Flow

What is flow? Can we find it in our projects?

This blog summarises several accounts from academics in psychology and neuroscience on the subject of flow. To which I then add some context as I believe it can apply to projects and outlined using v | b | t.

the positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This blog is prompted by an observation and a question asked of a correspondent friend on LinkedIn. Who posted a ponderance as to whether the feelings of flow has a place in more group activity. It is a question I have been pondering for a while. Others have been writing of it for decades.

First, I need to introduce the two scholars of note by summaries of their work I hereafter refer:

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyl
  • John Vervaeke

I begin with a summary of key matters on the phenomena of flow

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Flow: the psychology of optimal experience.” (1990)

The book is written in ten chapters, of which I will offer some detail from chapter 4, “Conditions of flow”. For context the ten chapters read as follows:

  1. Happiness revisited
  2. The anatomy of consciousness
  3. Enjoyment and quality of life
  4. Conditions of flow
  5. The body in flow
  6. The flow of thought
  7. Work as flow
  8. Enjoying solitude and other people
  9. Cheating chaos
  10. The making of meaning

Chapter 4 – conditions of flow

Individual conditions to enable flow

pp71, Chapter 4, the Conditions of flow. The conditions within us to achieve flow are briefly summarised. The opening paragraph presents heightened concentration; lost self-consciousness; a sense that skill set is adequate in ability, relevant to task, and under control. Control in this context presented as a rule-bound action system with clear clues as to the quality of performance of task (ibid pp71). In flow, the activity becoming one performed for its own sake, in of itself the reason.

The autotelic personality

These personal traits or characteristics are what become referred to as the autotelic personality. Pp83 makes contrast to the autotelic personality, i.e., opposite traits are presented. These are traits of those of us unlikely or just incapable of flow. Reasoned by their inability to deny distractions from task focus. By one extreme, the schizophrenic’s curse of being compelled to take note of all feeling and need, without choice. By the other extreme, the excessively self-conscious person so concerned for their imagined appearance to others that the task itself cannot be central in attendance (ibid pp84). Both the inner compulsion or the outer more concern present a lacking of the “attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake” (ibid pp85).

attentional fluidity needed to relate to activities for their own sake

What it is to be autotelic (Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990 pp85)

Flow channel – between boredom and anxiety

In all cases of flow there is an expanded complexity to our conscious experience, not so much as to cause anxiety, but enough to overstep thresholds of predictability and boredom (ibid pp74). To which Csikszentmihalyi offers an idea of a flow channel where the levels of skill required are such as to keep us beyond boredom. These skills applied to challenge that is manageably difficult. i.e., presenting enough difficulty to be keep our interest but below a point that anxiety of the scale of challenge consumes our calm. By this 2D measure, an increasing challenge is needing of more skill, and vice-versa (pp74).

Situational conditions to enable flow

Next, the conditions of the activity are examined. pp72 flow activities are described as paramount reality being felt toward optimal experiences in everyday life. Therein pp72, citing Roger Caillois’ four categories of game play to outline a range of activity that can enable a state of flow:

  • Agon (competitive games);
  • Alea (games of chance);
  • ilinx (vertigo – situations that challenge balance or altered body need)
  • Mimicry (as anything altering the reality or context such as the arts)

Csikszentmihalyi is presenting each category as requiring us to expand the edges or boundary condition of one form of our ordinary perception. From the four categories stated these expansions are outlined as: elevating skills to meet those encountered of an opponent; elevating our sense of future focus; the shuffling of different sense perceptions or the altered focus of consciousness we perceive; or temporary transformation into something other than ourselves (ibid pp73).

Scaled up to societal levels

For Csikszentmihalyi, this is also more than a singular experience, reflecting upon flow at much greater scale. Outlined in terms of culture, nation, and therefore whole populations being more at one with a great task. These can be moments of great focus or adversity. Wars, building of great wonder, eras of great advancement, discovery, and change. The common theme being that the individual or the group is brought back to the moment. Less distracted by what else may otherwise demand our attention or want more of our time.

Contextual denying conditions (Anomie or alienation)

Structural impediments are also outlined. At sociological levels these are referenced as anomie (lack of rules) and alienation.

Anomie could arise from great upheaval where societal norms are lost or collective circumstance changes without clarity of what that now means. Periods of sudden mass wealth, mass poverty, or displacement, or falsification of truths, all equally able to remove any clarity on what is permitted and what is not.

Alienation being the opposite, as an overly constrained set of rules oppressively forced upon a people in ways that contravene their beliefs and goals (pp86).

These are sociological and therefore situational or contextual conditions for flow but structural conditions can also be considered as blocks to flow within each of us.

