What is the meaning and importance of focused motivation in the concept of flow?

Flow is a state of optimal experience characterized by intense focus, effortless action, and a deep sense of enjoyment. In order to achieve flow, one must possess a strong sense of motivation. Focused motivation, in particular, plays a crucial role in the concept of flow as it allows individuals to fully immerse themselves in an activity and perform at their best. In this essay, we will explore the meaning and importance of focused motivation in the concept of flow and how it can lead to enhanced performance, personal growth, and overall well-being.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Colloquial terms for this or similar mental states include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or keeping your head in the game.


Components of flow

Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following ten factors as accompanying an experience of flow

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.



Flow is so named because during Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 interviews several people described their “flow” experiences using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. The psychological concept of flow as becoming absorbed in an activity is thus unrelated to the older phrase, go with the flow.



The study of the concept of flow came about in the 1960s. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is considered to be the founder of flow, and his fellow researchers began researching flow after Csikszentmihayli became fascinated by artists who would essentially get lost in their work. Artists, especially painters, got so immersed in their work that they would disregard their need for food, water and even sleep. Thus, the origin of research on the theory of flow came about when Csikszentmihayli tried to understand this phenomenon experienced by these artists. Flow research became prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, still with Csikszentmihayli and his colleagues in Italy at the forefront. Researchers interested in optimal experiences and emphasizing positive experiences, especially in places such as schools and the business world, also began studying th theory of flow in this time period. The theory of flow was greatly used in the theories of Maslow and Rogers in their development of the humanistic tradition of psychology.

Flow has been experienced throughout history and across cultures. The teachings of Buddhism and Taoism speak of a state of mind known as the “action of inaction” or “doing without doing” that greatly resembles the idea of flow. Also Indian texts on Advaita philosophy such Ashtavakra Gita and the Yoga of Knowledge such as Bhagavad-Gita refer to this similar state.

Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. He would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-entered a state of complete absorption.

Bruce Lee also spoke of a psychological state similar to flow in his book the Tao of Jeet Kune Do.


Mechanism of flow

In every given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Miller’s 1956 study, that number is about 126 bits of information per second. That may seem like a large number (and a lot of information), but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just having a conversation takes about 40 bits of information per second; that’s 1/3 of one’s capacity. That is why when one is having a conversation he or she cannot focus as much of his or her attention on other things.

For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, he or she is completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, loses awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated.


Conditions for flow

One cannot force oneself to enter flow or even predict when one is going to enter flow. It just happens. A flow state can be entered while performing any activity, although it is most likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for intrinsic purposes.

There are three conditions that are necessary to achieve the flow state:

  • One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  • One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

In 1997, Csíkszentmihályi published the graph to the right. This graph depicts the relationship between the perceived challenges of a task and one’s perceived skills. This graph illustrates one further aspect of flow: it can only occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge (above the center point) and requires above-average skills (to the right of the center point). The center of this graph (where the sectors meet) represents one’s average levels of challenge and skill. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being (whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation).


The autotelic personality

Csíkszentmihályi hypothesized that people with several very specific personality traits may be better able to achieve flow more often than the average person. These personality traits include curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for intrinsic reasons only. People with most of these personality traits are said to have an autotelic personality.

It has not yet been documented whether people with an autotelic personality are truly more likely to achieve a flow state. One researcher (Abuhamdeh, 2000) did find that people with an autotelic personality have a greater preference for “high-action-opportunity, high-skills situations that stimulate them and encourage growth” than those without an autotelic personality. It is in such high-challenge, high-skills situations that people are most likely to enter the flow state.


Group flow

Csíkszentmihályi suggests several ways a group can work together so that each individual member achieves flow. The characteristics of such a group include:

  • Creative spatial arrangements: Chairs, pin walls, charts, but no tables; thus work primarily standing and moving
  • Playground design: Charts for information inputs, flow graphs, project summary, craziness (here also craziness has a place), safe place (here all may say what is otherwise only thought), result wall, open topics
  • Parallel, organized working
  • Target group focus
  • Advancement of existing one (prototyping)
  • Increase in efficiency through visualization
  • Using differences among participants as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle



Applications suggested by Csíkszentmihályi versus other practitioners

Only Csíkszentmihályi seems to have published suggestions for extrinsic applications of the flow concept, such as design methods for playgrounds to elicit the flow experience. Other practitioners of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept focus on intrinsic applications, such as spirituality, performance improvement, or self-help. Reinterpretations of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow process exist to improve performance in areas as diverse as business, piano improvisation, sport psychology, computer programming, and standup comedy.



In education, there is the concept of overlearning, which seems to be an important factor in this technique, in that Csíkszentmihályi states that overlearning enables the mind to concentrate on visualizing the desired performance as a singular, integrated action instead of a set of actions. Challenging assignments that (slightly) stretch one’s skills lead to flow.

Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students. Csíkszentmihályi and psychologist Kevin Rathunde embarked on a multi-year study of student experiences in Montessori settings and traditional educational settings. The research supported observations that students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.



Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved.

Groups of drummers experience a state of flow when they sense a collective energy that drives the beat, something they refer to as getting into the groove. Bass guitarists often describe a state of flow when properly playing between the percussion and melody as being in the pocket.



The concept of being in the zone during an athletic performance fits within Csíkszentmihályi’s description of the flow experience, and theories and applications of being in the zone and its relationship with athletic competitive advantage are topics studied in the field of sport psychology.

Timothy Gallwey’s influential works on the “inner game” of sports such as golf and tennis described the mental coaching and attitudes required to “get in the zone” and fully internalize mastery of the sport.

Roy Palmer suggests that “being in the zone” may also influence movement patterns as better integration of the conscious and subconscious reflex functions improves coordination. Many athletes describe the effortless nature of their performance while achieving personal bests – see references.

MMA champion and Karate master Lyoto Machida uses meditation techniques before fights to attain mushin, a concept that, by his description, is in all respects equal to flow.

The Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix explained: “I was already on pole, […] and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my team mate with the same car. And suddenly I realised that I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”

When challenges and skills are simultaneously above average, a broadly positive experience emerges. Also vital to the flow state is a sense of control, which nevertheless seems simultaneously effortless and masterful. Control and concentration manifest with a transcendence of normal awareness; one aspect of this transcendence is the loss of self-consciousness.


Religion and spirituality

Csíkszentmihályi may have been the first to describe this concept in Western psychology, but as he himself readily acknowledges he was most certainly not the first to quantify the concept of flow or develop applications based on the concept.

For millennia, practitioners of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism have honed the discipline of overcoming the duality of self and object as a central feature of spiritual development. Eastern spiritual practitioners have developed a very thorough and holistic set of theories around overcoming duality of self and object, tested and refined through spiritual practice instead of the systematic rigor and controls of modern science.

The phrase being at one with things is a metaphor of Csíkszentmihályi’s flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply concepts similar to flow to aid their mastery of art forms, including, in the case of Japanese Zen Buddhism, Aikido, Cheng Hsin, Judo, Honkyoku, Kendo and Ikebana. In yogic traditions such as Raja Yoga reference is made to a state of flow in the practice of Samyama, a psychological absorption in the object of meditation. Theravada Buddhism refers to “access concentration,” which is a state of flow achieved through meditation and used to further strengthen concentration into jhana, and/or to develop insight.

In Islam the first mental state that precedes human action is known as al-khatir. In this state an image or thought is born in the mind. When in this mental state and contemplating upon an ayat or an imprint of God, one may experience a profound state of Oneness or flow whereby the phenomena of nature, the macrocosmic world and the souls of people are understood as a sign of God. Also, the teaching in the Qu’ran of different nations of people existing so that they may come to know each other is an example of Oneness. All members of society and the world are considered to be in flow of Oneness, one family, one body.



