“A state of flow can be achieved by deep work”. The subjects flow and deep work are covered in the books Deep Work by Cal Newport and Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I read both books, personally I can say that they are outstanding, and they can be well combined when it comes to satisfaction in a person’s life.
The following article summarizes my lessons learned from both books. It can be a way to convert deep work into flow. It can be the way to achieve a fulfilled life. Both subjects build up on the work of great individuals - Cal Newport and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The summary helps me to internalize my learnings. However, perhaps it helps you as well to attain deep satisfaction by using the deep work technique to achieve a state of flow. Still, I can very much recommend to read the books on your own.
The book Deep Work by Cal Newport gives you guidance to achieve high-quality work. It is achieved by multiplying the time spent on the subject of matter and the intensity of your focus. In his book he references the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He says: “Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state”. The state of flow is defined by “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake” where “nothing else seems to matter”. Naturally it leads to an improvement of the self and to a fulfilled and meaningful life. Since both books where on my reading list, I took the chance to read them one after the other.
What is Deep Work?
According to Cal Newport Deep Work is crucial to make a difference. He groups activities into shallow work and deep work.
Shallow Work: “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Deep Work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push you cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The latter is a skill hard to learn. Nowadays, shallow work outweighs deep work. It is easy to get distracted with all the possibilities around us. Once you spend too much time in shallow work, you reduce your capabilities to perform deep work. You get easier distracted and it costs you too much willpower to focus again.
What is Flow?
The state of flow can be caused by various events. It can be, like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “hearing to a song of a bird in the forest” or “sharing a crust of bread with a friend”. Flow can be produced by small things that cause active enjoyment rather than passive pleasure. He says that “the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”.
The state of flow can be caused by deep work too. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to something difficult and worthwhile”. The technique of deep work can be used to achieve those efforts.
The flow session, that can be supported by deep work, has an impact on our self. The self grows with each challenge and with each opportunity we can improve ourselves as human being. The improvements of the self and the fulfilled activities on the way can lead to a satisfied and meaningful life.
Why should you do Deep Work?
Nowadays our work makes a shift towards shallow work. The common work environment requires you to stay available on various communication channels. For instance, it requires you to take part in meetings and to answer asynchronous messages instantly. In this regard, it is hard to perform deep work. Yet there are deep work demanding professions to fill. These available professions are opportunities for people who can perform deep work.
In our working environment there is too much noise. People schedule meetings to appear productive and there is less time to perform deep work. Cal Newport describes it as metrics black hole where you have no possibilities to evaluate the productive outcome of a person. For instance, everyone knows that there are way too many meetings, but nobody can measure the impact.
Cal Newport describes it as paradox in our work culture. It is a paradox, because technologies from nowadays are well suited to distract us. E-Mail, instant messengers and social media are used whenever we feel the slightest sign of boredom. Push notifications keep us distracted all the time.
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
He identifies two abilities to thrive during that economical period:
- to master the art of learning quickly complicated things
- to produce at an elite level in terms of quality and speed
Cal Newport says: “If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive”.
These core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work. How can deep work help to learn complicated things as quick as possible? What does it mean to go deep? The basic steps to perform deep work are:
- focus on the skill you want to improve
- batch your deep work into long uninterrupted stretches
- receive feedback to correct your approach to focus effectively and efficiently
Whenever you repeat something, a circuit in the brain will fire oftentimes and strengthen the skill like a muscle in your brain. You improve your self.
Apart from that you have to make sure to minimize the attention residue. What’s the attention residue? When you switch tasks and don’t focus on the task at hand, your attention doesn’t follow effectively. It will remain stuck on the original task. That’s why multitasking is a bad habit, because you don’t concentrate your full attention on one task. You split your attention to focus on multiple tasks.
Deep work is essential from a professional point of view. But deep work can cause a state of flow on a personal level too. “Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state”.
Why should you want to create Flow?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “human beings […] are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging”. That doesn’t mean that the task must be challenging for each person equally. Each person has a different set of skills. The subject of matter has to be on the level of skill of a person. A person can only grow the self when skill and challenge are on an equal level.
