Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

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Imagine that you are skiing down a mountain trail at Aspen Snowmass Colorado — one of the expert diamond slopes, with the beautiful, awe-inspiring Rockies in your view. Although you have skied down this slope a few times before, you have never been able to dominate it — until now. You begin to hit your stride, striking every mogul perfectly and effortlessly. Your actions seem frozen in time and every little sound becomes more intense — the crisp slap of your skis against the powder, the scrunch of your knees, and your rhythmic breathing. The two-stage process of 1. mind thinking what to do next and 2. instructing the other parts of the body is now seamlessly merged into one. You have had, quite literally, a peak experience.

Flow during skiing

In his book, Prof. Mihaly describes this experience as flow. If not skiing, you might have experienced something similar in other activities like playing sports, running, reading a good book, playing chess, listening to music (and singing along), solving a challenging algorithm or puzzle at work, coding, driving, cooking or even a good conversation with a friend.

Flow is a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation; it is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.

My key learning is from the common characteristics that are found in most flow activities and here are my favorite 3 (the book mentions 8 in total) -

  1. Clarity of Goals - For example, while playing a musical instrument, you know exactly what note to hit and if you’re climbing a mountain, you know what step to take next. This is why we’re more productive at work on days when you exactly know what to do.

  2. Immediate Feedback - There is clear feedback whether you’re progressing towards the goal (defined earlier) or not. For example, in the game of tennis, as soon as you hit a shot, you know the quality of the shot and where it is going to land in the opponent’s court.

  3. Challenging - The challenges of the activity must match (or marginally better than) the skill of the person. In other words what there is to do is in balance with what you can do. In a game of chess, the game is enjoyable if the other person is of similar ability so that you’re neither intimidated nor bored.

However, these conditions are contrary to what we have in our real life and Prof. Mihaly goes in detail about finding flow in our life and not just in specific activities. Some of the topics covered in this book include achieving flow at work, in your personal life, in solitude, with your family and friends, your daily chores and also how to be content with sub-optimal moments.

A good read if you can relate to it!

Kaushik Rangadurai

Code. Learn. Explore

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