Friday, July 20, 2007

The Art of Flow

I was reading an article in The New York Times Magazine (July 8th) titled Just Beneath The Surface (Akiko Busch), which was amazingly written and a real gem if you have the time. In the article, the writer mentions Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is the creator of flow theory and the founding father of the human relationship with flow. Defined by Mihaly, flow is the feeling of complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment. Anyone who has ever tried to experience being in “the zone” is searching for flow and flow relates to any aspect of life where we are searching for a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment.

According to Mihaly, components of an experience of flow can be specifically numbered, although not are all needed to experience flow. He lists them as follows;

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one's skill set and abilities).

  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

  4. Distorted sense of time - one's subjective experience of time is altered.

  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

When in the flow state, people become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975. p.72).

There really is nothing I need to explain since this is laid out so thoroughly. The one thing I think is necessary for us to understand however is what we have control over in flow. Obviously we have control over creating clear and concise goals, yet we continually act on ideas with no real plan on how to execute them (ego maniac). We also have control over what we choose to concentrate on in our limited field of attention, but struggle to keep our field of attention limited (multi tasker). Yes, we can control the direct and immediate feedback we receive, although we often look for that feedback from everyone but ourselves (needy). Our final state of control in flow comes from selecting an activity that is intrinsically rewarding, yet we continually expect to be rewarded for our efforts (me generation).

What we have no control over is the ability to lose the feeling of self-consciousness. This happens as a consequence of our ability to manage what we have control over first. Knowing this, why is the majority of our advice to others “just let it go”? When we have no awareness then we can never have it merge with action. We also have no control over distorting time, but everyone has had a coach or boss tell them that they need to see everything slower. In flow distorted time is subjective and individualized, not created by an external source.

So, as we all struggle to find flow in our everyday life, we need to know why flow exists and then create situations where flow is the greatest probability internally, as well as in those we surround ourselves with. Action advice with no direction attached to it is not leadership, it is wasted air. Personal action with no strategy is not doing busy work, it is wasted effort. Until we realize that we spend more time wasting than doing, we will continually search for how to experience flow instead of controlling our flow states individually.

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