Flow. How To Work and Play As If Nothing Else Matters

Last sunday night Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to a historic win over the Atlanta Falcons. According to The Washington Post, this was what happened.

“Sunday, Brady played the greatest game of football the sport has seen. Not the most perfect, nor the most artistic, nor even the most excellent. Just the greatest (…) He led the Patriots back from a 28–3 deficit to complete the Super Bowl’s finest rally and triumphed, 34–28, in the Super Bowl’s first overtime. In the most crucial moments of the game, over and over, Brady diagnosed what he needed to do and had the nerve and skill to do it. He is an impregnable competitor. He took a beating Sunday night and faced certain doom and, at that moment, at age 39, played quarterback at a level rarely attained before.”

I was one of the 112 million people watching the game, and somehow I sensed that I was witnessing something extraordinary. It was not only Tom Brady that had reached an incredible level of mastery, but he had succeeded in transmitting that energy to his teammates. They played that night like no other American football team had played before, ever. That night they were undefeatable. The whole team was in “The Zone”. They were experiencing a state of consciousness defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

In the first part of this article we analyzed the experience of Passion, the first component of Engagement. Here we analyze the second component, Flow. Csikszentmihalyi describes the result of the investigations he has been carrying on since the middle seventies.

“For the duration of my studies I have tried to understand, through their stories, how most people feel when enjoying themselves and why (artists, athletes, musicians, chess masters and surgeons) “. These studies have revealed that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow “a state in which people are so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience in itself is so pleasant that people will do it for its own sake. In flow we are in control of our psychic energy, and everything we do ads order to our consciousness”.

In his studies Csikszentmihalyi identifies two types of experiences:

  • Psychological Entropy.

He states that “negative emotions, like sadness, fear, anxiety, or boredom provide “psychic entropy” in the mind, that is, a state in which we cannot use attention (psychic energy) effectively to deal with external tasks, because we need it to restore an inner subjective order”. In other words, our “attention” is our “psychic energy” and we can use it to minimize or maximize our potential as human beings, and we do that through our emotions. Therefore, psychological entropy minimizes the individual's potential.

  • Optimal Experience (Flow).

On the contrary, “positive emotions like happiness, strength, or alertness are states of “psychic negentropy” because we don´t misuse attention to ruminate and feel sorry for ourselves, and “psychic energy” can flow freely into whatever thought or task we chose to invest it in”. This means that our “psychic energy” becomes totally focalized in the task in which we are engaged. This is the equivalent of having a laser beam focus. Just like Brady had that night.

The answers to the following questions have been taken from Csikszentmihalyi’s book.

When is Flow more likely to take place?

  • The optimal experience happens when the body or the mind of a person have reached their limit in a voluntary effort to achieve something difficult and worthwhile.
  • An optimal experience happens when there is order in consciousness. This means that attention (psychic energy) ​​is used to obtain realistic goals, and when the person´s skills match the opportunities to act.
  • It happens when we see optimal experiences as opportunities — challenges to expand ourselves.

How do I focus my attention in order to concentrate my “psychic energy”?

  • The form and content of our life depends on how we use our attention. Personality traits such as “outgoing”, “winner” or “paranoid” are schemes that people use to structure their attention. For example, if three friends go to a party: The extrovert will enjoy interacting with others. The winner will find contacts that will be useful for her business. The paranoid will be on guard looking for signs of danger to avoid.
  • Attention can be used in countless ways, and depending on how you use it, these ways may bring joy and productivity to your life or failure and suffering.

What are the obstacles to experience flow? The barriers to flow can be of an individual or social order:

  • Individual: Having excessive fear of ridicule or being too self-centered, prevent flow.
  • Social: Having excessive stimuli or activities (anxiety) or having no demand of activities (boredom).

How does flow affect personal growth? After a flow experience, the person´s personality acquires complexity, differentiation and integration.

  • Complexity: The person´s perception of life becomes less rigid and is able to perceive more possibilities.
  • Differentiation: Implies a move towards originality, to separate from the common.
  • Integration: Refers to the opposite, the union with other people's ideas, regardless of their personalities.

“After each flow episode the person is becoming a more unique individual, less predictable, and holder of skills out of the ordinary”.

What does a person feel when she is in flow? According to Csikszentmihalyi, when in flow, a person feels:

1) Union: It is the feeling of being fully wrapped in what the person is doing.

2) Concentration: It is when one has a laser beam like focus.

3) Control: The person shows total lack of concern for everything outside of the activity. Nothing else matters.

4) Loss of self-awareness: It is the ability to get out of the everyday reality.

5) Distortion of temporal sense: The person lives totally in the present totally. Neither the future, nor the past matter anymore, so that the hours can pass by minutes.

6) The value of the experience itself: It is when the person feels that an activity is comforting in itself.

7) Value of skills and personal strengths: The person has skills that are appropriate for the task, and feels part of something bigger than herself.

8) Goals and feedback: The high motivation that the person feels, causes that everything that might produce the flowing feeling is a reward in itself.

When do people experience more flow, at work or at leisure?

Csikszentmihalyi’s experiment measured the level of flow of hundreds of men and women who were working in a wide variety of occupations. He found out that people who felt more frequently in flow were more likely to feel: Strong, Active, Creative, Motivated, and Concentrated. That happens when the work environment promotes active thinking and troubleshooting.

There are three reasons why the people surveyed say that they are discontent with the work they do:

  • The lack of variety and challenge (routine)
  • Conflicts with coworkers.
  • Burning: too much pressure, tension, little time to think about oneself and to be with the family.

Summing up the flow experience

  • We are equally likely to experience flow at work or when performing a leisure activity as long as we have passion for what we do. But we have to make an effort to refrain from experiencing negative emotions in order to minimize “psychic entropy”. Instead, we should look for occasions to experience positive emotions in order to set our “psychic energy” free.
  • Most people experience flow when they are confronted with a difficult and valuable enough task that challenges them to give their best, and when they put their attention (psychic energy) on reaching realistic, yet challenging goals. Moreover, they should make sure that their skills match the challenges that they are confronting, and that they look at them not as problems, but as opportunities to expand themselves. However, they must avoid multitasking and they have to confront their fears head on.

“You’re right in the work, you lose your sense of time, you’re completely enraptured, you’re completely caught up in what you’re doing…. there’s no future or past, it’s just an extended present in which you’re making meaning”…”

Poet Mark Strand, 1991

Everyone has the potential of having a Brady’s like performance in their own fields. So, have a happy and meaningful flowing experience.

Helio Borges

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial. (first published 1990)

Maria Elena Garassini. Universidad Metropolitana. Caracas. Diplomado de Psicología Positiva.



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Helio Borges

Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges