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You’re working, and then you’re in flow—as if you just just accidentally fall into it. But as Csíkszentmihályi explains in a 2014 paper, there are actually specific criteria that must be met for you to enter flow:
1. You must have clear goals and progress
2. Your task must provide clear and immediate feedback
3. You must be at the balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills
In other words, you must know what you’re doing, be able to see whether or not you’re doing it well, and be pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. This last point is especially important for finding flow—it’s mastery combined with challenge that brings flow.
Csíkszentmihályi first developed the idea of flow from speaking with professionals across a variety of fields, from artists and athletes to scientists and academics. Each described entering a state of flow at a moment where their skills were being put to the test, but not enough so to feel overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Too much challenge and we get overcome with anxiety. Not enough, and our brain loses focus and looks for other stimuli.
Csíkszentmihályi best describes flow as the moves of a professional skier taking on a difficult run:
“Imagine that you are skiing down a slope and your full attention is focused on the movements of your body, the position of the skis, the air whistling past your face, and the snow-shrouded trees running by. There is no room in your awareness for conflicts or contradictions; you know that a distracting thought or emotion might get you buried face down in the snow. The run is so perfect that you want it to last forever.”