This continues from Part 5 of our discussion of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s eight “characteristic dimensions of the flow experience” outlined in his book The Evolving Self.
#5 – A sense of potential control.
If challenges and skills are in balance, it is possible for a person to experience a sense of control. (p.181)
Flow is most likely to happen when the task – defined in specific quantities and specific qualities you need to acheive – is designed in such a way that there is some uncertainty about whether you can succeed consistently or not. You know you just might be able to do it – there is potential – if you put your best attention on the specific actions you must take, but you are not quite sure until you start doing it.
“Actually, in a flow state one is not, in fact, in complete control… Rather, what happens in that one knows that control is possible in principle.”
This is why flow doesn’t happen when you are assigned a merely hard physical task (like, swim 10x 100 on the 1:45, holding 200m race pace) without giving instructions for what specific technical skills you must fully concentrate on to achieve that goal, or improve upon it. You have a sense of control when you know exactly what specific things you can do to affect the outcome you want – what parts of the body to pay attention to and which commands to give to them.
If the task is so difficult that you don’t know what else to do but push hard and endure it to the end, without a way to reduce that suffering in the process, then flow cannot happen.
More Flow = Less Suffering
Let’s say you are going to swim 10 km today, yet up to this date, the longest you have swam continuously is just 5 km. As you swim past 5 km your body is going to experience more fatigue and deeper discomforts than you have known before. You are going to feel things compelling a break down of form. This is unexplored territory for you.
If you have trained to deal with this – even on shorter distances – then you will feel some control over the discomfort and breakdown, even as you swim deep into the fatigue zone. You can be in very difficult conditions but still slip into flow state because you have a box of skills you can use to alleviate some of the discomfort and to resist the breakdown or perhaps compensate for it. When your concentration on skills has an effect that shows up in the feedback it deepens your sense of flow, and encourages you to keep it up.
If you have not trained to deal with this, then you are going to feel powerless to resist the breakdown and powerless to relieve the discomfort. All that is left is to try to tune out of the discomfort and try to endure until some part of your body shuts down or somehow you cover the distance. Suffering is what arises when the challenge has surpassed your skills, when you can no longer affect the situation in a more desirable direction.
Being able to endure extreme hardship is one thing to admire, when nothing else can be done – the brain has built-in mechanisms to help us keep going in this kind of survival situation. But being able to stay focused and affect your extremely difficult situation is more admirable – this comes only from training.
Not Too Much Nor Too Little
In summary, if the challenge is too great for your skills, you will either anticipate or quickly find out that you don’t have enough control to affect the outcome you seek. This causes anxiety and frustration which blocks flow.
If the challenge is too small for your skills, you will not be inspired to fully concentrate. There is not enough demand placed on the brain to draw your consciousness completely into the task. Flow cannot happen when you are not adequately challenged by the task.
However, even a simple physical task can be made sufficiently challenging simply by requiring yourself to achieve some improvement in quality while doing it – just increase the challenge for your attention. For example, in a gentle warm up swim you can slip into flow state because you focus your attention on achieving a slightly higher standard of relaxation, or a slightly higher standard for ‘no excess turbulence’ while moving through the stroke cycle; you might focus intently upon a tight spot in your back and experiment to find what part of your movement pattern it is connected to and work to alleviate it.
It Starts In The Mind
Flow depends more on what you do with your mind, than with the body – in this case, the body is an extension of what is going on in the mind. Regardless of the physical demands (like swimming 10x 100 or 100x 100), the kind of challenges that allows flow are those that require you to improve some specific quality of the action, and this in turn requires your full attention. You’ve got to sense that you have skills at hand – which means you have that sense of control – that can improve those specific qualities, if only you would concentrate solely on applying those skills.
Now you can see how washing dishes, gardening, walking, driving, listening to another person speak, even painting your toe nails, can become a flow state activity. Those may be too simple to provoke flow state as you have been doing them up to now. But today you can choose to do the most mundane task a bit better than ever before and in this way so many opportunities to enter into flow arise in your daily life.
Just slightly increase your standard of excellence in the smallest tasks for the sake of producing flow more frequently in life. Your habit for this can begin in the pool.
To read the other parts of this series:
- Part 1 – Finding Flow In Swimming
- Part 2 – Flow Requires Preparation
- Part 3 – Flow Requires Clear Goals
- Part 4 – Flow Requires Opportunities To Act
- Part 5 – Flow Requires Full Attention
- Part 6 – Flow Requires Sense Of Control
- Part 7 – Flow Alters Sense Of Time