“Writers write,” said the man.

He was a patron of the restaurant where I was working (at the crossroads of Food and Fun!), and after discussing with me for some minutes, had asked what I wanted to do with myself.  “I want to write.” I told him, which was true.  He asked what I had written, or what I was writing now. “Oh now I’m just taking notes, I told him, and having some experiences. Someday, when life has settled down, then I’ll sit down and write my masterpiece.”  Well, he said, writers write.

Flow-ers flow.

See also:

Flow Videos
Flow Quotes

Flow (psychology)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Concentrating on a task is one aspect of flow.

In positive psychology, flow, also known as the 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 (and has an especially big recognition in occupational therapy), though the concept has existed for thousands of years under other guises, notably in some Eastern religions.[1] Achieving flow is often colloquially referred to as being in the zone.

According to part time motivational speaker, B. Altantsetseg, Csikszentmihályi, 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,[2] although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Flow shares many characteristics with hyperfocus. However, hyperfocus is not always described in a positive light. Some examples include spending “too much” time playing video games or getting side-tracked and pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of an assignment or task to the detriment of the overall assignment. In some cases, hyperfocus can “capture” a person, perhaps causing them to appear unfocused or to start several projects, but complete few.


Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow.[3]

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. 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. Additionally, psychology expert, Kendra Cherry, has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:[4]

  1. “Immediate feedback”[4]
  2. Feeling that you have the potential to succeed
  3. Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Just as with the conditions listed above, these conditions can be independent of one another.


Flow has been recognized 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.


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, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose 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.[7]

The flow state has been described by Csikszentmihályi as the “optimal experience” in that one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience.[8] Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual.[8] However, the overall feeling of being in the state of flow is said to be congruent for everyone since they are all experiencing some form of the previously mentioned conditions of flow. One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.[8]


There are three common ways to measure flow experiences: the Flow Questionnaire (FQ), the Experience Sampling Method (ESM), and the “standardized scales of the componential approach”.[9]

Flow Questionnaire

The FQ requires individuals to identify definitions of flow and situations in which they believe that they have experienced flow, followed by a section that asks them to evaluate their personal experiences in these flow-inducing situations. The FQ identifies flow as a single construct, therefore allowing the results to be used to estimate differences in the likelihood of experiencing flow across a variety of factors. Another strength of the FQ is that it does not assume that everyone’s flow experiences are the same. Because of this, the FQ is the ideal measure for estimating the prevalence of flow. However, the FQ has some weaknesses that more recent methods have set out to address. The FQ does not allow for measurement of the intensity of flow during specific activities. This method also does not measure the influence of the ratio of challenge to skill on the flow state.[9]

Experience Sampling Method

The ESM requires individuals to fill out the experience sampling form (ESF) at eight randomly chosen time intervals throughout the day. The purpose of this is to understand subjective experiences by estimating the time intervals that individuals spend in specific states during everyday life. The ESF is made up of 13 categorical items and 29 scaled items. The purpose of the categorical items is to determine the context and motivational aspects of the current actions (these items include: time, location, companionship/desire for companionship, activity being performed, reason for performing activity). Because these questions are open-ended, the answers need to be coded by researchers. This needs to be done carefully so as to avoid any biases in the statistical analysis. The scaled items are intended to measure the levels of a variety of subjective feelings that the individual may be experiencing. The ESM is more complex than the FQ and contributes to the understanding of how flow plays out in a variety of situations, however the possible biases make it a risky choice.[9]

Standardized scales

Some researchers are not satisfied with the methods mentioned above and have set out to create their own scales. The scales developed by Jackson and Eklund are the most commonly used in research, mainly because they are still consistent with Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of flow and consider flow as being both a state and a trait. Jackson and Eklund created two scales that have been proven to be psychometrically valid and reliable: the Flow State Scale-2 (which measures flow as a state) and the Dispositional Flow Scale-2 (designed to measure flow as either a general trait or domain-specific trait). The statistical analysis of the individual results from these scales gives a much more complete understanding of flow than the ESM and the FQ.[9]

Conditions for flow

Anxiety Arousal Flow (psychology) Overlearning Relaxation (psychology) Boredom Apathy Worry

Mental state in terms of challenge level and skill level, according to Csikszentmihalyi‘s flowmodel.[10] (Click on a fragment of the image to go to the appropriate article)

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.[7][11] Passive activities like taking a bath or even watching TV usually do not elicit flow experiences as individuals have to actively do something to enter a flow state.[12][13] While the activities that induce flow may vary and be multifaceted, Csikszentmihályi asserts that the experience of flow is similar despite the activity.[14]

Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.[15]
  2. 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.[15]
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their ownperceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.[15]


Schaffer (2013) proposed 7 flow conditions:

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions[22]

Schaffer also published a measure, the Flow Condition Questionnaire (FCQ), to measure each of these 7 flow conditions for any given task or activity.[22]

flow-condition-questionnaire-fcq (from Crafting Fun User Experiences by Owen Schaffer)

Religion and spirituality

Csíkszentmihályi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, 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, Taoism and later in Sufism 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.

Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept relates to the idea of being at one with things or as psychology expert, Kendra Cherry, describes it: “complete immersion in an activity”.[4]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[47] in the practice of Samyama, a psychological absorption in the object of meditation.[48] 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.


Professions and work

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state as “wired in”, or sometimes as The Zone,[56][57] hack mode,[58] or operating on software time[59]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 Csikszentmihályi, 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, Csikszentmihályi 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, can improve morale by fostering a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment, which may be correlated with increased performance. In his review of Mihály Csikszentmihályi’s book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Coert Visser introduces the ideas presented by Csikszentmihályi, including “good work” in which one “enjoys doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.”[60] He then provides tools by which managers and employees can create an atmosphere that encourages good work. Some consultants suggest that the experience sampling form (EMS) method be used for individuals and teams in the workplace in order to identify how time is currently being spent, and where focus should be redirected to in order to increase flow experiences.[61]

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihályi lays out the following three conditions:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. A balance between opportunity and capacity

Csikszentmihályi argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience “growth towards complexity”. People flourish as their achievements grow and with that comes development of increasing “emotional, cognitive, and social complexity.”[60] Creating a workplace atmosphere that allows for flow and growth, Csikszentmihályi argues, can increase the happiness and achievement of employees. An increasingly popular way of promoting greater flow in the workplace is using Serious Play facilitation methods.

Barriers to flow

There are, however, barriers to achieving flow in the workplace. In his chapter “Why Flow Doesn’t Happen on the Job,” Csikszentmihályi 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.[62] 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 (Csikszentmihályi, 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.”[63]


Positive consequences of flow experiences

Books by Csikszentmihályi 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.[31][64] For example, delinquent behavior was reduced in adolescents after two years of enhancing flow through activities.[65]

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.[66]

Positive affect and life satisfaction

Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”.[7] An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect andhappiness in the long run. Also, Csikszentmihályi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.[64]

Several studies found that flow experiences and positive affect go hand in hand,[27][67] and that challenges and skills above the individual’s average foster positive affect.[68][69][70] However, the causal processes underlying those relationships remains unclear at present.

Performance and learning

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”.[15] By increasing time spent in flow, intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning also increases.[71]

Flow has a documented correlation with high performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity;,[72][73] teaching,[74] learning,[75] and sports;[76][77]

Flow has been linked to persistence and achievement in activities while also helping to lower anxiety during various activities and raise self-esteem.[78]

However, evidence regarding better performance in flow situations is mixed.[66] For sure, the association between the two 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 the two is driven by an effect of performance on flow.[26] 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.[15]


Csikszentmihályi writes about the dangers of flow himself: ‘…enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potentially negative effect: while they are capable of improving the quality of existence by creating order in the mind, they can become addictive, at which point the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life.’

‘The flow experience, like everything else, is not “good” in an absolute sense. It is good only in that it has the potential to make life more rich, intense, and meaningful; it is good because it increases the strengths and complexity of the self. But whether the consequence of any particular instance of flow is good in a larger sense needs to be discussed and evaluated in terms of more inclusive social criteria’. The question regarding flow is not only how we can make it happen, but also how we can manage it: using it to enhance life, yet being able to let go when necessary.’[79]

Flow (psychology)

See also



  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.
  2. Daniel Goleman (12 September 1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bloomsbury. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-7475-2830-2. Retrieved10 November 2013.
  3. Nakamura, J.; Csikszentmihályi, M. (20 December 2001). “Flow Theory and Research”. In C. R. Snyder Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez. Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–206. ISBN 978-0-19-803094-2. Retrieved 20 November 2013.
  4. Cherry, Kendra. “What is Flow?”. About Education. Retrieved 30 March 2015.
  5. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers. pp. 10–. ISBN 978-0-7879-5140-5. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  6. McGuinness, Mark. “Mihaly Csikszentmihályi – Does Creativity Make You Happy?”. Lateral Access. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
  7. Csikszentmihályi, M. (1988), “The flow experience and its significance for human psychology”, in Csikszentmihályi, M., Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 15–35, ISBN 978-0-521-43809-4
  8. Csikszentmihályi, Mihály; Harper & Row. “FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” (PDF). Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  9. Moneta, Giovanni (2012). “On the Measurement and Conceptualization of Flow”. In Engeser, Stefan. Advances in Flow Research. New York: Springer.ISBN 1461423589.
  10. Csikszentmihalyi, M., Finding Flow, 1997.
  11. Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007), Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths, London, UK: Sage Publications
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  13. Delle Fave, A., & Bassi, M. (2000). The quality of experience in adolescents’ daily lives: Developmental perspectives. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 126, 347-367.
  14. Csikszentmihayli, M. (2000). Happiness, flow, and economic equality. “American Psychologist, 55” 1163-1164.
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  77. Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels, & Jackson, 1995)
  78. Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihályi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. “Handbook of positive psychology,” 89-105. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  79. Mihály Csikszentmihályi (1992). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. Rider.ISBN 0-7126-5477-1. Retrieved 25 October 2015.


  • 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

External links

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