Game designers, particularly video and computer games, benefit from integration of flow principles into game design. Real-time video gaming is particularly good at allowing participants to achieve flow, whether the flow be as an individual or in groups.


Using the Web

Researchers suggest that using the internet can cause a flow state for users. If individuals are going through a flow state, which is a pleasurable experience, web users eventually improve their subjective well-being through accumulated ephemeral moments. Many web users report certain descriptions of flow when using the web, for example, absorbed interest, a feeling of discovery, immersed pleasure, and time going very fast.

Flow Activities on the Web

Web users state that activities in the web atmosphere lead to a flow state. There are four common activities that promote flow, searching, surfing, reading and writing, and chatting.


The first and the most common activity to reach the flow state on the web is searching on the web. An example of searching is solving a problem such as the following responses from participants in a study of web flow:

“I was very involved in several projects and used the net resources to look up items to supplement/back-up/provide information on those projects.”

“Doing research into emotional intelligence theory ± following links and leads to more information.”

“Trying to find some scientific references for my research.”

“Anytime I get involved in a new research project on the Web, I get so excited and into it, I can have someone talking to me right next to my desk . . . and I won’t even hear them talking.”

Surfing or Navigating

The second activity to reach flow state on the web is surfing or navigating. An example of surfing or navigating is going through hyperlinks such as the following responses from participants in a study of web flow:

“Going from site to site, following links that were related.”

“Doing some Web searches for information on a hobby of mine.”

“I was going to a Web site which had a new song by my favorite punk band. I was surprised and enmeshed in it.”

“Looking for information on a specific book, and got off on some links that were interesting and related [sort of] to what I started out looking for.”


Reading and Writing

The third activity to reach flow state on the web are reading and writing. Reading consists of reading incoming emails, news, articles, etc. on web pages. In addition, writing consists of composing letters, articles, speeches, etc. on web pages. The activity of reading e-mail and articles is one of the routes to experience flow because the text usually contains some new or relatively unfamiliar aspects, providing the challenges to sustain flow, which in turn usually caused growth and perceived benefits from increased knowledge and/or personal development. Furthermore, writing articles, speeches, or emails corresponds with the flow model due to the fact that an individual is arranging his or her thoughts positively.


Chatting online

The fourth activity to reach flow state on the web is chatting online. An example of chatting online is communicating with other individuals such as the following responses from participants in a study of web flow:

“I was simply engaged in a running series of conversations with friends . . .”

“Chatroom outside normal business hours.”

“Involved in a nine-way chat session with some friends I’ve made on the alt.fan.sailor-moon newsgroup.”


Other Activities

There are many other activities people can partake in while using the web. Some individuals state that they achieve flow by coding a program, hacking into a small business, building their own web page, watching a movie preview, troubleshooting computer problems, and many more.


Components/Symptoms of flow on the Web

Merging of action and awareness

When an individual is in flow, they are concentrating and narrowing down their activity. Therefore, and individual’s inner experience may reveal the phenomenon of merging action and awareness. The mind and action merge when individuals experience high concentration in the flow state. An example of high concentration in the flow state is a tennis player focusing only on his or her opponent and tennis ball, disregarding all external and internal activities, such as losing or yelling from an audience. In the web environment, the merging of action and awareness is realized when a user becomes the issue he or she is debating, the words he or she is typing, the sentences he or she is reading, or the machine he or she is working on. As a result, people “just sit here and keep clicking and reading away”. Examples of merging action and awareness are responses from participants in a study of web flow:

“Connected to the material, like I had several books open at the same time and was moving between them without pause.”

“I feel [am!] totally concentrated on my task. There is nothing but the keyboard, the screen and my thought. If someone talks to me I will answer and I am still on “stand by awareness with my environment, but I wouldn’t think of doing or saying anything.”

