23 votes

What are some activities that put you in a state of 'flow'?

For those of you who may be unaware of 'flow', here is how it is described in Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow:

Fortunately, cognitive work is not always aversive, and people sometimes expend considerable effort for long periods of time without having to exert willpower. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done more than anyone else to study this state of effortless attending, and the name he proposed for it, flow, has become part of the language. People who experience flow describe it as "a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems," and their descriptions of the job of that state are so compelling that Csikszentmihalyi has called it an "optimal experience." Many activities can induce a sense of flow, from painting to racing motorcycles - and for some fortunate authors I know, even writing a book is often an optimal experience. Flow neatly separates the two forms of effort: concentration on the task and the deliverate control of attention. Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.

For me, I would say getting into a just difficult enough programming problem or working on a data analysis can put me in this state where hours can slip away in the blink of an eye. The same thing for a game of Civilization V can do the same thing for me.

11 comments

  1. [2]
    balooga
    Link
    Related to the concept of flow in gaming is what's known as the Tetris effect. When you play enough of a game in a flow state of consciousness, its thought patterns linger in your subconsciousness...

    Related to the concept of flow in gaming is what's known as the Tetris effect. When you play enough of a game in a flow state of consciousness, its thought patterns linger in your subconsciousness long after you turn the game off. I've experienced this with Pac-Man, Dance Dance Revolution, and (naturally) Tetris Effect.

    Edit to add non-gaming examples: I listen to podcasts while doing mundane chores around the house. I definitely get into an autopilot-like mode and lose track of time while going through the motions. Things like cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming, in particular.

    Also programming. Reading a novel probably qualifies too.

    11 votes
    1. chembliss
      Link Parent
      Is that related to "retina burn"? When I was little I liked to pick up ants and put them in a jar (not the nicest thing to do, I know), and after doing that for a couple of hours I would see...

      Is that related to "retina burn"? When I was little I liked to pick up ants and put them in a jar (not the nicest thing to do, I know), and after doing that for a couple of hours I would see shadow-like ants running around every time I closed my eyes or even blinked. I read later that it's called "retina burn", and it has happened to me again lately while looking for medicinal plants, I see rapidly moving shapes of the plants I'm looking for as soon as I close my eyes (after an hour or two of looking for them).

      3 votes
  2. [3]
    determinism
    Link
    I do mechanical design for a living and computer programming as a hobby. Both of these activities make the days seem very short. Both activities involve some sort of top-down planning period and...

    I do mechanical design for a living and computer programming as a hobby. Both of these activities make the days seem very short. Both activities involve some sort of top-down planning period and then an inversion of that where I have to fill in the details and solidify things. In mechanical design it's a literal inversion as I'll take a set of components that are "mated" to some reference point in an assembly and work from the end-effector down to some structural member or base plate - then I'll have to break that reference and re-mate things from the bottom up. This is done to make the design more robust but also allow it to be parametric. In programming, it's more about defining requirements and prototyping. There are way more iterations. It feels really good to finish either of these tasks. Some things that break this "flow" are when I need to research the form or function of a purchased component or when I realize that I've made some bad assumptions and have to rework or refactor the design.

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      thejumpingbulldog
      Link Parent
      Say I don't know if you will be able to answer this, but I'm trying to learn solidworks. What would you recommend to be the best way to learn it?

      Say I don't know if you will be able to answer this, but I'm trying to learn solidworks. What would you recommend to be the best way to learn it?

      1. determinism
        Link Parent
        I learned it as an intern about a decade ago. I think they gave me a solid 2 weeks of time to focus on doing the tutorials before feeding me some real design tasks. I thought this was a good...

        I learned it as an intern about a decade ago. I think they gave me a solid 2 weeks of time to focus on doing the tutorials before feeding me some real design tasks. I thought this was a good approach at the time.

        Most of the interns at my current employer come with some Solidworks experience from their university but very little knowledge of best practices for machinability or assembly. They know the tool but can't really design very well yet. I guess it just depends on your level of experience. Have you used other CAD packages or other 3D modeling software before?

        After you get a rudimentary sense of the tools, you start learning best practices for your application. At that stage, the Solidworks Forums are probably the best place to peruse. There are some 20+ year veterans who post regularly. There are modeling competitions where people attempt to design around some "prompt" in the shortest time and with the least number of features. The results can be pretty interesting.

        3 votes
  3. Omnicrola
    Link
    As a developer, I've had coworkers complain about interruptions and meetings as disrupting their flow. I roll my eyes at this. Achieving a state of flow is great when possible, but expecting that...

    As a developer, I've had coworkers complain about interruptions and meetings as disrupting their flow. I roll my eyes at this. Achieving a state of flow is great when possible, but expecting that to be the norm in a team environment, or believing that no real work gets done unless you can achieve flow is setting yourself up for frustration and failure. It's like writers who "wait for their muse" before writing. When in fact the most productive and successful writers will tell you that the key to getting good writing done is to consistently sit down and write something.

    2 votes
  4. Diet_Coke
    Link
    Used to happen for me when I played tennis. I think climbing gets me there now. Both cases are physical activities where you have to use a bit of brain power to strategize and very quickly plan...

    Used to happen for me when I played tennis. I think climbing gets me there now. Both cases are physical activities where you have to use a bit of brain power to strategize and very quickly plan your next move.

    1 vote
  5. VoidOutput
    Link
    For me, it happens when I have an idea for a website design and then I get to code it. I get into this extremely fast loop of coding and reloading to see the results. Exploring different design...

    For me, it happens when I have an idea for a website design and then I get to code it. I get into this extremely fast loop of coding and reloading to see the results. Exploring different design ideas as I go and how to get to the end result with the set of tools I'm given. When I have some music on, I can really get into that zone where all that exist are ideas, I don't even think about typing or even CSS properties, things just happen. Experiences like this have decreased in frequency in the past years but I always appreciate the feeling.

    1 vote
  6. Algernon_Asimov
    Link
    Strangely, I enjoy writing user documentation. I might put off getting started, but once I'm into it, it just flows for me. Does reading books count? That has been known to keep me focussed...

    Strangely, I enjoy writing user documentation. I might put off getting started, but once I'm into it, it just flows for me.

    Does reading books count? That has been known to keep me focussed without distraction.

    I'd say acting counts. When I was on stage, I just had to give myself over to the activity. I could only focus on the immediate moment: this line, the next line. There was no self-control involved in maintaining my attention on the activities on stage because everything moved so quickly from one line to another to another. My whole self was right there, in that moment. Of course, this required rehearsing and practising lines often enough that I'd memorised them. If I was stopping to figure out the next line, that broke the focus. But when the lines were there, the focus was there.

    1 vote
  7. kfwyre
    Link
    Writing. I have a chronic problem where I write novella-length comments on Tildes, and it's because when I'm writing I get into my flow state and everything else just sort of goes away. It's just...

    Writing.

    I have a chronic problem where I write novella-length comments on Tildes, and it's because when I'm writing I get into my flow state and everything else just sort of goes away. It's just me, my thoughts, and the mental navigation required to put them into words. I lose track of time, I forget about the outside world, and I'm not even aware that I'm typing.

    Interestingly enough, this comment is not a good example of something I've written in a flow state simply because I'm now being all metacognitive about it, which is surprisingly inhibiting. Nevertheless, I have plenty of other comments on the site with 1000+ wordcounts, and it's not that I set out to write something that long initially, it's more that I started typing and the flow took me for a trip down a very wordy river.

    1 vote