Beyond Flow

A Deliberate Day

Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.

This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.

Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)

After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.

Between Flow and Tedium…

My experience this morning was not flow.

I was not lost in the experience. Nor did I feel “spontaneous joy.”  On the contrary, I found myself waging battle with my attention, forcing it back again and again to the complexities I was trying to sort through.

My mind was pitching every possible distraction as an alternative to working on that problem, and I don’t blame it — it was a draining effort that in evolutionary terms must seem a waste of perfectly good glucose.

At the same time, however, the work wasn’t annoying or tedious. I ended the day exhausted but fulfilled.

I’m telling you this story in reaction to the comments generated by my recent post on deliberate practice. In that post, I noted that the practice habits of expert piano players are tough — not likely to generate the immersive, enjoyable state that defines flow.

Many of the commenters protested. As one reader asked: “Unless you’re actually having fun [with your work], why do it?”

I think these commenters are worried about the conclusion that work should create suffering. Here’s the thing: I agree with their concerns, and this was not the point I was trying to make

On reflection, I think the readers’ confusion stems from our inability to talk about practice in a more nuanced manner. Put plainly, the knowledge work community does not yet have the right vocabulary for describing the type of experience I had this morning — an experience that is not suffering, but then again is not immersive flow either.

Work shouldn’t suck.

But it shouldn’t feel like play either.

The deliberate practice hypothesis demands that we learn to recognize (and embrace) that curious zone found somewhere in between.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

39 thoughts on “Beyond Flow”

  1. Practice, learning, getting better at what you do is hard work and not “fun” or “flow”. “Flow” is for performance, rather than practice, for when you’re on stage, rather than in the rehearsal studio. The tough practice is necessary so that when you’re performing, whether that means playing piano or teaching or writing (code, fiction, or some of each), you have a chance of reaching that “flow” state…

  2. The only time I’ve ever found “flow” doing hard work is when I have a break through, which seems to be exactly after that “curious zone found somewhere in between”. It’s when I’ve reached the top of the hill, having pushed/slogged through the hard part.

  3. Hi Cal,

    this post made my day,
    currently I’m implementing a research prototype that in theory should work for all kinds
    of problem sets but in practice fails for some and I’m finding myself in a very similar situation like yours.

    I spent hours of rethinking the algorithm, testing, implementing and its very exhausting,
    but still I somehow like it.

    Maybe this is comparable to a puzzle or something the like,
    the process of solving it is not very joyful but the anticipation of the feeling that we will have once we finally solved it is enough to feel content?


  4. Work isn’t about the emotion of the moment. It can be fun,tedious or painful. Work is about producing something that provides for your life. The end result is increased self esteem, purpose and reason which are the concomitants of happiness.

  5. Your phrase, “Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre” still resonates with me. I could ratchet-back my effort and probably enjoy work more, but then my employer would find little incentive to keep me versus the other folks doing the minimum.
    I think your premise of targeted effort (practice) is on the right track. Thoughtful, directed effort can return more than general, unfocused work.
    Good people work hard. Smart people work smart. Very smart people work little.

  6. Enjoyed this post and your deliberate practice one. At some point whether we like it or not we’ve got to get our head down and bum up. As an example, the great guitarist or pianist of the world are a joy to watch, but they’ve toiled away for hundreds (if not thousands) of hours on the same pieces, the same drills, the same chords.

    The theory may be that those who toil in practice open up whole new doors of possibility to really unleashing their creativity, because they’re not hindered by the technical/skill side of things?

  7. Love this blog. Cal, can you detail(in a post) how you practice deliberately and how(if at all) this has helped you in proving the above theorem and enhancing your work in general?

  8. Music has a performance aspect as jsb16 says. Does other knowledge work have a “performance” mode?

    I had this same question after reading jsb16’s comment. I’m not sure that it always does. He cites code and fiction writing, for example, as a performance — acts were flow is possible. The writers and coders I know, however, often describe their work as anything but immersive, but instead something they have to continually fight to keep their focus on.

