
We are most likely to reach flow when we are performing a task, for a defined goal, just beyond our current abilities, whilst receiving continuous feedback.
Some useful references
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work. London: Piatkus.
Stein, G. L., Kimiecik, J. C., Daniels, J., & Jackson, S. A. (1995). Psychological Antecedents of Flow in Recreational Sport. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,21(2), 125–135. doi:10.1177/0146167295212003