The Psychology of Optimal Experience

“The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness.  This happens when psychic energy-or attention- is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action.” 

-Flow by Mihaly (No I did not just suffer a stroke) Csikszentmihalyi 

In this post we’re going to lay a cornerstone to unfucking your life.  If you’re a regular reader of business or self-help books you’ve most likely run across the concept of flow in one form or another.  Today we’re going straight to the source to take a closer look.

What Is Flow?

The book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience,  defines flow as:

Flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.  – Flow

Here’s a more helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.”

If you’re having trouble grasping those definitions then check out the documentary Free Solo.  On the surface it’s about a famous climber named Alex Honnold who free climbs (no ropes, safety equipment, and no fucks given) El Capitán, a massive vertical rock face that will make your palms sweat just thinking about being out there with no safety equipment. 

In reality the directors take the audience under the hood of a guy who’s so completely dialed in on who he is, what he does, and how he does it that he can take what are unthinkable risks to virtually every other person walking the planet, repeatedly push all his chips in, and then come out on top every single time.

The Process

Alright, now we know what flow is, but how do we get there?  Here are the eight major steps to achieving flow:

“First, the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.  Second, we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.  Third and fourth, the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback.  Fifth, one acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.  Sixth, enjoyable experiences allow people to exercise a sense of control over their actions.  Seventh, concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.  Finally, the sense of the duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours.” – Flow

Those are good, if a little abstract, let’s look at a more pragmatic approach from later in the book:

“Even the simplest physical act becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow. The essential steps in this process are: a) to set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible; b) to find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen; c) to keep concentrating on what one is doing, and to keep making finer and finer distinctions in the challenge involved in the activity; d) to develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and e) to keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.” – Flow

Let’s break down an example, and let’s say your flow activity of choice is reading (because it’s the most popular one). The process would look something like this: 

  1. You pick out  a book on Amazon or from the library.
    1. A non-fiction book will (hopefully) answer a question you had or teach you something new.
    2. A fiction book will entertain.
  2. Progress is measured in pages or chapters.
  3. If the book is well written, a non-fiction book will keep the reader’s attention while answering a question or world/character build for a fiction book. 
    1. The reader will then use what was written earlier in the book to make finer and finer distinctions as the book’s narrative moves forward.
  4. As the book progresses the reader will have developed a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the facts or the narrative.
  5. The reader will walk away satisfied or dig in further on the topic with a new book/read the next installment in the series (or fanfic/fan art/rule34 for you degenerates/etc.)

(Infuriatingly the text editor doesn’t have (or I can’t find) alphabetical lists out of the box, only numerical. The 1 corresponds with the a) and so on and so forth.)

For avid readers (or substitute your flow activity of choice) this process can play out on a subconscious level.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But it’s also important to have the process laid out in it’s component pieces, ready to be called upon if needed.  This way you always have the option to take an active role and deliberately deepen your flow experiences or apply the process elsewhere to turn other activities into flow inducing ones.

Next time you’re at work see where you can set a goal, systemize, practice, improve, and repeat.  

Build Your Fortress On A Solid Foundation

The Fortress, for most people, will be Sunday Night – Friday Morning.  It’s the work week and generally speaking it’s more predictable than the weekends.  Build time for your flow activity into this time, preferably in the morning during your A.M. Routine (AMR).

Don’t go crazy right away, start with 10 or 15 minutes and work your way up.  Each increase in time will have an opportunity cost elsewhere.  Decide up front what you’re going to do less of (social media, TV, video games) to make sure you have enough time. 

That’s all for today, next week we’re going to build on the concepts in this post and break down the AMR.

See y’all next Monday,


Enjoy this article? Take a look at our Who Moved My Cheese review, our article on sequential tasking, or read 6 Deep Work quotes to increase your productivity!

Leave a Comment