One of the most fascinating phenomena I’ve ever learned about comes from a guy called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He coined the term flow, a mental state of intense focus on a single task where you enjoy it for it’s own sake and lose track of space and time. Our brain has a finite amount of things we can focus on, and the majority of our attention is spent doing what we need to do to survive and just get through the day. We’re multitasking and constantly moving from one thing to another in an unceasing state of preparation for what we’re about to do next. What’s left is a surplus of attention which most people don’t spend very well. We’re tired by the end of the day, so uncommitted attention gets defaulted to low-effort novelties like watching TV or scrolling through facebook.
Having your concentration at this shallow hum is not ideal, but the other end of the spectrum is tunnel vision, hyperfocus – whatever you call it, at some point we’ve all experienced complete immersion and absorption. My dad loves playing guitar, sometimes he plays for 5 or 6 hours and is shocked when the day is gone. You lose reflective self-consciousness and your other needs become negligible – when you’re 100% engrossed in one thing, it means there’s no more attention to be allocated and you forget you need to do things like eat or pee.
So how do you get in that optimal state of performance where your work simply flows out of you without much effort? The interesting thing is that flow doesn’t just happen spontaneously; there are certain conditions that set it up.
- You should be doing an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
- The percieved challenges of the task and your percieved skills should be just about equal. Too easy and you get bored. Too hard and you get discouraged.
- The task must have clear and immediate feedback. You should know how well you’re doing – this helps you negotiate any changing demands and allows you to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state.
It’s not all situational – the capacity to experience flow can differ from person to person. Mihaly suggested that those with ‘’autotelic personalities’’ tend to experience more flow. They’re characterised by meta-skills such as high interest in life, persistence, as well as low self-centeredness. However, evidence shows there are disciplinary skills you can practice to increase your chance of achieving the flow state.
- Eliminate diffused thinking. Close your facebook tab, don’t listen to music while you work, just don’t attempt multitasking.
- Be aware of where your attention goes and force it out of the low, passive energy state. Try to stay present and sharpen it down onto one thing.
Getting distracted is annoying and seems out of your control, but training the stamina of your brain is no different to training the stamina of your body. Becoming aware of where you choose to put your attention is the first step to protecting, channeling and maximising the potential of your mental energy.