What is that elusive Flow State?
In my mastermind group, we have taken on the task of reading Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This 19-year-old book was a best seller in its day, but the research is still relevant today. I was enthused to read about it as it is referred to by trainer after trainer in NLP, and also by other authors I follow. Flow is also a peak state discussed often in Master NLP Practitioner courses.
Perhaps the most quoted fact from the book (and often misquoted) is that on average our attention is capable of processing only 110 bits of information per second. This information load can come in the form of external sensory inputs, or internal thoughts. Small wonder why driving and talking on the phone are a lethal combination… but it’s also a useful insight into why most of us are so poor at remembering people’s names… we are not paying attention in the first place.
NLP trainers like to contrast this 110 bits-per-second of the conscious mind to the millions of bits of information coming in through all the sensory channels each second that are filtered out. The point of all the NLP trainers is that the unconscious mind is so much more powerful than the conscious mind in comparison. This almost always produces a whoo-whoo response in the audience. After reading the book, I think the NLP trainers missed Csikszentmihalyi’s point, which is that with limited attention to spend on the world, we out to be more willful in selecting the objects and activities of our precious and limited attention.
What I took away from the book was that hoping for god-like powers to increase the rate of data my conscious mind can process is a rather futile pursuit. Instead, the magic is in top-down prioritization of things to spend attention on.
When life's highest goals are purpose-driven, and the smaller goals align with the higher goals, the battle is half-won. Then when our limited attention is absorbed in activities in pursuit of these meaningful goals we experience flow. Flow is a state where a challenging activity of our own choosing demands all of our present skill, action and awareness merge, feedback is immediate, our concentration on the task is full. In such a state, we lose track of time and self, and we feel like we are “going with the flow”. We are not in control as much as we are merging with the task.
Flow happens in a narrow band of experience between anxiety on one side, and boredom on the other. The challenge must not overwhelm or underwhelm us, but provide a gentle stretch.
The result of flow states is that we have grown to become more complex in two ways: we become more differentiated as individuals, while we also become more integrated. We do not report feeling happy while in flow, but when the experience is over the growth and new complexity are very satisfying, and even addicting.
Flow experiences are neither good nor bad. The goodness or badness is determined more by the purpose served by the flow state. The book has several poignant examples to illustrate that flow is not the ultimate goal, but that flow should be sought in service of worthy goals.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
So I tried it out for myself...
I am a consultant, a coach, a husband and father, a writer, and an amateur musician and former athlete. I never read a book without the intent to test out its ideas both objectively and subjectively. Objectively, the ideas in this book made great sense and I can see incorporating them in all aspects of life. Subjectively, I wanted to try out how good I was at producing flow in different areas of my life. It turns out that flow is like any muscle. Without exercise, it atrophies, but with exercise it can bounce back.
At work, I tried organizing my tasks such that I could perform each task without distractions, bringing all my talents and attention to bear on each task in a way that I was slightly stretched. Sometimes the stretching was in terms of complexity of the task, and sometimes the mundane tasks were a stretch in terms of how quickly and efficiently I could complete them. Again, at the end of each task, I was very pleased with the result.
After work, I began meditating and exercising with a mind toward flow, and practicing my guitar with an ear toward flow. When I achieved a state where my exertion was slightly stretched by the challenge at hand, flow was there. At the end of the exercise or practice it was very satisfying.
I highly recommend Flow as a foundational book for any NLPer, and non-NLPer alike. It is essential reading where performance and enjoyment are an important part of your life goals.