The Flow Model

Balancing Challenge and Skills

The Flow Model

Flow is when tasks seem effortless, challenging, and rewarding - all at the same time.

© iStockphoto/sandsun

Have you ever been so involved in doing something that you lost track of time?

Everything around you – from the ringing of phones to the people passing in the hallways – seemed to fade away.

Your attention was focused entirely on what you were doing, and you were so engaged that you might even have missed lunch.

You felt energized, even joyful, about what you were doing.

Most of us have had this experience at one time or another. Psychologists call this "flow." When it happens, we lose our sense of self, and move forward on instinct, completely devoted to the task before us.

In this article, we'll examine flow in detail by looking into the Flow Model. We'll review how the model can help us understand why we find some tasks much easier than others. We'll also look at how you can use the ideas behind the Flow Model to experience flow more often, so that you can be more productive.

The Flow Model

The Flow Model (see Figure 1) was first introduced by positive psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi. He wrote about the process of flow in his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience."

Note:

Csíkszentmihályi published his book in 1990, but didn't publish this version of the model until 1997.

Flow Model Diagram

The model shows the emotional states that we're likely to experience when trying to complete a task, depending on the perceived difficulty of the challenge, and our perceptions of our skill levels.

For example, if the task isn't challenging and doesn't require a lot of skill, we're likely to feel apathy towards it. But facing a challenging task without the required skills could easily result in worry and anxiety.

To find a balance, and to perform at our best, we need a challenge that is significant and interesting, and we need well-developed skills, so that we're confident that we can meet the challenge. This moves us to a position where we can experience "flow" (being totally involved and engaged in the activity).

This state of flow is often observed in people who have mastered their business, art, sport, or hobby. They make whatever they're doing look easy, and they're totally engaged with it.

10 Components of Flow

How do you know when you're experiencing flow? Csíkszentmihályi identified 10 experiences that go with the state of being in flow:

  1. Having a clear understanding of what you want to achieve.
  2. Being able to concentrate for a sustained period of time.
  3. Losing the feeling of consciousness of one's self.
  4. Finding that time passes quickly.
  5. Getting direct and immediate feedback.
  6. Experiencing a balance between your ability levels, and the challenge.
  7. Having a sense of personal control over the situation.
  8. Feeling that the activity is intrinsically rewarding.
  9. Lacking awareness of bodily needs.
  10. Being completely absorbed in the activity itself.

Remember that all of these factors and experiences don't necessarily have to be in place for flow to happen. But you're likely to experience many of them when flow occurs.

Three Conditions

Csíkszentmihályi also identified three things that must be present if you want to enter a state of flow:

  1. Goals – Goals add motivation and structure to what you're doing. Whether you're learning a new piece of music or creating a presentation, you must be working towards a goal to experience flow.
  2. Balance – There must be a good balance between your perceived skill and the perceived challenge of the task. If one of these weighs more heavily than the other, flow probably won't occur.
  3. Feedback – You must have clear, immediate feedback, so that you can make changes and improve your performance. This can be feedback from other people, or the awareness that you're making progress with the task.

Using the Flow Model

To improve your chances of experiencing flow, try the following:

  • Set goalsGoal setting   is important in experiencing flow. Learning to set effective goals can help you achieve the focus you need.
  • Improve your concentration – Many things may distract you from your work, and achieving flow is more difficult when your focus is interrupted. Use strategies to improve your concentration   so that you're more productive and focused during the day.
  • Build self-confidence – If you don't have confidence in your skills, tasks may seem much harder than they actually are. Our article Building Self-Confidence   will show you how to develop yourself for success.
  • Get feedback – Remember, feedback is an important requirement for flow. Make sure that appropriate technical feedback systems are in place, and learn how to give and receive feedback   so that you can help yourself – and others – to improve.
  • Make your work more challenging – Consider strategies such as job crafting  , and explore ways of creating more job satisfaction  .

    Tip:

    Remember that simply increasing the amount of challenge doesn't guarantee flow. Csíkszentmihályi stressed that you experience flow only when you perceive the right opportunities. It happens because you're in the right mindset, not because you have "perfect conditions."

  • Improve Your Skills – Doing a personal SWOT Analysis  , can help you identify the skills that you need to work on to be successful. You can then develop a plan for improving your skills to help you complete more challenging tasks. Our Personal Development Plan Workbook guides you through this process in more detail.
  • Coach yourself – If you don't have a mentor or coach to help you through challenging tasks, learn how to coach yourself  .

Note:

No matter how much you love your job, it's almost impossible to experience flow in every task that you do! Our articles Overcoming Procrastination  , Motivating Yourself  , and Is This a "Morning Task"?   explore strategies to help you complete less desirable, yet essential, tasks.

The Inverted-U Model

There's a potential conflict of ideas between the Flow Model and the Inverted-U Model – a popular and widely respected model that helps explain the relationship between performance and pressure.

In the inverted-U graph, the vertical axis represents someone's level of performance, while the horizontal axis represents the pressure that he or she is under. According to the model, there's a "perfect medium" of pressure where people perform at their best.

The Flow Model doesn't explain the loss of performance that occurs when pressure is too high – for example, when we're scared, or when we're overwhelmed by work. At these times, your productivity can drop and negative emotions like anxiety will increase dramatically.

By using both of these models together, you're most likely to be able to enter and enjoy the state of flow.

Key Points

Flow is a state we reach when our perceived skills match the perceived challenge of the task that we're doing. When we're in a state of flow, we seem to forget time. The work we do may fill us with joy, and we lose our sense of self as we concentrate fully on the task. This is the state that we're in when we're doing our best work, and when we're at our most productive.

The Flow Model shows the relationship between task complexity and your perceived skill level. You can use the model to discover why you're not achieving flow. It can also help you discover whether you need to improve your skills, or increase the challenge or certain tasks, to help achieve flow.

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