In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years in other guises, notably in some eastern religions.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one's emotions.
Flow has many of the same characteristics as (the positive aspects of) hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in such universally glowing terms. For examples, some cases of spending "too much" time playing video games, or of getting side-tracked and pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of an assignment or task to the detriment of the assignment in general. In some cases, hyperfocus can "capture" a person, perhaps causing him or her to appear unfocused or to start several projects, but complete few.
- 1 Components
- 2 Etymology
- 3 History/background
- 4 Mechanism
- 5 Conditions for flow
- 6 Group flow
- 7 Applications
- 8 Professions and work
- 9 Consequences
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow. 
- intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- merging of action and awareness
- a loss of reflective self-consciousness
- a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- a distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
- experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience
Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
Flow is so named because during Csíkszentmihályi's 1975 interviews several people described their "flow" experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus not directly related to the older phrase go with the flow. This is referring to a passage in the book Tao Te Ching, relating to Wu wei.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his fellow researchers began researching flow after Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. Thus, the origin of research on the theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihalyi tried to understand this phenomenon experienced by these artists. Flow research became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, with Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues in Italy still at the forefront. Researchers interested in optimal experiences and emphasizing positive experiences, especially in places such as schools and the business world, also began studying the theory of flow at this time. The theory of flow was greatly used in the theories of Maslow and Rogers in their development of the humanistic tradition of psychology.
Flow has been experienced throughout history and across cultures. The teachings of Buddhism and of Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the "action of inaction" or "doing without doing" (wu wei in Taoism) that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also, Hindu texts on Advaita philosophy such as Ashtavakra Gita and the Yoga of Knowledge such as Bhagavad-Gita refer to a similar state.
Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not even stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. After this, he would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-enter a state of complete absorption.
Bruce Lee either spoke of a psychological state similar to flow or spoke about the importance of adaptability and shedding preconceptions in his book the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. In his book, he compares the state of flow to water where he so famously says, “Be like water ...Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
In every given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one's mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihalyi's 1956 study, that number is about 126 bits of information per second. That may seem like a large number (and a lot of information), but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 40 bits of information per second; that's 1/3 of one's capacity. That is why when having a conversation one cannot focus as much attention on other things.
For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, he or she is completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, loses awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.
Conditions for flow
A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes. Passive activities like taking a bath or even watching TV usually don’t elicit flow experiences as individuals have to actively do something to enter a flow state.
Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete the task at hand.
However, it was argued that the antecedent factors of flow are interrelated, as a perceived balance between challenges and skills requires that one knows what he or she has to do (clear goals) and how successful he or she is in doing it (immediate feedback). Thus, a perceived fit of skills and task demands can be identified as the central precondition of flow experiences.
In 1997, Csíkszentmihályi published the graph to the right. This graph depicts the relationship between the perceived challenges of a task and one's perceived skills. This graph illustrates one further aspect of flow: it is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and the individual has above-average skills (to the right of the center point). The center of this graph (where the sectors meet) represents one's average levels of challenge and skill across all activities an individual performs during their daily life. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being (whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation).
Several problems of this model have been discussed in literature. One is, that it does not ensure a perceived balance between challenges and skills which is supposed to be the central precondition of flow experiences. Individuals with a low average level of skills and a high average level of challenges (or the other way round) do not necessarily experience a fit between skills and challenges when both are above their individual average. In addition, one study found that low challenge situations which were surpassed by skill were associated with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness, which, they claim, is contrary to flow theory.
Schaffer (2013) proposed 7 flow conditions:
- Knowing what to do
- Knowing how to do it
- Knowing how well you are doing
- Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
- High perceived challenges
- High perceived skills
- Freedom from distractions
Schaffer also published a measure, the Flow Condition Questionnaire (FCQ), to measure each of these 7 flow conditions for any given task or activity.
Challenges to staying in flow
Some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathy, boredom, and anxiety. Being in a state of apathy is characterized when challenges are low and one’s skill level is low producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand. Boredom is a slightly different state in that it occurs when challenges are low, but one’s skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges. Lastly, a state of anxiety occurs when challenges are so high that they exceed one’s perceived skill level causing one great distress and uneasiness. These states in general differ from being in a state of flow, in that flow occurs when challenges match one’s skill level.
The autotelic personality
Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality.
Up to now, there is not much research on the autotelic personality, but results of the few studies that have been conducted suggest that indeed some people are more prone to experience flow than others. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) found that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for "high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth" compared to those without an autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the flow state.
Experimental evidence shows that a balance between skills of the individual and demands of the task (compared to boredom and overload) only elicits flow experiences in individuals characterized by an internal locus of control or a habitual action orientation. Several correlational studies found need for achievement to be a personal characteristic that fosters flow experiences.
Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways a group can work together so that each individual member achieves flow. The characteristics of such a group include:
- Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables; thus work primarily standing and moving
- Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
- Parallel, organized working
- Target group focus
- Advancement of existing one (prototyping)
- Increase in efficiency through visualization
- Using differences among participants as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle
Applications suggested by Csíkszentmihályi versus other practitioners
Only Csíkszentmihályi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the flow experience. Other practitioners of Csíkszentmihályi's flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement, or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csíkszentmihályi's flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business, piano improvisation, sport psychology, computer programming, and standup comedy. His work has also informed the measurement of donor momentum by The New Science of Philanthropy.
In education, there is the concept of overlearning, which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csíkszentmihályi states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions. Challenging assignments that (slightly) stretch one's skills lead to flow.
Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students. Csíkszentmihályi and psychologist Kevin Rathunde embarked on a multi-year study of student experiences in Montessori settings and traditional educational settings. The research supported observations that students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.
Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved. 
Groups of drummers experience a state of flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as getting into the groove or entrainment. Bass guitarists often describe a state of flow when properly playing between the percussion and melody as being in the pocket.
The concept of being in the zone during an athletic performance fits within Csíkszentmihályi's description of the flow experience, and theories and applications of being in the zone and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology.
Timothy Gallwey's influential works on the "inner game" of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes required to "get in the zone" and fully internalize mastery of the sport.
Roy Palmer suggests that "being in the zone" may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination. Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance while achieving personal bests.
The Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix explained: "I was already on pole, [...] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel."
Religion and spirituality
Csíkszentmihályi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledges he was most certainly not the first to quantify the concept of flow or develop applications based on the concept.
For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science..
The phrase being at one with things is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi's flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Aikido, Cheng Hsin, Judo, Honkyoku, Kendo and Ikebana. In yogic traditions such as Raja Yoga reference is made to a state of flow in the practice of Samyama, a psychological absorption in the object of meditation. Theravada Buddhism refers to "access concentration," which is a state of flow achieved through meditation and used to further strengthen concentration into jhana, and/or to develop insight.
In Islam the first mental state that precedes human action is known as al-khatir. In this state an image or thought is born in the mind.
Flow is one of the main reasons that people play video games. It improves performance; calling the phenomenon "TV trance", a 1981 BYTE article discussed how "the best seem to enter a trance where they play but don't pay attention to the details of the game". The primary goal of games is to create entertainment through intrinsic motivation, which is related to flow. Through the balance of skill and challenge the player’s brain is aroused, with attention engaged and motivation high. Thus, the use of flow in games helps foster an enjoyable experience which in turn increases motivation and draws players to continue playing. As such, game designers strive to integrate flow principles into their projects. Overall, the experience of play is fluid and is intrinsically psychologically rewarding independent of scores or in-game successes in the flow state.
Flow in games has been linked to the Laws of Learning as part of the explanation for why learning games (the use of games to introduce material, improve understanding, or increase retention) have the potential to be effective. In particular, flow is intrinsically motivating, which is part of the Law of Readiness. The condition of feedback, required for flow, is associated with the feedback aspects of the Law of Exercise. This is exhibited in well designed games, in particular, where players perform at the edge of their competency as they are guided by clear goals and feedback. The positive emotions associated with flow are associated with the Law of Effect. The intense experiences of being in a state of flow are directly associated with the Law of Intensity. Thus, the experience of gaming can be so engaging and motivating as it meets many of the Laws of Learning, which are inextricably connected to creating flow.
Professions and work
Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state as "wired in", or sometimes as The Zone, hack mode, or operating on software time when developing in an undistracted state. Stock market operators often use the term "in the pipe" to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections. Professional poker players use the term "playing the A-game" when referring to the state of highest concentration and strategical awareness, while pool players often call the state being in "dead stroke."
Flow in the workplace
Conditions of flow, defined as a state in which challenges and skills are equally matched, play an extremely important role in the workplace. Because flow is associated with achievement, its development could have concrete implications in increasing workplace satisfaction and accomplishment. Flow researchers, such as Csikszentmihalyi, believe that certain interventions may be performed to enhance and increase flow in the workplace, through which people would gain ‘intrinsic rewards that encourage persistence” and provide benefits. In his consultation work, Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes finding activities and environments that are conducive to flow, and then identifying and developing personal characteristics to increase experiences of flow. Applying these methods in the workplace, such as Csikszentmihalyi did with Swedish police officers, can improve morale by fostering a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment, and in correlated to increased performance. In his review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Coert Visser introduces the ideas presented by Csikszentmihalyi, including “good work” in which one “enjoys doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.” He then provides tools by which managers and employees can create an atmosphere that encourages good work. First, Csikszentmihalyi explains that experiencing flow, in which a task requires full involvement, and the challenge of a task matches one’s ability.
