Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi ( pronounced “CHICK-sent-me-high-ee”) is probably one of the most important books I have read for my profession, as well as for myself as Human Being. I read this for the first time more than 15 years ago and have now read it again to review some of the concepts investigated in this book. The concept of Flow has had a very important effect on both psychology and management, the Flow Model developed by the author as a consequence of his research is still widely adopted. We can really define this book as a classic, yet when re-reading, it also left some bitter taste.
The reason is simple: we have had for almost 20 years the entire knowledge on what really can get people in the flow, and yet we have not been able to exploit fully the potential of Flow for people.
What is Flow
In many ways, people always assumed that happiness and enjoyment where states linked to relaxation. What Csikszentmihalyi and his fellows’ researchers discovered is instead that: The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.
The sense of Enjoyment
This is all linked to the definition of Enjoyment, which spans a big portion of the book. Csikszentmihalyi states that the phenomenology of enjoyment has eight major components. and when people describe what they enjoyed they list at least 1 component
- First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
- Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
- Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.
- Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
- Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions. Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
- Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.
The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.
How do we enter the State of Flow?
The author explores the way Flow is formed and concludes this to be a balance between the right level of challenge, and the right level of experience. Flow is therefore reaffirmed as a dynamic state, not always easy to achieve. The two key components are represented by the author in a graph, where Flow is represented as a corridor between two other states: boredom and anxiety.
The first happens when the level of our skills is higher than the level of challenge posed by the goal we have. The second is instead experienced when the level of challenge is higher than the skills we have.
But Flow is dynamic: we might get into a challenge level that is higher than expected, we, therefore, enter a state of Anxiety, and this pushes us to learn new skills, thus moving back into the flow channel. Same happens if we have developed too many skills into a field so that it becomes “too easy” for us. In this case, by working on our goals, we can climb back into the flow channel moving away from Boredom.
With this, the author creates a strong link with concepts of Motivation that we have already seen for example in Pink’s work, as well as with principled of Curiosity and Learning Agility that I have also already written about.
Here a short video that summarizes the key concepts of the book.
The 8 Characteristics of Flow
Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Why aren’t we in permanent Flow?
This is the most interesting part of the book, i.e. the exploration of why Flow is not (and cannot be) a permanent state. First of all, as we’ve seen, is a dynamic experience. Inertia alone would move us towards boredom by simply not doing much. Seeking flow too often can actually create a state of dependence, similar to that of drugs.
More simply, we spend many energies during our Flow state, and it takes time to recharge. There are many psychological implications as well we need to consider, as Flow is also a delicate balance between our internal self and the external factors that can influence it.
Flow at Work
There are a few unexpected consequences of re-reading this book today. The first is its insistence on Experience. In a world so focused on Customer Experience and Employee Experience, the concept of flow can really help to understand what works and what doesn’t. After all, in 1996 Csikszentmihalyi himself was one of the first in seeing the web as a way to stage experiences rather than just navigating contents. And made also an immediate link with the key issue that technology was about to create: a severe issue with attention.
communication is instantaneous. I’m afraid after a while we may not pay much attention to it. The gates of attention allow very few things to come in.Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Go with the Flow, Wired, 1996
A second consequence is an impact on the new forms of work. I have already written about this, but the recent focus on self-management can be directly linked with a better link to motivation drivers and flow. The author himself had dedicated a chapter in the book on the concept of Flow at Work, and looked at few examples related to the fact that Work itself created a paradoxical imbalance between flow situation and “stress”.
A third consequence is directly linked with the concept of Purpose, both at an individual and organisational level. The recent trends we have discussed organisations trying to better define their purpose can be read as a way to intentionally design culture that stimulates experiences of Flow for their collaborators. Can we also design organisations that allow this?
Below the famous Ted Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on what Flow means.
Flow has been a disrupting book in many ways. Research has continued to deepen the understanding around the basics of Flow, yet too many people are simply unaware of the basics of the Theory of Flow. Which is why, for example, I’ve used this intensively in my training experience, at all levels in the organisation.
Flow for me becomes also something more than just an individuals’ research for enjoyment. Culture, Motivation, Purpose, all dynamic elements that need to be intentionally designed around the idea that we need to create the conditions for Flow to happen. This the challenge for us in the future, more and more.
I also feel happy for this to be the last Review I publish in 2019. It has been an intense year in terms of reading, and I truly believe this book to be foundational in understanding what people management should be about: enabling performance by creating the conditions for the flow to happen.
Did you read Flow? What have been your feelings?