Scott H Young

Flow Doesn’t Maximize Improvement


Flow is the mental state of complete engagement. It happens when you are fully immersed in an activity that is neither too difficult to be frustrating, but not so easy as to be boring. First described by Dr. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept became popular because it was seen as a key to both performance and happiness.

Flow is great. I’ve previously written about it before, and I believe that if your regular work doesn’t offer you at least some opportunities for flow, it’s unlikely you’ll be passionate about it enough to succeed at it.

But there’s a myth that flow also maximizes learning. That, to get the fastest learning rate, you should be in a state of flow-like engagement with the learning material. This is likely false.

Deliberate Practice and Frustrating Difficulty

The idea that flow would also maximize learning is an optimistic one. After all, wouldn’t it be great if the state of being which produces pleasure and happiness also causes the fastest growth?

From Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice, however, I have serious doubts about this being true. Deliberate practice, the activity tightly coupled with skill development, is also a grind. Far from being a flow-like state of optimal difficulty, deliberate practice is strenuous and often frustrating.

Flow comes from a balancing point of difficulty. It occurs when you have enough mastery to perform well, but the task is not so trivial as to allow distractions to enter the mind.

Deliberate practice is a recalibration of that balancing point. Personal experience tells me that ideal deliberate practice sits much closer to frustration than to flow. Learning something new, in the most efficient way possible, is exhausting.

Flow is Great for Work, Bad for Learning

Flow is an equilibrium, deliberate practice is a disequilibrium. This isn’t the only area of human psychology or biology where we see growth coming from disequilibrium. If you want to gain strength, most of the gain comes from the final, agonizing repetition, not the first ones of mild exertion.

Another hint to the nonoptimality of flow for learning is in Dr. Ericsson’s own distinction between practice and work. Work is the performance of your skill to useful ends—a violinist concerto or a basketball game. Practice is pushing your performance to a new level—repeating the hardest few bars of a solo or perfecting your layup. Games and concerts are fun, drills aren’t.

Flow is an ideal state for working—it shows you’ve achieved enough mastery to perform well, but that the task is still at your level. As such, I think it’s worth striving for in your regular day-to-day tasks.

Learning is not optimized by playing at your level. It’s optimized by playing above it, where you feel you can barely cope.

Achieving Fluency

Learning a new language is a great example of this. When practicing, there are two points worth noting: flow and mastery.

The first is the point of flow—this when the language feels challenging, but not overwhelming. In a beginner, that could mean parroting premade sentences. In an intermediate to advanced speaker, that could mean having conversations along the lines you normally follow.

The second is the point of mastery. This point is where you are learning the most new things. It is painful and often awkward, but it results in the fastest growth. For a beginner that means trying to speak in the language, before one feels comfortable. For more advanced speakers, it is putting deliberate effort into improving your accent, grammar or adding new elements of vocabulary.

Benny Lewis, who speaks nearly a dozen languages fluently, is often able to achieve conversational fluency in only a couple months with a new language. His method is dedicated to this uncomfortable point of speaking before you’re ready in the early phases, and an insistence on corrections in the later phases.

I met Benny when he was living in Berlin. Despite only having learned German for two months at the point when I met him, he was already speaking better German than other people we met who had lived there for years.

No Pain, No Gain

This entire article may sound overly discouraging. After all, if optimal learning is frustrating or painful, isn’t it unrealistic to expect people to do it?

Learning may have some short-term intensity, but the rewards are great too. Immersion in a language can have some short-term pain, but every gain you make in speaking ability is satisfying.

I remember some hard moments with near non-existent French when I first moved to France, but being able to have whole conversations in French just a few months later was rewarding enough that I’m convinced I’ll learn more languages in the future.

Working through mathematical problem sets during the MIT Challenge was often overwhelming. But being able to cover the material so quickly, hooked me onto learning new technical concepts in the future.

Treating learning like exercise is a big shift for many students. Because they’ve largely used passive methods which are considerably less intense, they’re also used to spending a lot more time studying. Studying is better seen as a series of sprints than as an endless jog.

I’ll admit, pushing hard to get to the next level of ability isn’t always fun. But because you achieve growth faster, you don’t need to spend as much time. I’d rather have some moderately intense bursts with more downtime than endless library study sessions.

What Does This Mean for You?

I’ve found that maximum learning occurs at an intensity that is uncomfortable to most people. Possibly too uncomfortable for many students who are used to learning at much closer to a flow-like state of effortless engagement.

