WHAT IS FLOW? A BRIEF INTRODUCTION

Flow is the experience of deep immersion and full engagement in an activity that is intrinsically motivating. It is a universal experience—one that most people recognize—with some people finding and harnessing the experience on a regular basis.

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Early research on Flow was conducted by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian born researcher at the University of Chicago. For more than 60 years Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, and many researchers throughout the world, have studied Flow, through many diverse arenas—including art, athletics, sailing, bullfighting, farming, motorcycle riding, computers, reading, dancing, playing music, work, leisure, spiritual, social, and many other arenas with demands ranging from simple to highly complex activities. Flow is an experience that knows no boundaries, yet leaves behind vital clues for engineering optimal experiences.

Flow has been studied in children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly throughout the world. In essence, it is a natural and desirable state—a global human experience.

The big concepts describing flow suggest that the experience is fostered when these conditions are present:

1. When an activity has clear goals and objectives. When individuals describe their flow experiences, they often mention having a clear goal or blueprint of what to do. Clear goals provide boundaries that channel energy and focus. While goal-directed individuals in flow often describe a state of “mindlessness”. This duality, a combination of direction and detachment—of being in the moment—is central to Flow.

2. When an activity provides clear and immediate feedback, thus creating a coherent demand for action. Feedback mechanisms are common in most natural and man-made systems. They provide needed information for monitoring results, making adjustments (often through clear measures and standards) and course correcting, which re-directs attention towards a meaningful goal. Feedback is vital for perpetuating the Flow experience and meeting the demands of the task at hand.

3. Absence of self-consciousness. Individuals who describe themselves in flow, are often so fully connected to their activities that who they are is lost in the moment. Individuals are often either focused on themselves or on the environment in front of them. When focused on the self, individuals often self-judge, which can get in the way of a Flow experience via increased self-consciousness. Individuals lacking self-consciousness in the moment, however, often feel that they are “their best selves” and claim that in flow they are “at one” with the experience. Neither fear of success nor fear of failure enters into the experience. Instead, the experience is what it is, without judgment, and the performer, almost as an observer, participates uninterrupted by the frailties of the human ego.

4. A sense of control. Individuals experiencing Flow often say things like, “I just couldn’t miss the ball,” or, “Everything just came together.” Their action and reaction patterns take place without much conscious processing. They attend to their current “reality” or stay within the present moment, acting more spontaneously and without interference, yet with a keen sense of personal control and confidence.

5. Time distortion, or an altered sense of time. Often, during Flow time seems to pass quickly (during an enjoyable event like a party or a game of tennis). In other instances, the opposite phenomenon can arise, where time seems to slow down (shooting the game winning shot or even getting in a car accident). In either case, there is a deep sense of absorption as one gets lost in an activity with time taking on its own and proper cadence to meet the needs of the moment.

6. The activity is autotelic or intrinsically motivating. Flow experiences bring such great joy that there is no need for external rewards. Instead, individuals participate in certain activities for their own sake, or “without conventional reward” because they feel as if they are actualizing their potential. The activity usually contributes to their self-realization or actualization. Autotelic refers to loving an experience for its own sake. Autotelic activities carry few extrinsic rewards and usually no material rewards, and yet still attract participants who devote time, energy, and money to the pursuit.

7. Attention is centered with limited distractions and high concentration power. Our attention is constantly being pulled in many directions. Since many stimuli compete for our conscious attention, our minds struggle to focus on one particular subject for any length of time. For those who experience Flow, however, their attention is fixed and stable for sustained periods—usually because of the other conditions already discussed. There is nothing between the person and what they are doing.

8. Action and awareness merge into transcendence. Merging action and awareness is essentially a fusion (or alignment as described within Attentional Leadership™ framework) between and within the body, heart, mind, working philosophy, and spirit, linked and aligned with external environments—neither in the past nor the future—but fully integrated in moment. This fusion takes place when we are so immersed in a task at hand that even the tools we are using (bat, racket, piano, scalpel, computer) become part of us. The unified consciousness that results from the merging of action and awareness is a major outcome of the Flow experience. This experience reminds us that we don’t exercise skill as much as we “align” ourselves to moments.

9. Perceived challenges are met by perceived skills. The Flow experience represents a balance between perceived skills and perceived challenges—when the intra-somatic and the extra-somatic come together. Whether we are confronted with a simple or a difficult task, we are more likely to enter flow when our perceived challenges and skills find their right and proper balance (sufficient skill to meet the challenge). Think of a time when you were given a task to do that seemed boring—whether this was stacking cans in a grocery store, cleaning a floor, weeding a garden, or waiting around for someone. After a time, did boredom give way to anxiety or a desire to do something else? In contrast, think of a time when you faced an over-the-top challenge and you were not sure if you could manage it—a difficult exam perhaps, an overwhelming job, too many deadlines coming at you at once, or multiple challenges. Didn’t this also lead to anxiety?

Flow occurs within the corridor from the lower left to the upper right—whatever the arena and whatever the task—be it easy (sweeping a floor) or hard (landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in bad weather).

These nine factors offer significant insights into the nature of Flow, yet there is a deeper and more complex story to tell. These may be the central characteristics of the current literature, but they do not provide a comprehensive model, road map, or toolkit to help generate Flow.

Recognizing the complexity of Flow, focus, and peak performance, ALI research suggests that there are many Principles@Play, within many Internal, Time, and External dimensions that help create and sustain Flow within any Meaningful Life Arena (MLA)—not just for the individual, but also within relationships, teams, organizations—even communities. Recognizing the immense value and opportunity to help people “find their flow” is the quest and mission of the Attentional Leadership™ Institute.

WHAT IS ATTENTIONAL LEADERSHIP™? A BRIEF INTRODUCTION:

Attentional Leadership™ seeks to explore and understand the relationship between the technical and human side of performance and peak engagement so that individuals, relationships, teams, organizations, and communities can utilize the appropriate principles, strategies, tools, methods, and practices to tap into the X-factor of performance—finding more flow and exercising greater influence/leadership—in any personal and professional arena.

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Attentional Leadership™ offers a framework to explore the inter-relationship between Internal, External, and Time-based dimensions so that individuals, relationships, teams, organizations, and communities know where to place their “Attention with Intention” on What’s Important Now (WIN).

Attentional Leadership™ asserts that influence takes place through these 5 Internal sub-dimensions: Physical (actions), Emotional (affect), Psychological (thoughts), Philosophical (values), and Spiritual (principles).

Attentional Leadership™ asserts that influence also takes place through these 5 Time sub-dimensions: Long-Future (envisioning), Short-Future (planning), Focus in the Moment (engaging), Short-Past (learning), and Long-Past (cultivating).

Attentional Leadership™ recognizes that one’s capacity to influence (in any place, at any level, and at any time) is transacted moment by moment, with future intent informed by past experience—through present moment focus and full engagement with activity at hand. Together these Internal and Time dimensions suggest a more comprehensive relationship between one’s personal and professional disciplines and one’s capacity to engage and perform in those disciplines.

Fully engaging oneself using these intersecting ten (10) dimensions in relationship to your professional/personal arenas (Tk’s) help identify the “Principles@Play” or Flow Assets and Liabilities that help you place your “attention with intention” on What’s Important Now (WIN) to raise the bar of performance in any Meaningful Life Arena (MLA).

Attentional Leadership™ posits that these Internal (physical, emotional, psychological, philosophical, and spiritual), Time (long-future, short-future, focus/moment, short-past, long-past) principles apply equally within and beyond oneself to influence and lead within External: Personal, Interpersonal, Team, Organization, and Community) arena’s. Taken together these 15 dimensions, and their respective sub-dimensions and domains of practice, can be explored systemically in relationship to one another.

Attentional Leadership™ posits that all of these intersecting dimensions work dynamically in a 3-dimension relationship—providing a binding and a bounding framework from which to explore influence and leadership as it takes place—moment by moment—showcasing the intersectionality of human influence and leadership within all life arenas—from micro to macro.

Knowing where, when, and how long to place attention (within and between dimensions and sub-dimensions) is the essence of Attentional Leadership™. It recognizes that the Principles@Play are as relevant for the individual contributor as they are for all levels and scale of leadership.

Attentional Leadership assumes that:

  • Principles govern all domains and inform right practices
  • Influence and leadership take place moment by moment
  • All relevant principles of influence and leadership apply equally to self as to others
  • Where attention is placed with intention influence is being exercised
  • Complex challenges require focused attention on What’s Important Now (WIN)
  • Identifying WIN requires a 3-dimensional perspective (Internal, Time, External)
  • Success (at any place or time) is contingent upon utilizing principles, strategies, tools, methods, and/or processes in accordance with the demands of the moment
  • Attentional agility and balance is critical for short and long-term efficacy
  • Anyone, over time, can increase their capacity to influence and lead
  • Attentional Leadership is a life-long endeavor and pursuit to fulfill personal, relational, team, organization, and community potential

Through the lens of Attentional Leadership™, the principles of flow can be more completely articulated, understood and used to design environments that compel deep focus and engagement. Finding Your Flow through Attentional Leadership™ is meant for any individual, team or organization looking to identify key strengths, critical gaps, and the opportunity to take performance to the next level.

Schedule a free 30 minute consultation to learn more.