Flow: Interpretations of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Creativity & Flow…

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity”.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is this state achievable in work or play, characterized by the following seven requisites:

1. One is completely involved in the task; you are both concentrated and focused.

2. They feel a sense of ecstasy, in the sense of the original Greek meaning of the word; to feel ‘outside of reality’.

3. ‘Great Inner Clarity‘ – you know firstly what needs to be done, and secondly, how well you’re doing in achieving what needs to be done.

4. Knowing your skills are adequate for the job; that the job is doable.

5. Serenity – no worries of oneself; a perspective transcending the boundaries of ego.

6. Timelessness – time flies by as one is caught in the moment, a total focus on the present.

7. Intrinsic Motivation – whatever activity produces flow; becomes its own reward.

The diagram shows the states leading to and complimenting or contrasting the state of flow.


Studies conducted measuring respondents’ perceived levels of happiness in different situations provided data capturing to what degree they felt challenged and to what degree they felt skilled at any given time. Subsequently it is possible to establish an average level of challenge and skill for an individual (this will be different to anybody else), forming the centre point of the graph as shown. It is argued then that in knowing this it can be predicted when and how the individual can reach a state of flow. Again this will always be different as flow states are dependent on what that particular individual really likes to do – for example, it might be playing a sport, designing, playing the piano.

And so flow becomes this optimum state; arousal and control are both OK and lead to flow: Arousal is where we do most of our learning as the challenge complexity is higher than our perceived level of skill with which to deal with the situation, and so we must learn new skills to achieve flow. Control conversely requires an increase in the complexity of the challenge to avoid reverting to boredom or apathy, generally considered aversive (Csíkszentmihályi mentions that TV is responsible for most apathy states, along with having a shit…although interestingly 7-8% of TV watching causes flow too…).

His conclusive point is concerned with integrating channels of flow into every day life more – ways in which flow states can be stimulated and promoted both intrinsically and extrinsically. From an organisation’s perspective, the issue of fostering a culture in which flow channels can proliferate is of great importance; particularly in creative industries such as the digital advertising industry on which my work focuses. Issues of projectization, the division of labour and generally ‘picking the right man for the job’ take on new meaning when contextualized by the notion of trying to achieve flow in the workplace. How can organisational culture and management encourage states of flow to be pursued out of states of arousal, control or worse; apathy, boredom or anxiety? The answer lies in defining the context in which people are supposed to complete tasks – particularly creative tasks. Leaving the space open and blank provides no structure; no boundaries to the process, and as such, flow is unachievable: it doesn’t fulfill the criteria of ‘knowing what needs to be done’ and ‘knowing the task is doable’. Further, too concrete a structure to the process may prevent flow channels being utilized where individuality and independence in producing the task are restrictively bound, result again in mediocrity. Again, a balance must be struck between control and creativity, between divergence and convergence, and between complexity and skill.

To extend the whole idea of flow further, one can in my opinion shift the notion up to a new level of aggregation, and consider organisational flow, rather than individual flow in very much the same way. Organizations could review their previous work and aggregate how complex they felt the challenge was, and how adequate their skills were in each circumstance. Again, an average centrepoint of challenge complexity / skill could be attained, and organisations could work to shift their state to a state of flow on more of a day to day basis. Digital Ad agencies caught in longer term relationships may resort to states of control or relaxation – and further away from flow – and many up and coming agencies are pushing from control or arousal in continually innovating and exppanding their knowledge bases, in order to move towards flow.

Either way, the idea of putting mechanisms in place in order to cultivate both individual and organisational level flow states sounds to me like it makes a lot of sense when trying to engage and develop organisational culture. Indeed, whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.


Click here for Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on flow.

This is what wikipedia says about him.


One Response

  1. Just read ‘Finding Flow’ and ‘Creativity’ – developments of ideas to come.

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