Updated: Jun 25
In my last blog I highlighted how experiencing flow can benefit your mental health and discussed some recent research findings that support this view. But what exactly are 'flow activities' or in other words which activities are more likely to lead to flow?
In order to properly answer this question, I want to take a step back, in fact back to 1975 and the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his ground-breaking book, 'Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. In this book he talks extensively about autotelism. Before breaking this down let me just clarify what the term autotelic means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, "having a purpose in and not apart from itself". So, this means that the activity is done for its own sake, for the intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards (even if there are also extrinsic rewards for doing the activity). The word itself comes from Greek with 'auto' meaning self and 'telos' meaning goal hence a self intrinsically motivated goal (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). So, let me unpack this term by looking at the autotelic personality, autotelic activities and the autotelic experience.
Differentiating the autotelic personality from activities and experience may seem a little unnecessary or even pedantic but it is important because the term flow became a more understandable and convenient word than the original term 'autotelic experience' (Csikszentmihalyi, 2020). It was through Csikszentmihalyi's early research that the three concepts around intrinsic motivation emerged.
An autotelic person is one who will tend to enjoy what they are doing even if there is no significant external reward for it. It would appear that some people manage to find enjoyment in some of the most mundane of activities while others struggle to find enjoyment even in activities that are packed with intrinsic rewards (and we probably all know people who fit both of these categories). So, it would appear that some people have a personality trait that is autotelic and allows them to enjoy many different activities. Age, sex, background and culture may all have an impact on such a trait, but personalities can gradually change over time, so the good news is that if you are not naturally very autotelic you are not necessarily stuck that way!
"Autotelic activities are patterns of action which maximize immediate, intrinsic rewards to the participant" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975, p. 21). Such activities will allow the participant to derive a great deal of enjoyment both during and especially post activity. Some activities are structured in a way that predisposes them to being intrinsically rewarding with many challenging leisure pursuits being so suited. Csikszentmihalyi's early studies looked at activities such as rock climbing, composing, dancing, chess and basketball and all these activities proved to be good examples of activities that were structured in such a way as to be intrinsically rewarding. However, the data showed that no activity is completely autotelic or exotelic (being done for external reward) and that they will be a mix of the two with some being more autotelic than others.
From the discussion so far, it is clear that the ability to experience flow is determined by a mixture of the person's personality and the structure of the activity meaning that activities that provide flow for some will not result in flow state for others.
This is the mental state or altered state of consciousness that occurs when you enter flow. As mentioned earlier in this post 'autotelic experience' was the original term for 'flow experience' with the word experience being what occurs during participation in the activity. Hence, this is all about the flow characteristics and to what extent the participant experiences effortless attention, a sense of control, action and awareness merging, intrinsic motivation, loss of self-consciousness and transformation of time.
Four steps to discovering your flow activities
Whether you are naturally autotelic or not does not preclude you from experiencing flow hence following the four steps (Tate, 2021) described below will help you to find which activities are your flow activities.
Step one: Learn about flow
Understand the concept and its application. Learn about its foundations and characteristics. There are many great books available for those wanting to learn more about flow including many written or co-authored by the father of flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (some of which are listed in the references). In addition, my own books (mentioned towards the end of this blog) bring a very up to date approach to, and analysis of, the experience. Since September 2020 I have been running three online workshops about flow with the first one - an introduction to flow: concepts and application - being the ideal way to begin your journey. Please note that these workshops are now available as self-paced online courses.
Step two: Become aware of the experience
Once you understand what flow is and how people experience it then you have a much greater chance of recognising when you are in flow and the 'quality' and 'depth' of the experience. You may have experienced flow before but simply not recognised what it was? Much of the research over the years has been based on peoples subjective self-reports and the foundations and characteristics of the construct have been a result of the similarities of those reports across many different domains.
Step three: Identify YOUR flow activities
Know which activities lead to you experiencing flow. While there are, indeed, a number of activities that more commonly lead to flow (challenging sports combining mental and physical challenge, mentally complex activities like chess and writing, or absorbing activities like playing a musical instrument and reading) ultimately the activities will be personal to you. Activities that some people find mundane and boring will lead to flow for others. While some activities that lead to really deep flow experiences for some will result in anxiety and fear for others. For me, personally, skiing is an obvious flow activity and not just doing it myself but also teaching it. Over time I have come to realise that writing, reading and speaking (to groups in person and virtually) can all lead to me experiencing flow. But equally important to realise is that these activities do not always lead to flow hence the need for step four.
Step four: Keep a record of your flow activities
In sport athletes approach the development of pre-competition strategies in a meticulous way and develop such strategies over a period of time through a process of trial and error. The purpose of such a strategy is to ensure that the performance that follows will be the best that it can be and will therefore include everything that can contribute to this desired outcome such as nutrition, sleep, warm up, arousal levels at different time points in the build-up to the performance, using imagery, meditation etc. For an athlete to develop such a strategy it is necessary to keep detailed written records of the build-up to each competition so that they know what things will lead to a better performance.
Adopting a similar approach to 'flow activities' is a great way for you to truly understand which activities will more likely lead to you experiencing flow state and the quality and depth of that experience. So, it is NOT enough to just make a note each time you experience flow and activity that you were engaged in at the time. What you need to do is to record the details which should include how the flow foundations were interacting e.g., the goal of the activity, the immediate and ongoing feedback you were getting, the perceived level of challenge balanced against your available skills and how much effort was required to maintain focus. You should then note down which characteristics of flow you experienced; effortless attention, action awareness merging, sense of control, autotelic experience, loss of self-consciousness (LoSC) and transformation of time (ToT). It is generally recognised that you will not always experience all six of the characteristics but if you are lucky enough to do so and in particular experience LoSC and ToT then the quality and depth of the experience will be greater (Tate, 2020). Being this meticulous will mean that you not only know which activities are your 'flow activities' but also (somewhat akin to a pre-competition strategy) how to find flow in these said activities in the future.
My current book, 'Learn, Enjoy, Flow & Grow' is a great way to increase your understanding of flow and how it fits within the bigger picture of learning, enjoyment and personal growth. While my next book Transformational Flow Coaching provides the understanding of how to integrate flow into your own coaching practice. Both book are on my author page.
In conclusion my advice is to treat 'flow activities' in the same way as the athlete approaches developing a pre-competition strategy and then you, and yes I do mean YOU, will be better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at you, to derive enjoyment from a whole variety of activities, to become more autotelic, to better manage your mental health and to grow in spite of, or even because of, the challenges that inevitably come your way. The Coronavirus pandemic has, perhaps, highlighted the need for understanding your 'flow activities' more than ever not least because when your freedom is limited you need some activities that provide flow even when you are cooped up in your house and unable to get out in nature and the mountains as much as you might wish!
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow : The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: BasicBooks.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play (25th Anniv). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Tate, D. N. (2020). Learn, Enjoy, Flow and Grow: Using the principles of positive psychology to help find passion and meaning in life (First). Parallel Dreams Publishing.
About the Author
Derek Tate is an author, coach and teacher and runs Derek Tate Coaching. His mission is to help others to flourish and get more out of life through better mental, emotional, and physical health. He offers mental skills coaching, alpine ski coaching, online courses and workshops and writes self help/psychology books.