The truth about finding your “flow” – challenge is the key

I’ve been reading about flow. Whilst I didn’t know the formal definition of it I’m aware that I’ve experienced it in the form of what I’d call being “happily absorbed” – when I loose track of time when engrossed in a juicy conversation with a friend or deep in a train of thought when creating a proposal. My coaching clients describe this state in different ways – describing how it feels when they get stuck into solving a tricky problem at work or are competing in a big sporting event or practicing with their local band.

The received wisdom is that flow is that state that happens in specific circumstances – it happens when we encounter a challenge that is testing for our skills, and yet our skills and capacities are such that it is just about possible to meet this challenge – it is the place where both the challenge and the skills are at high levels, stretching us almost to the limit.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the originator of the concept) other key elements of flow state include clarity of goals and immediate feedback on progress in relation to them (for example, in a competition you know what you’ve got to achieve and you know exactly how well you are doing) and complete concentration on what one is doing in that present moment, with no room in one’s mind for any other information. When in a flow state a common experience is a loss of awareness of oneself (i.e. lack of self consciousness) as well as a sense of control over what one is doing with no concerns about failure. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when in a flow state ones actions and awareness are merged – so that for example a piano player feels as if she merges with her instrument and becomes the music that she plays; the activity also becomes almost automatic, and the involvement seems almost effortless (though far from being so in reality). And finally – and something we can probably all relate to – is that time usually passes much faster than expected (or for some the reverse can also be true).

So why seek out the conditions for a flow state? Well extensive research shows that flow states lead to significantly increased levels of happiness, enjoyment and life satisfaction – and who wouldn’t want a little slice of that?

What is interesting to me is the importance of being challenged to experiencing enjoyable flow states. Whilst I’ve always had an instinct around the need for challenge in both my professional and personal life – it was when I read what an integral component of being happy it is that it really resonated with me. (As an aside it’s interesting to me too that challenge is an integral part of personal resilience – it’s one of the three psychological attitudes that resilient people demonstrate – where “High challenge” – is the ability to view change and challenge as an opportunity to learn new things, to grow and improve; the other psychological attitudes others are “high commitment” – a clear sense of purposefulness, goals and values and “High control” – a belief in the ability to influence outcomes through adaptability and flexibility). And yet what I notice is that we often shy away from challenge and change, change and challenge – often retreating into the safety of what is familiar or “easy” – which sadly means we may be cheating ourselves of the opportunity for enjoyable or rewarding flow states (or indeed honing the ability to bounce back from set backs quickly).

What I’m discovering is that contrary to what I’d previously thought – the best more moments in our lives aren’t the passive, relaxing times (although these can be very enjoyable) – the best moments are when we are stretched to our limits to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.

Of course while flow may be a state of ultimate enjoyment, seeking out and cultivating these situations and experiences requires effort and work, at least to begin with. Conversely, the pleasures do not require effort – they are passive – and that’s why it’s far too easy to switch the TV on…

So what to do with these new insights? Despite my years of study having long since passed, for me September still marks the beginning of year and so it feels like the perfect time of year to regroup and think about the challenges that may have previously been avoided and the opportunity of challenges that are currently emerging…

I invite you to join me in thinking about

  • What would stretch an existing activity, task or goal into something challenging that could offer the riches of a flow experience?
  • What new thing could you finally dive into that you have you been putting off because it feels like “it’s just a bit too much effort”?

Why bother – what’s the prize? Well according to Csikszentmihalyi we emerge from flow experiences having experienced personal growth with great “feelings of competence and efficacy” combined with a feelings of deep seated happiness and wellbeing.

So maybe it’s time to put the remote control to one side and seek out that flow…

When do you experience flow? I’d love to hear about it – tweet me @SarahBoldlyGo