At some point in your life, you’ve probably watched a river flow through a forest or meadow. Or maybe you’ve seen the tide of the ocean roll back and forth. Did you notice how effortlessly the law of gravity was at work?
Now, have you ever found yourself in the midst of an activity that you really enjoy and the hours seem like minutes? Maybe you’re reading an amazing book or playing a sport or musical instrument. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “flow”-that is, a state of deep absorption in an activity that is intrinsically enjoyable; in other words, to the person acting, the activity is worth doing for its own sake.
Engagement is a synonym for flow in a long term context. This is what teachers talk about when they see their students’ faces consistently light up or hands raised in class. “They’re engaged in the learning process.” It’s what company owners look for in employees: investment in the product, passion and commitment. They say that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life. People who never “work” (in the drudgery sense of the word) are highly engaged in their job. They get lost in it and they love the work for its own sake.
Now what if there was a way to increase the level of flow or engagement and thus your motivation, into your work, school or everyday activities?
Let’s get real. Pick an area of your life where your motivation could use a kick in the pants. Is it your job? A class? A relationship? A hobby or skill? Check out this research and choose one concept that will help you experience more flow. Ready?
Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, an experimental psychologist, has published dozens of studies on engagement in various settings and has developed what he calls Flow Theory. The most important contributor to flow, he says, is to match the skills of the person with the challenge of the activity. If you make the activity too hard, they will be overwhelmed. If you make it too easy, they’ll be bored. Many people intuitively grasp this concept, but fail to maximize its use effectively in everyday life.
Say you have a dream to run a marathon. What is your skill level? If you try to run ten miles in one shot, will you get overwhelmed and not want to run again? If you run one mile a day, would you get bored with your goal? If you jog just beyond your running comfort zone—just enough to push yourself without burning out—you will stay engaged in the task.
Other contributors to flow may be less intuitive. John Steele and Clive Fullagar studied the connection between flow and four characteristics in the school lives of 137 college students and found all of the following to be statistically significant. Think of that part of your life that needs a kickstart and ask yourself these questions:
- Autonomy—How much freedom do you give yourself in the process and pace of the activity?
- Role Clarity—Do you understand what is expected of you?
- Feedback—Are you asking for and getting constructive advice on your progress?
- Physical Health—Are you in good physical shape? Do you have enough energy?
Have you found a concept that might help you increase your flow? How can you put it into action?
Granted, there are some scenarios where some of these ideas may not help you. For example, perhaps your workplace has well established rules on your schedule and deadlines, so your autonomy is limited. In some cases, you may not be able to completely change things, but you can influence. Perhaps you didn’t get the feedback on your school paper that you needed. You can visit your professor and ask for additional thoughts. The ultimate rule of thumb is to focus on what you can control. Choose the concept which gives you the most power to make changes. And don’t forget to allow time for activities that naturally bring flow into your life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to comment about what you learned and your action plan.
Want to know more? Check these out:
A TED Talk: Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness
A Book: Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
A Peer Reviewed Study: “Facilitators and Outcomes of Student Engagement in a College Setting” by Steele, J. P., & Fullagar, C. J. (2009). Journal of Psychology, 143(1), 5-27.