In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:
- Goals are clear
- Feedback is immediate
- A balance between opportunity and capacity
Csikszentmihalyi argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience “growth towards complexity,” in which people flourish as their achievements grow and with that comes development of increasing “emotional, cognitive, and social complexity.” Creating a workplace atmosphere that allows for flow and growth, Csikszentmihalyi argues, can increase the happiness and achievement of employees. There are, however, barriers to achieving flow in the workplace. In his chapter “Why Flow Doesn’t Happen on the Job,” Csikszentmihalyi argues the first reason that flow does not occur is that the goals of one’s job are not clear. He explains that while some tasks at work may fit into a larger, organization plan, the individual worker may not see where their individual task fits it. Second, limited feedback about one’s work can reduce motivation and leaves the employee unaware of whether or not they did a good job. When there is little communication of feedback, an employee may not be assigned tasks that challenge them or seem important, which could potentially prevent an opportunity for flow. In the study “Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work” Karina Nielsen and Bryan Cleal used a 9- item flow scale to examine predictors of flow at two levels: activity level (such as brainstorming, problem solving, and evaluation) and at a more stable level (such as role clarity, influence, and cognitive demands). They found that activities such as planning, problem solving, and evaluation predicted transient flow states, but that more stable job characteristics were not found to predict flow at work. This study can help us identify which task at work can be cultivated and emphasized in order to help employees experience flow on the job. In her article in Positive Psychology News Daily, Kathryn Britton examines the importance of experiencing flow in the workplace beyond the individual benefits it creates. She writes, “Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces.”
Positive consequences of flow experiences
Books by Csikszentmihalyi suggest that enhancing the time spent in flow makes our lives more happy and successful. Flow experiences are predicated to lead to positive affect as well as to better performance. However, further empirical evidence is required to substantiate these preliminary indications, as flow researchers continue to explore the problem of how to directly investigate causal consequences of flow experiences using modern scientific instrumentation to observe the neuro-physiological correlates of the flow state.
Positive affect and life satisfaction
Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to "produce intense feelings of enjoyment". An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. Also, Csikszentmihalyi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.
Several studies found that flow experiences and positive affect go hand in hand, and that challenges and skills above the individual’s average foster positive affect. However, the causal processes underlying those relationships remains unclear at present.
Flow experiences imply a growth principle. When one is in a flow state, he or she is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one's skills. One emerges from such a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great "feelings of competence and efficacy".
Flow has a documented correlation with high performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity (Perry, 1999; Sawyer, 1992), teaching (Csíkszentmihályi, 1996), learning (Csíkszentmihályi et al., 1993), and sports (Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, & Smethurst, 2002; Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels, & Jackson, 1995).
However, evidence regarding better performance in flow situations is mixed. For sure, the association between both is a reciprocal one. That is, flow experiences may foster better performance but, on the other hand, good performance makes flow experiences more likely. Results of a longitudinal study in the academic context indicate that the causal effect of flow on performance is only of small magnitude and the strong relationship between both is driven by an effect of performance on flow. In the long run, flow experiences in a specific activity may lead to higher performance in that activity as flow is positively correlated with a higher subsequent motivation to perform and to perform well.
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[The Zone] is a deeply creative space where inspiration is built. Anything which you perceive as beautiful, useful, or fun comes from someone stumbling through The Zone.
- Joel Spolsky (9 August 2000), The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code,
We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into 'flow', also known as being 'in the zone' (...) Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.
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When things go well, you can lose track of passing hours in the state psychologists call “flow.” When things go badly, you get stuck, frozen between dimensions, unable to move or see a way forward. Either way, you’ve left the clock far behind. You’re on software time.
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- Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, B., & Shernoff, E. S. (2003). Student engagement in High School classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18, 158-176.
- Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-092820-4
- Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1996), Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, Basic Books, ISBN 0-465-02411-4 (a popular exposition emphasizing technique)
- Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (2003), Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning, New York: Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-200409-X
- Egbert, Joy (2003), "A Study of Flow Theory in the Foreign Language Classroom", The Modern Language Journal 87 (4): 499–518, doi:10.1111/1540-4781.00204
- Jackson, Susan A. & Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1999), Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Publishers, ISBN 0-88011-876-8
- Mainemelis, Charalampos (2001), "When the Muse Takes It All: A Model for the Experience of Timelessness in Organizations", The Academy of Management Review 26 (4): 548–565, doi:10.2307/3560241, JSTOR 3560241
- Shainberg, Lawrence (1989-04-09), "Finding 'The Zone'", New York Times Magazine
|Look up flow in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, fulfillment and flow on YouTube; presentation at the February, 2004 TED conference
- Finding Flow in Educational Leadership
- "In the zone": enjoyment, creativity, and the nine elements of "flow"
- Finding Flow in Writing by Tracy Steen, Ph.D.
- Archetype Writing The Right-Brain/Left-Brain Myth and Flow looks at the neurology behind flow
- Flow – A commentary on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's classic work by Tom Butler-Bowdon
- The Principle of Relevance, Stefania Lucchetti, RT Publishing, Hong Kong 2010, which discusses the concept of "Flow" and the importance of attention in the context of digital information overload
- "Flow" (2010) – A short film made by Halcyon Nights in which flow theory is explored through a new exhilarating activity that takes place on the streets of London
- Management Metrics - An article about Flow concept application