Can You Overcome Personal Obstacles to Reach Flow?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you struggle to enter the flow state of mind? What do you think is preventing you from getting into flow?

Some people are predisposed to focus inwardly when things get tough. These people tend to have a difficult time achieving a flow state. It is possible to overcome these personal obstacles to flow, but it takes practice and understanding.

Keep reading to learn about the obstacles that may be preventing you from reaching flow.

Personal Obstacles to Flow

Even if you’re predisposed to focus on your shortcomings and focus inwardly when circumstances get tough, it’s possible to cultivate a more autotelic personality with practice. This requires first understanding the personal and familial obstacles people face when seeking flow experiences.

Personal obstacles can be mental or genetic.

Mental Obstacles

There are four neurological reasons you might have difficulty experiencing flow:

  1. You have an attention disorder. Attention disorders encompass a variety of learning disabilities. Most often, individuals have difficulty focusing their attention on a specific task. 
  2. You have schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia are unable to selectively filter information in their environment. Instead, they process all information and feel overwhelmed.
  3. You’re self-conscious. Self-conscious people worry about doing something wrong or how they appear to others. Because their attention is focused on themselves, they’re robbed of the energy to feel enjoyment, which often involves a loss of self-consciousness.
  4. You’re self-centered. Self-centered people judge all information on the basis of its usefulness to them. They spend too much time focusing on fulfilling their current goals and don’t seek new opportunities for enjoyment. For example, they might believe a person who could become a friend but who can’t help them in their current pursuits isn’t worth talking to. 

In sum, all mental obstacles to flow involve attention: For people with attention disorders or schizophrenia, attention is too scattered, but for self-conscious and self-centered people, attention is too focused on the self.

Genetic Obstacles

Some people may be genetically predisposed to ordering their consciousness and enjoying life. In one study, participants were asked to look at an image of an ambiguous shape popping out of a background and reverse it in their mind so that the shape receded into the background. Participants who reported enjoying their lives had to look at just a few points on the image to complete the task, whereas those who reported less enjoyment needed to look at more points. 

The findings support the idea that happier people need fewer external cues to complete tasks. They’re able to control their thoughts and experiences independently from their environment, which leads to more enjoyment.

In a similar study, participants were divided into two groups based on whether they regularly experienced flow. First, a machine measured a participant’s baseline brain activity, or cortical activity. Then, each person was asked to concentrate on tones and flashes of light while the machine continued to monitor cortical activity. In participants who reported not experiencing flow regularly, brain activity increased from their baseline activity when exposed to the stimuli. But in the group that reported regular flow experiences, cortical activity actually decreased below their baseline. 

These results suggest that people who experience flow regularly have flexible attention: They filter out irrelevant information, focusing only on what’s needed to complete the task. This is different from people with schizophrenia and others with attentional disorders and could be the defining characteristic of an autotelic personality. However, though it’s clear that flow and the ability to focus attention are related, more studies are needed to determine whether:

  • Having flow experiences boosts the ability to focus attention, or vice versa.
  • Focusing attention is learned or genetically inherited.

Familial Obstacles

How your parents interacted with you, starting from a young age, can affect your ability to order your life and experience flow as an adult. There are five things parents can do to encourage flow, which parallel the nine elements of enjoyment:

  1. Offer choices. Children need to feel they have choices and feel empowered to accept the consequences of those choices. 
  2. Provide increasingly complex opportunities. As a child grows into a more complex individual, parents need to ensure that they provide increasingly complex opportunities for the child’s growth and development.
  3. Trust in the child’s choices. If a child is interested in something, her parents should make her feel safe, comfortable, and unselfconscious about pursuing it. 
  4. Support the child’s present-day interests. Parents shouldn’t constantly hound the child about doing things in the present to support her future, such as studying to get into a good college—instead, show an interest in her present-day experiences and feelings.
  5. Establish clear expectations. Parents should provide clear goals and consistently give feedback so the child knows exactly what her parents expect of her.

In some families, a lot of time and energy is spent negotiating what children spend time on and what they do at any given moment, making children feel at the whim of others’ goals for them. In contrast, in families that apply the five previous principles, children know what is expected and feel supported pursuing activities and goals that matter to them. One study demonstrated that teenagers whose parents provided this framework were more content overall and resilient in different situations. Children who experience abuse, or whose parents threaten to stop loving them, have to dedicate their energy to keeping themselves whole, and they don’t have energy to dedicate themselves to many outside pursuits. As adults, they may seek pleasure however they can. 

Can You Overcome Personal Obstacles to Reach Flow?

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Here's what you'll find in our full Flow summary :

  • Why people feel the happiest when they're in the "flow state"
  • What activities and personality traits promote flow
  • Why you may have a paradoxical relationship with work and leisure

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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