The epitome of deep engagement is known as flow, which describes total immersion in an activity, where according to the psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: “nothing else seems to matter.” Hungarian-born Csikszentmihalyi used total immersion in chess to help himself mentally survive World War II. At the end of the war at age 11 he spent time in an Italian prison camp with his family. His father had been consul general in Venice, working for the former Hungarian government, which was implicated in the war. While interned, and even before, to block out the horrors of the war, the young Csikszentmihalyi played chess in the camp, immersing himself and creating a separate world from his surroundings. After seven months his father was exonerated and the family was released. Csikszentmihalyi dropped out of school but later in 1956 he emigrated to the U.S., took a high school equivalency exam and enrolled in the University of Chicago to study psychology. His experiences with immersion as a youth led him to embark on a decades-long career studying what he considered “the optimal experience.”
Csikszentmihalyi set out to discover why people do activities without any extrinsic reward, such as playing chess or even more dangerous pursuits such as rock climbing. These individuals all described the feeling that Csikszentmihalyi named “flow.” When in flow, people feel carried away by some internal current–the activity itself provides the reward and they are masters of their attention. There is an optimal balance between using one’s skills and the demands of the activity. People in flow are curious, playful, lose self-consciousness, and because they invest so much of their attentional resources in the activity they don’t have any left to think about time passing. Flow is a creative experience that is unique and deeply rewarding where people are challenged to use their skills fully.
Flow is a subjective experience and to study what was going on inside people’s minds, Csikszentmihalyi used a technique called experience sampling. He would give electronic pagers to his study participants. The pagers were programmed to beep at specified times, and when they did, the participants were instructed to fill out a questionnaire about their concentration, involvement, and enjoyment of whatever they were doing at the time when the device beeped. At the time of the beep, people were doing all sorts of activities such as gardening, cooking, or business deals, and they may or may not have been in flow. They used the pagers for a week, which provided a good representative sample of what they were experiencing in a typical day. As you can guess, a limitation of these kinds of studies is that the pagers interrupted people. Still, the results helped Csikszentmihalyi understand and define this idealized state. His book Flow became a great influence on the study of attention.
When I was an art student, I often got into flow. I would work in my studio, and late in the evening my short-wave radio would pick up Radio Havana (they had the best songs to work by) and I would dance to Cuban rhythms while painting. I would get deeply immersed and attributed all sorts of meaning to the abstract images I made. The title of one painting I did, ‘Heyday” reflects the elation I felt during its creation. Time sped by and often hours would pass before I realized it was 2 am. A flow state is not that hard to get into when you’re doing something inherently creative and challenging like painting or making music, or skiing. But the nature of the work we do determines quite a bit about whether or not we get into flow states. Now I work as an academic, designing studies, conducting scientific research and writing papers. I have to use analytical thinking which sometimes requires intense focus. When I work I switch attentional states, from deep focus to light engagement, similar to Maya Angelou’s Big Mind and Little Mind. Once in a while I might get into flow when brainstorming ideas with others or when writing a part of a paper, but generally not. So would I trade my academic life for that of an artist where I was often in flow? Absolutely not. I reap different types of rewards with the kind of work I do now. When I want to go into flow, I know that I can paint or dance. When I want to investigate something about the world, then I turn to science and can expect to use focused attention, but not be in flow.
I have heard similar experiences from others. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is a manager at a large high tech firm in Silicon Valley. He told me that he doesn’t get into a flow state at his job—it’s more like keeping plates spinning. Once in a while when he is in a creative brainstorming session with other people he says the group might get into flow. But in his earlier career as a coder, he was able to get into flow more often.
Even Maya Angelou describes her writing process as using focused attention but not necessarily being in flow. Discussing her writing process with journalist George Plimpton in an interview for the Paris Review, Angelou said that writing did not always come easy for her: “I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics—New York critics as a rule— who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.”
Unfortunately, flow is a much rarer experience than many of the readers of Csikszentmihalyi’s bestselling book had hoped. In a survey done by Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi in the mid-1990s where people were asked to report if they had flow experiences, while some did experience it, 42% of Americans and 35% of Germans reported rarely or never experiencing flow. And while people have had flow experiences, such as when creating art, woodworking, or playing music, in our studies we have found that it rarely occurs in the knowledge workplace. Much of the nature of knowledge work is just not conducive to flow, the optimal creative experience. This doesn’t mean that the work isn’t fulfilling—it can be deeply fulfilling. Some people do experience flow while on their devices, for example when doing complex coding, and we might even experience flow when doing creative writing on our computers. But the reality is that for most knowledge workers, our computing environments, the nature of our work, and our responsibility for multiple projects and tasks, create a high barrier to reaching flow. However, we need not feel bad if we cannot reach flow. We can rather achieve a feeling of balance and well-being by working in sync with our natural rhythm of attentional states.