During the 1992 NBA Championship Finals, Michael Jordan hit six 3-pointers in 18 minutes before turning to the crowd with an iconic shrug. He later said he was so “in the zone” that he literally didn’t know how he did it.
He was of course talking about that exhilarating feeling of flow. A term coined by the late positive psychology expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is a state of hyper-focus, fully absorbed and energized by the task at hand.
“Flow is the feeling of being immersed and engaged in what you’re doing, and we’re interested in that because people tend to perform their best and feel their best when they’re in a state of flow,” says David Melnikova psychologist who studies the nature of motivation.
Indeed, research shows that finding a person in a state of flow increases productivity, learning and academic achievementand overall well-being. “But we don’t really know much about it, and therefore we don’t know how to cultivate it,” says Melnikov.
Trying to better understand this razor-sharp state of mind, he and his colleagues devised a formula for mastering flow and improving engagement with any task. They published their findings last year in Nature Communications.
The team conducted a series of five experiments on participants who measured their flow levels according to the tasks they were performing. The tasks themselves were a series of digital games involving a combination of tiles.
Successful participants – groups of 400 to 1,000 members – received cash prizes, longer time periods to complete the game and more chances to improve their scores.
The researchers, in turn, kept their eyes open for what, if any, changes in these tasks increased or decreased participant flow. They tracked this by having players answer questionnaires about how immersive, engaging, immersive and addictive the games were.
Magic formula for flow
From these observations, the research team was able to distill a simple mathematical equation: I).
The M means meansor the actions you take to achieve a goal, and e means ends, or the result of those actions. The final variable, Irepresents mutual information. In other words, it is the information that exists between means and ends.
“Flow occurs to the extent that the actions you take in an activity reduce uncertainty about the outcome of that activity,” says Melnikov.
The overall idea is that when your actions significantly reduce the uncertainty surrounding the outcome, that activity is more flow-inducing. Activities where your actions reduce the uncertainty about your outcome very little, however, are not.
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Stream in games
That’s why gamification in apps often does a good job of engaging users, Melnikov says. Entertainment apps, fitness trackers, and language learning apps often use “stripes.”
Streaks work much better than simple outcomes like win or lose, in the same way that open-ended questions work better in conversations than yes-or-no questions; there are many different results and the more you continue the clearer the result becomes.
“There’s not a lot of uncertainty you can reduce when there are only two possible outcomes,” says Melnikov. “But how many successes can you have in a row? That could be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. That’s a lot more uncertainty that I can reduce.”
This is a compelling and novel explanation for what gives rise to the flow state, he says Angela Duckwortha professor of psychology who studies courage and self-control at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in this study.
“I myself redesigned my curriculum for the next semester, changing the pass-fail assignments to graded assignments,” Duckworth continues. “According to Melnikov’s theory, the greater the number of possible outcomes, the greater the reduction in uncertainty.”
How to hack Flow
While applying this particular formula to something as physical as sports may seem challenging, Melnikov says it’s easier than it looks.
When a game starts, there’s often a lot of uncertainty about how it’s going to play out—but each action takes players a quick step toward their ultimate goal, reducing uncertainty. This in itself is fertile ground for the flow to flourish.
There are also many tricks that you can immediately use in your own life, Melnikov adds.
If an activity is so difficult that it feels frustrating, for example, lower your expectations. Instead of aiming to succeed on every attempt, try to succeed only once in a series of attempts. Just make sure “the number you set is challenging but achievable,” says Melnikov.
Alternatively, if an activity is so easy that you find it boring, try rewarding yourself for streaks of consecutive successes. When it comes to the typically easy and boring task of answering emails, for example, see how many days in a row you can clear your inbox—then give yourself a reward that’s appropriate for the length of your streak.
Pursuit of perfection
Of course, no formula is perfect, and there is still much work to be done to figure out how else to apply this knowledge to our daily lives. Flow varies with time, for example, and this formula still cannot explain how best to use this variation.
There are also questions about whether a single formula can encapsulate the entire flow, according to Jeanne Nakamuraco-director of the Center for Quality of Life Research at Claremont Graduate University, who was not involved in the study.
This is because states of mind often also include some of the most memorable and intense experiences in people’s lives. Distilling the flow into a formula can be useful, especially for understanding the conditions that give rise to the state.
“On the other hand, it is not clear whether a single condition can explain entering and remaining in flow,” Nakamura says.
Scientists are still trying to understand what flow looks like in couples, sports teams, work groups and other collectives, she continues.
“Is it a matter of each individual member of the group experiencing flow, or is there more to it? What are the conditions that give rise to it? How is it maintained?” Nakamura says. More research is certainly needed before such questions can be answered.
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