Episode 51: The Many Steps Towards "Flow"

We’ve all felt it at some point - that rewarding sense of total absorption in a single activity, of completely intuitive action, where everything just seems to slide into place. You lose track of time, place, and everything else, even if just for a few minutes, or an hour. Maybe you experienced it in Destiny. Maybe while playing sports, or during a project for school or work. Maybe all of the above.

Wherever you experienced it, the sensation is the same. Flow.

Does Flow Matter?

Flow is something I have seen discussed here in the past, probably more than a few times, but it’s been a while and with Destiny 2 PVP and the Beta so close, it seemed like a good time to bring it up again. We’ll all be starting out, brand new and unfamiliar, trying to play our best, trying to have fun and be successful in a brand new game - but sometimes life can make that difficult. It’s not always easy to attain that sense of flow, but it’s a feeling like no other.

It’s a sensation of knowing having success without having to think about it - knowing what to do, where to go, overcoming normally challenging obstacles with ease and confidence, as if the universe were perfectly aligned. It’s easily broken, and usually fleeting, and yet some people seem able to achieve it frequently while others rarely do. But it doesn’t happen randomly. It’s science, and with knowledge, practice, and preparation, you can open yourself up to reach that level of performance more often.

Attaining flow has many positive effects, giving you a great sense of accomplishment and confidence being one of the most obvious. Spending time in this state on a regular basis can lead to a more positive attitude on life overall, as well as reduced anxiety, self-motivation, an enhanced ability to learn, and a positive feedback loop of higher performance.

On the flip side, it can also be dangerous - the sensation can, like any positive feeling, make an otherwise healthy diversion into an addictive action, resulting in negative effects on relationships and other aspects of life. Hopefully, knowledge of how flow works will help you to apply it throughout your life and lead to a positive and balanced experience while avoiding possible negative outcomes.

This discussion is for people who want to consciously set themselves up to get into the flow mindset and experience. Maybe you don’t care about attaining flow - that’s fine. This is a good hopping off point if so.

Still here? Okay, here goes! Let’s get into Flow.

What is Flow?

Flow is defined as the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and loses sense of space and time.

This phenomenon has been known through history among great artists, warriors, athletes, writers, and scientists, and has been studied extensively in modern psychology. It has obvious applications in sports and video games, but is also an important topic in music, art, education, and professional life - basically, getting “in the zone” is something you can do in all aspects of your life.

People describe it as “getting lost” in what they’re doing, acting intuitively and without conscious thought, being in the zone, and variations on that theme - all are valid descriptions for the same experience.

Opening Yourself to Flow

I’m limiting myself here to discussing the psychological obstacles to flow, rather than the knowledge-based and experiential obstacles that also exist. That said, it’s important to understand that it will be very difficult to experience flow in an activity which you know very little about. You must be capable, knowledgeable, and experienced in order to attain a sense of flow on a regular basis. You don’t have to be an expert or a professional (although it obviously helps), but a degree of competence and confidence is generally required.

Flow is attained at the balancing point of skill, confidence, and challenge, a mental state where you are neither bored nor anxious, over-excited nor pure-chill. You must be totally in control, and yet open to act according to the circumstances. It is essentially the opposite of apathy. Where apathy takes you completely out of the situation - you have neither competence nor emotional investment - flow puts you completely into the moment.

For this reason, it’s vital that you take stock of your emotional state before anything else. If your stress is too high, you need to engage in an easier, more relaxing activity before trying to attain flow, to bring yourself down. If you’re too relaxed, you need to psych yourself up and get ready to engage. If you can’t get into the right mindset - calm and confident - you won’t attain anything but frustration or boredom.

Once you’re in the right mindset, there are several other conditions that need to be in place to set yourself up for success and getting into the Flow state. Here’s a handy checklist for you:

7 Steps to Attain Flow

  1. Knowing what to do (Knowledge)
  2. Knowing how to do it (Experience)
  3. Getting clear, immediate feedback on your success (Immediate Gratification)
  4. Knowing where to go or be (Right Place, Right Time)
  5. High Perceived Challenge (Calculated Risks)
  6. High Perceived Skill (Self-Confidence)
  7. Freedom From Distractions (Staying in the Moment)

Knowing what to do (Knowledge)

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll never attain flow. This can mean many things, but in Destiny, it means understanding your weapons, armor, abilities, stats, perks, and how they all work together toward your strategy and goals. If you’re trying to play an aggressive, close-up game, but bring a Scout Rifle and a Sniper, it’s going to be a rough time, and you won’t get into a flow without great difficulty.

