NB. This was originally a research paper I wrote for a class, I repurposed it into a post. One of the first papers I wrote using Analog Zettelkasten method.
Numerous articles, books, and research papers have demonstrated the positive effects of flow experience. But, as mentioned by the father of flow theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the flow state can sometimes lead to negative results. In this post I will discuss the possible negative side effects, dangerous consequences, and addictive qualities of flow state.
Flow experience has been studied for almost fifty years. It began with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the work of artists who spent hours on hours immersed in their craft. Csikszentmihalyi noticed that while artists were working, they were extremely focused on their work, but once they stopped doing art, they forgot about it1. After Csikszentmihalyi, there has been extensive research done on the subject of flow. The theory has been used in sports, education, business management, and other fields. Most studies have focused on the positive aspects of the flow state. Less attention has been given to negative sides and challenges related to flow.
What is flow?
Before I’m going to introduce negative aspects, it is essential to provide a definition of the flow state. Csikszentmihalyi writes that flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”2 The task is done for the love of doing it, for what is otherwise called an autotelic experience — doing things not for the rewards, but because it is enjoyable. Flow is sometimes also referred to as “being in the Zone”.
Flow is a state in which a person is intensely focused on the task at hand. The person is completely absorbed in the moment; his actions and awareness are aligned, and merge into one. While giving his full attention to the activity, he loses the sense of time — the time is either slows down, or speeds up. A person in flow doesn’t spend time thinking about his everyday problems. The critical part of his personality, the inner critic, has disappeared: loss of ego3. Flow provides us with a feeling of ecstasy, we feel truly alive. This feeling is what Csikszentmihalyi calls an “optimal experience”.
Some prerequisites need to be met, before an individual can reach the state of flow. The activity at hand needs to be challenging, but not so difficult that the person has no chance of completing it. It means that a balance must be found between personal skills and the difficulty of the challenge. Furthermore, a person needs clear goals, quick feedback, and the activity has to feel good and be enjoyable4.
Flow is fragile
The first challenge that knowledge workers must overcome in today’s modern, highly connected work environments is how to achieve and maintain flow amid all the distractions of a technologically advanced society. We carry around in our pockets mobile devices that are connected to the entire world. During our workday, a notification can appear at any time and draw our attention away from important work. Even if we turn off our mobile devices, colleagues still expect us to answer email and chat messages. We are available 24/7 and feel obligated to respond to every notification immediately.
This is a problem for people who are accustomed to working in the flow. Once a person is in the flow state, one unexpected chat notification can instantly disrupt it. “Flow states are fragile. They are easily disrupted by outside distraction or task rotation”5.
As a software engineer, I am familiar with the feeling of flow and how fragile it can be. It takes time and effort to grasp the specific task at hand. Once I am comfortable with the task, I will be able to enter into a state of flow and work. But, as usual, someone sends a chat message. It might be a serious issue, or just a joke someone wanted to share. We must switch contexts, read the message and decide if it is worth our attention. By that time, the flow state will have long since vanished, and we will have to start over from scratch. Context switching costly and can be demotivating.
Flow is fragile: it is easy to break, but takes a long time to build. This presents a challenge for a modern workplace with open offices and remote work. How can we achieve a state of flow while still maintaining open communication?
Cal Newport says that we should start doing deep work. Working deeply is an “ability to focus without a distraction on a cognitively demanding task”6. Deep work requires extended periods of focused, distraction-free work. Deep work might be the answer to the fragility of flow. A person, who wants to work deeply, needs to communicate his wishes to peers and teammates. He needs to make clear that he is not reachable during certain hours of the day. But explaining the importance of deep work is easier said than done. My experience has shown that not everyone in the company might understand that you need to work distraction-free.
Beginners take risks
The Greek myth of Icarus is a good example of what can happen when a beginner is in the state of flow. The myth tells us that Icarus father built wings from feathers and wax in order to escape from Crete, where they were imprisoned. He gave the wings to his son and warned him not to fly too low or too high. Icarus ignored his father’s advice and flew too close to the Sun and burned the wings.
Icarus was in a state of flow and overestimated his abilities, forgetting about all the warnings.
He was a beginner, completely absorbed in the activity of flying, but at the same time ignoring all the warning signs. He tried to reach the sun – a challenge that he was not prepared for. He was trying to do too much at once and reached for levels that he was not yet prepared for. As a result, he fell into the sea.
Schüler & Nakamura7 studied kayakers to see if flow and higher risk-taking are related, and found that flow can be associated with low-risk awareness and risk-taking behaviour. The link between risk-taking and flow was more noticeable in inexperienced kayakers than in experienced ones. This can be explained by overestimation of our owns skills.
As beginners, we are so focused on our new activity that we don’t notice the obvious signs in the environment. Like a beginner, who is learning to drive a car for the first time, they can only focus on one thing at a time. We forget about the limitations and ignore warnings.
“In relation to health promotion through sport participation, these studies have suggested that at least for beginners flow may be a double-edged sword”8. A beginner can get carried away, and in the process take high risks with a potentially dangerous consequences: injuries, accidents, costly business mistakes.
Experienced get hooked
If inexperienced people might get into trouble by overestimating their abilities and taking higher risks, then experienced have a different problem — they might get addicted to the state flow. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow can have addictive qualities: “Almost any enjoyable activity can become addictive, […], it becomes a necessity that interferes with other activities,” and also, “… activities that produce flow have a potentially negative aspect, […], they can become addictive.”9 People might become so accustomed to working in a flow state that they will be unable to work without it. Csikszentmihalyi writes that “the self becomes captive of a certain kind of order, and is then unwilling to cope with the ambiguities of life”.
Csikszentmihalyi recognized the addictive qualities of flow: “any kind of flow activity can become habit forming.”10 Flow that has become a dependence can pose serious risks, as with a professional surgeon, who no longer can get into the state of flow – “deprived of the experience, […], the job can turn into a boring routine. […] the activity will no longer provide flow. All too often the consequences may include alcoholism, family disruption, and even suicide”11.
The problem of getting addicted to the feeling of flow is especially visible in the field of extreme sports(for example, wing-suit flying and free climbing). Once they have beaten a challenge, they must move on to a harder one. Just as with drugs, an athlete must reach for higher and riskier doses of flow in order to achieve the same effect. Previously enjoyable activities no longer provide the same “high” feeling they once did. In other words, they have developed a tolerance, become “adrenaline junkies”, and need to up the stakes.
A good example of flow inducing extreme sport is wingsuit flying. One wing suit professional said: “The problem with wingsuit proximity flying is it’s a sport that gets more dangerous the better you get”12. The slightest miscalculation can end in tragedy, and that’s what happened to Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, two wingsuit flyers, who crashed into the ground.
Partington et al. studied fifteen elite surfers. From the studies, they concluded that “surfers experienced positive consequences of flow. However, they also exhibited symptoms of dependence on surfing.”13 One surfer said that flow during surfing is the best feeling in the world, and even the best drugs can’t give the same level of ecstasy.
How to prevent addiction? Csikszentmihalyi writes that “one probably should develop skills in several different areas, so that one can experience flow in a variety of circumstances.”14
Flow is an enjoyable and productive experience. Getting into flow is difficult in an environment full of distractions. Beginners, who take on new activities, might mistakenly believe that they have more skills than they actually do while working in the flow state. This can lead to unwanted risk-taking and mistakes. Because flow is an enjoyable feeling, people might get addicted to it; being dependent on the flow state to get our work done is not optimal. If activities that induced flow don’t provide that feeling anymore, we might go to extremes. We have built up a tolerance. Craving for flow can reduce our judgement, and we might take more risks than usual. That might end badly, if we are not careful and solely rely on the flow to get our work done.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper [and] Row. ↩︎
Ibid., page 4 ↩︎
Flow Research Collective. (2020). The History of Flow Science from Nietzsche to Neurons. https://www.flowresearchcollective.com/blog/history-of-flow ↩︎
Buzády, Z., Marer, P., & Vecsey, Z. (2019). Missing link discovered ↩︎
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (First Edition). Grand Central Publishing. ↩︎
Schüler, J., & Nakamura, J. (2013). Does Flow Experience Lead to Risk? How and for Whom: Does Flow Lead to Risk? Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 5(3), 311–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12012 ↩︎
Csikszentmihalyi (2009) ↩︎
Ibid., pages 138ff ↩︎
Schlick, J. P. (2015). Flow States, Part 4: The Darkside of Flow. The Inertia. https://www.theinertia.com/surf/flow-states-part-4-the-darkside-of-flow/ ↩︎
Partington, S., Partington, E., & Olivier, S. (2009). The Dark Side of Flow: A Qualitative Study of Dependence in Big Wave Surfing. The Sport Psychologist, 23(2), 170–185. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.23.2.170 ↩︎
Csikszentmihalyi (1975), 139 ↩︎