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.

Personal Development

Humans on Autopilot

Planes have had autopilot for a few decades now. Cars are just now starting to get it. Some people think we should skip the assisted-human-driving that’s creeping in now and remove humans from the car-piloting process entirely as soon as we can.

And all of that is mostly irrelevant to my topic. What is relevant is that most of us humans, most of the time, are doing things in the same basic way we did them before and getting the same sort of results we’ve always been a little disappointed by. But we keep doing things that way nonetheless.

We’re on autopilot. One of the more interesting ideas about planes is that mostly-automated plane flight is the worst of all worlds. The reason: human pilots who are habituated to computer control will be out of practice and fumble when put back into control of the plane when a human-intervention-required emergency occurs.

This basic mechanic applies to less life-threatening scenarios too. If you suddenly decide to go to a new restaurant for eggs in the morning, you’ll probably feel a bit flustered and disoriented the first time. The same is true when you try to exercise for the first time in a while. Or when you try to have a conversation with the friend or neighbor you’d been benignly neglecting.

There are good things about living your life on autopilot. If you had to consciously think through every action and reaction you completed, you’d be a dead human. Not only would a lion or hippopotamus likely have killed you, but you probably wouldn’t have been able to keep yourself fed if they didn’t. By using autopilot for less-complicated tasks, we leave ourselves space to work on the really mind-bending ones.

The issue is that, as with human pilots, as we get older we tend to get more complacent and let autopilot drive more things. This is part of an old complaint I had about “flow traps,” and it’s also one of the reasons so many older humans are moderately dissatisfied all the time.

What’s necessary to get away from the seemingly chronic problems that haunt your life — those forty pounds you can’t shake, that relationship you wish you had but don’t, that bank account that just always seems to be a little emptier than you wish — is to turn off the autopilot that you might not even recognize is driving you back to that same places all the time.

It’s easier and more convenient to glide along guided by your autopilot — those same decision-making processes and decided truths about yourself you laid down days or decades ago — than it is to take control and fly to some place new or in some way new. But real change comes when you turn off your autopilot. You have the override, you just need to remember to use it sometimes. Keep your skills sharp.


“Work is More Fun than Fun”

This quotation, whose owner I’ve seen cited repeatedly as Noel Coward, strikes me as largely true. Not completely, always, and unequivocally, but certainly for the right type of work it can be in a way we tend to underestimate.

When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world.

Before you go telling me that I clearly don’t know fun, I should be clear about that part too. It’s tautologically true that nothing can be more fun than fun, but it’s undeniable that we mean a rather specific subset of things when we typically say “fun.” When your wife, friend, or boss commands you “to go have some fun,” they obviously don’t mean spend time entering data into spreadsheets, even that’s your favorite thing in the whole world. Things that the culture at large considers fun are generally hedonic pleasures that fall into the general categories of social activities and light amusements. TV is fun, video games are fun, watching and playing sports is fun, “partying” is fun, gossiping is fun, (social) eating is fun.

Programming, writing, editing, compiling, even cooking, these things are all generally considered to be outside the category of fun. But they can be. These tasks, which we generally categorize as “work” can be deeply immensely satisfying in a way that almost no activity considered above in the category “fun” are. When you think your work matters, or even if you just regard it as a worthy thing to spend time on, the sense of satisfaction that’s available in accomplishing your work in a way you regard as “well” is a supreme pleasure.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s seminal work on “flow” is essentially about this very point. The Wikipedia article on the topic has this to say about flow:

It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.

It is not “work” per se, as the generalized category, that constitutes the type that is “more fun than fun”. Your dull and disappointing job which neither challenges nor can challenge you is probably never going to give you the sense of egoless immersion and accomplishment that really leaves one feeling deeply satisfied and contented with the activity they have just completed. But it’s also undeniable that because work gives you access to the achievement of things far beyond yourself, the possibility for a sense of lasting accomplishment is far greater than even the most successful and flowing “fun” activity.

I don’t believe that work-is-fun flow state is a state itself worthy of pursuit, but I fervently believe that it can be a useful tool in getting done work you care about. That is, unlike deep meditative awareness, I don’t regard flow states as inherently beneficial outside of themselves, but I think they clearly constitute a useful tool if you’re pursuing ends you know to be good and valuable. (See my thoughts on Flow Traps, for why I’m pressing so hard on that.)

The reason to share and explain this rather popular quotation is simply this: too frequently people just ignore the very real possibility it explains. We go around living our lives for the weekends, the whistle, the bell, the time when we’re free to have fun. But doing that is itself to confine yourself to prison during your working hours. You don’t need to be doing activities we define as “fun” to enjoy the way you’re spending your time. If you do your work well, achieve a degree of both mastery and learning, you can make every moment of your life, even the dullest ones, “more fun than fun.”


Flow Traps

One of the more popular psychological ideas in the public sphere is that of “flow.” The idea, originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is that we’ll get more done and enjoy it more when we’re given a level of challenge to keep us engaged and exercising a sense of mastery. One shouldn’t have to look very hard at their life to find times when work has been easy, fun, and “flow”ing.

What I struggle to buy into is the rather popular correlate that these flow states are good and worth seeking and preserving. That they make us better at our tasks and thus make us better in life. I’d make no quarrel with the idea that they can do those things, but I’d strongly dissent from the idea that they consistently do those things.

To pick a common example, you’re a programmer. You’re a pretty good programmer, and you’re currently working hard on a project that’s offering opportunities to learn new things from time to time, but generally you’re just enjoying using your tools in slightly different ways than you have in the past. Here flow is clearly a useful thing. When you can get into that groove, you’ll probably be faster and more accurate than you would outside of it. And it feels great too, just being there pounding and creating and getting toward the goal.

But here’s how flow has you trapped: you don’t really want to be  a programmer your whole life. You’d really like to be the kind of person who hires and helps programmers to create projects far bigger and more ambitious than you’d ever manage yourself. You know this, but every day you arrive at work and you just plod until you flow and you stay that way (with a few breaks) until quitting time. You’re never making any progress on this big long-term goal because you’re stuck in a flow trap.

Flow traps aren’t inherently as pernicious as they may sound. (Though they can be: video games, I’m looking at you.) You’re still doing good things while you’re writing code, you’re just not getting any vision of the new vistas of possibility that you think you’d really enjoy. The problem with a flow trap is that it makes you think you can just keep coding your way out of writing so much code, and you can’t. There’s a drastically different skill-set you need if you want to go from the kind of person who writes code well to the kind of person that helps people to write code well.

Real tangible progress in your life, real growth in your skill-set, requires you to step out of the flow and take on things you don’t even have an inkling of how to take on. It requires you to be uncomfortable and for things to be hard. Because that’s where you really learn new things, see new vistas, and gain mastery of the world you’d never thought possible.