Engineering Flow

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (“Chick-send-me-high”) identifies nine factors that accompany the experience of flow in a practice or process, i.e. a “game”:

1. You are clear about the rules of the game and your expectations of itand your goals are achievable.

2. You find the game neither too easy nor too difficult (= a balance between skill and challenge).

3. During the game, you focus closely, i.e. intently and narrowly, and . . .

4. . . . adjust your behaviour immediately in response to moves in the game (= an uninterrupted feedback cycle).

5. As a result, you experience a merging of action and awareness, that is, . . .

6. . . . you feel absorbed in the activity itself, yet . . .

7. . . . in control.

8. Thus, the game feels timeless and . . .

9. . . . effortless.

Flow is thus ecstatic (ek-stasis: “outside-standing,” i.e. standing outside, or rather, to one side of the everyday world and your everyday concerns) and engaged (en gage: “under pledge,” i.e. fully committed to a task, knowing exactly what to do and how to do it).

Csíkszentmihályi conceives of flow as developmental: all going well, you can stay in the “flow channel,” in which challenges and skills increase together by increments. This diagram is adapted from Flow (1990, 74):

Starting from position A in Figure 1, you move into an anxiety zone if the challenges of the game increase without a corresponding increase in skills (position B). To get back into the flow channel, any combination of skills improvement and decrease in difficulty will suffice, but the best (or most “fluid”) move is a horizontal one, an increase in skills that enables you to move to position D. In a like manner, you can improve your skills while the difficulty of the game holds constant; you move from position A to position C, whereupon boredom sets in. To achieve flow you need to move toward position D by seeking a more challenging job. Of course, then position D becomes the new position A, and the cycle starts all over again.

See “Play and Intrinsic Rewards,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 15 (1975) 41-63 and Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: Harper & Rowe, 1990).

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