Embrace the struggle and get into FLOW

“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.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow

The following is a four part exploration series on the known stages of Flow as defined by the Flow Genome Project, an organisation dedicated to furthering the research on optimal performance and human potential. This builds on the extensive research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi identified ten core components of flow.

  1. Clear goals
  2. Focus
  3. Loss of self-consciousness
  4. Timelessness
  5. Direct and immediate feedback
  6. Balance between the skill to challenge ratio
  7. Personal control over the situation
  8. Effortlessness
  9. Lack of awareness of bodily needs
  10. Narrowing of awareness down to the activity itself.

Three of the components (goals, feedback and balanced skill/challenge ratio) are what Steven Kotler, author of the Rise of Superman and Stealing Fire and Director of Research at the Flow Genome Project, calls ‘conditions for flow’. They don’t actually describe flow. The known stages of Flow, which are based on Herbert Bensen‘s work at Harvard are as follows:

  1. Struggle
  2. Release
  3. Flow
  4. Recovery

The struggle is real but don’t take it personally

The struggle is what Kotler calls a priming state. A necessary phase where we are overwhelmed with information and frustration and this is a good thing. It is a good thing on one condition and that is if we “don’t attach to it”. We can’t take the frustration personally. We need to see it as a natural phase of moving toward improved performance. Too many times, our internal monologue personalises the frustration. “I’ll never get this”. “I’m too dumb for this”. “This is impossible”. The struggle doesn’t discriminate. Every one of us goes through this and it is needed. You don’t see an infant learning to walk questioning their own capacity to walk. They just keep on struggling.

Stretching your capacity

If we view our struggle as a weights workout, strength gains are made through loading and pushing your current ability for one more rep or weight increase. If the stretch is too far, we can’t deliver physically. If the stretch is just right, we can, with struggle, push through. Learning gains are the same. Stretching your current skill level by about 4% brings challenge and struggle. If the stretch is too much, anxiety kicks in and your inner critic takes over. If the stretch is too little, it won’t be stimulating enough and boredom will kick in. The struggle is required for improvement. While we may view others as learning things easily, this is an illusion. Everyone struggles. To truly grow, we need to stretch and to embrace the struggle. Robert Greene, author of Mastery, calls this the Resistance Practice.

The principle is simple – you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice. First, you resist the temptation to be nice to yourself. You become your own worst critic; you see your work as if through the eyes of others. You recognise your weaknesses, precisely the elements you are not good at. Those are the aspects you give precedence to in your practice. You find a kind of perverse pleasure in moving past the pain this might bring. Second, you resist the lure of easing up on your focus. You train yourself to concentrate in practice with double the intensity. In devising your own routines, you become as creative as possible. You invent exercises that work upon your weaknesses. You give yourself arbitrary deadlines to meet certain standards, constantly pushing yourself past perceived limits. In this way you develop your own standards for excellence, generally higher than those  of others

Robert Greene – Mastery

Focus and feedback

Key to getting into flow is a clear and specific goal and immediate feedback. Wanting to write more is not specific enough a goal. Wanting to write 750 words a day is a very specific goal with the word count providing specific feedback on your performance. To stretch your performance, a time limit or word increase would be added to the mix to provide an extra challenge. Being able to maintain focus and concentration is a key factor to getting into flow. In the struggle phase, your ability to block out distractions and focus on the stretch is pivotal. Too often, the struggle has us looking for reprieve. We throw our hands up in the air and walk away when the going gets tough. Focus is the key to getting into and staying in flow. It is as Cal Newport calls it, a 21st-century superpower.


The struggle is an essential part of the flow journey but it can derail many people. The next time you are struggling, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I have specific goals?
  • Am I getting immediate feedback on my performance?
  • Am I completely focused on the task at hand?
  • Is the challenge of this activity just right? Is it just out of reach of my current ability?
  • Am I taking the struggle personally?

Next up will be an exploration of the Release phase of the Flow cycle.


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