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What is Flow? The State of Effortless Effort

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In 1975, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly termed a state where one is fully focused on an activity, ‘Flow’. He was fascinated with how artists and sportsmen were so engrossed in what they do that they could disregard food or other activities that could obstruct their purpose. But what is flow?

Csikszentmilhaly was on a search on what makes humans happy. He was fascinated by how some professionals could be so lost in their work that they thrive and take up challenges without being impeded by obstacles. They were not driven by extrinsic rewards such as money or fame. Rather, there is an intrinsic purpose to what they do – to better themselves in what they choose to do within or to perfect the art piece, for example, a painter is working on. I chose the image of Pablo Picasso at work because his eyes focused on the work he was doing was something that I could not forget. He was in a state where nothing else mattered except for the painting he was working on at that moment.

Conditions of Flow

There are a few conditions in order for the state of flow to manifest. Although the flow state can be achieved in any activity, it cannot be an active state. Such as going for a bath where an individual purposely tries to enter into a flow. Rather, Csikszentmihaly said one needs to wholeheartedly be performing a task for intrinsic purposes in order for this state to take place. There are many other conditions stated by other psychologists including Csikzentmihaly which I will not go into here. You can read the book “Flow” if you are curious. The book, however, states that in the economy of action, an effort is required. Effort is energy expanded on a task. In order to expand that energy, attention is required. We can assume here that attention is the fuel for effort. To be in a flow, an individual’s attention is not impeded by other states, in particular boredom, apathy, and anxiety (stress).

Criticism of the Flow State

However, there has been criticism of the conditions and measurement of flow. The psychologists came up with The Experience Fluctuation Model to measure different levels of perceived challenges and perceived skills. The flow state is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher than average challenge and the individual has above-average skills to perform it. But this model does not explain why some individuals whose skills surpass challenges could do the task with enjoyment, relaxation, and happiness.

The Effortless Effort

In my own view, mindfulness added to what the positive psychologists call flow can be experienced in every activity – even though it takes some effort or an active state to train the mind. What is flow with mindfulness? Since this is a state that is uninfluenced by unhelpful emotions such as boredom, anxiety, or apathy, the presence of a mindful mental state would keep these heavy emotions away for one to perform his or her task – be it showering, eating or working in a state of effortless effort. Just as someone needs to build his/her skills to be above average to perform a higher than average challenging task – and this could be someone in a factory assembly line challenging himself to complete his task quicker than the day before – mindfulness too can be built. Mindfulness is a state of being present and we all aren’t good at it. But it is a mental skill that can be built.

Learning to Pay Attention

Have you noticed how little attention you pay to any tasks in our age of social media and information overload? If attention is the fuel for effort, much of our fuel is taken away by many people everywhere trying to grab our attention. If we can resist our urge to keep doing for the sake of doing something (taking our attention away from the present moment), we can actually save energy, for something that matters to us. Or, it could be used to live a life with effortless effort no matter what we are doing. Putting in effort without much effort in all that we do, in a relaxed way helps us enjoy our life moment to moment without the impediment of uncertainties disrupting our attention. Being in this state can also transform those around us as they become a witness to this sublime state of being.

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