Flow Traps Revisited

On a recent Friday night, I installed a video game on my computer: Civilization 5. I don’t play “hardcore” (that is: long, complex, time-consuming) video games much anymore. Really, barely ever. The last time I did before this was probably nearly three years ago. But there was a time when I played them regularly and really enjoyed them.

In any case. I started a game at 6pm. I then played. And played and played for 12 hours. At 6am I finally went to sleep for the night, such as it was. I’ll spare you the digression into how out of character not going to sleep until 6am was. The point is just that this is quite different than something I normally do, and not something I was glad to have done. But I now see I was caught in a perfectly tuned flow trap.

What’s a flow trap? Well I first wrote about it some years ago, but on rereading the piece does too much bloviating and too little explaining. A flow trap is basically a cycle that locks you into the state of “flow” and then keeps you locked in despite the fact that it’s not a particularly useful place to be or thing to be doing. It’s a trap in the sense that the satisfaction of the feeling of “flow” stops you from breaking out and doing other better things. (For me, that list included but wasn’t limited to: folding the laundry, doing the dishes, reading a book, going to sleep.)

The state of flow was first described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Essentially, he uses the term to describe that “peak” experience you’ve probably had sometimes and may have a lot. It’s this mid-point between a task you’re challenged by and one you can easily accomplish that’s optimal for your continued good performance and willingness to keep performing. If the challenge before you is too familiar, accomplishable, and easy — doing the dishes — it’s likely to bore you rather than fulfill you. If it’s so hard that you struggle to perceive that you’re making any progress or having any effect — running a marathon, for most — you’ll never begin or quit too soon.

There’s a lot of good in flow. If you manage to find a way that your flow states correspond directly with things that our world rewards — good athletic performance is the common example, some people flow when conversing with acquaintances and so excel at sales, I sometimes flow while getting paid to write software — the experience is a clear win-win. You’re having so much fun you lose track of time, your employer is happy that you’re performing well.

The importance of the concept of “flow traps” is the fact that flowing effortless experiences are not so clearly a match with many things which are ipso facto valuable and good. I’ve encountered more than a few people who conflate “flow” with peak performance, and it can correspond, as we just outlined. But frequently flow experiences correspond with little or no substantial value. Video games to me are the clearest example, but hardly the only one.

Video games are a fun diversion. Though they today lack the cultural esteem of movies, reading, or even television, I don’t doubt that some of them are artful and perfectly sound ways to wile away a few hours pleasantly. But one of the things that I think is pernicious about video games is that because they’re so immersive, it’s much easier to “lose yourself” in their flow and waste not just hours but weeks and months of time accomplishing nothing in the concrete world we all share.

In my last article on this topic, I mentioned I’m a pretty good programmer, and I could optimize my life around getting into programming flow states and never leaving. That could probably be fairly well-paid if I structured it right. But — and this is important — I don’t think my best self is involved in programming things. I think I’m at my best when I push a little out of that comfort zone and try new things that feel awkward and hard and miles-from-flowing.

You should definitely know what “flow” is. You should definitely enjoy the experience of egoless ease that comes with it. But you must also make sure that when you experience such things, it’s because they’re really valuable to you, not simply because they are pleasant ways to waste time.