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An intro to "Flow"

"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." - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Thank you for joining me for blog 17 in the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

My recent posts have been about learning, memory and ways I try and get myself into the best decision-making mindset. "Flow" is a very important concept with regards to that and my last on this particular sub-topic.

Understanding flow has significant impact as to how we make decisions, study and choose hobbies and will help us create an environment where we can make enjoyable progress, and stick to hobbies. Scientists have found strong links between achieving a flow state and overall measures of life satisfaction.

What is it flow?

We all experience flow, but might not use the same language. A flow state is a feeling of effortless progress, where you are enjoying the doing of the task at hand. I personally think it is spoken about in unhelpfully mystical terms but it is a very real experience. Common language like ‘in the zone’ refers to people experiencing a flow state.

I personally experience flow whilst doing crosswords, cooking or to show how nerdy I am, when putting together a piece of code or excel. My perception of time is completely warped, sometimes time slows down, other times it speeds up and I find that I stay the course with my task until it is done.

Getting to flow

Thank you to the following article for the visual (

Feeling that pleasurable reward is a point where a challenge is neither too little to make you bored or too much to make you anxious. It is just enough to keep you focused whilst being relatively relaxed. It's also something you are skilled at. Because it’s just the right amount of challenge it is very absorbing.

Getting to a flow state requires three main pillars

1) There must be a well-defined goal (e.g. complete a challenging crossword)

2) It must be optimally challenging (e.g. a crossword where you know you need to stretch a bit to get it done)

3) You must be able to get feedback (e.g. how many clues do I have left and are there any conflicting words)

A fourth pillar might have been making active choices (eg likely to happen whilst driving but unlikely to happen whilst watching TV).

The structured challenges that encourage a flow state lend themselves very well to active hobbies (e.g. football), to DIY (e.g. putting up some shelves) and some goals at work (yes WORK!). Interestingly, the combination of clear goals and skills does mean that people report a flow state at work surprisingly frequently.

Why is a flow state so pleasurable?

A flow state is pleasurable in the moment because the optimal challenge conditions mean that you cannot focus on distractions and it’s not so daunting that you get stressed.

Flow brain activity focuses predominantly on the parts of the brain that is directly involved in the task at hand and other areas that are involved in self-doubt or distraction are quiet. This means that your brain is working efficiently.

Many people report a sense of losing themselves and feeling completely focused and absorbed on the task, I feel this too. In this sense it is much like meditation, which also allows many parts of the brain to become ‘quiet’.

This focused brain activity is pleasurable and much more likely to encourage you to return to the activity.

How can we harness it?

When people tried to work out just how much of a challenge was needed to enter a flow state, it seemed to be about 4% above the previous level you were at.

The idea of being able to create an enjoyable level of challenge has so many applications, here are four that are top of mind for me:

- How can we get people to stick to a habit? - How can we make learning fun for children?

- How can we create for ourselves and co-workers an atmosphere where a flow state can be accessed?

- How can we create the right level of competition within groups of people trying to learn to get them to raise their game.

How this ties back to everyday life

1) Being able to enjoy moderate challenge really does reinforce the wisdom that it is very limiting to stay within your comfort zone - not only are you missing out on the growth but also the enjoyment of a moderate challenge.

2) Choosing stretch targets work well if accompanied by achievable intermediate targets that feel like the right level of challenge. Try and avoid the stereotypical January of not having worked out for 2 months and then trying to kill yourself in the gym.

3) Be playful - try to turn mundane tasks into things that you might get some pleasure from by setting yourself a goal (e.g. put the bins out whilst trying to take as few breaths as possible)

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) When you are in flow, you have a feeling of effortless focus and receive reward from the doing of the task as your reach an undistracted state

2) A flow state can best be reached working on a well-defined goal, of a mildly challenging active task where you have some skill and can get feedback on your progress

3) By framing things you need to do as goals with milestones and feedback, you can turn things into 'games' and create the right environment for progress

Thank you for joining. The next blog in a week's time will cover the question 'how does an outside view help decision-making'.


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