As a result, full intensity might not work for all tasks if you’re unable to withstand the discomfort. Running until you puke probably isn’t the best way to start a habit of regular exercise.

Instead, I’d suggest dialing up the intensity slowly. Here’s some things you can do:

  1. More active recall. Active recall is problem sets, flashcards or anything where you are forced to produce an answer from memory. Passive recall is re-reading notes or watching videos.
  2. More problem solving. Solve new problem types to test your knowledge in new areas. Pretend you’re teaching the solution method for old problem types.
  3. Ratchet up the environmental difficulty. New to a language? Try speaking it with a native, even if only for a sentence or two. Advanced in a language? Try delivering a speech, writing an article or training yourself to reduce your accent.

Because optimal learning isn’t necessarily optimal enjoyment, this also means there will often be a tradeoff between the two. You want progress to be intense enough to reach your goals in a timely fashion, but not so intense you lose your desire to learn the subject at all. Where you strike that balance will probably depend on what your goal is and how much motivation you have.


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20 Responses to “Flow Doesn’t Maximize Improvement”

  1. Jeff Leendz says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great article. As I’m trying to learn Chinese (even though I have a poor English skill as you can see) I have felt that the first thing you should get comfortable with is the ‘language flow’.

    While I was reading your article a new idea came into my mind. What about if you apply the concept of ‘flow’ in Social Relations ? I have the impression that if you want to be engaged withing a social group, you have to develop the ability to keep a ‘psychological flow’ into your mind. You can’t hesitate or think too much about everything you want to say, otherwise, your collegues or friends will find something strange with you.

    I must admit that I’m very curious about what you think about my suggestion. Maybe I’ll even try to write my own article over this subject (in Portuguese, as I live in Brazil xD)

  2. Norswap says:

    Related ideas (in the domain of programming, but easily generalizable): http://www.linusakesson.net/programming/kernighans-lever/index.php

  3. Toby says:

    Cool article – thanks! Here’s a psych study recently that backs pretty much everything you’re saying: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143823

    One addition I’d make to your three is interleaving learning (as said in the article).

  4. Hicaro says:

    Interesting. When learning languages and programming languages, I always try a balanced approach between the Work Harder and Work Smarter philosophies. Of course, the methods are not the same, but the core of mindset is. Most people expect the process of learning itself to be fun. Why that? Probably because as children we had learning most of the basic survival skills as well comunication just by “playing” around (as good primates we are) and emulating our parents and friends. Also, curiosity is a essential factor which a lot of kids have when learning new activities, besides acquiring new knowledge. In my point of view, there are at least three important assumptions to take in consideration when learning something new. In this case, I’m not talking about knowledge acquisition, but skills. In addition, these three assumptions can be considerated independently.

    1 – Motivation: it cannot be faked. It doesn’t matter if people tell you that is good for you or if your circles have big influences on you. Motivation is spontaneous, it cames from genetics + environment + belief systems.

    2 – Necessity: sometimes we need to learn skills. We need to learn how to talk, how to walk, how to write, how to type, how to speak an language and how to do whatever you have to do. In life we don’t only need to learn new things, sometimes we have to. Further, sometimes we must.

    3 – Career or Peronal Growth: some people stagnate in life. Perhaps because they’re already satisfied or feel fulfilled with what they have or who they are. Others try to push themselves harder and further, becoming each time near of their full potential. Why to learn one or two languages? Well, learn twelve.

    Life is an RPG. Each person have their own attributes. Some people are more logical, others are more spatial or musical. We have artists, scientists, mathematicians, linguists, programmers, engineers and thousands kinds of professions. As a fool, I was struggling to try to understand why it is impossible for any people learn any skill. What I mean is: anyone can learn anything, but what separates this person from the target skill is time. Being an optimistic, I could say that humans live something between 80-100 years. Why would I spend my time learning something that I’m not natural inclined to learn? Exactly in this point, self knowledge is important. Know Thyself is a neglected practice. Then, I should spend my time learning things that I feel atracted to, naturally. Flow is important, it can only be achieved if the people is motivated. Now, if the target skill is even necessary, then the flow can maximize learning. More yet, if the individual is searching personal growth, gratification, then his response to learning will be close to his potential. Finally, if the individual is pursuing a skill that he is naturally gifted to, indeed he is what we call genius. In other words, motivation + necessity + personal or career growth + natural skills results in genius. This is not suppose to be a law, genius can be aroused just by hard work. In this world, there are people insane enough to do incredible things just by sacrificing fun, sleep, hygiene (okay, no) and social relationships for building extraordinary skills.

