Flow conditions – Csikszentmihalyi’s summary

Professor Csikszentmihalyi defines 8 basic conditions of flow in his book Good Business (2003). Let’s see the essential characteristics of flow experience listed below in key thoughts from Csikszentmihalyi himself.

1. Clear goals

  • For a person to become deeply involved in any activity it is essential that he know precisely what tasks he must accomplish, moment by moment.
  • People often miss the opportunity to enjoy what they do because they focus all their attention on the outcome, rather than savoring the steps along the way.
  • To be overly concerned with the ultimate goal often interferes with performance.
  • Our primary concern here is not with what constitutes a successful performance, but with the quality of experience during performance.

2. Immediate feedback

  • It is difficult for people to stay absorbed in any activity unless they get timely, “online” information about how well they are doing. The sense of total involvement of the flow experience derives in large part from knowing that what one does matters, that it has consequences. Feedback may come from colleagues or supervisors who comment on performance, but preferably it is the activity itself that will provide this information.

3. Balanced opportunity and capacity

  • It is easier to become completely involved in a task if we believe it is doable. If it appears to be beyond our capacity we tend to respond to it by feeling anxious; if the task is too easy we get bored.
  • Flow occurs when both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other.
  • A good flow activity is one that offers challenges at several levels of complexity.
  • As skills improve, one is able to take on greater challenges. In fact, one must do so, to prevent tasks from becoming routine and boring. The very experience of flow thus becomes one incentive for growing to higher levels of complexity.
  • The individual who is truly engaged with the world – interested, curious, excited – is never at a loss for opportunities to experience flow.

4. Deep concentration

  • When we begin to respond to an opportunity that has clear goals and provides immediate feedback, we are likely to become involved in it.
  • When the involvement passes a certain threshold of intensity, we suddenly find ourselves deeply into the game, the pursuit, or the interaction. We no longer have to think about what to do, but act spontaneously, almost automatically, even when some aspect of the task at hand is very difficult or dangerous.
  • The distinction between self and activity disappears.
  • Concentration in flow can be so deep that the term “ecstasy” is sometimes used to describe it.
  • It is interesting to note that ecstasy is really the result of our limited ability to concentrate. Our mind cannot cope with too many stimuli simultaneously. If we really focus attention on a given task, we cannot notice anything outside that narrow stimulus field.

5. Being in the present

  • In flow the task at hand demands complete attention, it is for this reason that an enjoyable experience produces an ecstatic state, the sensation of being in a different world.
  • The world of flow is limited not only in space, but also in time: because attention must be focused on the present, events from the past or the future cannot find room in consciousness.
  • Because flow involves meeting challenges and developing skills, it leads to growth. It is an escape forward from current reality.

6. Control

  • When people describe their flow experiences, one of the first things they mention is a strong sense of being in control of the situation.
  • In the clearly circumscribed world of a flow activity, we know that as long as we respect its challenges and develop the appropriate skills to meet them, we stand a good chance of being able to cope with the situation.
  • The feeling is more benign, and has more to do with the ability to control one’s own performance than the environment itself.

7. Altered sense of time

  • One typical element of the flow experience is that time is experienced differently. Quite often, this means that time is perceived as flying by.
  • In some cases the opposite effect takes place, and time seems to expand rather than contract.
  • The speed at which time passes depends on “absorption”, that is, on how focused the mind is.
  • In flow, the sense of time adapts itself to the action at hand.
  • There are activities where knowing the time precisely, instead of interfering with flow, is a condition for experiencing it.
  • The ability to tell clock time intuitively is one of the skills that must be acquired in order to experience flow.
  • Rather than having to chase the clock and constantly worry what time it is, we come to learn that we ourselves control the subjective experience of the passage of time.

8. Egolessness

  • Many of the descriptions of flow quoted up to now have mentioned the fact that while immersed in the experience one tends to forget not only one’s problems and surroundings, but one’s very self. It is as if awareness of one’s personhood were temporarily suspended. This is another result of the intense focusing of attention that pushes anything not directly related to the task at hand out of consciousness.
  • The transcendence of individuality that flow makes possible provides a rare chance to take an active involvement in something larger than the self, without relinquishing any of one’s mental, physical, or volitional skills.
  • While one typically forgets the self during the flow experience, after the event a person’s self-esteem reappears in a stronger form than it had been before.