Flow Factors: An Introduction

Flow  is a way of describing the psychology of optimal experience: an athlete being “in the zone” would be one example of flow, but there are conditions in which we can find flow in even the most ordinary activities of everyday life: work, play, fitness, conversations, or just going for a walk.

Hungarian psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihayi has spent his life uncovering it, and his breakthrough research in the past two decades has opened up new horizons for human action. Mihaly has found 10 elements that seem common to almost every flow experience: a “blueprint” for creating the conditions for flow. 

Flow is by no means synonymous with activprayer. One could be experiencing the best flow in the world through an action done for no other reason than feeling the “high” that flow can produce. The action would fail to impact anything other than the person doing it. At their worst, flow experiences can be become addictive like any other pleasurable experience in life. We’re exploring them in our activLAB, though, because we think they tell us something interesting about the human person in action. If so many individuals report “flow” experiences that include these 8 factors, it must tell us something about how we were created and what type of action we were created for.

We encourage activprayer athletes to experiment with these flow factors in their own actions. Actions, in themselves, are important. It’s not enough to have a good intention. A good intention with a bad or poorly done action is not an activprayer – the action is the very expression of the intention. We can never separate an action from its object, and we can never separate an action from its intention. This is why we’re concerned with those tools that help us to make our actions the best that they can be – in a way that honors who we are and the intention that we’re acting for.

In the following series of articles, we’ll be detailing one flow factor per article, starting the Factor 1 right here.

Factor 1: The right challenge, the right skills

Engage in an activity that pushes you beyond your comfort zone and involves the learning or development of skills that interest you.

It is nearly universally reported that the overwhelming proportion of flow experiences occur within sequences of activities that are goal-directed and bounded by rules – activities that require an investment of psychic energy, and that could not be done without the appropriate skills.

It doesn’t have to be a physical activity or skill. Two of the most underrated tasks that can fall into this category to produce flow are reading (which involves the skill of comprehending a text) and conversations (social interaction is also a skill). Almost surely, we’ve all had an experience of interacting with a great book or getting fully engaged in an interesting conversation over dinner with friends where we seem to lose track of time. When this happens, we’re experiencing flow.

One simple way to find challenges involving skills is through competition. This is the appeal of all games and sports that pit a person or team against another. In many ways, competition is a quick way of developing complexity, which is an essential ingredient in Factor 1.

The activity should also be something that we have a possibility of completing. What does this mean? It means that Climbing Mt. Everest with no training would not be an experience that produces flow for anyone. If anything, it could be demoralizing. On the same note, an 8th grade basketball team that is being beaten 100-6 by varsity High School team is never going to experience flow during that game. This is one of the fundamental reasons why we have different “leagues”, even at the most elementary levels; nobody enjoys playing if there is not a reasonable degree of competition, or at least the possibility that one team will beat the other on any given day.  No doubt you could argue that there is always the possibility that one team can beat the other, objectively speaking – but we’re really dealing here with subjective experience or the psychological expectation…if the players don’t really believe it, then it doesn’t work.

Adapt and balance challenges and skills

There is a delicate balance between tackling a challenging task that is not beyond our ability to accomplish. Actions should be somewhat near to our capabilities. Playing tennis, for instance, is not enjoyable and unlikely to produce flow for either individual if they are mismatched. The greatest “in the zone” moments in sports all occurred in intensely competitive environments.

Have you ever noticed that dogs naturally get this principle? When my German Shepherd, Axel, wants to play with me during a walk in the mountains, he’ll typically nudge his cold nose up against my arm and get in a pouncing position with his head near the ground and his butt up in the air. I guess this is the position of maximum mobility for him.  It can only mean one thing: he wants to play tag.

Now when we first start out, he’ll get about 15 yards away from me and stop, waiting for me to sprint at him. He doesn’t just keep running further away from me, though: that’s no fun for him or for me. Axel is faster than me, and he knows it. He’ll usually just run around me, back to the original starting spot. But if that becomes too easy for him, he’ll wait until I get closer and closer to him before he jukes me out of my shoes. And if he waits too long and I catch him, he makes the game harder by expanding the “circle of play” until I can’t catch him anymore. He adjusts the challenge so that it’s fun for both of us. If I’m catching him too easily, it’s not fun for either of us. And if he simply runs circles around me or runs 100 yards away to where I can’t keep up with him, that’s no fun either. Axel knows how to play, and he helps me create flow.

Luke Burgis
Luke Burgis, CSCS, is a Co-Founder of ActivPrayer, an architect of the activMAP, and a sports and performance coach that has worked in the nutrition and fitness industries for over 10 years. He graduated with a B.S. in Finance from NYU and also completed an S.T.B. in Sacred Theology at a university in Italy where he worked closely with the Vatican's office of Church & Sport about the role of sports and fitness in renewing cultures.

He is a well-known public speaker on the topics of entrepreneurship, fitness, and faith.
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