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Summary of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow is the state of total immersion while doing an activity. Flow comes from the intense concentration around your own actions and their immediate feedback. Think of a painter who carefully observes how straight his lines are or the accuracy of his colors. Think of a chess player who eagerly awaits his opponents move, all the while planning his own.

Most of us associate this state of flow only with certain activities. But it is possible to turn all aspects of our lives into a unified, flow experience.

The biggest benefit of turning your life into a flow experience is that:

  • Even mundane everyday activities, such as chores, can be fun and enjoyable.
  • It will tear apart the “walls” separating all the segments of your life, such as work or family time, and combines them into a single, unified whole focused on a single purpose. This makes all aspects of your life enjoyable and fun, including work, friendships, or relationships.

The conditions required to enter a flow state

The most important element of entering a flow state is to have the clarity of goals. This requires you always have a purpose for whatever it is you are doing.

To enter a state of flow, you need to think of the small step-by-step goals, not the big overarching ones. In chess terms, this means you should focus on how to clear a certain space, how to take your adversary’s Rock, Knight or Queen instead of just obsessing over how to check-mate.

Some activities are more prone to produce flow than others. That’s why we like games so much because they naturally make us lose ourselves in the micro-objectives.

However, things get messier in our everyday lives since it’s hard for us to keep track of our day-to-day or even the hour to hour goals as we deal with the minutia of life.

The best way around this is to give yourself goals for every activity you do. How and when you brush your teeth when you shower and so on.

This integrates the activity into the rest of your life and gives it meaning along the way.

The importance of feedback

Feedback is a crucial element of flow since it engages us with the activity by providing us with results and consequences for our actions. This allows us to learn and improve as we continue with our activities.

Some tasks are not enjoyable because their feedback is not immediately obvious, so they do not give us a sense of growth or learning. Think of chores such as washing the dishes or walking the dog.

One way of making these activities fun and engaging is to turn them into games. For instance, you can try to fold your clothes quicker by trying new techniques. Or in case you’re grocery shopping, you can try to do all of your purchases in a single line.

These techniques won’t make these maintenance activities as enjoyable as a game, but you will no longer find them as boring as they used to be.

The 4 ways flow helps your life

The transformational process of integrating flow into your life will help you in four major ways:

First, flow teaches you how to control your inner self. This gives you control over attention, mood, and willpower.

Second, you will be able to enter a state of flow in situations of everyday life, even when you go through more difficult periods (such as health issues, or work problems).

Third, you will develop an increasingly complex self. After each small problem or challenge you overcome, you will want to move on to a more complex one, which gives you more opportunity to learn. It is the essence of flow for it to lead to personal growth.

But most importantly, the flow will restructure your life, so that your days aren’t composed of merely self-repeating episodes of work, leisure, and other tasks.

The major components of flow

Flow has eight major components, as identified by composers, rock climbers, painters, surgeons, programmers and other people who experience it.

Each action must have a goal or purpose.

When singing a song, a musician knows exactly what notes he has to play. A painter knows where his next brush must touch the painting. A writer knows what his next words must communicate to his readers.

In much the same way, our day-to-day activities should have their own immediate goals; otherwise, they feel meaningless to us. These goals help us track our progress in life and offer something tangible as feedback for our actions.

Measure your progress by looking for feedback.

Feedback helps us measure the impact of our actions. For instance, a false note immediately tells a musician he should do a correction. A pool player who misses a strike knows he should change position or how he holds the cue.

Following the feedback trail of an activity induces a person into a flow state, where they act, observe the result, and then react to it. Each observation and reaction teaches the person what works and what doesn’t, helping them grow by improving their skills and learning new things along the way.

Surgeons, for instance, can enter a state of flow by observing if their cuts led to excessive bleeding, or if health measurements such as heart rate are in optimal parameters.

Concentration without feedback is difficult since you don’t know if what you are doing is good, useful or meaningful. So your attention and craving for feedback get hijacked by whatever else is near you, leading to boredom or mental distraction.

The challenges of the activity must not overwhelm the skill of the person

A game of chess is only fun if both players are at a similar skill level. If the opponent is much better, then the game feels frustrating. If the adversary is too weak, the game becomes boring.

The same principle applies to work, and other activities. Too difficult, and we become frustrated. Too hard, and we become bored.

But if the challenge matches your skills, it eventually becomes interesting and enjoyable (maybe even addictive), even if it wasn’t so in the beginning.

The feeling of focus and concentration on what you are doing

During our daily lives, we tend to split our attention into multiple directions. For instance, we might be in the kitchen cooking a dish while simultaneously talking on the phone with customer support to help with a broken product.

To experience flow however, you must direct your focus and concentration towards a single activity. This single-tasking feels good and is a rewarding experience since it allows us to lose ourselves in the task at hand and not overwhelm our minds with other issues.

Flows cuts you off from your day-to-day problems and stress sources

During a flow experience, we are so concentrated and focused that we temporarily lose track of other problems and hardships that might bother us.

The singular focus of concentration and focus that flow brings, also serves to cut you off from your other problems and stress sources. After all, you cannot worry about mundane issues such as your boss, or family life, while you are playing a video game, or painting a picture.

If you were to shift away from your focus to these troubles, you would scatter your thoughts and attention and make mistakes in your activity. A musician might sing the wrong note, or a painter would ruin his brush stroke.

In a way, a flow experience is an escape from reality and a major source of relief.

But unlike drugs and alcohol, a flow experience teaches you new skills and leads you to personal growth and improvement.

Flow gives you a sense of control of your life

A state of flow gives you a sense of control over your activities that can even extend over your entire life. But it is not quite a total sense of control since that would mean your skills far exceed the challenges of your tasks and activities.

Instead, during flow, you feel a sense of control that is right at the edge of your capabilities.

Think of the musician that performs a complicated song. He knows he can sign it because he’s done so countless times during practice. But, he has to give it his best to not make a mistake and do a perfect performance.

Flow silences your inner voice or self-consciousness.

Once you enter into a state of flow, you lose track of what other people think of you. You are no longer self-conscious about what you do, or how ridiculous it might seem to others.

You are not self-conscious anymore.

This has the major benefit of freeing up mental resources, helping one fully concentrate on the task and not worry about anything else that isn’t related.

Team activities such as sports have a tendency to bring you into this state. At the height of the flow state, you no longer feel like an individual, but more as an integral component of the entire team.

The sense of time is distorted

Flow changes your perception of time because it adapts to your experience. More often than not, it will seem as if the activity took far less time than it actually did.

How a shopkeeper experienced a flow state

Senior Orsini had an antique store, which was at once both a source of income and one of passion in his life. One day, an American tourist asked the price of an item, an angel carved in wood. Orsini gave a rough, inflated initial price to start off the negotiation. But the customer didn’t bother and took the price at face value.

Senior Orsini didn’t want to take her payment because it would have taken all the fun from the experience.

As an antique dealer, Orsini enjoyed the haggling and negotiating that came with the job. He wanted to match his wits with his customers and play the negotiating cat-and-mouse game. By immediately accepting his offer, the customer denied him this experience, and his satisfaction.

What is the difference between pleasure and enjoyment

Flow activities bring you to a state of enjoyment, but not necessarily one of pleasure.

Pleasure is a biological response, and functions as our body’s way of telling us if what we are doing is good for our survival, and that we should do more of it. It is an evolutionary response, designed to ensure we continue existing. Food and sex are the quintessential pleasures.

But pleasures don’t help us grow and become better people. Pleasure teaches us no new skills or leads to personal growth. Pleasure can, in fact, be deceiving since it can lead us to addictions, or focusing our lives around basic instincts such as food or sex. By overly obsessing over one pleasure source, it blinds us to other enjoyable aspects of life.

Flow enjoyment is different, since it opens up and willingly pushes us to seek new experiences and activities that lead to growth. It transcends our basic instincts. Flow enjoyment makes us learn new skills in ever increasing complexity.

