What would it feel like to be perfectly motivated, even if just for a little while? You would become really involved with what you were doing, even fascinated with it, so that you’d stop noticing distractions. You’d be excited, working hard but not wearing yourself out. You’d know exactly what you were doing and exactly what you were trying to accomplish and exactly how well it was going. Things would just flow.
As you might already know (or have quickly guessed), this state of mind does exist, and it’s not even exceptionally rare. Probably you’ve experienced it yourself at least once or twice–maybe many times. When it works, it feels magical, because you’re working at about the highest level of difficulty you can manage, yet everything feels profoundly easy.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick SENT me high,” as in “This guru chick sent me high into Himalayas to find myself, but she didn’t bring me there”) has a word for this state, which he’s studied now for decades. He calls it “flow,” because when you’re in this state, you feel like you’re being carried along, as though by a river.
It’s a little misleading for me to talk about flow meaning being perfectly motivated, because while it’s true in a sense, flow only applies to short-term experiences. You can get into flow when writing a chapter of a book or giving a musical performance or playing a game of baseball or even fixing a lawnmower, but you can’t get into a single experience of flow over the course of days or weeks or months. Flow also only applies to things we’re already pretty good at: if you’re just learning something, then you need to teach your brain about each of the pieces before you can put them all together into a complex whole.
So if it doesn’t last long, and if most large, important goals take a commitment of weeks or months or years, what good is flow? Well, that long-term commitment breaks down into individual sessions of doing something: exercising, writing, cooking, talking, studying, practicing–whatever it may be. And in those individual sessions, if we get good at what we’re doing, we can strive for flow. Flow is addictive, I can tell you from experience (mostly with writing and music). It’s also pleasurable. It’s also hellaciously efficient. Even if it only comes along now and then, a little flow can turn a long-term project into a long-term source of satisfaction and thrills.
So what are the components of flow, and how do you get into it? A full discussion of that takes much more space than we have here, so I’ll summarize what flow is and follow up with more posts on the subject in the future. If you’d like to learn about flow in detail, read Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Interestingly, flow has several things in common with good self-motivation techniques in general:
- Clear goals
- A strong focus on what you’re doing (in the case of flow, so much focus that everything else is blocked out)
- Feedback as you go (in the case of flow, this needs to be immediate feedback, like a comedian gets in front of an audience or a musician gets from hearing the sounds coming out of the instrument)
- The task being challenging, but within your abilities
In addition to those prerequisites, Csikszentmihalyi describes some important signs that one is in flow:
- Your consciousness of yourself fades, and your awareness is pretty much entirely on just what you’re doing
- Your sense of time distorts: an entire afternoon may feel like half an hour
- You’re enjoying what you do, so that it doesn’t feel effortful
- You feel powerfully in control of what you’re doing.
Flow can happen on its own when the conditions are right, but with an understanding of the process, practice, and some determination, we can get better at making flow happen on purpose. Flow isn’t the main component of long-term motivation, or even a strictly necessary one, but as components of motivation go, a hellaciously efficient and deeply enjoyable state is a welcome addition to the mix.
In a follow-up article, I talk about how to get into a state of flow.
Photo by Haags Uitburo.