Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The effortless-effort of "Flow"

Have you ever performed a task during which all sense of the outside world seemed to vanish? Have you ever become so engrossed in an activity that you forgot to eat, sleep, or tend to your body's basic needs? Did the experience leave you feeling fulfilled, content, even blissful? If so, then it's likely you have entered what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms "Flow," or a state of intense-yet-effortless concentration on a particular task.

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is not the first person to investigate the foundations of the "Flow" experience. Daoists in ancient China developed a term called Wu wei, which translated can mean, "action without action," "effortless doing," or "without effort." These translations all correspond  with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi's findings, in that a "Flow state" is inherently an effortless application of extreme effort.

Yet how is this possible? Dr. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that any experience is a function of two variables: challenges and skills. Different combinations of these make an experience interesting, boring, terrifying, etc.

Consider the graphic above. The point where all lines converge is the average of a person's daily experience (average challenge meets average skill). According to the graph, when the challenge value is below the average for a corresponding value of skill, the result falls somewhere between "Apathy" and "Relaxation" (imagine playing an easy video game, for instance, or performing a very simple task). Conversely, when the challenge value is above the average for a corresponding value of skill, the result usually falls between "Worry" and "Arousal" (for example, taking a test on unfamiliar material, or performing something difficult for the first time).

According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, "Flow" is an optimal combination of above-average challenges and skills. The experience occurs when a person performs a challenging task with a high degree of skill; i.e. a musician performing a difficult piece, a mountain-climber scaling a challenging peak, or simply a skilled reasoner solving a difficult puzzle. In all cases, the challenge is great, but remains within the upper-level of a person's ability. The combination absorbs a person's attention, which appears not only to allow them to do their best work, but also leaves them in a state of extreme happiness. "Flow" can therefore be imagined as a state of happiness brought on by extreme-yet-effortless concentration.

Furthermore, it appears that the concept of "Flow" corresponds with the growth of character, as described in an earlier post on  the role of challenge and failure in this process. According to the above graphic, when a high challenge level is matched with a low skill level, the result is either "Worry" or "Anxiety." The suggested manner of alleviating this difficulty is to increase one's skill level until the discomfort is replaced with something  more desirable. It seems possible, therefore, that the mechanism which drives the growth of character (as described in the earlier post) is founded in a need to develop one's skills so as to match the demands of high-challenge situations, and by such efforts--consciously or otherwise--to achieve the optimal balance.

A possible difficulty in drawing this connection is the role of effort in each case. In short, learning the necessary skills to make challenging tasks more manageable requires a great deal of "effortful-effort," if the term may be used. This occurs because such effort must, by necessity, occur outside the optimal "Flow" zone. Accordingly, the effort needed to affect a shift from the "Anxiety" zone to the "Flow" zone is highly inefficient, and therefore likely prone to failure. Perhaps this is one reason why people who seek to rapidly master a challenging subject or task usually fail; effortful-effort is not particularly rewarding in the short-term, nor is it intrinsically motivating. For this reason, failure is common with such an approach.

Yet not all is lost. According to the model, the effortless-effort associated with "Flow" is achieved when high challenge levels correspond with high skill levels. One could read this as meaning that in order to achieve effortless-effort (and thereby, "Flow"), one needs to already possess a high degree of skill. In actuality, however, it's not the degree of skill relative to other people that matters, but the degree of skill relative to one's own, unique average; a professional tennis player has a different average from a beginner. So for a complete novice, just hitting the ball over the net is a difficult task, and requires a relatively high degree of skill. While the expert finds such a task simple--even boring perhaps--the novice finds the task difficult yet possible. Focusing on this one task, the novice has created a situation where a (relatively) challenging task meets a (relatively) high degree of skill.

And this is how someone new to a skill might use the principles of "Flow" to improve their ability. By focusing on the smallest aspect of a task--what blogger Leo Baubata calls "The Half Step That Will Change Your Life"--a person can utilize the effortless-effort inherent in "Flow" to bring about genuine improvement, even as a beginner. It needn't be large improvement to be important. According to Mr. Baubata, the "first step" allows you to "do a second, then a third, but you can't do those without a first." By shrinking the challenge, the optimal combination of challenge and skill becomes possible even for people with little or no skill in a particular activity. In this way, "Flow" can be harnessed to help you concentrate as you learn and enjoy something new.

According to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, the human brain is only capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. In this way, our ability to pay attention to anything is finite and scarce. It therefore makes sense to maximize this attention to such things as benefit us. "Flow" is perhaps one of the most efficient ways in which the brain can not only focus on something difficult--helping us grow as professionals and people--but also produce a feeling of happiness and self-worth. Cultivating circumstances where this feeling is achieved seems like a valuable use of thought, time, and resources. I encourage you to consider the idea, and see how such circumstance may be produced in your own life.

Happy Tuesday, friends :)

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