The world can be a sad place when you consider history or the social environment. Sad things can happen from a global to a personal level. For instance, on a global level it can be a crisis and on a personal level a case of illness in your family.
Yet there are events that cause happiness. It can be a salary increase in your job or a childbirth in your family. It depends on your desires if it causes happiness.
In conclusion, when you only consider your external environment, your life becomes a combination of sadness and happiness. You have no control over it. It solely depends on your external world and circumstances. It depends on external rewards.
A state of flow pivots the focus on the internal environment of a person. It focuses on internal rewards rather than external rewards. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” For instance, you can become less dependent on money or social status.
He sees the solution in becoming independent of external rewards. These rewards have to be substituted for internal rewards. For instance, life long learning, achieving worthwhile challenges or the fulfillment in helping others. Only then a human being is in full control of the self. In full control of happiness and sadness.
“Such individuals lead vigorous lives, are open to a variety of experiences, keep on learning until the day they die, and have strong ties and commitments to other people and to the environment in which they live. They enjoy whatever they do, even if tedious or difficult; they are hardly ever bored, and they can take in stride anything that comes their way. Perhaps their greatest strength is that they are in control of their lives.” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Both definitions and values have shown us why it can be desirable to master deep work and to cause a state of flow. It can help us on a professional yet personal level. It can be the way to deep satisfaction in our lives.
Let’s dive into the lessons learned to do deep work. Afterward the article will continue with the lessons learned to cause a state of flow.
How to Deep Work
“Deep work is an activity well suited to generate a flow state”. The following lessons learned from Deep Work by Cal Newport summarize how you can leverage deep work.
Have Routines to use less Willpower
You need to be aware of your finite amount of willpower. “It’s like a muscle that tires and cannot be deployed without limit.” Your willpower depletes as you use it. It happens every time when you get distracted and have to concentrate again. Every time when you multitask and switch subjects. And every time you have to make a decision. All of it drains your willpower.
You need to use an “arsenal of routines and rituals designed with the science of limited willpower in mind to maximize the amount of deep work”. Smart routines make it possible to make less decisions and to do less balancing of different tasks.
Follow a Depth Philosophy
Depth Philosophies help you to deploy deep work schedules that support you to follow a overarching strategy and to stick to it. Cal Newport presents 4 depth philosophies that you can apply.
The monastic philosophy “maximize[s] deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations”. Imagine you would have the choice between writing countless of E-Mails or writing several articles on a specific topic. For instance, a few people minimize their shallow obligations that they can write a book in the same time. In conclusion, you can minimze your shallow obligations and maximize your time to perform deep work.
The bimodal philosophy suggests to divide your time into shallow obligations and dedicated deep time stretches. During the deep time you perform the monastic philosophy. The deep time streches can vary from 4 days of a week to a full quarter of the year. The allocated time can be even longer. But the minimum for the bimodal philosophy is at least a full day. It supports people in deep work who cannot reduce shallow obligations to a very minimum.
The rhythmic philosophy transforms deep work into a routine. It becomes a habit. There are different techniques to make something a habit. For instance, you can use the chain method. The method uses a calendar to support you on a daily basis. Each day you achieved something you can strike it with a red cross in the calendar. A little bit gets done each day. You will stick to the routine, because you don’t want to break the chain of strikes. Personally I can recommend the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
The journalistic philosophy is the last and most advanced philosophy. In that approach you can rapidly switch between shallow to deep work. Yet we know that a disadvantage of multitasking is the usage of our finite willpower. That’s why the approach is only for advanced deep workers. Cal Newport says that “[it] require[s] a sense of confidence in your work.” and that “[it] requires a conviction that what you are doing is important and will succeed”. You can support the philosophy by preparing your deep work schedule in advance. It will help you to preserve your willpower. The journalistic philosophy applies for most people who are not able to do deep work in a routine (rhythmic philosophy). A routine is mostly deployed in a time schedule. You have a routine for each morning or each day. But not everyone is privileged, because of external circumstances, to deploy such routines.
Time, Support and Metrics are your basic tools
Whenever you are going deep, you have to ritualize it. There are 3 basics to assist your deep work session: time, support and metrics.
