The Importance of ‘Flow’

I’ve been reading with great interest Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow. I’m taking my time to absorb it, and I’m highlighting numerous phrases on my iPad as I read it. I bought the book after reading Adam Grant’s blog post mentioning it (more here).

The book talks about how flow is critical for one’s mind and happiness. Think about when you’ve been in “the zone.” You lost track of time doing something active and complex.

A beautiful day of powder on the ski slopes. Crafting an essay. Composing a song. Learning yoga. An intense conversation with a good friend. Gardening. Fly fishing. Golf. Painting. Hiking. Tennis. Yes, even, homework can create flow.

Honestly, I think the key is that flow releases a huge amount of dopamine in our brains. We all crave that self-confident and “on top of the world” feeling. In fact, it’s the chemical response at the basis of addictions. So, it’s important to create healthy sources of dopamine.

Csikszentmihalyi, I also think, does a great job of mentioning that flow offers enjoyment, not pleasure. Enjoyment is when you are actively engaged in something complex. People may not feel happy during those activities, but report afterwards that they were.

Pleasure occurs when you pursue leisure and are passive. He says watching TV is such an activity. Interestingly, he cites studies showing that people’s moods are usually at their low points when they pursue leisure. How ironic.

Csikszentmihalyi writes about the nine criteria required for flow:

  1. Clear goals every step of the way—you know exactly what to do next
  2. Immediate feedback—when you’re in flow, you can tell how well you’re doing
  3. Balance between challenge and skill—the task is not so easy that you get bored, but you have enough mastery to be engaged and successful
  4. Action and awareness merge—you’re concentrating completely on what you’re doing
  5. Distractions fade away—you’re so absorbed in the activity that you’re not aware of other things
  6. There is no worry of failure—you’re too involved to worry about failing; you know what to do and just do it
  7. Self-consciousness disappears—you’re not thinking about yourself or protecting your ego because you’re too wrapped up in the task at hand
  8. Time flies—you may look up after being in a state of flow surprised at how much time has gone by
  9. The activity is meaningful for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end

As I think about the criteria for flow, I see it in some parts of my life:

  • Conversations with certain friends
  • Deep conversations with my children
  • Certain moments in my VC job
  • Biking in a rural setting
  • Exercising
  • Fly fishing and making flies
  • Skiing
  • Writing for my blogs
  • Reading
  • Cooking

I really like this book.  Simply amazing.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of ‘Flow’

  1. Saw an article recently that asked “How do you figure out what to do with your life? Look at the type of work that gives you a feeling of flow, and the goals that you find meaningful and important. The Venn diagram overlap is what you should do.”

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