But a happy life cannot be achieved by simply having many isolated flow experiences. The path to one requires you to learn how to find enjoyment in any situation that you encounter.

To do this, you need to become a master of your consciousness and personality, so that you can create flow experiences even in the most mundane moments of the day.

The five characteristics and traits of a complex and autotelic personality

Activities that generate flow are called autotelic. The word comes from the Greek terms “auto” which means self, and “telos” which means purpose.

An autotelic activity is one which you do for its own sake, without seeking an external reward. Think of hobbies and passion projects, such as an amateur photographer who takes pictures around the city, or a friend who do intricate wood carvings, all with no expectation of making money.

Most of us can probably think of one or two activities that are autotelic for us, such as cooking, video games, or playing sports. But some people can turn every activity into a flow generating one. These people have what’s called an autotelic personality.

An autotelic personality isn’t something a person is born with, but it is nurtured. Below are the 5 major components of such a personality.

Clarity of purpose, goals, and feedback

On a big scale, this means you have set your ambitions and desires in life. But on a smaller scale, it means that you have goals and purposes for every activity, big and small, that you engage in.

The other dimension is the clarity of feedback. This allows you to see the world objectively, without falling prey to fallacies or defensive reasoning to protect yourself and your beliefs. Clarity of feedback opens you to advise and criticism, which allows you to improve yourself accordingly.

The ability to center

This is the ability to focus and clamp down on a single goal and give it your all. It means clearing your mind and focusing your energy, concentration, and attention on a single point.

Choice, and how you are never forced to do something

This is the awareness that you always have a choice in what you do. Nothing is forced upon you.

You are not a victim of fate. Hard and difficult choices aren’t forced upon you, but you willingly take them on.

People with autotelic personalities don’t feel trapped in difficult situations. They know they are the ones who ultimately make the choice that leads up to these situations, so they own up to the consequences or benefits of their actions.

Commitment to a chosen activity

People with complex personalities care about all the things they do and commit themselves to do it.

They do not see themselves as having choices imposed on them. Instead, they actively involve themselves in the activity and will do it because they truly want to, not because they feel forced to.

Challenge seeking

People with complex personalities are always ready to expand their personality and skills by taking on new challenges and learning along the way. They explore new concepts and try new things constantly.

The result

A complex self gets enjoyment not just from fun activities such as games or reading. Instead, the person with a complex self can relate to everything around it and can enter a state of flow even in mundane life experiences.

These people find ways to interpret their experiences positively.

For instance, a person with an autotelic personality won’t get upset or curse if they get stuck in traffic. They’ll just adapt to the situation and do something else that furthers their growth or keeps them entertained while the situation solves itself.

How psychic entropy leads to boredom, anxiety, and stress

Consciousness is how you experience things.

Activities such as driving a car, or tying your shoelaces are only possible by paying attention to them. But our attention has limits, and this makes it difficult to concentrate on too many activities at once.

When your mind is overwhelmed by too many problems, it enters a state of disarray, where your thoughts swirl and prevent you from thinking clearly and focusing on the most important goals you have.

This phenomenon is called psychic entropy. It is the process in which our minds want to go in one direction, but our bodies in another. It generates conflict within us, that tears up our concentration, and makes us chase multiple different desires and purposes. This leads to a broken consciousness since we cannot satisfy most of these goals.

For example, one part of you wants to immediately go to the dentist and treat a severe toothache, but another part wants to just get on with your work and finish an important project.

This conflict of purposes and desires reduces our ability to concentrate and focus on the things we want to achieve.

By clearing your mind of other thoughts and concerns, you allow yourself to concentrate on only one activity at once, and engage with it fully and enter a peaceful and serene state of flow, that is at once much more efficient and enjoyable.

Understanding boredom and anxiety

The two mental states most commonly associated with psychic entropy are boredom and anxiety. Working and doing any activity while engaged in any of these states feels like a chore and an uphill battle.

Boredom has two main causes. The first one is a lack of challenge in a task. Here, your skills and abilities far exceed the difficulty of the task so it feels like you aren’t learning or gaining anything by doing it.

The second cause is the lack of feedback since it gives the sensation that what you are doing doesn’t matter and has no impact on the world around.

Anxiety is an entropic psychological state that comes when you are overwhelmed by too many things at once, or if a task far exceeds your skill level. During an anxious state, our mind wanders into a self-defense mode. At this point, you aren’t in control of your consciousness and feel like decisions are made for you. You can’t focus, and cannot properly center yourself to do what it is you have to do.

The case of Julio Martinez, a factory worker

Julio Martinez, an assembly line worker, had a bad day. He couldn’t concentrate and was prone to conflicts with his coworkers.

Julio was upset because one of his car tires got punctured, but he didn’t have enough money to fix it until the end of the month when he would receive his paycheck.

This small little problem lingered in the background and prevented him from fully concentrating and entering into the flow state required for work. He always worried about having to constantly inflate the wheel every time he drove the car, or that the metal rim would damage if the wheel deflated too quickly.

Julio had little control over this issue since he was still new to the USA. He didn’t have the skills required to access a credit to fix this, and neither did he have any friends to loan him the money. Basically, he lacked control and had his freedom limited by this external issue.

Julio felt he had none control over the issue and neither could he solve this problem immediately. This weighed on his mind and eroded his freedom of thought.

The case of Rico Medellin

He was also an immigrant, and his job was to adjust the volume levels on projectors coming on the assembly line. He only had 45 seconds to properly fix the volume of one projector until the next one came in. And that was what he did all day, fixing projectors as they came on the assembly line, one after another.

At first glance, it might seem he had a dreadfully boring job. But he approached his task as a game and tried to shorten the time it took to adjust each projector. So Rico cut the time spent on each of them from 45 seconds down to around 30 seconds.

This gave him a sense of learning new skills, of constantly improving himself. He didn’t get better pay for this, yet this achievement was still a major point of pride.

Rico also knew that he couldn’t go much lower than this, so he took on new challenges by taking courses in electronics in order to move on to better and higher paid jobs.

His entire life was in a state of flow, where improved both on the small, day-to-day tasks, and also his greater life goals.

Avoid boredom and anxiety by doing things for their own sake

Finding enjoyment requires you to be connected with what’s going on around you, to find new things to do and act upon any opportunity that might lead to personal growth.

Seek to develop your passions and hobbies. For instance, if you like plants, then try to take up gardening, or if you like money, then learn how to set up your own business.

But you shouldn’t think about an outside reward or goal. Don’t start a company because you want to be wealthy, or don’t start to intensely practice musical instruments in the hopes that you can build a famous career as a musician.

Do these activities because you enjoy doing them, without any other external reason. Practice a musical instrument because you enjoy playing music. Invest in the stock market simply because you enjoy investing and all the thought that goes into the process.

If you do these activities for external reasons, such as hoping to get rich or become famous, then chances are that you won’t enjoy the day-to-day grind and routine part of the activities. Eventually, this will lead to boredom, anxiety or any other negative emotional state.

Flow and its relationship with stress

At its core, stress is a survival mechanism designed to keep you alive in difficult moments. In a few words, your body identifies a potentially threatening situation, and then activates the stress response in order for you to fight the threat, or flee from it.

Major stress sources, such as health problems, economic difficulties, failed relationships and moribund careers are widespread and part of the human condition. There’s no running away from sources of stress.

Not only do these problems generate stress, but they also lead to high psychic entropy. Stress builds up from conflicting objectives and worries and prevents you from concentrating on a single objective.

This blocks you from immersing your life into a flow experience and enjoying it as a harmonious experience.

Yet stress is not always automatic. It is a reaction to outside threats. Meaning there are ways we can control these external sources of stress, and how they impact us. Here are the three ways of doing that.

Unselfconscious self-assurance

During flow, you lose yourself in what you are doing and can’t keep track of anything else.

This ability of flow to disconnect you from the world, its worries and troubles, makes it a powerful tool in managing stress.