Give yourself a specific time limit, otherwise your deep work session will be an open session. It is hard to measure the output of a open session, it is hard to collect feedback afterward and it is hard to commit effectively to the remaining time. A fixed time limit gives you less time for distraction.
Make sure that you have every support you need at the place. For instance, make sure that you have enough beverages at your place. You shouldn’t waste mental energy to figure it out during your deep work session.
Last but not least measure your success and set goals for your deep work session. For instance, a writer can measure the success in words written by time. In turn the measurement needs a fixed commitment to a time limit.
Make an Investment
Cal Newport calls it the “Grant Gesture”. You can make an investment in effort or money for your deep work session.
For instance, it would be a big effort to conduct your deep work session at a different place. You have to make an investment to get to the other place to perform your deep work session. Another grant gesture would be an investment of money. For instance, you can rent a coworking space.
Both investments would be a radical change to your everyday environment. Cal Newport says that “[it] increases the perceived importance of the deep work task”. It is a psychological act of committing to the task.
Collaborate with Others
Deep work doesn’t mean to work alone. You can work with someone else on a task. You can push each other on a new level of deep work. By discussing and thinking about a problem, you will achieve deeper levels of understanding.
It will boost creativity when you expose yourself to others. In a company environment it is called the hub-and-spoke-style arrangement. There you have space for yourself but also space to exchange ideas with others. Companies around the world apply this arrangement for their office infrastructure. They provide space for creativity and deep work. Still you have to be careful about distraction that is the death to deep work. Cal Newport says: “Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.”
Execute like a Business
You can operate similar to a business. For instance, imagine a software product that gets an additional feature. The team will come up with a minimum viable product (MVP) for the feature. But the MVP needs planning. A MVP has by definition a minimum yet valuable outcome. The same planning you would need for your own outcome. You have to “identify a small number of ambitious outcomes”.
Additionally you can identify short and long term objectives. For instance, a short term objective could be to write an article about a topic. The long term objective could be to write a book about the topic. All articles would contribute to a long term objective. I can recommend to read the book The One Thing by Gary Keller. It gives a clear guidance how you can deploy short term objectives that contribute to long term goals.
During your execution keep track of your progress. You can use the explained chain method. Therefore you would need a visual representation of your progress. It can be simple as to have a physical calendar. To track progress enables you to gather feedback about your efforts. Are you on track? Did you have a bad week? Maybe it is time to recalibrate your efforts based on the feedback. On the other hand, when you don’t see something wrong about your progress, it is time to celebrate your achievements.
Take a Nap
Deep work is important. But you have to take breaks from your professional subject. Cal Newport says that by “providing your conscious brain time to rest [you enable] your unconscious mind to take a shift sorting through your most complex professional challenges”.
The attention restoration theory (ART) claims that directed attention is a finite resource. If it exhausts, you will struggle to concentrate. It can be seen quite similar to the finite amount of willpower. The conclusion is that your deep work time per day is limited.
You need time to rest. Therefore you can deploy productive meditations - that’s how Cal Newport calls it - where you do physical work (fitness workout, house cleaning, …) and no mental work. Apart from that research says that spending time in nature improves your ability to concentrate.
End your day with a Shutdown Ritual
After every workday Cal Newport suggests a shutdown ritual. You would have to follow 3 rules:
- (1) the shutdown ritual marks the end of the professional workday, no work can be done after that ritual
- (2) the shutdown ritual needs time, for instance to organize the next day
- (3) the shutdown ritual embraces to leave incomplete tasks
The first rule should be obvious. It goes hand in hand with Take a Nap.
The second rule depends on your ritual. For instance, it makes sense for people to write down incomplete tasks or to schedule the next day. For instance, you can prioritize the tasks of the upcoming day. Only that way you can start the next day with a plan. When your workday ends at 6 pm, you might want to start the shutdown ritual at 5:40 pm.
The third rule uses the benefit of the Zeigarnik Effect. It is “the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention”. You unconscious mind might help you to solve a problem until your next workday starts (Take a Nap). The effect is used by learners as well. When you learn something new within a day, it won’t stick in your mind for long. But when you learn something over many days and keep your unconscious mind busy, you will strengthen the circuits of knowledge in your brain.