“When I was unemployed and desperately searching for work, a task that seemed increasingly worthless, I began reading newsgroups and involving myself in discussions and disagreements there. The more involved I became in the *issues* that I was discussing and arguing, the less important my own petty problems became.”

“Just that my whole concentration is focused in what I’m doing ± I become the words I’m typing or reading. It’s not that the outside world doesn’t exist ± if one of my roommates knocks on my door, I notice them and it’s not a shock to return to the outside world. But until that happens I’m totally engrossed.”

“In chat sessions ± I chat often enough that “talking through the keyboard has become second nature.”

“Relaxed . . . I guess just . . . well . . . nothing. I wasn’t feeling anything until I’d sit back and relax my eyes a bit . . . then I’d realize that I had more stuff that I should be doing, but I’d just sit here and keep clicking and reading away.”

“I was in a heated discussion on a chat network for the better part of two hours. I cannot remember what the subject was about, but all I knew was I was totally blind to the world.”


A Loss of Self-Consciousness

People tend to lose awareness of self, due to the experiencing of flow state. In addition, people tend to lose the function of defending and protecting themselves because of flow. This is a common experience from web users, such as the following responses below from participants in a study of web flow:

“Whether it is reading newsgroups or doing a search for a particular thing I tend to concentrate and “lose myself.”

“I become the persona I present in the newsgroup, not my “real self. It’s my other identity.”

“I am a smoker, I can’t smoke in my office, and sometimes I won’t even want a cigarette for several hours [when in the flow state].”

“How do I feel? I tend to shut out my feelings too ± if I’m reading/interacting with good content, I put off my feeling that I need to go to the bathroom, that I am hungry, etc.”

“I feel like there is no “Me; I feel there has been a merging of man and machine.”

“I feel agitated and compelled to get the job done to the point of ignoring hunger, thirst or the need to go to the bathroom.”

“I get so disconnected from the world that someone else has to pull me out. Like they were there with me to keep my mind off of the “real world. Oblivious. The physical world and its demands cease to exist. My own mind and intelligence are the only limitations I encounter.”

“I heard the radio, drank beer, and smoked cigarettes. I was aware of my surroundings, but yes I was less aware of my problems.”

“I don’t know. I was working not looking at me working . . .”


Sense of Time Distortion

When a person is experiencing flow, their internal clock slows down or speeds up, but the external clock is constant. Furthermore, people state that hours seem to change into minutes and vice versa. The sense of time distortion is frequent in the web environment, such as the following responses from web users:

“Even though I have a program that audibly announces the time in a female voice every 15 minutes on my computer, I don’t hear it . . . When I leave my computer from the newsgroup I have a slightly dazed, disassociated feeling. While in the newsgroup I have lost all sense of time. What subjectively seems like 20 minutes turns out to have actually been 2 and 1/2 hours.”

“Time went by extremely fast. Two hours had passed before I had ever realized it. I was quite shocked that so much time had passed without me being aware of it.”

“Just that feeling of being totally absorbed in what you’re doing, looking at the clock and saying “Dang, how can it be 4 a.m., I just started this project!

“I felt involved and like the time was a half-hour but it was more like three hours.”

“Finding content material for a series of class presentations. I began putting the material together at 10 a.m. and floundered for a few minutes, when I began finding detailed information I kept working of what seemed like an hour ± it was actually 3 p.m.”

“I don’t remember specifics, but I have several memories of “head jerking (as in when you fall asleep and your head falls forward and jerks back) that caused me to realize that my perception of what time it should be was several hours behind the time it actually was.”


Professions and work

Developers of computer software reference getting into a flow state, sometimes referred to as The Zone or hack mode, when developing in an undistracted state. Stock market operators often use the term “in the pipe” to describe the psychological state of flow when trading during high volume days and market corrections. Professional poker players use the term “playing the A-game” when referring to the state of highest concentration and strategical awareness.