Personal denying conditions

Neuroscience and psychology are then revisited from pp86. Some people shown to have attentions towards concentration more than others. Cortical activations and “evoked potentials” from senses other than those being used in a task being more active and therefore more able to distract in some people, than others. Compared to the more able to concentrate more singularly on the task at hand.

Crucially, this was not deemed to be genetic or predisposed, but potentially a learned skill in of itself (pp88). By way of further examination Csikszentmihalyi then proceeds to consider the role family and early years learning can have on this learned phenomena in later life. Not however to deny us the potential for flow, but simply to have not presented environments where it is naturally able to be encouraged.

People of flow

The chapter concludes with a brief examination of examples of people who have achieved noteworthy outcomes attributable to flow.

Those people who faced up to moments or lives subjected to great ordeal but who not only survived but thrived by their experience. Richard Logan cited as finding a connection between such accounts as those who “found ways to turn bleak objective conditions into subjectively controllable experience.

Blueprint of flow activities

Here Csikszentmihalyi presents a common theme that connects them all.

“blueprint of flow activities.

[1] First, they paid close attention to the most minute details of their environment, discovering in it hidden opportunities for action that matched what little they were capable of doing, given the circumstances.

[2] Then they set goals appropriate to their precious situation, and closely monitored progress through the feedback they received.

[3] Whenever they reached their goal, they upped the ante, setting increasingly complex challenges for themselves.”

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1990, pp90

To which he concludes with a uniting observation that the many examples of those incarcerated who find flow “even though the person is objectively a slave, subjectively [they] are free” (ibid pp92).

In wider survival stories where the adversity is the threat of the environment itself, this was similarly deemed most survivable by those applying themselves in manner akin to flow.

“intrinsically motivated by their actions, they are not easily disturbed by the external threat. With enough psychic energy free to observe and analyse their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action. If we were to consider one trait a key element of autotelic personality, this might be it.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) pp92

Chapter 4 concludes with a pithy reflection upon some being more naturally, or more fortunate in early learning, to be adept at managing themselves in this way. But also reflects upon how everyone can build their skills towards the goal of more flow, in body, in mind, in group or isolation, in work and in play. Ultimately, in life.

This is the natural segway to introduce some contemporary work by another psychologist of note. John Vervaeke, and some of his recent attempts to present these ideas to a mass audience. And who’s polymath interests and subject cross-pollinations have certainly influenced me.

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John Vervaeke

John Vervaeke PhD is described on his YouTube channel as an award-winning lecturer at the University of Toronto in the departments of psychology, cognitive science and Buddhist psychology. Amongst his contemporary series of work three presents detailed psychologically relevant material that make reference to flow:

The elusive I further introduces concepts such as recursive resonance realisation which I will revisit in later blogs.

Flow in meditative practice

During the early days of the Covid Crisis, Vervaeke launched a meditative series that combined his cognitive science teachings and practices of meditation and contemplation. The third lesson (dharma day) addresses flow, as part of the initial setting up of any meditative practice. The whole practice being taught (lessons one through to ten) ultimately become a basic series of meditative practice intended to slowly train the mind to become more agile between externally focused contemplative focus, and inner meditative practice. This practice intentionally becoming gradually and increasingly a skilled discipline of increasing challenge that requires modal agility between extremes of inner and external address. In lesson six he advises cognitive science is indicating it is this observational modality that offers the benefits with mindfulness, a very effective way of gaining new insight.

Awaking from the meaning crisis – series

This is an epic series of lectures. Ideas of flow but a small part of much wider reaching ideas. Flow features in the following episodes.

Meaning Crisis Part 1. Meaning is a key to life.

What wisdom connects life meaning and self-transcendence? Building on the ideas of shifting the mind early roles of Shaman, flow state, mystical experience and subset as awakening experiences this episode reflects upon sources of meaning and insight which can be compared to the Csikszentmihalyi referenced stretching of boundary conditions of our ordinary perception.

Meaning Crisis part 2 Flow as a metaphor

Being in the zone. Demanding tasks that go just beyond the skill state. Skill improvements and increasing challenge are presented as being the basic engagement qualities that keep us focused on virtual realities – flow state being central to the video game. This is presented as a deeply positive experience. Which Vervaeke argues this to be a directly connected experience akin to what is sought in finding meaning in life.