This is why so many people just play the meta they see on Twitch and YouTube - emulating high skill players is a generally reliable way to quickly gain a basic knowledge of what options are good, and stay out of your own way when playing the game.

Knowing how to do it (Experience)

This is something that, to a certain extent, requires just spending a lot of time playing. What if you’re a more casual player? Does that mean attaining flow will be harder for you?

In short: yes. The more you play, the easier time you have building experience as well as other things on this list like confidence and knowledge. Don’t lose hope, you filthy casuals (I’m one of you, btw)!

You can gain experience in a number of ways. While there is no replacement for playing the game a lot, you can enhance the benefit of your time playing by doing a couple of things.

  • Study the game - spending time you can’t spend playing watching videos and streams, reading guides, or reviewing your inventory. Pro sports players spend a ton of time doing just this, and it really does make a huge difference in your ability.
  • Engage in conscious and mindful practice when you play. There are a ton of great discussions of this on /r/crucibleplaybook, and I’m not going to copy them here, but the gist is this: every time you play, pick one thing to get better at, and pay special attention to doing that thing well. When you make mistakes, critique yourself honestly, and ask what you could have done better (ask the people you’re playing with if you don’t know - one of them probably does). Try to practice the same thing for a couple of weeks in a row at least before moving on.

Getting clear, immediate feedback on your success (Immediate Gratification)

Define success during your activities in clear, concise, measurable terms that you can control. This is why so many people focus on Kill / Death Ratio - it’s an immediate feedback during and after each match in PVP that tells you how you performed as an individual, and you can control the things you do to affect it. Elo is a similar measure, but really only works in Destiny when playing Rumble or Trials.

Win / Loss (like Elo) is a measure that can apply to some modes (like Trials), and less so to most others, especially when solo queueing, so I don’t favor it. Personally, I prefer the Kill-Assist / Death Ratio, as team-shooting is an incredibly important skill and you should feel successful in Destiny when you’re helping your team. You do you.

Knowing where to go or be (Right Place, Right Time)

It’s vital in every activity in life where you can attain flow to have an understanding of time and place. In work, you need to make sure you’re doing the right things, with the right people, at the right times to get ahead. In art and writing, putting yourself into an environment that motivates and inspires you is key, as is spending time with people who motivate and inspire you.

In sports and video games, the same applies, and you also need to have an ability to see the big picture - to grasp where your opponents are now, where they are going, and to know the same about your teammates. When you see this “map/player flow”, you open yourself up to your own experience of flow as you naturally position yourself to support teammates and combat enemies in the most advantageous position.

High Perceived Challenge (Calculated Risks)

You need to be willing to put yourself in a difficult situation in order to attain flow. When you’re at 400 light, Patrol generally won’t get you there - it’s too easy! By the same token, you can’t put yourself into an impossible situation and expect to automatically get into flow. Going into VoG at level 23 is just going to be frustrating, no matter what you do.

A calculated risk, here, is putting yourself into a challenge that tests your abilities and pushes you to find your own limits, but doesn’t obviously represent something you simply can’t do.

It’s a subjective calculation, and one each of us has to make for ourselves (unless you have a coach or mentor with a good grasp of your abilities - good on you if you do).

The Crucible is an easy place to find this, as SBMM (though often-demonized) does serve the purpose from a game design perspective of trying to keep us in the “Flow Channel”. Yes, game designers understand and intentionally set up potential flow experiences for us. It's a real thing.

High Perceived Skill (Self-Confidence)

You have to believe yourself capable of overcoming the challenges you face in order to achieve flow - plain and simple. I can’t make this happen for you. You have to believe in yourself. Sometimes this means having a team of friends who all encourage each other. Sometimes it means you simply refuse to admit that anyone who hasn’t proven it is better than you - watch out for arrogance though. Becoming OVER confident is a sure way to end up frustrated. You have to be honest with yourself, and still be confident.

I didn’t say this would be easy.

Freedom From Distractions (Staying in the Moment)

For some of us, this is among the most challenges conditions to meet. As a parent, my life is CONSTANT distraction, and setting aside time to play and improve where other responsibilities aren’t nagging at or interrupting me is difficult to say the least.

If you really want flow to happen though, you need to take the time to examine your environment and remove things that will get in the way. That might mean playing when no one else is around, and all of your homework / chores / etc are already done and taken care of. It might mean just shutting the door and putting up a do-not-disturb sign.

Concluding Thoughts

Flow is one of those things that can be difficult to grasp - it seems to come and go of its own volition, and is far easier to lose than to get. I hope this post has been informative and helpful to some of you, and I look forward to hearing your own thoughts, tips, and experiences in the comments.