Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Summary

January 2013

in Bookshelf, Mental Sandbox, Notes

Finding Flow

The idea of flow is popular in the online productivity, life-hacking blogosphere.

Being in a state of flow is when you’re fully immersed in a specific task with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of focus. Five hours may zip by and you hardly even notice.

I’ve experienced flow on many occasions, such as when I get “in the zone” and program for 8 hours straight, or when I get consumed reading about a topic I find particularly interesting for a solid day.

In an effort to read up more about flow—primarily the pros and cons, and how to achieve states of flow more often—I read Finding Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (apparently it’s pronounced “chicks-send-me-high”), who first proposed the whole idea.1

What follows in this post are my rough book notes.

Chapter 1 – The Structures of Everyday Life

Psychic energy: mental awareness/attention/focus; a limited resource.

Work, maintenance, and leisure take up most of our psychic energy.

Chapter 2 – The Content of Experience

All emotions are essentially either positive/attractive or negative/repulsive.

Negative emotions create “psychic entropy” in the mind: states in which we cannot use attention effectively to deal with external tasks because we need to restore inner subjective order.

Excellent diagram of Challenges vs Skills:


It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life.2

[It] is possible to improve the quality of life by making sure that clear goals, immediate feedback, skills balanced to action opportunities, and the remaining conditions of flow are as much as possible a constant part of everyday life.3

Chapter 3 – How We Feel When Doing Things Differently

Work vs leisure vs maintenance tasks.

Basically, being in flow is a very good thing.

Chapter 4 – The Paradox of Work

Work generally takes up about third of our time available for living.

Chapter 5 – The Risks and Opportunities of Leisure

We are bad at spending our free time well.

Free time is more difficult to enjoy than work.

Leisure only improves ones life if one knows how to use it effectively… something we do not learn automatically.

Too much leisure time is spent doing things that don’t put is in flow: e.g. things that don’t challenge us.

Chapter 6 – Relationships and the Quality of Life

The most positive experiences people report are usually with friends.

The average person spends about one-third of their waking time alone.

Current studies provide consistent evidence that outgoing, extroverted people are happier, more cheerful, less stressed, more serene, more at peace with themselves than introverts.4

Note: it may be that the quality of experience is similar, but the reporting is different (introverted people seem more likely to be reserved in describing their inner states).

[Expressing] the full range from inner- to outer-directedness might be the normal way of being human. What is abnormal is to get boxed in at one of the ends of this continuum, and experience life only as a gregarious, or only as a solitary being.5

Chapter 7 – Changing the Patterns of Life


Things to do:

  • Find more value in your work; understand the “trivial” activity in the context of the whole.
  • Simple solution:

Without some effort a dull job will just stay dull. The basic solution is quite simple. It involves paying close attention to each step involved in the job, and then asking: Is this step necessary? Who needs it? If it is really needed, can it be done faster, better, more efficiently? What additional steps could make my contribution more valuable?

  • To turn a routine job one dreads into a professional performance one can look forward to with anticipation each morning:

First, one must pay attention so as to understand thoroughly what is happening and why; second, it is essential not to accept passively that what is happening is the only way to do the job; then one needs to entertain alternatives and to experiment with them until a better way is found.


Find flow activities to do together.


Find out what other’s goals are:

  • “What is he interested in at the moment?”
  • “What is she involved in?”
  • “What has he or she accomplished or is trying to accomplish?”

If any of it is worth pursuing: utilize your own expertise or experience on the topics raised by the other person—without trying to take over the conversation, but developing it jointly.

A good conversation is like a jam session in jazz, where one starts with conventional elements and then introduces spontaneous variations to create an exciting new composition.

Chapter 8 – The Autotelic Personality

The organization of the self that makes total commitment to a fully experienced life possible.

“Aautotelic” activity = one done for its own sake.

No one is fully autotelic, but there is gradation.

Key quality that distinguishes autotelic people: their psychic energy seems inexhaustible (though they don’t have more attentional capacity than anyone else). They:

  • pay more attention to what happens around them,
  • notice more,
  • are more willing to invest attention in things for their own sake without expecting an immediate return,
  • are less concerned about themselves and therefore have more free psychic energy with which to experience life.

Most of us are attention hoarders: we dole it out only for important things.

The result is that we don’t have much attention left over to participate in the world on its own terms, to be surprised, to learn new things, to empathize, to grow beyond the limits set by our self-centeredness.

Developing curiosity and interest: easy in principle, difficult in practice—but definitely worth trying!

(1) Develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia.

Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art.6

(2) Transfer some psychic energy from tasks we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble.

There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.6

Don’t think you have enough time? Change your priorities! (Think of Tim Ferriss: “busyness is a lack of priorities!”)

There is never a good excuse for being bored.7

The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.8

Normally, attention is directed by genetic instruction, social conventions, and habits we learned as children. Therefore, it is not we who decide what to become aware of, what information will reach consciousness. As a result, our lives are not ours in any meaningful sense; most of what we experience will have ben programmed for us. We learn what is supposed to be worths eyeing, what is not; what to remember and what to forget; what to feel when we see a bat, a flag, or a person who worships God by different rites; we learn what is supposed to be worth living and dying for. Through the years, our experience will follow the script written by biology and culture. The only way to take over the ownership of life is by learning to direct psychic energy in line with our own intentions.9

Chapter 9 – The Love of Fate

Whether we like it or not, our lives will leave a mark on the universe.10

A Buddhist piece of advice:

Act always as if the future of the Universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking that whatever you do makes a difference.11

Be engaged and carefree at the same time.

A simple way to improve the quality of your life is to take ownership of your actions.

The quality of life is much improved if we learn to love what we have to do.12


  1. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books. []
  2. p. 32 []
  3. p. 34 []
  4. p. 94 []
  5. p.96 []
  6. p. 127 [] []
  7. p. 128 []
  8. p. 129 []
  9. p. 130 []
  10. p. 131 []
  11. p. 133 []
  12. p. 139 []