Vervaeke’s suggestion (00:27:15) is the three means of gaining the better insight are the same three factors that enable flow state: clear feedback; tight coupling with environment; and error matters. He argues that implicit learning and flow sit in the same conditions of cognitive effectiveness. And these become self reinforcing. Because these insights are intuitive the sense of loss of self can be disconcerting or in the Shaman context “otherly”. In cognitive science this is parts of the brain talking that otherwise do not. The metaphor “to bridge”, reflected upon language as a means share meaningful experience. Better language becomes intertwined with metaphor – which is revisited in Part 3 as language complexifies to enhance trust in the message and how in touch this is with reality. All aiding to the possibility of the flow state.

Part 9 – Insight

Mindfulness introduced as the means to use attentional scaling between inner detail and external reality and back. Optimising between the two enables prajna or non-duality to bring an enhanced realness and meaning. Higher states of flow. [The more expanded exploration of these concepts referenced in the meditative series highlighted above.]

Part 10 – Consciousness

Salience landscape cf.  Wallace L Matson “sentience”.  The salience of information is what Matson calls ‘sizing up’.  This is a ‘featurisation’ and ‘foregrounding’ in a recurring process that configures i.e., figurisation, all recurring until the problem is suitably framed.  This dynamical system has three or four levels of recurrence becoming a highly textured and flowing landscape of problem framing.

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How can we move our teams into flow state?

Returning now to the question which prompted this outline of flow. There are key characteristics described which can be reset against our engagements as teams, and in broader context, how we perform collectively or opposed in project environments.

Csikszentmihalyi present two key factors which can be considered in any project setting, of which I split the needed control as a third:

First, nurturing autotelic traits

First the traits of the autotelic personality. Heightened concentration; lost self-consciousness; a sense that skill set is adequate in ability, relevant to task, and under control (Csikszentmihalyi pp71).

Second, providing situational arenas of flow

Second is the situational conditions that encourage flow states. Which Csikszentmihalyi describes by way of the boundary condition of one form of our ordinary perception being challenged. Such as the competition between players, the means of contemplating future outcome; acuity toward the specific information of relevance without distraction; or the means to temporarily live as another to expand perspective.

Third, create flow channels via the right kinds of control

Thirdly, is the manner of keeping the balance of skills demands and challenge to keep teams in the flow channel. Given the key needs of focus, freedom to be, and the sense of psychological safety to be at the edge of skills to challenge, this increases the need to have clarity on appropriate control. Control in this context presented as by Csikszentmihalyi as rule-bound action system with clear clues as to the quality of performance of task. To which Vervaeke might argue is necessarily focused upon clear feedback; tight coupling with environment; and a retained sense of error rates matter.

The conditions for flow restated as v | b | t

Visibility | b | t

autotelic need for clarity of goal; observe and analyse their surroundings objectively, they have a better chance of discovering in them new opportunities for action; situational need for a real time acuity and wider context; closeness of leadership to action to retain the visibility to offer the necessary feedback and checking for error and regular feedback.

v | behaviour | t

autotelic heightened concentration; situational sense that skill set is adequate in ability; enabling adaptability for retained tight coupling with environment; shared vigilance and retained sense of error rates matter; necessarily presenting means for self-management, developing skills over time, and means to not interrupt project momentum when in the right flow channel. This would also mean the checking and feedback was also adaptable, and task challenge and skill orientated to enable project learning, team development, and means to measure, maintain, and improve.

v | b | trust

the autotelic traits all demand a heightened sense of trust. A trust in each other. A trust that focus on the task is not at the expense of missed danger from outside. A trust that mistakes are to be called out early, dealt with and corrected, against clear metrics, and fair feedback and recognised betterment in time. Trust that allows lost self-consciousness is to have psychological safety, trust in the shared respect of peers, and trust in the transparency of leadership upholding the standards to which all are equally judged. A team in flow, in the flow channel, is high energy, but necessarily making and correcting mistakes. Trust must also be shared and enable anxiety at challenge to quickly be reassured by the action orientated correction. This is therefore tied into the clarity of rules, training, and governance, that enables the sense that skill set is adequate in ability, current and therefore relevant to task, and under corrective control.

Concluding remarks

How many of us in construction, or wider project management per se, can read these descriptions of a state of flow and see our project environments and controls encouraging these traits? Who reads the Construction Playbook and see this environment being developed at our next generation of projects are born? Who amongst us sees the command and control manner of management as harnessing these flow channels to match challenge to skills?

These concepts are not new. But the questions are asked regularly and anew. Phrases I have in mind are notions of being like “a military operation” or “like a machine” or “acting as one”. There is more to say here, more to compare. Notably the striking similarity some of these traits reflect when describing the traits of the HRO (High Reliability Organisation).

HROs and Flow is a write for another day. For now, perhaps I need some feedback of my own. And a moment to regain my flow…

About Me

In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.

Find my professional mask here: