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Flow. How to find it and stay motivated

Y axis= Challenge Level, X Axis=Skill Level. Axes cross at "low" and range to "high". High challenge level + high skill level is opposite of Y&X axes cross, and that is the state of "Flow"


This chart is a favorite of mine. The concept of “Flow” (Csikszentmihalyi) or “Being in the zone” (Michael Jordan) is that state of balance between the perceived difficulty of the task at hand the the perceived potential of one’s own abilities. When “flow” happens, a person is using all of their skills at their fullest potential on a task that is almost beyond their reach. People describe losing hours of time to a “rhythm” or “groove” when they are in this state. Religious people may describe it as engaging in one’s destiny, or communing with one’s spirit.

Research coming out of the Positive Psychology camp tends to be total crap. It’s not replicable. The sampling is pathetic. The methods are just plain bad. But I hope the concept of “Flow” keeps getting some hard inquiry. Despite my fear of corporate America twisting it to enslave as many workers as possible, I look forward to more insights into the study of purpose and mastery in one’s work. (Daniel Pink proposes we need 3 elements to fuel strong motivation: Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy. More on that in a minute.)


The chart above works for me with my many hobbies, like knitting or crafts projects. Knitting patterns with simple, repetitive stitches are my tv-watching companion. Simple knitting, which is low challenge for me, puts me in the “Relaxation” corner of the chart (High skill, Low challenge). If I need to concentrate more on the pattern, that brings me into the “control” area, and I may have to pause the TV until I get past a particularly tricky bit.

I have to say, though, I don’t think I reach a state of “Flow” when I’m knitting. Maybe once or twice I hit my stride but knitting patterns change stitches quite often, so I get halted in the movement. Long stretches of tricky stitches definitely can be a flow-inducing thing but I don’t knit too many of those kinds of patterns. Maybe I should.

Crossword puzzles, for me, were addictive. Hours a day were wasted on NYT Crossword puzzle app. Perhaps if my skills were a bit better, I’d get out of “Control” and into “Flow” when I was doing the puzzles. But as it was, I spent too much time on them. Reading, writing, doing photography or other crafts were more worthy of my efforts and had a better chance at keeping me in either “Relaxation” or “Flow.”


The most informative part of this chart is the upper left corner: Anxiety. Anxiety is the result of a huge challenge being met with low skills. Anxiety builds up when we think we don’t have what it takes to overcome whatever is coming at us.

So how to lessen anxiety and calm-the-F-down? Break the problem down into smaller steps, so you can attack one hurdle at a time. Also: take a more realistic/optimistic look at your own skills and resources. You probably have a friend you can talk to, or can find a library book having to do with that challenge (This is why the “For Dummies” books are so popular. They break down challenging subjects into small, manageable-by-anyone steps).

The “mindfulness” movement also encourages us to break moments down to this very one, and asking the question: what must you do right now? (Most of the time the answer is: just breathe. And sometimes breathing and staying present is enough of a challenge in itself). The next question to ask: what small step can I take now? Baby steps on the bus, people! Slow and steady can win a race. This is the approach I’m taking to the novel. Sometimes my days are so busy I write in 5 minutes here and there. It’s better than nothing.


Author Dan Pink talks about the best ways to motivate employees in his book Drive (Linked below is my podcast interview with Mr. Pink about the book). Mr. Pink says 3 elements have to be present for any worker to find that sweet spot of flow at one’s job. First, the employee must have the most amount of autonomy as possible. Choosing one’s own tasks and methods is a key requirement for loving one’s job. Next, the skills for those tasks must be acquired in a way that is possible for almost total mastery to be achieved by the worker. Finally, one’s work must have meaning over and above the salary earned. Pink found that salary alone is a very poor motivator, no matter what the level of salary is. Flow in one’s work is achieved by a high moral sense of meaning in the results of the work and the ability to sit right on the edge of mastery, always learning new skills while completing each task well.

In the “Flow” chart above, Autonomy is in the choosing of the task, so you don’t see it on the chart.

“Mastery” (ranging from total newbie to elite pro) would be placed at “Skill level”

“Purpose” (ranging from No fucks given to One’s Whole Reason for Living) would sit at the “Challenge Level:”



So if you aren’t feeling motivated right now, ask yourself where you are on the chart. What’s your skill level? Can you gain more skill? What’s the challenge level? Can you break it down into smaller steps? Take a different look at it. You may eek out some motivation yet!


My Interview with Dan Pink about DRIVE

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