Flow audiobook cover art

Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I accidentally read a self-help book and I liked it. We’ve all heard of the ‘flow state’ by now, right? It’s the state of mind where you’re fully immersed in the task at hand and everything else drifts away.

After watching Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, I decided to read his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It wasn’t offered as an audiobook, but something called Flow (Audiobook) by the same author was. So, I found myself listening to a 90’s self-help book originally made for cassette tapes.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research on happiness included over 8,000 interviews that led him to an understanding of what he calls flow. He found eight common factors that describe flow:

  1. A clear goal: Knowing what you want to do in any given moment.
  2. Feedback: You need to be able to tell if you are getting closer to your goal or not.
  3. Challenges match skills: Not too easy, not too difficult. Pursue attainable but challenging goals.
  4. Concentration: Split attention merges into a single beam of concentrated energy.
  5. Focus: Disappear into your work or activity.
  6. Control: Feel that you can be in control of your actions and experience.
  7. Loss of self-consciousness: You are so involved, committed and concentrated that you forget yourself.*
  8. Transformation of time: Time seems to adapt itself to your individual experience.

Logically, if you believe flow is the best way to experience happiness and fulfillment, you’ll want to maximize the amount of time you spend in that state. To do that, you could engineer areas of your life to fit the factors above. That’s Csikszentmihalyi’s premise, and he provides tactical and actionable advice on how to make it happen in the settings of work, leisure, and maintenance (all the non-work and non-leisure stuff that you just have to do).

Csikszentmihalyi doesn’t spend much time explaining the scientific process of discovery that led him to these eight factors of flow. In fact, he simply states that he’s been studying it all his life in various ways and has reached these conclusions. While I’d wager the conclusions are “more likely true than not,” I wish he had explained the evidence for each more thoroughly.

I won’t attempt to summarize all of the advice the author has for reaching the flow state as often as possible. My takeaway, in short, is to try and engineer scenarios where you can influence the first four factors, and hope that the last four line up as a consequence.

To maximize my time in flow, I can work to set goals and subgoals for my activities. Those include morning routines, commutes, meetings, leisure time, and even meal time with family. I can engineer those goals to provide feedback to me and to make them appropriately challenging.

I can also work to control my environment, making it one that helps me heighten my concentration on the task at hand and reduces opportunities for distraction. Csikszentmihalyi recommends a consistent process that helps ramp into a flow state. He describes this as “ready-made routines as part of a repertoire to get you into the flow state automatically.”

I’m excited to put this learning into practice!

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*I’m continually amazed at how often the ‘answer’ involves minimizing or suppressing the ego. This is true for flow, for meditation and mindfulness, as well as for psychedelics.

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