Being a social brain researcher, I frequently find myself reading about, thinking about and talking about concepts of human behaviour in the abstract. We might be working on an idea as to how to help people alter their habits, make decisions differently or change their patterns of attention, and at times it can all seem quite far removed from the quotidian reality of my own life. So, it’s great when, on occasion, these things come to life and I experience them directly.
When it comes to attention (one of the three key themes underpinning the work of the social brain centre) the concept of ‘flow’ is, of course, of interest to us. Flow describes a state in which one becomes completely immersed in an activity, having a kind of energised focus that is fully directed at the activity and utterly absorbing. It is often associated with artistic and sporting pursuits like playing a musical instrument, tennis or chess.
Without wanting to crow about it, I’ve just returned from a week of skiing in the French Alps, and, throughout the week I found myself most definitely in a state of flow. For me, skiing is the perfect activity to generate flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, says that the necessary conditions for flow include being faced with a task that has clear goals requiring specific responses. The goals must be both challenging and attainable, and the task must be an intrinsically rewarding activity. So, skiing certainly fits the bill according to these criteria
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions
More than that, I think skiing works for bringing about flow because it is challenging both physically and psychologically. It requires me to be to completely “in” my body as well as exercising my mind in ways that I don’t usually have to. Certainly in the early days of learning, it was necessary to overcome a whole load of instincts (i.e. when faced with a steep slope that you don’t want to career down, completely out of control; lean forwards).
The combination of needing to command your body to move in unfamiliar ways (subtle flexing of the ankles makes all the difference!) whilst not overthinking is massively challenging. Think about what you’re doing, so you do it right, but don’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up all stiff, rigid and robotic, and therefore unable to move in the right way. Like many activities that result in flow, the best skiing (at my intermediate level, at least) happens when you stop being too conscious of the precise, separate actions, and just allow the whole to come together.
My best moments of flow happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus
When it does, there’s really nothing like it. My best moments of flow during the week happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus. An extremely steep mogul field (bumps), with a base of ice, covered with a layer of soft fresh snow, plus the helpful addition of the occasional loose rock. Skiing through the forest, having no choice but to find a way to turn, even if it looks a bit too tight or precipitous. When the alternative is to crash into a tree, you suddenly find that you can pull off manoeuvres that you wouldn’t have thought you were capable of had you had time to think about it.
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity (be it skiing, playing chess, or whatever) leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions. This, perhaps paradoxically, brings about a spontaneous sense of joy.
Sounds like something we could all do with more of in our lives. But is it possible to engineer? Csikszentmihalyi's book, Finding Flow, suggests that there are steps you can take, but in my view, flow is somewhat elusive. It’s unrealistic to wake up on a Monday morning and decide to get yourself into a state of flow. In spite of this, some surprising research has shown that more occasions of flow occur at work than in leisure time.
According to those who've looked into it, jobs involving activities like problem solving, evaluation and planning are particularly likely to generate flow. Come to think of it, that’s starting to sound quite a lot like my job. But do I really experience flow at work on a regular basis? There are certainly some aspects of my work which I get utterly absorbed in, but I would say the rhythm of my work is such that it's actually quite difficult to let the flow flow, as it were.
In fact, I think flow is increasingly difficult to access, as our world becomes punctuated by hyperconnective interruptions. As I've said elsewhere, there is now an expectation that we are permanently available, along with a near-addiction to getting new information, through our email accounts, Twitter feeds and personal networks. These phenomena are surely major threats to flow. Flow at work seems highly unlikely to occur when you're in an open plan office, with phones ringing all around, colleagues popping in to ask quick questions, and the general hubbub and buzz of a busy office.
I'm sure that Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that specific goals requiring specific responses, challenge and attainability are needed to produce flow. In the context of work, though, I would say that uninterrupted time, and the right conditions in terms of space are just as important. How can you really be lost in flow with a pinging smart phone by your side? For me, and I don't know whether I'm alone in this, the physical dimension also seems critical. Sure, I can get lost in writing up a report, but it's never as complete, as total as the flow I experience when I'm on skis, trying not to crash into trees.