The "flow" mind state

June 10, 2020
3 min read

I first learned about the idea of “flow” in a NYT article about happiness, given to me during an “Empathy, Balance, and Inclusion” class at Andover. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. The article talked about college classes on happiness, managing what’s within control and what’s not, books and expert opinions. People care about happiness and some have found frameworks for it, the article tells us, without painting any sort of meaningful picture of what these frameworks were.

Once I had heard of it, though, the idea kept coming up. A friend sent me this video:

“Why I’m able to study 10 hours per day (how to stay focused)”. Mildly clickbait title, but a solid video. This guy’s secret? Get into a sense of flow, he tells us. This is how to overcome all procrastination and distraction and become a productivity beast.

What is flow? “A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state 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,” Wikipedia informs us. This definition doesn’t really help us — focus ⇒ productivity, thanks.

Here’s the insightful bit about flow:

Graph of flow against skill and difficulty. Flow state occurs on the diagonal line rising from bottom left to top right

Source: https://improvingslowly.com/

Think about a high skill, low difficulty task — say you’re a talented watercolor artist, for some reason consigned to painting a simple pattern of solid-colored squares. You’re gonna be bored, absolutely not in a state of flow; only a complex, expressive project — high difficulty to match your high skill — will be fulfilling for you. On the other hand, if you’re just getting started with painting, maybe painting squares as neatly and evenly as possible is a non-trivial task; maybe you find satisfaction in painting them one after another, improving your technique with each blotch of color. The task is now a low skill, low difficulty one, and it becomes possible to achieve a sense of fulfilling focus and engagement. Furthermore, for this low skill artist, tackling a high difficulty project would be unfulfilling, resulting only in frustration or anxiety about not being able to put what’s in their mind down on the canvas.

There’s a whole body of research called positive psychology that the concept of flow is a part of that, full disclosure, I know almost nothing about. As an example, here’s a fuller, more nuanced diagram plotting flow and other mental states against skill and difficulty/challenge:

A more complicated graph showing regions marked flow, anxiety, boredom, relaxation, arousal, and other mind states against skill and difficulty

Source: Wikipedia

There’s lots of interesting stuff here worth diving into, but I’ll limit this post to just a quick reflection on flow. In the past few months, flow has turned from something I dismissed as just another happiness or productivity hack to a somewhat nuanced, frequently applicable framework (or a fragment of one) for thinking about work and focus.

I’ve been working through Kaggle’s machine learning micro-courses, finding myself thrilled by the first few lessons, then quickly trailing off, compulsively switching away to another project or something entirely unproductive when I’m trying to make progress. Why? Starting out, the tutorials were, relative to me, high skill level and high difficulty. I had only basic familiarity with Python and had never used Pandas before, so every other line of code introduced some new syntax or concept. The challenge presented in the tutorials — train a model, pre-process a dataset — was interesting and at first hard to think through as well. I was engaged, determined to learn, and aptly rewarded for my efforts.

Moving on, though, the difficulty remained the same — lots of new concepts and techniques — but the relative skill level decreased as I got my grasp on Python and Pandas. The code itself became uninteresting, leaving only the difficulty of implementation; the work turned to tedium and, as the second chart above identifies, anxiety. I found myself longing to work on a WordPress project instead. I had been bored by a few recent WordPress projects, building essentially static websites for individual clients (high skill of jumping through all of WordPress’s hoops, low difficulty of accomplishing what could have been done with plain HTML/CSS). The vision behind this project, though, was a general-use theme for small newspapers, designed with best practices and ease of use in mind, aspiring to replace The Phillipian’s current website that I had built along with dozens or hundreds of others. I had the skills I needed to tackle this task, and it would push me to make maximum use of them, continuing to get better and learn new things: high skill, high difficulty, like an artist working on their next masterpiece.

In fact, I’m revisiting this post after going ahead and working on this WordPress project — for multiple hours on end, even streamed on Twitch. This was flow. This feels good and, done right, maximizes productivity and learning. This is what I want to achieve as often as possible.

This realization, like any good idea or framework of this broad scope, spawns as many questions as it does answers. How does one deliberately work towards a state of flow? How does flow relate to learning? Does learning necessarily require working outside of the state of flow? Is there some sort of carefully balanced relationship between the two that should be managed for maximum growth and fulfillment?

My understanding of flow is cursory, a thread to follow and a world of knowledge to dive into, but I’ve noted it down as a highly practical, applicable idea to make use of.