The earliest researcher and scientist in the world of Flow research was undoubtedly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He is the man who coined the word “flow” and built our earliest models of understanding this elusive state. 

Out of all of his contributions, the most widely known and discussed is what many refer to as the Challenge:Skills Equation, pictured below. 

More or less, your ability to get into flow is a factor of How hard is the challenge Vs. Do I have the skills for it?

If the activity is too hard, and you don’t have the skills for it, you will trigger anxiety, freeze up, and not be able to perform well. 

Conversely if the activity is too easy, you’ll get bored or distracted and throw it to the wayside. 

You want to be neither stressed nor bored. Just like Goldilocks and the three bears, not too hard, not too easy, juuuuuust right! 

Easier said than done though to find that balance. Although it’s a science in understanding, it’s an experiential art to be able to walk that line between panic and flow. 

The reality is that we will oscillate in between experimenting with different ratios of difficulty to skill until we accidentally hit that sweet spot. 

Luckily, Steven Kotler took this a step further to remove the guesswork of how to walk that fine line.

In the book Stealing Fire he discusses how he teamed up with Google and ran the data on how to best trigger a flow state based on the challenge to skills equation. 

He found that you are most likely to trigger flow when the the activity is about 4% higher than your abilities. This effect was then amplified when each day was 4% harder than the previous one. 

This means that you have to push yourself to your limits, but not TOO far above your limits. You want to try something new and difficult, but not so difficult that you’re overwhelmed. 

So let’s say that you’re a musician and you’re trying to learn a new song. You want to pick something that is slightly outside of your abilities, maybe a small addition to something you already know, or a new technique that is a branch off of what you already know. 

What you don’t want to do is pick a song that is too far beyond your abilities – because you’ll get frustrated and give up. 

Ideally it’s something that should make you say, “that sounds challenging but I think I could pull it off.”

However it’s not an exact science just yet, and individual personalities need to be taken into account. For example if you are someone who gets overwhelmed easily, 1 or 2% could knock you into flow, whereas someone who loves intensity and pushing the boundaries and responds well to stress might need 6-8% or above. 

Again, it’s a framework to help us understand how to knock ourselves into flow rather than an exact science. 4% will always be a moving target and you’ll likely spend a lot of time accidentally over or under shooting it before you get it right.

The most beautiful part about this understanding of flow? The challenge skills equation applies to literally every aspect of our lives.

Let’s say for example you’re at work and something is overwhelming you. How can you break it down into smaller chunks and make it easier? How can you find the one part that seems easier? How can you get help on the parts that are too difficult?

Or let’s say you’re at work and you’re bored, unfocused, and can’t concentrate. How can you make it slightly more intense so that you stay engaged? Maybe you can do something like setting a timer and trying to get the work done before a certain time, or rewarding yourself with a break if you accomplish a certain number of tasks. 

It also helps us to cultivate awareness of our current state of mind and why we feel the way we do. If you know that something is too difficult and you’re getting stressed, don’t try to work through it, try to make it easier. If you’re bored you can ask yourself why and do something to make it slightly more stimulating. 

Let’s take it to another level – Let’s say you’re in a relationship and it’s starting to get bland. What can you do to spice things up and make things more exciting?

Or let’s say the you’re in a relationship and it’s too intense with too much stress and fighting, what can you do to give each other some space and lighten the mood?

Flow happens when we’re stimulated but not bored or stressed. This means that the best things in life are the same way. If you want to have a good time at whatever it is that you’re doing, from a meal to a relationship to your work or athletic performance – you need to find the right balance based on your abilities. 

The challenge skills equation gives us a framework to live by and cultivate flow in our lives. To find the balance in whatever it is that we are doing to live an optimal life.

It helps us to make a flow state more likely to occur. Helps us to know the conditions so that we can reverse engineer it. 

Want to learn more about how to walk this fine line of flow? Schedule a call with me and Ill tell you more about Zero to Dangerous – A course teaching you how to have longer, deeper, and more consistent flow states.

Until then happy flowing and may you find the right balance that shuttles you into the zone 🙂

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