The Conditions for and Definition of Flow

Flow is the result of many years of study conducted by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Chick sim ee hi.) Csikszentmihalyi and his associates have interviewed, now, more than 1,000,000 people from all over the world. They found that, whether it concerned teenagers in Tokyo, steelworkers in Gary, Indiana, farmers in Northern Italy or fishermen in Korea, people report that they most often achieve a form of happiness (a state of flow), when they pursue attainable but challenging goals Š at work. When people approach challenging physical and/or mental tasks matched with high personal skill they not only enjoy the experience, they stretch their capabilities and increase the likelihood that they will learn or achieve new and higher skill levels and increase their self esteem. Managing your own work for flow sounds pretty good, right? If the conditions and structure of your work support flow, then you and others will achieve it more often

Diagram of Flow:

Explanation of the Flow Diagram:

  • When the challenge is too high and the skill level too low, people get anxious and tend to freeze up or flee the challenge.
  • When the challenge is low and the skill level is high, people tend to get bored with what they are doing and perhaps sleepwalk through their work.
  • When the skill level is high enough and the challenge appears with in reach, people enjoy the activity.

When the challenge pulls the skill higher, most people tend to want to raise both, if for no other reason that they feel good about themselves and what they are now able to accomplish. Crawlers, become walkers, who become runners.

Flow is both a learning and a motivational experience, one that offers a reward as great or greater, some would say, than a pay check, public recognition or promotion.

Here are two short examples that should help to nail this idea of flow down for you:

Recall the time when you were learning how to ride a bike and just learning how to keep your balance. The thought or fear that the training wheels or a parentÕs guiding hands might be too quickly removed and result in a fall could , until your skill level and confidence improved, bring your learning to a screeching halt. And when you thought the training wheels, or the guiding hands were kept on too long, it became intolerable. Most people can remember a bike ride or race when everything was just right and you, the bike, the road, and time seemed to flow.

You may have been river rafting, been on a rowing crew or a four-man bobsled but you have probably seen others doing it. The same lessons, experiences and feelings that apply. Ask a crew of inexperienced rafters to go out on a high difficulty river and people will protest or even refue to go. Take five experienced rafters and suggest that they float down a stream suitable for children in inner tubes may well bring about the same result.

Flow in essense is the natural learning and discovery process. When you are boxed in or challenged too much in other learning and work activities, you can see now why you resist out of boredom or fear. Setting up your work or activity to better enable you and tohers to get into the flow zone can improve the experience and outcomes for everyone.

The essential components, or conditions for flow occur more often in the structured, task and goal oriented activities. The elements are:

  1. Clear goals (What am I going to achieve?)
  2. Immediate feedback (Am I getting there/How am I doing?)
  3. Challenges which don't overtax skill levels
  4. Opportunties where you have the ability and authority to apply (test), or exercise your knowledge, judgment, and skill level.

Take me back to the index page, Ned!
Copyright Ned Hamson, 2005