Experiencing Flow

Yes, it is important to understand what flow is and how it works. But the ultimate test, and the whole purpose of learning about flow, is for you to actually use flow. This chapter is about how to flow. Ironical as it might be, it is about what your consciousness can do.

Choosing Your First Flow Activity

What activity should you choose to you first try flow? The logical choice is at a sport, art, craft, or game. These are the traditional flow activities. This chapter will explain how to flow at these activities. Vacationing is another very good choice; it is also well-suited to flow; the following chapter will explain how to flow at vacationing.

It is just common sense that your first attempt at flow should occur when the consequences of your are actions are not that important. Except for the possibility of hurting yourself, the usual worst outcome for a sport or game is just losing; the usual worst outcome for a craft is an ugly project and waste of materials. For the performing arts, you can first try flowing while you practice rather than during a public performance.

But some of my students first tried flow in more risky situations. One student first tried flowing while talking to his mother, and another tried flowing when discussing an unfair grade with a professor. These students reported great success. Apparently, flow has a good chance of working no matter when you try it. But another student tried flowing on my test. That led to being creative, and his creative answers didn't score well. The fact is, there are some potential pitfalls to flowing in daily life that do not arise in sports, arts, crafts, and games. I will get to these pitfalls and how to avoid them in the following chapters.

How to Flow

There are several slightly different ways to flow. One way is to do the first thing thought becomes conscious. As noted, this thought will be from your Inferential System, and it is likely to be good.

A second way is to do what you want. As in my pinball example, you can wait for urges, then follow them. If there is time, you can combine these two methods -- you can briefly check whatever your first thought is, to make sure that it feels good. The common thread to these different methods is that your consciousness is not doing anything except attending to the task at hand.

Focusing Your Inferential System on the Activity Your Inferential System can do two things at the same time. For example, you can play tennis while worrying about a problem at work. However, your Inferential System cannot do two things WELL at the same time. If your Inferential System is worrying about work, it will not play very good of tennis. It's just a matter of allocating resources -- your Inferential System is best at a task when all of its resources are devoted to that task.

So, to maximize the effectiveness of your flow, you cannot consciously think about things that are irrelevant, because your conscious thoughts are input into your Inferential System. For example, while you are playing tennis you cannot consciously daydream about work, what you are going to do after tennis, or anything unrelated to tennis.

Less obviously, you can't be consciously thinking about about aspects of tennis that irrelevant to doing well. Don't think about the past. Don't worry or fret that you aren't doing well enough or should have done something different. Don't think about the future and whether you are going to win or lose. Don't doubt your Inferential System -- it has important things to do.

And in fact there isn't much that consciousness needs to think about. You must be in the present an attending to all of the activity. You can think about your goal, and you can listen for feelings or automatically doing whatever thought comes to mind. That isn't much. It is a seeming paradox -- to flow well, you have to attend closely to the activity, yet you should have no conscious thoughts about the activity.

Choosing a Goal

According to my theory of flow, the Inferential System needs a goal in order to do well. But if you do not consciously select a goal, you will probably flow just fine, because there will be some broad goal floating around in your consciousness. For example, when you play tennis, you will know your goal is to score points and win. The obviousness of the goal is one reason why sports, arts, craft, games, and vacationing are conducive to flow.

Narrow goals are not good for flow. Suppose you are playing tennis. You could have the very narrow goal of hitting the tennis ball to a particular location using a particular form for your tennis stroke. Your Inferential System will then try to accomplish that. But most of the decision-making has been done by consciousness. You won't experience this as flow (and you won't play very good tennis).

When Adam Smith flowed at tennis, he visualized where he wanted his serve to go. That gave his Inferential System more freedom -- it could make any movement consistent with hitting the tennis ball to the visualized location. Adam Smith experienced flow. It was very effective.

But if you want to play tennis at your best, your goal should be even broader. When you serve, you have a choice of different locations to serve to. If your opponent changes location, perhaps you should serve to a different location; if the wind catches your ball as you throw it in the air to serve, perhaps it is now easier to hit the ball to a different location. So, visualization does not maximize the effectiveness of flow at tennis. To give your Inferential System the most freedom, do not consciously choose a location; let your Inferential System choose.

For tennis, you want a broad goal, like scoring a point or winning. For golf, the goal of where you want the golf ball to go (in the hole) is broad enough. You would probably have these goals if you never thought about a goal. It is only when you starting thinking, consciously, that you become burdened with narrow goals.

Or, your goal can be even broader. When you play tennis, your goal can be to win, and that's fine. But your goal could also be to enjoy yourself. If you enjoy winning, these are about the same goals, but they are slightly different. Once I was playing croquet with my wife. I was about to win. To stop me from winning, she would have had to hit her ball so that it struck my ball. This was very unlikely -- our balls were far apart, and the lawn was not flat enough to allow any precision at that distance. Plus, it was my turn and I had an easy shot to win the game.

Did I easily win the game? No. I gave my ball a small tap, so that now she could try to aim at my ball. She made the miracle shot and would have succeeded in hitting my ball, but I had tapped my ball so that it was protected by one of the wickets on the croquet course. The wicket deflected her ball from hitting mine, and I won the game. But she could take pride in having made a good shot, and we both enjoyed that finish.

The key point is this. I had a goal deeper than just winning the croquet game -- I also had the goal of having fun. So my Inferential System was free to think of a play that not only still gave me a very high chance of winning, but was also more fun for us both.

