Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Book Review: Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experince

I first came across flow on wikiwiki and I recognized it immediately. So getting the book was something I have wanted to do for a while.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a really interesting book. He seeks to define what it is that makes some experiences enjoyable. I think he hits the nail on the head with his descriptions.

Like reading a good book and you find yourself happy that you finished, unhappy that you are done and amazed that it is now 4 am.
It happens in sports all the time, but they call it being in the zone.

It only takes 5 things to setup the conditions for a flow experience:
1) A challenge activity that requires skill.
2) An environment that allows us to concentrate on the activity.
3) Clear goals for completing the task.
4) Immediate feedback.
5) Concentration of the task at hand.
Then you see these results while you are in flow:
6) A feeling of control in doing the task.
7) Losing self-consciousness.
8) A lose of time sense.

I have found flow while debugging electronics, programming a computer, playing Star Fleet Battles, a very complex game. I am pretty sure it also happened while studying math and science in school.

Most hobbies are designed to help you find enjoyment so flow is easy there, on the job is more difficult.

Any job can become a place to find flow, though some are more prone to it then others. Being able to create the goals internally for yourself will help those mind-numbing jobs but if the job is designed to be conducive to flow it makes it easier.
Too many jobs, even businesses, have no clear goal and don't provide a setting for concentration. I once had a job in a lab that was set to 63 degrees F and had an environmental chamber clanging on and off several times an hour. Concentrating there was almost impossible.

Flow, Feedback and Goals

A big thing here is setting clear goals for the activity and setting up a feedback system. This is a very hard thing to do well, at least for the first try. If you give yourself permission to fail and learn and try again you will do better. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a great book on creating good goals, but it isn't good enough by itself.

Flow has crystalized for me what is so wrong with New Year's Resolutions and goal setting in general: A lack of feedback. Setting a clear goal is one thing and that is difficult enough by itself, but the real thing you need for success is a feedback loop or a way to tell if you are succeeding or failing at any given time.

Deming said said that where performance is measured performance improves, Somewhere else I read something that expounded and expanded on that to include: if performance is reported back on the improvement accelerates.

I have studied feedback loops in electronic systems and key there is to take a little bit of the output and return it to the input to modify the input. Often you just want the output to be in a certain range and if it starts to move too high then you reduce the input or too low and increase the input.

In the public speaking realm if you are asked to speak often and are paid a lot each time that means you are doing well. If you are an entrepreneur measuring what your actual hourly rate every week tells you if you are doing well. If you are a businessman measuring your daily cash flow is a good measure of how well your company is doing. If you are a rock climber you are doing well if you are not falling.
Basically you need to answer the question: how do you measure 'doing well'? The more immediate the better.

It should also measure something useful, this is rather difficult, and don't be surprised if you select the wrong thing first. For example in programming it was fashionable at one point to measure the productivity of programmers by the number of lines of code they had written. This lead to a lot of very verbose and long-winded code that was rather difficult to understand and didn't necessarily work because working didn't count.

Flow, School and Education

"Socialization, or the transformation of a human organism into a person who functions successfully within a particular social system, cannot be avoided. The essence of socialization is to make people dependent on social controls, to have them respond predictably ti rewards and punishments. And the most effective form of socialization is achieved when people identify so thoroughly with the social order that they no longer can imagine themselves breaking any of its rules." -Flow. p17.

"During the first few years of life very child is a little "learning machine" trying out new movements, new words daily. The rapt concentration on the child's face as she learns each new skill is a good indication of what enjoyment is about. And each instance of enjoyable learning adds to the complexity of the child's developing skill.
Unfortunately, this natural connection between growth and enjoyment tends to disappear with time. Perhaps because "learning" becomes an external imposition when schooling starts, the excitement of mastering new skills gradually wears out." -Flow. p47.

2 things that make flow difficult to achieve
Anomie: lack for rules, condition where the norms of behavior had become muddled.
Alienation: it is a condition in which people are constrained by the social system to act in ways that go against their goals. -Flow. p86.

"... there are few things as entropic as unskilled work done under compulsion." -Flow. p143.

Learning something can be a wonderful experience. I love to learn new things and hate to be interrupted while doing it. Flow will make learning go faster and be more fun and deeper. School however does not provide the circumstances for flow at all.

I suggest reading
The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher


William Torrey Harris

A lot of people say, "You get out of school what you put into it." It is more true that you get out of your education what you put into it then it follows that going to a place that inhibits learning is not a smart thing to do.

Flow and Business
Something I have really gotten out of this is to business has to be structured a little differently to maximize flow, which will maximize productivity. After a quick, stand-up report-back meeting of "this is what I did yesterday and this is what I will do today(limit 4)" reporting and some motivation. then have at least a 2 hour block of flow time or whatever you want to call it. It is closed door time where everyone concentrates on getting into flow and getting-things-done.
Something that PeopleWare said is that in an office setting workers get interrupted about every 7 minutes, and since it takes about 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into flow they never get into flow and never get fully productive. Having a 2 hour block of closed-door time to yourself can make a 10 fold increase in productivity. That seems very worthwhile to me, how about you?

Flow is a very good talent to cultivate, it has some real benefits. Now to spend time on it more often.

No comments: