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Experiencing flow: Challenge and Skill

10 May

Well, this week is certainly hectic, and it’s only Tuesday! I have 2 assignments to complete before the week is over (one just finished tonight, yeah!), 4 hours of tutoring (one in French, 3 in statistics), 2 hours of badminton, 3 home teaching visits, a missionary coordination meeting, 4 lectures at Curtin University, and a 20-minute talk to prepare for Sunday! ARGH! What have I got myself into? Interestingly enough, it’s when I’m under pressure like this that I seem to perform the best. It reminds me of the theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi (see his TED lecture on creativity).

Flow Diagram

Flow occurs when both challenge and skill are high

Basically this theory says that people’s performance and motivation depends on the interaction of two dimensions: the difficulty of the task (challenge), and the level of competence or skill one has to complete the task. When these are in the right combination (high challenge + high skill), one can experience a state of “flow”, in which we are completely immersed in what we are doing. Time seems to fly by very quickly, and we are driven to keep going just because we love what we’re doing. This is very similar to the idea of intrinsic motivation in Self-Determination Theory.

When I was working on my honours thesis last year, the first half of the year went really slow. I had to wait for approval of my proposal by the Ethics Committee for a long time, and then I had to wait for the beginning of the second semester to start collecting data. During that time I knew I could work on my literature review, but I also knew I had lots of time to do it. The challenge was fairly small, and I felt that my skill was high. I also felt that I wasn’t getting much “forceful encouragement” from Ken Robinson, my supervisor. I didn’t know what expectations he had of my progress, and I thought that, perhaps, he wanted me to set my own expectations and do my work out of intrinsic motivation instead of external pressure. This would have made a lot of sense, since this was the topic of my thesis!

I met him around that time at an APS meeting in Perth. We chatted for a few minutes, and I asked him straight up what sort of expectations he had of me, regarding the timing of my work and what stage I should be at. As soon as I asked this, I knew it was the wrong question to ask. Ken said exactly what I had been telling myself all along: “I don’t have any expectations…”. However he did give a little hint of something I should be working on right now, which I found helpful and informational, but he was very careful not to make it sound like this was his expectation, or that he was putting pressure on me to meet certain deadlines. He, like me, believes that we work best when we want to work, and that deadlines, rewards and punishments are detrimental to motivation.

When the time drew nigh that my thesis was due for submission, I felt the challenge become very large, mentally rubbed my hands together, and got stuck into the work. I knew I could do it, although I relied very heavily on Heavenly inspiration and assistance. A few times I felt that perhaps I had bitten more than I could chew, but these thoughts were very short-lived and completely normal considering the difficulty of the task and the high standard of quality I had set for myself.

The most interesting part was when I had finished receiving data from my participants, and I got stuck into the analyses. Instead of just sticking to the simple analyses I had planned to conduct, I became more and more interested in other methods and how they could draw new conclusions from my data. I studied Structural Equation Modelling extensively, a technique not normally studied until postgraduate level with which my supervisor was not very familiar. I performed all these analyses on my own, although I got some help from other Self-Determination Theory researchers thanks to a large mailing list operated by the theory’s authors. I was completely immersed in this process, it was like a treasure hunt, or a Sherlock Holmes investigation. I knew there was some crucial information to extract from my data, and that if I analysed them properly I would get to it. Even a few days before submitting my thesis, I was still making slight amendments to my work. In fact, a few weeks before it was due, I realised that one of the measurement instruments I had used was psychometrically problematic, and I shortened it after a lengthy process of Confirmatory Factor Analyses.

Anyway, cutting a long story short, I believe that when we are challenged by tasks that match the things we are good at doing, we can experience intense enjoyment and this thing called “flow”. Conversely, when we are not sufficiently challenged, we can get bored and distracted, lose productivity and motivation, and crave that experience of flow.

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