How to deal with boredom?
The death of deep work is distraction. When you are in a deep work session, you have to avoid distraction at all cost. Deep work aims “[to improve] your ability to concentrate intensely and [to overcome] your desire for distraction”. You can consciously avoid the desire to open any social media, your E-Mail or instant messenger.
Cal Newport proposes to schedule your breaks: “instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction”. In conclusion it is about planning your deep work session that you can schedule your distraction time in advance.
Have less time
You can reduce your available time. That applies for single deep work sessions to achieve short term objectives yet also for multiple deep work sessions to achieve long term objectives. Give your goals a hard deadline that is lesser than your estimated time. The shallow work will become dispensable when you have less time for the task at hand.
A side-effect is that there will be no boredom when you have a hard to reach deadline. For instance, when you reduce the time for a single deep work session, there is less time for shallow work and other obligations. You will get less distracted and will have to concentrate on the task at hand. The same applies for long term objectives. For instance, you can commit publicly to a task - your long term objective - to force and encourage yourself to achieve the goal.
(Memory) => Concentration
Research shows that a trained memory improves your ability to concentrate. Concentration in turn is the ability to focus your attention and to perform deep work. When you focus your attention, you get less distracted. There are many strategies you can apply to train your memory. Cal Newport, for instance, describes an approach with card memorization. There you have to visualize familiar places and persons. You can use these to associate them with the card to remember. The card memorization is only the learning approach, but you can apply it for general purposes.
Use the right Tools
The goal is to reduce the number of tools you use in your everyday life. Especially those tools that don’t add any value to your life objectives. The hypothesis is that when you have more tools at your hand, the temptation for distraction is higher.
There are two approaches for tool selection by Cal Newport:
“the any-benefit approach to tool selection” - “you’re justified in using a […] tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it”
“the craftmans approach to tool selection” - “adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors [core factors of success and happiness in your life] substantially outweigh its negative impacts”
The craftmans approach seems better suited for deep work. But how to come from the any-benefit approach to the craftmans approach?
Didn’t you already identify the short and long term objectives in your life? You can use these objectives to extract activities to achieve these goals. Once you have extracted the activities, you can evaluate your tools. Do they have an impact on any activity? Do they contribute to it? If not, you can remove these tools from your toolbox.
In addition you can use the law of the vital few. It is also called the 80⁄20 rule or the Pareto’s principle. It says that “in many settings, 80 percent of a given effect is due to just 20 percent of the possible causes”. You can use the law to identify the 20 percent of your tools that have an impact on the 80 percent of your outcome. In the craftmans approach you can get rid of all the other tools, because they would consume the same amount of time than tools with with a greater impact.
Another approach to remove tools from your toolbox is the 30 day experiment. Don’t use all of your tools for 30 days. Once you know that you need a tool for sure during that time period to achieve an objective, you can use the tool and put back into your toolbox.
Plan your Workday ahead
Too often people work on autopilot without knowing what to do next. Cal Newport suggests to divide your hours of your workday into chunks. Each chunk can get assigned to an activity and a time frame. But don’t underestimate the time you need to perform the activity.
The schedule can be used to guide your working day. However you shouldn’t forcefully stick to the schedule. It should only guide you, but you can adjust it during the day. It should leave opportunities for improvisation and encourage spontaneity. The schedule is under strict constraints but it gives space for thoughtfulness. In conclusion you will be more thoughtful and respectful with your time. The shutdown ritual the day before will help you to plan your workday ahead.
Identify the Activity
There exists a neat trick to quantify the depth of each activity beforehand. Ask yourself the question: “How much time would it need to train a junior on the given activity”. Depending on the answer you can scale the activities from shallow to deep work. It will help you for various other lessons learned. For instance to schedule your workday ahead or to identify objectives that would need deep work efforts.
Become hard to reach
You can become hard to reach to avoid shallow obligations. For instance, Cal Newport suggests the sender filter approach to filter potential E-Mail correspondents beforehand. Before you leave your E-Mail address somewhere, you can mention that you will not answer every E-Mail and that you will only act on proposals that are a good match. The effect is that correspondents will filter themselves. They will double check if their request makes sense.
Afterward the pile of unread messages doesn’t generate a sense of obligation. It is a freeing psychology that you don’t need to answer everything. Instead of having an inbox full of burdensome inquiries, the inbox will become a place for opportunities.
Another approach is to use a process-centric response in your mails. You can provide clear next steps, for instance who is doing what, and instructions, for instance about time and location, to make it a closing loop without several intermediate steps of back and forth.
Deep work can be used as a technique to get into a state of flow. The state of flow can be your path in life to accomplish happiness, to be in control of your life and to be independent of social rewards. It can also be your path to accomplish challenges in your professional life.
Let’s dive into the lessons learned about the state of Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Elements of Flow
There are different elements that play together to cause a state of flow. The following part summarizes these elements.
Consciousness enables us to evaluate our actions. Without consciousness we would only use our primary instinct to make decisions. We would gather food when we get hungry. We would sleep when we get tired. Without consciousness we would know what happens around us, but we couldn’t give it any value.
In order to achieve a state of flow we have to gain control over our consciousness. It is a skill to enable a happier life. We can decide where to focus our attention. We are in control which goals we want to achieve. Ultimately we can grow our self.
Your view on the world is the outcome of where you focus your consciousness. If your focus goes to something negative, your worldview will become negative. If your focus goes to something positive, your worldview will become positive. A person can make himself happy regardless of the circumstances surrounding him. It depends on the direction of your attention.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “intentions [are] the force that keeps information in consciousness ordered. Intentions arise in consciousness whenever a person is aware of desiring something or wanting to accomplish something.”
For instance, being hungry and the desire to eat is an intention. It can be driven by our instinct or controlled consciously. Once you can identify the desire of eating, you can control it. Another example can be seen in political protesters who starve themselves to death. The intention to make a idealogical statement overwrites the instinctive instructions in their genes.
Intentions can be led by external rewards too. You can live up to others expectations or you can achieve a higher status in your career. They depend on your social environment.
To conclude, intentions can be driven by needs of the body or external social rewards. When you are in control over your consciousness, you can live for your own intrinsic intentions that lead to personal goals. You can be in control of the sum of your intentions driven by body needs, social rewards and most important personal goals. The latter is the path to make yourself independent of external needs.
Research shows that we are not able to multitask. Our consciousness is limited. For instance, reading a book needs focusing on the content of the book. Whenever you think about something else during your reading session, you might have to read again the last paragraph. That’s why it is valuable to be selective about the information that enters our consciousness.
Attention is the element to select the important from the unimportant bits of available information. “Retrieving information from memory storage and bringing it into the focus of awareness, comparing information, evaluating, deciding - all make demands on the mind’s limited processing capacity.”
Attention is the most important tool to get in a state of flow. You can direct your attention to accomplish your goals effectively.
(Attention, Intention, *) => Self
The self is the sum of everything that went through our consciousness. As a baby the self is very little. The self grows with every experience we make, every action we take and every pain we suffer. The self represents the goals we have accomplished. In that regard, the attention to accomplish goals can be used to grow the self. These elements shape the self. In the other direction the self shapes our attention and goals. When the self grows, the goals may change or stabilize. When the self grows, the ability to use our attention improves.
All these elements - attention, intention, goals and self - can be used to control consciousness and shape our life. It depends on how we invest our attention and how we maneuver it with intentions and goals. The sum of it grows the self. In the other direction the self influences our attention and goals. But it is no self-contained system. The self can be influenced by other events too. These can be events coming from the external environment. However, with all elements in place, you don’t rely solely on external circumstances. You can control your consciousness to live a meaningful life.
Disorder in Consciousness
The attention can become ineffective due to disorder. It can happen because of external circumstances and emotions like pain, fear, rage, anxiety or jealousy. Regardless of which, it will distract the attention from the goals. A grown self can help to prevent disorder in consciousness.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the disorder when “information that conflicts with an individual’s goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters.”
It is an outside event that appears as information to our consciousness without a positive or negative value attached to it. The self interprets the information based on its own goals and evaluates it whether it is harmful. “Every piece of information we process gets evaluated for its bearing on the self. Does it threaten our goals, does it support them, or is it neutral?” For instance, an outside event for a child could be the divorce of its parents. The more independent the self, the more the divorce wouldn’t affect the child.
(Attention, Intention, Self) => Flow
In contrast when there is continuous order in your consciousness you can experience the state of flow. It happens “when the information that keeps coming into awareness is congruent with goals, psychic energy [attention] flows effortlessly. There is no need to worry, no reason to question one’s adequacy. […] The positive feedback strengthens the self, and more attention is freed to deal with the outer and the inner environment.”
The state of flow at its best is when there is no outside threat and the attention can be invested in personal goals to its full potential. “After each episode of flow a person becomes more of a unique individual, less predictable, possessed of rarer skills”. The self can grow when there is order in consciousness.
Enjoyment to increase quality of Life
Most people hope that external circumstances can improve their life. Even though people realize that material success is not a silver bullet for happiness, they follow these social rewards. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that “we engage in an endless struggle to reach external goals, expecting that they will improve life.” But they don’t.
Pleasure is one component in our life to maintain order in the consciousness. It results from activities, like watching TV, that don’t need any attention. It is a passive activity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sees enjoyment as another component in our life. Enjoyment, in contrast to pleasure, can generate a flow experience. For instance, you can eat food with pleasure, because it is a need of your body. Or you can eat food with enjoyment. Mihaly takes a gourmet as an example for a person who enjoys to eat. The gourmet understands each ingredient in a meal and can focus attention to its different sensations. It is an accomplishment to bring up the attention and to experience the diversities in a meal.
Enjoyment is an investment of attention whereas pleasure doesn’t need that investment. It is impossible to enjoy activities like a conversation or a tennis game when you don’t concentrate your full attention on the activity itself.
A lot of people don’t enjoy after a certain phase of life. They get stuck and pleasure becomes the only positive experience. On the other hand, there are people who enjoy their life, because they invest attention for enjoyment. They are life long learners and enjoy every opportunity and challenge to grow their self.
Elements of Enjoyment
In a research experiments by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi et al. people mentioned 8 elements to enjoy an activity:
- the task must be achievable
- the possibility to concentrate on the task must be given
- the task provides clear goals
- the task provides immediate feedback in regard achieving the goals
- the task removes awareness of worries of daily life
- the task enables us to have a sense of being in control
- the self disappears during the task, but becomes stronger after the task
- the duration of time is altered for the task (for instance, 1 hour feels like 15 minutes)
The participants noted that “enjoyment comes at a very specific point: whenever the opportunities for action perceived by the individual are equal to his or her capabilities.”
It can happen in a competition too. The challenge can be an enjoyment. But only when you concentrate on the activity itself rather than beating your opponent or impressing the audience. The self will grow only when you want to perfect a skill rather than earning external rewards. It is when “the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it is not, the attention is focused on its consequences”.
Immerse in the Activity
People mentioned a state of flow when they had to use all their skills to cope with a challenge. They say that their attention immersed in the activity. It is a common result of the state of flow: “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing”.
The state of flow leaves no space for disorder in consciousness. It removes the awareness of the daily life, your worries and dreams, and you lose the sense of your self.
The time in and after the state of flow can be seen as paradox. The self doesn’t grow during the flow session itself, but after it. “In flow a person is challenged to do her best, and must constantly improve her skills. At the time, she doesn’t have the time to reflect on what this means in terms of the self - if she did allow herself to become self-conscious, the experience could not have been very deep. But afterward, when the activity is over and the self-consciousness has a chance to resume, the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements”
Conditions of Flow
Flow activities make it easy to experience a state of flow. Oftentimes they come with the same set of conditions:
- they have clear goals
- they have rules and constraints
- they provide feedback
- they can be controlled
- they facilitate concentration
- they facilitate an intrinsic motivation
The flow channel is surrounded by anxiety and boredom. Depending on challenges and skills in flow activities, a person will feel bored or anxious. For instance, if a challenge is too difficult to perform for a certain skill level, a person will feel anxious. In contrast, when the skill level is higher than the challenge, a person will feel bored. But that’s not a rigid system itself. The self grows, when a person accomplishes a challenge that needs a equivalent level of skill. The next challenge has to be more difficult to stay in the flow channel, because the skill improves.
