Flow as a concept in psychology was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s, when artists would describe in interviews the experience of getting lost in their work as like being carried along by water. Throughout the following decades, Csikszentmihalyi published a number of books on flow, starting with “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play” in 1975 and later, throughout the ’90s, numerous publications on flow as a means to a more effective education, achieving happiness, and unlocking the secrets of motivation and creativity.
What he discovered was that it wasn’t just artists, but athletes and chess players and students that relied on flow too. It’s now understood to be found within all sorts of other tasks, even everyday ones we barely think about as we do them, from mowing the lawn and shaving to cooking and ironing shirts. Basically anyone who is performing a task that met a certain distinct criteria could achieve a state of flow where your focus and sense of self reach a unique fluidity and, as Csikszentmihalyi put it in Wired magazine in 1996, “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Csikszentmihalyi broke down the conditions for achieving such a state: There must be a clear and simple task; that task must provide instant feedback; there must be no distractions that either disrupt your concentration or make you ultra-aware of your own actions; and, key to the act of game playing especially, it must be a challenge with appropriate balance with regards to your own skill and the task’s difficulty.