The Psychology of Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and psychological Flow

Flow Psychology

What is Psychological Flow?

Who invented the psychology of flow?

How did Csikszentmihalyi research flow psychology?

How can I tell I'm in psychological flow?

Life Coach Tim LeBon's 5 top psychological flow tips

How do you spell his name? Cszikszentmihalyi or Czicksentmeehalyi or what?

Life Coaching for Psychological Flow – the flow psychology audit

Psychological flow traps

Is psychological flow overated?

Psychological flow resources

Top 5 Psychological flow books

Top 5 Psychological flow links

Experiments in gaining more flow

Flow Psychology

What is Psychological Flow?

Flow is a state of optimal experience.

It’s being in the zone, losing yourself in a task.

Who invented the psychology of flow?

Flow has been around as long as humanity, but the psychologist credited with naming it and carrying out a lot of flow research is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-high Chick-sent-me-high)

How did Csikszentmihalyi research flow psychology?

He began by interviewing lots of people who had one thing in common. They did an activity purely for its own sake – not for the money or status, just for the joy of it. Czikszentmihalyi found that these people– chess players, dancers, mountain climbers and the like – had remarkably similar experiences – which he came to label as ‘flow’

Me-high Chick-sent-me-high?

That's how you pronounce Csikszentmihalyi and how to remember his name too!

How can I tell I'm in psychological flow?

If you experience most of these seven characteristics, you are probably in flow

Example: Listening to a moving piece of music

Counterexample: Browsing the net whilst half-watching a Soap and half-listening to someone talking to you

Example: Being completely involved in a game of tennis

Counterexample: Clock-watching, waiting for time to go home

Example: Playing a tough piece on the piano

Counterexample: Watching TV (too low challenge)

Playing centre forward for England (unless you are Michael Owen!) (too high challenge)

Example: Mountain climbing

Counterexample: Being stressed out at work

Example: Engrossed in a really interesting conversation

Counterexample: Waiting at an airport

Example: Skiing

Counterexample: Doing your job for the money

Example: Playing chess, calculating a variation 10 moves ahead

Counterexample: Stuck in a traffic jam

Life Coach Tim LeBon's 5 top psychological flow tips

Csikszentmihalyi himself first experienced flow as a teenager playing chess and then mountain climbing. “With climbing you have to get up at two or three in the morning and walk for a few hours in the cold until you get to the rock face. But once you get involved, it's a different world. You can keep it up for hours - with no sense of time passing. The same is true of almost any of these activities”. Your own sources of flow will be very personal to you. There are many sources of flow -As well as hobbies, work, other people, sport and daily activities can all lead to flow.

Essentially there are two ways you can get more flow – either by

noticing where you are getting flow already, and doing more of these , or by turning activities that are currently not providing flow into flow activities.

How do you spell his name? Cszikszentmihalyi or Czicksentmeehalyi or what?

Here's a simple activity which gain bring you flow adapted from one of my favourite positive psychology books, Ilona Boniwell's Positive Psychology in a Nutshell.

Without peaking, spell the name of the originator of the theory about flow. Then see if you got it right, and keep trying until you do so.

This activity may not only bring flow, but also be educational!

Life Coaching for Psychological Flow – the flow psychology audit

Your own “flow audit” can help you notice where you experience flow, so you can choose to increase these activities if you so wish.

a) The first step is to identify activities where you may already be experiencing flow. To do this, think about what you do in each of the 5 areas of life where flow emerges – sport, work, hobbies, other people and daily activities. Jot down one or more potential flow activities if you can think of them in the ‘My flow activities’ column (column 3). You don’t have to be sure that you experience flow there, or always get flow from it. Jot it down if you think it has ever been a source of flow.

b)The second step is to mark each activity with a 0 or a 1 for each of the flow characteristics. For example, if your sporting activity is badminton, and you feel serene when playing badminton, put a 1 in the serenity column for badminton.

Area of life


My flow activities in this area e.g. for sport “badminton”

Lose Self


Worth doing for own sake

Time does not pass in the usual way

Completely concentrated

Feel in control

It’s a challenge, but I have the skills to take it on

Total Flow Score (out of seven)


Golf, Tennis, Athletics


Programming, Teaching, Surgery


Painting, Chess,

Mountain climbing, Music, Dancing






Cleaning teeth,


Polishing shoes

c. The final step is to tot up your score for each activity you have identified. Enter this into the final column.

Pick one or two of the highest scoring items. In the next week, set aside time for these high flow activities. If you feel yourself sabotaging this process with thoughts like "I'm too busy” , then recall as vividly as you can the good feeling you got last time you lost yourself in this activity to re-motivate yourself.

2) Transform as much of your life as you can to make it more like a flow activities using the flow-enablers.

The second strategy to help you have more flow in your life is to make any activity more flow-full. To help you do this, shape your daily life so that you routinely do things that facilitate flow. These facilitator of flow tell you not whether you are in flow but how to get more flow. To assist flow you can:-

  1. Set yourself clear goals

Tip: Set yourself a SMART goal for the activity.

To be SMART your goal should be Specific





  1. Get direct & immediate feedback

Tip: Ask yourself how you can tell if you are on track in this task (example – polishing shoes –feedback would be to look for whether shoes were getting shinier).

  1. Make the task challenging but not too challenging

Tip: If it is not challenging enough – climb to the next step of the ladder.

If it is too challenging – break it down into chunks, and step to the first rung of the ladder. Recall your past successes to increase confidence.

  1. Use your skills

Tip: First make a list of your strengths and skills. Then think about how to apply as many of these as you can to the task at hand

e.g. If you have good powers of persuasion, make sure you exercise these when selling

  1. Enjoy the activity

Tip: Play around with the idea of making the task more fun. Make the task more ‘you’

e.g. A history-teacher who liked Woody Allen humour introduced humorous anecdotes into his history lessons, with fantastic results

6) Concentrate on the task

Tip: Keep your focus solely on your goal. To help do this, Get yourself in an environment conducive to flow e.g.

Bonus tip: Even if you don’t experience flow every time, these 6 tips are well worth mastering as they are all part of personal effectiveness. This may not be a coincidence.

Psychological flow traps

Yes. Two mistakes spring to mind. First of all, don’t expect to get flow every time or instantly. For example, in playing tennis you might not get into flow until you’ve been playing for an hour. Or you might not get into flow at all.

Secondly, it would be self-defeating to be thinking about flow when engaging in the activity. You have to be concentrating on the activity itself, not flow. The trick is to forget about flow the minute you start the activity.

Is psychological flow overated?

Proponents of flow make some pretty extravagant claims. At times they seem to say that getting flow is the good life. However

My view is that flow a part of the good and meaningful life, but not the whole. Other things being equal, more flow in a life is better. For most people, transforming their life to make it more flow-full would be a very good thing.

Psychological flow resources

Top 5 Psychological flow links

Omni,  Jan, 1995 Interview  by Dava Sobel (author of Galileo’s Daughter)

Short Wiki article

A student’s helpful lecture notes

Good summary from Psychology Today

Brief Essay

Thinker of the year

Top  Psychological Flow books

If you are going to buy one book on flow, make it this one

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 

Also recommended:

Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997,

Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1998

Good Business: Leadership, flow and the making of meaning Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2003

Experiments in gaining more flow

If you would like to experiment to see if you can make your life more flow-full, try one or more of these experiments in living in the next week.

1. Look at your activities to see which produce flow.

2. Set aside time for some of them, instead of saying "I'm too busy."

3. Transform your life to make daily activities more flow-full.