As a teenager, I took note of one activity I would engage in on a regular basis that stood out from the rest: playing piano. What was different about this activity was that I was able to lose myself in it. But this wasn’t always the case.
I spent the beginning portion of every practice doing warm up exercises to strengthen my fingers. When I was learning to play a new piece, I would have to concentrate on small segments of the music until muscle memory took over and I was able to play it the right way. It wasn’t until I had the piece down that I could play it without much effort. My mind would drift away, making piano playing an enjoyable activity.
Knowing that we each find different activities enjoyable, I asked around to find out what others’ experiences were like and what made them so.
My friend Pamela likes to put together puzzles. She can spend hours and days working on any one particular assembly. When I asked her what she likes about puzzles in particular, she said she liked that there was one given solution to the problem and that when she was done with it all, she felt accomplished. Over time, she increased the challenge by assembling puzzles comprised of many more pieces and created works of art by gluing the pieces together and hanging them on her wall. She had something to show for her efforts.
As much as people typically complain about housework, my husband insists on folding laundry. On any given week, you can find him listening to music while organizing newly washed clothes. He dumps heaps of items onto the bed and begins separating them into piles. Pants are separated from shirts, socks are separated from underwear, and adult clothing is placed separately from the children’s clothes. What he likes about the act of folding is the order he gets to create. It gives him a sense of control. He likes the repetitive nature of the task. It has a physical action that he finds therapeutic and which puts him in a meditate state. The bigger the pile, the more he says he can get in the zone. Like Pamela, he knows there is a positive outcome to creating order from chaos.
When do we get the most enjoyment? Could playing piano, putting together puzzles, and folding laundry top the list? Can tasks that aren’t fun or those that are difficult also be enjoyable? According to researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, enjoyment has nothing to do with our leisure activities. Rather, enjoyment is about how immersed and challenged we feel by the task on which we are working. It is not the tasks themselves that lead you to losing yourself or to getting in the zone. It is your state of mind. A state called flow.
The Goldilocks Rule
Flow, as characterized by Csikszentmihalyi, is a state of optimal experience where we are fully absorbed in our work. It is when we are focused and clear minded, when our mind and body function in unison, and when despite our concentration, we exert little effort. We are in complete control. We lose a sense of time and ultimately gain a sense of intrinsic enjoyment.
Whether you are maniacally focused on productivity or just want to get more enjoyment from your work, flow allows you to enter into an efficient state of mind. It requires that you set clear goals that are suitable to your skill level.
The other day, I played cage bingo with my two little children. The experience for each of us was quite different. For my eight year old, calling out the numbers, keeping track of the numbers called, all while placing chips on her bingo card was very engaging. For my five year old, the act of matching the number called with the numbers on his bingo card was challenging enough. And for me, it was quite different still. I found waiting for a number to be called so that I can place a chip on my card so elementary that I felt bored.
The same task can be experienced in profoundly different ways.
To get into flow, we need to differentiate between different levels of challenge and find the tasks that are challenging yet completable. In other words, we have to be well matched to the task. To do this, we have to consider both task difficulty and our skills. When task difficulty outweighs skills, anxiety ensues. When the opposite is true and the task lacks challenge given our skill level, we feel bored.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
The Importance of Feedback
Once you’ve found just the right level of difficulty that keeps you challenged enough so you can stay focused without anxiety or boredom, it’s time to consider how you go about the task. Csikszentmihalyi notes that it’s important to set clear goals rather than just plug away. Often, we show up at work and try to pick up where we left off, constantly working until it’s time to go home and feeling like there is so much more to do. Instead, we need to focus ahead of time on what we are working on specifically so that we can eliminate unnecessary distractions or activities that pull us away from our goal.
A clear goal is insufficient on its own. The task needs to provide immediate feedback. When I was practicing my piano pieces, I knew when my efforts amounted to my end result because I could hear the finished piece. When Pam worked on her puzzle and one piece didn’t fit with another, that was feedback about what didn’t work. When the puzzle was completed, it was another source of feedback that she had followed the steps correctly. And when all the clothes were folded and sorted into piles, my husband had immediate feedback that he was done folding.
Having immediate feedback allows us to know whether we are working on our task in a way that will get results or we need to change course. It also tells us when we are done with the task. What follows is a sense of accomplishment.
The Optimal Experience
Work can sometimes feel tedious. There may be demands on your time over which you have little control or which don’t feel enjoyable. It may seem at times that you are keeping busy but have little to show for your efforts. As Lau Tsu said, “It’s better to do nothing than to be busy with nothing.”
How can we attain the optimal experience of flow even under these circumstances? So far we’ve mentioned the importance of finding tasks that are a match for our skills, tasks that challenge us enough to help us expand. We’ve touched on the magnitude of setting clear goals that provide us with immediate feedback. Now it’s a matter of creating parameters that allow for us to dive in without distraction, providing us with the control we need over our actions and the opportunity to go deep into the task.
Having a large heap of laundry allowed my husband to get into the zone whereas a small pile would not have had the same outcome for him. We need time to focus our mind. It is when we do so that our involvement in the task can seem effortless and our sense of time is altered due to our engagement.
Stretching yourself, no matter what you’re working on, can help you increase your skills and feel more fulfilled as you accomplish greater and greater challenges. And as Csikszentmihalyi reminds us, “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow.”
It is good to know that even when we don’t have control over which tasks we engage in, we can enjoy our experience and feel a sense of control in the task itself. Giving yourself ample time to work without distraction is a way of controlling your environment. The rest is about controlling your internal state for an optimal experience. By matching task difficulty with your skill level, creating clear goals that provide immediate feedback, and concentrating on your work, you can reach a state of effortless involvement, one that is so enjoyable, you lose track of time.