“Flow is the result of a conscious attempt to master challenges.” People reported that they felt more often in flow at work than in their leisure time. It happens when challenges and skills are both high. “They felt happier, more cheerful, stronger, more active; they concentrated more; they felt more creative and satisfied.”
The irony is that oftentimes work is easier to enjoy than free time. Activities at work have the conditions to experience flow. Free time on the other hand is unstructured. It is a greater effort to shape it and to find and perform flow activities.
Conditions on a community level
A community, whether it is a group of colleagues in your company or a group of people in a gym course or the population of a nation, can support the experience of flow. The community has to provide challenges that match the skill level and goals of its members. Only that way each individual can strive to grow its self and only that way the community can evolve to its full potential.
Conditions on a personal level
Each individual has a different potential to experience flow. For instance, the genetic causes can influence the capabilities to enable flow. Schoolchildren can have a hard time to concentrate in school. It is called attentional disorder. Another example is schizophrenia where people have no control over the information that gets to their attention. In conclusion, not every person has the same requirements to control consciousness.
The State of Flow
On a human beings highest potential, a person is able to translate threats into enjoyable challenges. It supports a person to stay in harmony and to live a satisfied life.
The word autotelic derives from the Greek words auto and telos which mean self and goal. An autotelic experience describes a self-contained activity. It is an activity solely performed for the intrinsic rewards which strengthens the self. Flow is an autotelic experience. “[It] lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy [attention] works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals. When experience is intrinsically rewarding life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain.”
In conclusion, what are the steps for an autotelic experience?
Set goals that are worthwhile to strive for. They can range from short term to long term objectives, but they should be connected to each other. To achieve a goal, you must be aware of the challenges and your skills. If both are in harmony, the self can grow. The challenges and skills will increase equally. To use the skills at their full potential, we have to invest attention and to monitor the feedback.
Immerse in the activity by investing your full attention on the activity at hand. You have to control your concentration with a continuous input of attention. You can grow the self, get less distracted and focus on your goals instead. “The autotelic individual grows beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy [attention] in a system in which she is included. Because of this union of the person and the system, the self emerges at a higher level of complexity.”
Enjoy the experience to set goals, to invest attention and to grow the self. Enjoy the immediate feedback and the control. That way you can escape the external rewards of the daily life. “Flow drives individuals to creativity and outstanding achievement. The necessity to develop increasingly refined skills to sustain enjoyment is what lies behind the evolution of culture.”
Happiness in Life
Goals that have a value to live for make the life meaningful. Short term objectives should lead to long term objectives. “People who find their lives meaningful usually have a goal that is challenging enough to take up all their energies, a goal that can give significance to their lives.”
But the goal alone isn’t the only ingredient. The action is missing. It is the attention that needs to be invested, the enjoyable activity at hand and the growing into a more complex self. “Intent has to be translated into actions.” It is not the goal achieved, it is the energy invested that matters.
The result of the previous steps lead to harmony in consciousness. People who know what they work for and perform it with purpose achieve a inner harmony. The actions and desires are congruent to one another. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says: “Instead of accepting the unity of purpose provided by genetic instructions or by the rules of society, the challenge for us is to create harmony based on reason and choice.”
The lessons learned show us why it can be desirable to achieve a state of flow. Deep work can be an essential technique to master deep satisfaction. In the summary of flow you have learned the elements of it, how to be in control of consciousness and how it can contribute to a happier life.
Personally it was a stunning experience to read both books. I can say it was a flow experience. Both skills, deep work and flow, unfold their full potential in combination. Perhaps they help to achieve eudaimonia - “a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential” - like Cal Newport mentioned.
These were only my lessons learned, but I am curious about yours. If you didn’t read the books yet, I encourage you to read them. I was only able to scratch the surface.
“If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed […]” by Cal Newport.
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