What to do: Get into the Flow

Mal | Art Process and Creativity | Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Colored wall

I recently reviewed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi describes what he calls “optimal experience” — being so involved in an activity that you lose sense of time, place, and self. Others call it the Zone. For most of us creative types, I think this flow experience is what keeps us coming back and back and back to our projects.

But, flow as described in the book is not just “having a nice time.” It is a powerful force, and can contribute to better mental health, greater individual complexity, and growth.

Following a flow experience, the organization of the self is more complex than it had been before. It is by becoming increasingly complex that the self might be said to grow. Complexity is the result of two broad psychological processes: differentiation and integration. Differentiation implies a movement toward uniqueness, toward separating oneself from others. Integration refers to its opposite: a union with other people, with ideas and entities beyond the self. A complex self is one that succeeds in combining these opposite tendencies. (page 41)

Csikszentmihalyi outlines the elements of a flow experience — the requirements or steps that must be taken in order to achieve it. Based on his research, flow is broken down into 8 components:

  1. A challenging activity that requires skill but is achievable.
  2. The merging of action and awareness.
  3. Clear goals.
  4. Immediate feedback.
  5. Concentration on the task at hand (which “removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life).
  6. A sense of control over your actions.
  7. Loss of self-consciousness.
  8. Transformation of time.

The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it. (page 49)

It seems to me that items 1-6 are at least somewhat in our control, and are elements that we can manipulate and employ in the service of achieving flow, while items 7-8 are really measures of the flow experience. They are indicators that we have achieved flow.

Utilizing these principles, I’ve been able to make deeper and more powerful connections to everything from my artwork and writing to watching sports with friends and enjoying a concert from a performer whose music I didn’t know.

I’ll spend some time over the next few weeks talking about some of these elements in more detail, but for now maybe we canĀ take some time to consider the importance of goals, feedback, and internal locus of control can be on our enjoyment of activities. These elementsĀ are fairly inherent in art-making of all kinds. In some ways, we are lucky to have such a powerful tool for growth and change at our fingertips.

What about you? Please share with us — when did you last experience flow? What were you doing? How did it feel?


  1. I’ve never known it had a particular name (or even specific characteristics) before, but after reading what you and Dr. Csikszentmihalyi have to say about flow and the creative process, I realized that it’s something I achieve nightly with my various art or writing projects. It’s useful to have it in black-and-white to go to in case of creative emergencies!

    Comment by Tiph — 22 July 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  2. We learned about flow in my education classes for my master’s in instructional technology, and it’s such an awesome concept. I experience flow often when working on website design – when we started learning about it, I immediately thought, this has happened to me! I know this experience! such great stuff!

    Comment by Carrie — 23 July 2009 @ 6:44 am

  3. I wish I discovered you before I retired (art teacher, middle school). I have to admit that I’m not much on reading theory and philosophy, I skim mostly and only read in depth when something pops out at me. Being a visual person, your picture immediately caught my eye. I love this 3-D idea. This would be a fun group project.

    Comment by Janet Lucas — 23 July 2009 @ 8:04 am

  4. I have been missing that flow experience in my art making lately and looking for a way back in. I wonder what makes us not have it and am always looking for concrete ways to get it back. I am glad you are writing about this subject. Thank you!

    Comment by Debbie — 23 July 2009 @ 8:43 am

  5. This is so fascinating, After a spell where I had lost the flow within my creativity I think it’s on the way back. Thanks for this post!

    Comment by Jules — 24 July 2009 @ 11:42 am

  6. That’s a great book! I’ve got it, and read it years ago. I’m fortunate that in my creative life, I’m skilled enough to enter Flow whenever I get to work in my studio. For me, time just falls away, I don’t hear the music from the radio, and it’s generally a feeling of peace. It helps me recharge, and de-stress.

    Comment by Lynne — 8 December 2009 @ 4:13 pm

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