Flow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought
If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.
However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!
If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.
Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.
Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?