    I don’t know if what I said is clear. My wish is to elaborate better this idea, however the comment is starting to become big. Just let me finish: flow is not synonymous of comfort. In fact, if human behavior is built in current thoughts and habits, the solution is to make deliberate practice a habit. Flow also can be induced. How could this be possible? Flow is a psychologic trait, which means that is based in our thoughts and predisposition. For example, just by thinking you can lose yourself in daydream. But it is important to remember, the performance of deliverate practice will be affected by at least the three factors that I mentioned.

  5. Jim Stone says:

    Scott, interesting point.

    A few years ago I had very high levels of stress, and felt overwhelmed with work and life.

    I found some tricks for getting “un-overwhelmed”, and for getting into a state of flow more often.

    At that point in my life, I didn’t need to “stretch myself”. I desperately needed a reprieve. I needed some weeks of lower stress — of easy-going productivity. And I learned how to do that.

    Much of my stress, it turns out, was unnecessary. I simply didn’t have an effective way to organize all my projects. I had way too many thoughts in my mind (instead of having them in a good planning system). The way I framed unexpected complications and setbacks made them more discouraging than they needed to be. I would work on lengthy projects without near-term feedback-oriented milestones. And so on.

    If we’re “out of flow” for these reasons, we need to learn how to fix these things.

    But, of course, you’re right. Our best learning is actually a process of moving from a state of overwhelm to a state of flow.

    Even then, though, it seems we can get better at being “in over our heads”. We can get better at growing. We can get better at learning new things. And as we get better at learning new things, we will experience less stress throughout the growth process than we do now.

    So maybe the best advice is: if your stress levels are too high, strive for flow. If your stress levels are low, shake things up.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Excellent points in this article, Scott. It’s great to remember that to flow like John Coltrane was a mountain of discomfort that man had to climb. – Jonathan

  7. Sammy says:

    @ Scott
    thanks for the clear distinctions
    @ Hicaro
    Bro you’ve got some the “flow” in your comment . You remind me of the importance of self-knowledge. This is the Genius(core competence) in each individual. if progress is made based on this touch line we can almost experience real flow fired up by more self confidence.
    thanks

  8. Imran says:

    “…I met Benny when he was living in Berlin. Despite only having learned German for two months at the point when I met him, he was already speaking better German than other people we met who had lived there for years…”

    Were they natives? Or just other people who learned German as a second language?

    And if they were, how could you tell that Benny spoke better German? Do you speak German, or was it clearly discernible to being so?

  9. Alice Teh says:

    I’m learning Italian at the moment and already a few months into it. I can totally relate to what you said! It’s not easy, but it’s definitely satisfying and I’m glad I’m doing the right thing. Reading your post reaffirmed my course of action and thinking. Thank you!

  10. Matthew Pearce says:

    Hi Scott,

    I’ve seen Anders Ericsson’s work brought up elsewhere. Do you know of any other researchers who have replicated / built on his works?

    It’s something I’ve been meaning to check out for a while, but if you had a couple of links handy, that would be great.

    Cheers for always being provocative!

  11. My mind went completely blank. The lights on the stage were blinding, the timer was counting down, and everyone in the audience was staring at me … waiting for me to say something. And, yet, I could not, for the life of me remember what I was supposed to say on slide 4. …

    And that was a moment of failure – my motivation to improve. And, so I spend the next months deliberate practicing. I wrote and rewrote speeches, I relearned to tell stories, and I struggled to apply the art of charisma. Every day, I practiced – for hours and hours.

    This article touches upon a truth – mastery is painful to attain. And yet, it is missing something. For, while my struggle to become a better speaker did involve hours and hours of frustration, this experience was not entirely unpleasant. Certainly, I was practicing skills beyond my ability (i.e. deliberate practice – DP). But for most of the time, I had (1) clear goals, (2) minimal distractions, and was getting lots of immediate (3) feedback. In fact, though it was difficult, the difficulty was still (4) balanced for my own particular skills – just barely at the peak of what I was capable of.

    And, that means, my practice still met the 4 requirements of flow. For the best moments of my practice, I was deeply lost in the activity itself – deeply engaged in what I was doing, forgetting the rest of the world, struggling to become better.