As coincidence would have it, the exact same situation came up the next game, except our positions were reversed. Instead of immediately winning the game, my wife gave her croquet ball a small tap, letting me try to make the miracle shot. However, she had missed the small detail of hiding her ball behind a wicket. I did make the miracle shot. Now I had the chance to hit her ball to the netherlands and win the game. However, she was frustrated. She wanted an interesting ending, which is why she just tapped her ball. But she wanted to win. She felt that she deserved to win, and I agreed. I lined her ball up and shot it through the wicket, winning the game for her.

My shot was very creative, but that's what your Inferential System can do. The point is, I had a broad goal of having fun, and my Inferential System came up with the best way of having fun.

Similarly, suppose you are doing some craft. Your goal could be to produce something beautiful. But that eliminates the possibility of creating something that is interesting but not beautiful. So a better goal is probably to create something "good".

Okay, let's be practical. If you are trying to flow for the first time, and you are playing a sport or game, your goal should probably be to win (without hurting yourself). For an art or craft, the goal should be to produce something of beauty. Anything narrower, like visualizing a particular action, is too narrow. Anything broader, like wanting everyone to have a good time, is very good, but probably a little advanced for your first attempt at flow. I will discuss goals in more detail in the final chapter on flow, flowing in daily life.

An Unchanging Goal

There is a second problem with narrow goals. If you have narrow goals, you have to be constantly changing them. For example, a tennis player might have of the goal of hitting the ball to a particular part of the court. When the ball returns, the tennis player might have a new goal of hitting the ball to a different location. Or the tennis player sometimes might just have the goal of getting the ball over the net. If the tennis player has taken lessons, other goals might concern good technique, such as foot placement.

Contrast this to broad goals, such as scoring a point or winning. These apply to all situations and do not need be changed.

I suspect that changing goals confuses the Inferential System -- it gets accustomed to accomplishing one goal, and when the goal is changed, it doesn't work as well. Also changing goals requires conscious effort -- there is effort to determine which goal is best, and there is effort to drop the old goal and remember the new. This conscious effort interferes with flow. So the second reason for having a broad goal is that you don't have to change it.


Suppose you try to flow and nothing comes to mind -- you give control to your Inferential System and it sits there like a bump on a log. One thing you can do is ask yourself what you want to do. Chapter 7 will discuss the connection between flow and enjoyment. For now, the point is that because they are connected, you can usually flow by doing what you want.

You can also sometimes jump-start your flow by trying something new. For example, I tried playing pinball with as little force as possible. Or in racquetball, I might try some completely different style of serve. If you have no conscious strategies for a situation, your consciousness doesn't know what to do and can't interfere. Instead, your Inferential System has to take charge (and it is forced to be creative).

If your Inferential System suggests something that seems odd and very unlikely to work, you probably should still try it (assuming it is not dangerous). If you ignore your Inferential System, it will either go away or keep making the same suggestion you are trying to ignore. So just do what it wants. When its impractical suggestion doesn't work, your Inferential System will learn this and probably not suggest it again. And more often than you would expect, the seemingly impractical suggestion in fact works.

Sometimes, you won't be able to flow because you have something else on your mind -- your mind really wants to think about something else. You can try to get your mind on track, but that usually doesn't work well, not to mention that your efforst are conscious activity that will interfere with flow. The usual strategy is to stop doing your task and instead deal with whatever is on your mind. In any case, this would be a bad time to first try flow. Try again some other day.

What if you can't stop your conscious thoughts? One standard technique for quelling conscious thought is to chant a mantra -- say the same short phrase over and over. This probably isn't perfectly optimal flow, but it's a way to start.

To optimize flow, you should be attending to everything about your task. However, to get started with flow, it is sometimes useful to focus on something irrelevant about the task. Adam Smith focused on his breathing while playing tennis; I have focused on the movement of my hips while playing pinball. Perhaps this interferes with conscious thought, allowing flow.

When to Stop Flowing

O.J. Simpson is another athlete who reported not thinking while performing his sport. He was a brilliantly successful running back, in both college and pro football. But I hesitate to use him as an example of the power of flow, because I suspect he was also flowing when he allegedly stabbed his wife to death. There are potential difficulties with using flow in daily life, which I will discuss in Chapter 8. For now,
If you ever find yourself doing something dangerous, illegal, or immoral, stop flowing.

Your Inferential System is not perfect, and there is a time and place for conscious thought. Use conscious thought when needed.

It is potentially dangerous to flow when you are angry. Anger can be good energy for getting things done, and it is possible to flow when you are angry. But when you are angry, you are less concerned about your own safety. So safety won't be a goal for your unconscious, which makes it dangerous to give your unconscious full control. For example, you might say something to a friend that you later regret. When I flow while angry, I consciously include safety as a goal.

And in honor of O.J., let's also include jealousy as a bad emotion for flowing.


Choose a sport, game, art, or craft, and try flowing. Choose a time when the consequences of failure are not too great, and choose a time when you are in a good mood and don't have something else on your mind. Then just try to flow and see what happens. You can either just do what first comes to mind, or you can do what you want. Avoid conscious thoughts, but pay close attention to everything about the task.

I might have implied a level of perfection for flow that is difficult to achieve. Don't worry about it, you don't have to be perfect to flow. Some conscious thought will occur. Occasionally you will be distracted. No one and nothing is perfect. By just trying to flow, you will be far better off than most people, who are trying to use their consciousness as much as possible.