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Flow, or “in the zone”, is a psychological experience that can be an asset to our growth. Many would think that being “in the zone” applies to only sports, but it happens to us more often than we realise, whether we notice it or not. Classically, a tennis game involving two equally skilled players would involve flow, whereby each pit individual skills against the challenges posed by the other, each holds clear goals to win the match, and each enjoys the game. Putting this experience in your context, in the past week, have you done an activity with a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment? If you have, then you have contacted flow. This post will discuss flow as an asset to growth and how you can access flow states with precision.


Key Notes:

  1. The Benefits of Flow
  2. The Flow Experience – Skills, Challenge, Motivation & Attention
  3. The 7 Flow Conditions

The Benefits of Flow

I choose to talk about flow because it has strong relevance with my work. At some part of the coaching process, I will certainly work with my client to create more flow experiences, which is integral to the change process. Flow immediately immerses my clients in valued-driven activities that they can easily commit to. Flow activities present challenges to the clients in a way that matches their abilities and interests. Hence, when clients detect dysfunctional thoughts and feelings that can debilitating to them (e.g., this is completely hopeless [depressive], there is just too much going on for me to even think [anxious]), entering flow is a diversion strategy at its finest. Entering flow is a whole-sensory behaviour that leaves little “bandwidth” for the client to entertain thoughts and feelings that have negative value to them, breaking that psychological reflex to spiral downwards.

Other than using this flow experience to enter optimal functioning states, research has shown that contacting flow on a frequent basis has been associated with increases in:

  • General life satisfaction and positive feelings
  • Self-efficacy and confidence
  • Creativity, performance and accomplishments
  • Resilience and coping
  • Motivation
  • Personal growth and flourishing

Knowing that flow is an enhancer to our living experience, let us understand the conditions to better access this state and reap its benefits.


The Flow Experience

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The flow model primarily consists of the balance between perceived personal skill and perceived challenge, with an undercurrent of attention and motivation.

Perceived skills relates to the ability, self mastery and confidence to complete the tasks. Perceived challenges relate to the demand of the goals set ahead. When we have high skills, aiming for goals set at a high margin, when accompanied with absolute focus and motivation, this optimal experience will generate a process of growth, regardless of the outcome. The importance of the flow experience is that once we enter this optimal experience, the process itself is already the reward, as we exercise our self-mastery to attempt a worthy challenge. If we succeed against the challenge, it is furthermore an icing on the cake.
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When skills mismatch challenge, there will be  other possible experiences that are less optimal. Generally, when challenge exceeds skills, the feeling of less than adequate usually arises; when skills exceed challenge, we slowly disengage from the experience.

The 7 Flow Conditions

The optimal flow condition is likely to be achieved when the following conditions are met (Schaffer, 2013):

  1. Knowing what to do
  2. Knowing how to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing
  4. Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved)
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Freedom from distractions

Flow is an experience that revolves around how our self-mastery interacts with the demands placed on us, and how we cognitively engage with this challenge. When the conditions are all met, and when flow is frequently contacted, our lives will naturally be filled with meaning and opportunities for growth. As a personal experiment, try to test this out in your own life.

Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow

Original writings by The Realist, inspired by encounters in professional work in life coaching, physical therapy and PhD research.

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