    In other words, I was in FLOW while I was engaged in deliberate practice, riding the edge of the flow-channel, always ensuring the challenge was just barely doable.

    So, with respect, I disagree that “Flow is Bad for Learning”. In fact, I believe flow is the BEST way to maximize your deliberate practice. Set up your learning so that you have clear goals, immediate feedback, no distractions, and a task that stays constantly at the peak of your ability. And you will flourish.

    It works. Or at least, that was what crossed my mind, as I was handed the Award for the Best Tutorial at the largest simulation conference in the world.

    Curtiss

    PS – You can Google my talk, ‘Why Game Works – The Science of Learning’ if youlike, but personally, I’d check out Cal Newport’s blog on Deliberate Practice (www.calnewport.com).

  12. Parml says:

    Scott,

    I’m pretty sure you’re friends with the author of Farnam Street. In case you’re not, he’s posted extensively on deliberate practice and mastery. See:

    http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2012/07/what-is-deliberate-practice/

    and

    http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2013/01/mastery/

  13. Scott Young says:

    Jim,

    My article shouldn’t be meant to say that all stress is good. As I mention, flow is generally a good thing, however, for the processes of learning the optimal point is probably closer to frustration (meaning just barely being able to cope).

    Just as lifting a weight with improper form will easily lead to an injury, raising the stress level without the constraints of deliberate practice may lead to burnout.

    Imran,

    I don’t speak German, but you can see by the way people interact a rough idea of their fluency. In this particular case it was a person learning German as a second language who had lived in Berlin for several years, but was uncomfortable speaking in it (and himself commented on his low level relative to Benny)

    -Scott

  14. Christian Kleineidam says:

    I don’t think that all flow is created equal. There were times when I have done hard stuff that I did never before and where I’m in flow. There are other time when I weren’t.

    It’s a matter of emotions. If you are strongly motivated to get something done, you can access more resources and do hard stuff while staying in flow.

    @Imran:
    Being from Berlin myself, that story is quite realistic. You can live in Berlin without speaking any English and I know a few people who live in Berlin for more than a year and who don’t know enough German to be fine with going to a German speaking event.

  15. ulises ortiz says:

    I always went into hyperfocused mode for days. Now I see its kinda like working out. You need to have adaption little by little? ?

  16. Bagus says:

    Good point Scott,

    Anyway you said that “If you want to gain strength, most of the gain comes from the final, agonizing repetition, not the first ones of mild exertion.” I want to emphasize on agonizing repetition, well, it looks some contrary to Pavel Tsatsouline principle (Naked Warrior book).

    In his book, he uncover how lifters really train
    - Limited number of ‘big’ exercises
    - Multiple sets of up to 5 reps, never to failure and with plenty of rest between sets
    -Total focus on technique and tension
    - Continuous variation in volume and intensity

    He also mentioned this in his book
    N O T by mindlessly adding reps. “…endless pushups, sit-ups or, for the
    strong, perhaps pull-ups and dips,’’ says Christopher Sommer, a gymnastics coach from Desert Devils in Phoenix, AZ, are “great maybe for general fitness or endurance, but of little value in building real strength.

    Anyway, I think Pavel principle is fit enough with Ericsson deliberate practice you mentioned above. But not in agonizing repetition part.

  17. Lauren says:

    Thanks, Scott, for this article! When I was in school, I never took classes that challenged me. I always took the subjects I was “good” at, and, therefore, came easily to me. Even in the classes where I did extra credit, such as doing oral reports for an “A”(which I dreaded every time for my lack of “talent”), it usually came “easily” to me. I generally avoided anything that required practice. I am intrigued by the idea of pushing at a point where one would generally shrink back and can’t wait to try it on my own study of writing. Active recall will also be part of my repetoire, rather than studying to remember for a test, I’ll study to remember for a larger purpose.

  18. Scott Young says:

    Bagus,

    Adding reps is quite different than rep-to-failure, but all the research I’ve read supports exercising very close to the failure point (by increasing weight, not through more reps)

    -Scott

  19. Jerry says:

    Nice article, Scott. I think this extends to relationships as well. Sweeping lots of detail under the rug, good relationships really depend on having strong communication and empathy skills, which can also be developed. And guaranteed, emotional growth is not comfortable. Also guaranteed, it is totally worth it.

    Jerry

  20. [...] Flow Doesn’t Maximize Growth: an autodidact reflecting on optimal learning. [...]

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