Flow in the Workplace

Conditions of flow, defined as a state in which challenges and skills are equally matched, play an extremely important role in the workplace. Because flow is associated with achievement, its development could have concrete implications in increasing workplace satisfaction and accomplishment. Flow researchers, such as Csikszentmihalyi, believe that certain interventions may be performed to enhance and increase flow in the workplace, through which people would gain ‘intrinsic rewards that encourage persistence” and provide benefits. In his consultation work, Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes finding activities and environments that are conducive to flow, and then identifying and developing personal characteristics to increase experiences of flow. Applying these methods in the workplace, such as Csikszentmihalyi did with Swedish police officers, can improve morale by fostering a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment, and in correlated to increased performance. In his review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning,” Coert Vissar introduces the ideas presented by Csikszentmihalyi, including “good work” in which one “enjoys doing your best while at the same time contributing to something beyond yourself.” He then provides tools by which managers and employees can create an atmosphere that encourages good work. First, Csikszentmihalyi explains that experiencing flow, in which a task requires full involvement, and the challenge of a task matches one’s ability.

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following eight conditions:

  1. goals are clear
  2. feedback is immediate
  3. a balance between opportunity and capacity
  4. concentration deepens
  5. the present is what matters
  6. control is no problem
  7. the sense of time is altered
  8. the loss of ego

Csikszentmihalyi argues that with increased experiences of flow, people experience “growth towards complexity,” in which people flourish as their achievements grow and with that comes development of increasing “emotional, cognitive, and social complexity” (Vissar). By creating a workplace atmosphere that allows for flow and growth, Csikszentmihalyi argues, can increase the happiness and achievement of employees. There are, however, barriers to achieving flow in the workplace. In his chapter “Why Flow Doesn’t Happen on the Job,” Csikszentmihalyi argues the first reason that flow does not occur is that the goals of one’s job are not clear. He explains that while some tasks at work may fit into a larger, organization plan, the individual worker may not see where their individual task fits it. Second, limited feedback about one’s work can reduce motivation and leaves the employee unaware of whether or not they did a good job. When there is little communication of feedback, an employee may not be assigned tasks that challenge them or seem important, which could potentially prevent an opportunity for flow. In the study “Predicting flow at work: Investigating the activities and job characteristics that predict flow states at work” Karina Nielsen and Bryan Clean used a 9- item flow scale to examine predictors of flow at two levels: activity level (such as brainstorming, problem solving, and evaluation) and at a more stable level (such as role clarity, influence, and cognitive demands). They found that activities such as planning, problem solving, and evaluation predicted transient flow states, but that more stable job characteristics were not found to predict flow at work. This study can help us identify which task at work can be cultivated and emphasized in order to help employees experience flow on the job. In her article in Positive Psychology News Daily, Kathryn Britton examines the importance of experiencing flow in the workplace beyond the individual benefits it creates. She writes, “Flow isn’t just valuable to individuals; it also contributes to organizational goals. For example, frequent experiences of flow at work lead to higher productivity, innovation, and employee development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991, 2004). So finding ways to increase the frequency of flow experiences can be one way for people to work together to increase the effectiveness of their workplaces.”


Benefits of flow

Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to “produce intense feelings of enjoyment”. It is also a positive force because it allows for optimal performance and skill development.

Flow has a strong, documented correlation with performance enhancement. Researchers have found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity (Perry, 1999; Sawyer, 1992), teaching (Csíkszentmihályi, 1996), learning (Csíkszentmihályi et al., 1993), and sports (Jackson, Thomas, Marsh, & Smethurst, 2002; Stein, Kimiecik, Daniels, & Jackson, 1995).

Flow also has a strong correlation with the further development of skills and personal growth. When one is in a flow state, he or she is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills. One emerges from such a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great “feelings of competence and efficacy”.

Further, flow is positively correlated with a higher subsequent motivation to perform and to perform well.

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