My progress through Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow* is coming along. It’s not really the kind of book I rush through. More the type I take in bite-sized pieces so I can ponder what he’s saying.
And so far, I’m hooked.
I just finished the third point out of seven of what creates that “optimal experience,” this sense of being so wrapped up in what you’re working on that you lose all sense of self, of time, of your past or future.
The first point is the idea that the challenge must require a degree of skill. There is a window that lies between frustration and boredom, determined by the degree of skill. If the challenge sits too far above your skill level, you get frustrated, if it’s too far below you’re bored.
Sounds about right, really. I’ve experienced both those states at various jobs, as I’m sure many of us have. It’s not fun. That’s how you wind up spending your day scrolling on your phone and either lose said job or run through all your monthly data.
The sweet spot is right in the middle, where there’s enough you don’t know to keep you learning, keep you questioning, but enough you do know that you’re capable of completing the task.
He points out that the process of completing the task isn’t always sunshine and roses, but that after you rise from the zone, there’s a rich sense of achievement and a desire to tackle it again.
The second point he discusses is the merging of action and awareness. The idea that become so immersed in what you’re doing, so mentally involved, that you almost…lose the sense that you’re the one doing it.
Each movement, each thought, each step, becomes natural, instinctual. There is no room for self-doubt or second guessing.
He notes that it’s only when you rise out of the zone that your sense of self returns with a stronger, fresher zeal. As though in order to learn what makes you you, you first half to forget yourself.
The third point is that you must have clear goals and feedback. The goal part I’ve always known, but the feedback took me by surprise for how obvious it was.
What I found interesting–or I should say, what resonated with me–is the fact that said feedback comes in very different ways depending on what you’re doing. If your goals are something tangible, than your feedback comes from someone’s reactions or the completion of a task. In the cast of writing, however, that feedback isn’t always obvious with every writing session.
I don’t have someone sitting behind me providing notes with each first draft chapter (frankly, the idea is both tempting and horrifying), but I do have my own emotional reactions to each day’s output as well as my word count goals. These forms of feedback are enough to keep me satisfied at the end of a day’s work.
The fourth point for this post, and final for today is the concentration for the task at hand. Similar to the second point, is the idea that nothing else is going through your head except for what you’re working on.
Stressed about money? About what to make for dinner? When you are in this zone, in the “flow,” money and dinner don’t exist. For as long as this perfect storm lasts, there is only the challenge in front of you.
I find this all fascinating. I love how the mind works. I love how it’s primed to allow us to find our own fulfillment and satisfaction and happiness just based on a few tweaks of mindset and circumstance.
I have certainly experienced these things through my writing, but he points out that you can achieve this flow state no matter what you’re doing. As long as there’s a balance of stimulation and interest, any task can provide this optimal experience.
What about you? Does any of this sound familiar to you? Any tasks you take on that trigger this loss/discovery of self?
*if you missed it, you can find my first post about this book here.