But some stressful experiences are too powerful to be ignored or fade into the background.

One method of preventing a stressful experience from breaking our flow is to detach from it and analyze it coldly and without emotion. By doing so, you shrink the emotional weight of the problem and diminish its impact on your peace of mind when it finally hits.

The best way to detach from such problems is to be self-assured and confident in your skills and capabilities and how they can pull you out a messy and stressful situation.

As an example: Imagine driving on a road with intense traffic. A skilled driver will not be too worried or stressed about all the twists, turns and overtakes he has to do because he knows he can handle them and is effectively self-assured of his driving skills. Because of this, he is calm and collected during the entire time on the road.

A novice driver, however, will be under constant stress and worry, as he carefully analyses every turn or overtakes. Ironically, this can make it more likely that he will suffer an accident, since he diverts some of his mental capacities to worrying, rather than driving. Even if he doesn’t suffer an accident, the beginner will come out of the experience shaken and exhausted.

Focus your attention on the outside environment

Even if you are self-assured and confident in your skills, you can find yourself in situations that shake up your confidence.

For instance, you’ve had a heated argument with your boss over a work-related issue. Here, there are two ways you can respond:

  • You feel sorry for yourself and bad about what happened. You internalize the stress and let it cause chaos in your mind and consciousness.
  • You carefully analyze the situation and try to find an explanation for what caused an argument with your boss. You look at the situation as objectively as you can, retracing the steps up until the conflict. By now, you are thoroughly engaged in a highly mental constructive process, since you process important and valuable information that can better prepare you for similar situations in the future. You are actively learning and improving yourself.

Discover new solutions to the stressors in your life

Confidence in your skills can only take you so far. The next step is to find actual solutions to your problems in order to prevent them from occurring again. Not only is this a learning experience, but it also fuels you with hope, since you know this might be the last time you have to deal with a certain problem.

The Four Habits of an autotelic personality

An autotelic personality can transform even the most impossible and traumatic situation into something that can be managed and dealt with.

But there’s more to it than that. An autotelic personality helps you live life differently, one in which you enjoy even the grind and minutia of daily life.

Below are the 4 major habits that autotelic people have that help them weather challenges and stressful situations, and lead to a happy and meaningful life.

Ability to set goals

Settings goals is the first step to help you enter a state of flow as you deal with your various difficulties.

As an example, Mihaly talked of the CEO of a big financial company in the US. This executive had a purpose in mind for every activity he engaged in. This applies even for small events, such as entering a new room full of people or reading a book. He made it a purpose to know the people in the room, to have an idea about who they were and what they did in life.

The CEO’s reasons weren’t manipulative, however. He didn’t want to get to know people just so he could use them. He wants to get to know them for knowing’s sake, to learn something about them, to see life manifest itself in others.

Knowing how to pay attention

People with autotelic personalities can control their attention, and what it focuses on. When they concentrate on something, they do it because they want to, not because the urgency of the situation forces them to.

Ability to immerse in the activity

The third habit of an autotelic personality kicks in once you have set yourself a goal and concentrated your attention on it.

This habit helps you immerse yourself in the activity, to enjoy it for its own sake. Immersion allows you to pick up subtle signals and feedback inherent in the task which allow you to learn the more complex aspects of the activity. You constantly get new information, which you can then use to achieve your goals, or even change them as you go.

This makes you a participant in whatever happens around you, so you never feel left out or excluded.

Enjoyment of activity, and a sense of high energy

Put all these three steps together, and you’ll find yourself in a position where you truly enjoy the activity you are engaged in, which in turn gives you energy and liveliness.

In social situations, for instance, this flow can translate itself into charisma. For a scientist, it can be a state of daring creativity that leads to a breakthrough idea. For a carpenter, it can be a new perspective, that allows him to create an intriguing statue.


Reaching a state of flow in your life is possibly the closest thing to achieving true happiness. For most people, it takes time and effort to build a personality that can generate flow experiences on the go. But the end result is well worth, and life-changing.

Related Books:

The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Adapted from Hasty Reader

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