In the 1992 NBA Championship Finals, Michael Jordan hit six 3-pointers in 18 minutes, then turned to the crowd with an iconic shrug. He later said he was so “in the zone” that he literally had no idea how he did it.
He was, of course, talking about that thrilling feeling of flow. A term coined by the late positive psychology expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, to flow is the state of being hyper-focused, completely absorbed and energized by the task at hand.
“Flow is the feeling of being immersed and engaged in what you’re doing, and we care about that because people tend to perform better and feel better when they’re in a state of flow,” says David Melnikoffa psychologist who studies the nature of motivation.
Indeed, research has shown that being in a state of flow improves productivity, learning and academic successAnd general well-being. “But we don’t know much about it, so we don’t really know how to grow it,” Melnikoff says.
Trying to better understand this razor-sharp mindset, he and his colleagues found a formula to harness flow and improve engagement in any task at hand. They published their findings last year in Nature Communication.
The team conducted a series of five experiments on participants that measured their flow levels based on the tasks at hand. The tasks themselves were a series of number games featuring a combination of tiles.
Successful participants – groups ranging from 400 to 1,000 members – received monetary rewards, longer periods to complete the game, and more chances to improve their scores.
The researchers, in turn, kept their eyes peeled for what adjustments to these tasks, if any, increased or decreased participant flow. They followed that up by asking players to complete quizzes about how immersive, engaging, captivating, and addicting the games were.
Magic formula for Flow
From these observations, the research team was able to distill a simple mathematical equation: I(M;E).
THE M represented meansor the actions you take to achieve a goal, and the E represented ends, or the result of these actions. The final variable, Irepresented mutual information. In other words, it is the information that exists between means and ends.
“Flow emerges as the actions you take in an activity reduce the uncertainty about the outcome of that activity,” says Melnikoff.
The general idea is that when your actions significantly reduce the uncertainty surrounding the outcome, that activity induces more flow. However, activities in which your actions reduce the uncertainty of your outcome very little are not.
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Stream in Games
That’s why gamification in apps often succeeds in hooking users, Melnikoff explains. Entertainment apps, fitness trackers and language learning apps often use “series”.
Sequences work much better than simple outcomes like victory or loss, in the same way that open-ended questions work better in conversations than yes-or-no questions; there are many different results, and the further you go, the clearer the result becomes.
“There’s not a lot of uncertainty you can reduce when there are only two possible outcomes,” Melnikoff says. “But how many hits can you get in a row? It could be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. That’s a lot more uncertainty than I can reduce.
It’s a compelling and novel explanation of what gives rise to the flow state, says Angela Duckwortha psychology professor studying courage and self-control at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in this study.
“I myself have revised my schedule for the next semester, replacing pass-fail assignments with graded assignments,” Duckworth continues. “According to Melnikoff’s theory, the greater the number of possible outcomes, the lower the uncertainty.”
How to hack stream
While applying this particular formula to something as physical as sports might seem difficult, Melnikoff says it’s easier than it looks.
When a game begins, there is often a lot of uncertainty as to how it will play out, but each action leads players to leaps and bounds towards their end goal, reducing uncertainty. That, in itself, is fertile ground for the flow to flourish.
There are also tons of tricks you can immediately use in your own life, adds Melnikoff.
If an activity is so difficult that it feels frustrating, for example, lower your expectations. Instead of aiming to succeed on every attempt, aim to succeed only once in a series of attempts. Just make sure “the number you give yourself is challenging but achievable,” says Melnikoff.
Alternatively, if an activity is so easy that it feels boring, try rewarding yourself for consecutive streaks of success. As for the usually easy and boring task of responding to emails, for example, see how many days in a row you can clear your inbox, then give yourself a reward appropriate to the length of your streak.
Aim for perfection
Of course, no formula is perfect, and there is still a lot of work to be done to find another way to implement this knowledge in our daily lives. Flow fluctuates over time, for example, and this formula cannot yet explain how best to exploit this variation.
There are also questions as to whether a single formula can encapsulate all that flow, according to Jeanne Nakamurathe co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, who was not involved in the study.
Indeed, the state of mind often includes some of the most memorable and intense experiences in people’s lives. Distilling flux into a formula can be useful, especially in understanding the conditions that give rise to the state.
“On the other hand, it’s not clear that a single condition can explain entering and staying in the stream,” Nakamura says.
Researchers are also still trying to understand what flow looks like in couples, sports teams, work groups and other collectives, she continues.
“Is it each individual member of the group experiencing the flow, or is there more to it? What are the conditions that cause it? How is it supported? Nakamura said. Further research is certainly needed before these questions can be answered.
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