Most of us have probably heard of “flow states.” It’s a state of consciousness where we get lost in the activity we’re doing. Our focus is so intense, we lose awareness of the outside (and inside) world. We don’t notice the passing of time and feelings of hunger, thirst, or fatigue. Our inner monologue ceases. We become completely engrossed in whatever we’re doing.
My first experiences with flow states came from my days as an artist. I loved drawing in general and pencil drawing in particular. When working on a piece, I’d get totally engrossed. Five hours would feel like five minutes. I’d lose awareness of everything around me.
Later, I experienced this same phenomenon when playing certain video games. When I started playing sports, I noticed the same experience. When playing football, a quarter would seemingly pass in a matter of seconds. When wrestling, a period would pass in the blink of an eye.
I’ve also noticed the flow state lately while delivering packages. There will be times where Eric, my driver, and I will get in a groove. We stop talking. Our actions sync up. Our efficiency goes through the roof.
Running is an activity that can elicit a flow state. We need a minimum level of proficiency to enter flow states, so this probably doesn’t happen with complete novices. Once we gain a little experience to the point where the motions of running are more or less automatic, we can enter a flow state. And we love it. In fact, it’s that flow state than makes running somewhat addictive.
There’s a problem with flow state, though. We need a minimum level of proficiency to enter the state. We have to be able to accomplish the task at hand automatically; we cannot consciously think about our motions. That requires some degree of practice. Also, flow state requires challenge. If a task is perceived as too easy, we don’t enter a flow state. We need to get to a happy medium between mastery and challenge. When we find that sweet spot, we set up the conditions to enter a flow state.
Sidebar- sensory experiences are a major part of flow states. I’d hypothesize this is the reason barefoot running can be such a powerful experience… it allows us to enter a flow state easier than shod running.
Anyway, the perceived challenge aspect is important. If we don’t perceive enough of a challenge, we can’t enter a flow state. If we can’t enter a flow state, our intrinsic motivation for an activity decreases. To continue the activity after we’ve mastered it, we have to rely on external motivators, which aren’t sustainable.
This explains why we have a desire to intentionally handicap ourselves for routine tasks. This also explains why we seek out more difficult challenges. We’re unconsciously trying to find the sweet spot where flow can occur.
It’s no secret that I despise road running. Why? I don’t perceive a challenge. I’m not motivated to run faster or longer on roads, so the “boringness” keeps me from entering a flow state. Why do I like trail running, especially in rugged mountains? It’s hard. Not impossible hard, but challenging hard. It hits my sweet spot.
Flow state mastery also explains why I have little tolerance for routine. I can’t run the same trails repeatedly. I have a difficult time running a race multiple times. I don’t even like loop courses for this reason.
This also explains why I occasionally lose interest in running. At some point, I get good enough to surpass that sweet spot and I lose the intrinsic motivation of the flow state. Note that point of “too good” is relative… I’m not a good runner compared to most ultrarunners… only good enough to surpass the flow state. If I take time away, my skills quickly erode. When I begin running again, it’s sufficiently hard to regress back to the sweet spot.
Why was I so unmotivated to run the last 100 miler? I had run several long races in a short period of time. There was no longer a question that I’d finish. I could have tried running it faster, but finish times aren’t intrinsically motivating to me. At Grindstone, I didn’t enter flow states nearly as much as I normally do, which served as an early warning. I was surpassing that sweet spot, and motivation reflected it.
Jesse Scott and I have had many conversations about the joy of trying new activities. We get great joy in being bad at an activity. Why? It’s a challenge to start from scratch and build to the point where you’re proficient enough to enter a flow state.
This also explains why my new package delivery job is so rewarding. When I first started, I wasn’t good. I was motivated to improve to the point where I could enter a flow state. I’m now at that point. As such, the job is intensely intrinsically rewarding. I’m in the sweet spot. As i continue the job, I will eventually get too good. Without a perceived challenge, I’ll have trouble entering flow. The job will no longer be intrinsically rewarding. At that point, I’ll either move on to a different job within the company or do something to handicap myself to reintroduce challenge.
I’m beginning to realize I’m a flow state addict, which is the reason I can’t do the same thing day in and day out. I crave variety. I love trying new things until I reach a degree of mastery, then move on to something else. That pattern correlates perfectly with flow states.I’m on the cusp of starting a new hobby and I’m unbelievably excited. Why? I know I’m going to royally suck and the motivation to improve to get to that flow state strikes a deep inner drive.
Why has the hobo lifestyle been such a rewarding experience? It was new. When did it begin to lose it’s luster? Right about the time we got really good at being hobos. Why is our present “boring rest period” intrinsically rewarding? It’s been a long time since we experienced it, so we’re not very good. Once we gain that optimum level of post-flow state mastery, we’ll be ready to go back to exciting nomadic adventures.
Lifestyle cycling feeds the flow state addiction.
Runners- what do you think? Can you relate? I suspect not all people are motivated by flow states. I know lots of people that derive great pleasure from routine; variety is something that is deeply upsetting. If the flow state motivation model doesn’t seem to reflect your experiences, what does motivate you? Leave a comment!