Writing essays #2: concluding well
Shove It To Them: the 8th UK Speechwriters Guild Conference, Oxford 2014

Finding the flow state

First, there was blame.  Then came resistance.  When we exercise choice, we take responsibility.

These are three levels of problem ownership.

There is a fourth.

A number of clients have been asking me recently about 'flow'.  What is it, and how do we get into it?

Think about an occasion when you were completely absorbed in doing something.  Maybe you lost all awareness of what was happening around you.  Maybe you lost track of time.  Interestingly, you probably also lost any sense of yourself. 

(It's happening to me now.  I can, as HAL said in 2001, feel it.)

That's flow.

The condition has been investigated in great depth by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

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Csíkszentmihályi (pronounce his surname “chicks send me high-ee’) began to study the phenomenon in the 1960s.  He observed artists at work, fascinated by the concentration with which they worked.  He was prompted to ask: what is happiness?  What do we feel when we’re happy? Why do some activities make us happy when others don’t? How could we increase our stock of happiness? 

 

He spent the next thirty years investigating these questions.  He studied elderly Korean women, Navajo shepherds, Japanese teenage motorcycle gang members, assembly line workers in Chicago. 

What motivated these people was the quality of the experience they had while doing what they did: an experience characterized by joy, concentration, a sense of mastery and a lack of self-consciousness.  It was an experience that ‘took them out of themselves’: they felt that they had grown as a result of it. 

Flow, says Csikszentmihalyi, is “the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered.”

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He noticed that the flow experience had a number of consistent features. 

  • Loss of self-consciousness.  People took no account of how others saw them.   Their attention was solely on what they were doing.
  • Action merges with awareness.  People took no account of the past or the future.  The possibility of failure didn’t occur to them.  They were living and working entirely in the present.
  • A distorted sense of time.  As the saying goes, ‘time flies when you’re having fun.’
  • Intrinsic reward.  There was no thought for any compensation, payment or recognition for the work. 

This ‘optimal experience’, as he called it, didn’t happen when people were relaxing; and it certainly didn’t happen when they were consuming food, alcohol or drugs.  Instead, it seemed to require an activity that stretched their capacities; something difficult, risky or even painful.  The task usually involved discovery, novelty or creativity. 

And it was something people chose to do.

So: to replicate the flow state, start by choosing what to do.

And if you're doing something you don't want to do, find a way to choose to do it.  The simplest shortcut to this miracle is to cast the problem as a 'How to': a phrase beginning, unsurprisingly, with the words 'how to'. 

Creating a 'How to' puts a number of key elements in place to stimulate flow.

  • Clear goals. Defining the problem means you know what you want to achieve.
  • Choice. 'How to' statements automatically generate new 'how to' statements.  You increase your field of operation - what Stephen Covey calls your Circle of Influence.
  • Control.  Choosing the 'how to' puts you in charge.

Now, see if you can add a few more elements, from the list below.

  • Immediate feedback.  How will you judge success or failure?  The more clearly you can see whether you're making progress, the more you'll be able to adjust your behaviour - which will itself increase your level of absorption.
  • A balance between challenge and skill.  Not too easy; not too hard.  If you have to concentrate, you'll maintain interest.  If difficulty overwhelms you, you'll probably give up.

Flow is good for us.  It produces intense feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment.  Flow improves our performance and helps us develop our skills. Flow motivates us to grow in competence and self-esteem.  All of which must be good for our health.

Life can never be wholly a matter of following our commitments.  We all have responsibilities that we must discharge.  And sometimes, what we choose to do becomes a burden, through no fault of our own. 

The best laid plans, and so on...

But just as we can lose our sense of commitment, we can also create it.  In fact, just about any activity can generate flow.  As Csikszentmihalyi said in an interview: “Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can.”

Flow, then, isn’t just something that happens to us; it’s also something we can make happen.  If we can influence our ability to focus, to concentrate, to set ourselves goals or seek feedback on our performance, we can turn some of our responsibilities into commitments. 

“In many ways,” says Csikszentmihalyi, “the secret to a happy life is to learn to get flow from as many of the things we have to do as possible.”

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There's more about flow in my book, How to Solve Almost Any Problem.

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