    Maybe this is comparable to a puzzle or something the like,
    the process of solving it is not very joyful but the anticipation of the feeling that we will have once we finally solved it is enough to feel content?

    The anticipation is important. But there’s still something else lurking here. Something about the act of crafting itself.

  9. This post resonated with me as well — I’m in the middle of a difficult seminar paper at my humanities PhD program, which requires me to address both theoretical concerns that I’m not yet fully comfortable with and a wide body of primary evidence. When I work on it, even as I make progress, my mind is constantly fighting against focusing on the hard work of unifying my argument, marshalling (and translating) the most useful subset of my argument, and critically applying (or, occasionally, arguing against) the theory; I’m constantly battling the urge to do anything else productive. Over four or five hours of work, I can often only write 5-600 words of usable material — but usually write several thousand words to get there. My reaction to this work is much the same as what you describe in your piece — some level of frustration, but still with the satisfaction of hard work at the end of the day.

    Which leaves my question — how can we compel ourselves to focus on hard work / academic deliberate practice? I’ve been reading this blog since 2008, and use many of the techniques you’ve advocated over the years; when I’m working, I don’t generally struggle with procrastination, and I (usually) don’t succumb to, e.g., the temptation to check my email “quickly.” But I’ve yet to figure out how to get my mind to focus on the problem at hand when that’s hard and it doesn’t want to, as you put it, hold on to all the pieces. How do we make that leap to effectively focusing despite an uncooperative mind?

  10. Sorry- at “marshalling (and translating) the most useful subset of my argument,” please read “evidence” for “argument”.

  11. Good post! I think work feels like, well, work! Occasionally it feels like bliss (flow) and very occasionally (depending on your job) it feels like drudgery. But work requires concentration and that’s often difficult.

    For writers in particular I have one recommendation: Don’t try to do all of your work while sitting down in front of your computer. Instead, do something “mindless” (walking, driving, washing dishes) to give your brain the chance to think. SEPARATE the thinking part of your work and allow your body to be active doing something else. Walking is my favourite activity for this and I take my cellphone with me so I can easily record any thoughts I’m afraid I won’t remember.

  12. I’ve found flow at various points in most of the work I’ve done. I think it’s true that “performance” is the right way to describe it. In discussion-based seminars, flow is the feeling of having arguments bubble up in your mind, with all the knowledge and skill to express them well. Same idea with writing. Even in a menial restaurant job, I occasionally found flow when it was busy but I had become skilled enough to make things run smoothly in the chaos. But I see these moments as rewards for the uncomfortable work of mastering the material and skills, which takes up 95% of your time. It’s worth it!

  13. The experience you are describing sounds very much like the concept of “stuckness” from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

    “Your mind was already was already thinking ahead to what you would do when the cover plate was off, and so it takes a little time to realize that this irritating minor annoyance of a torn screw slot isn’t just irritating and minor. You’re stuck. Stopped. Terminated. It’s absolutely stopped you from fixing the motorcycle.”

    The idea here is that this stuck experience is a highly desirable state on the bleeding edge of “Quality”.

  14. Let’s call it what it is – Deliberate Challenge!

    Practice is ambiguous. You are deliberated challenging yourself to solve a new problem. Pain, joy, sorrow, are irrelevant to a job well done, a challenge met and overcome.

  15. I think the problem is that we’re not defining “flow”.

    There is a certain rhythm to hard, deliberate practice. You get into the groove of not getting anywhere, of meticulously examining everything, of hitting up against walls and working tirelessly to destroy them.

    Then there is another rhythm, the kind of rhythm you have when you breeze through the problems you have practiced over and over again… a mindless ease that allows you to be only half conscious of what you are doing and yet accomplish your goal effortlessly.

    Two different types of flow. Define them.

  16. I guess to me there is no confusion, but there is also a word. Thrill. It’s the thrill of the challenge that seeps into your nerves & flusters you, but also motivates you to stick with it. You have to want to face this challenge and be motivated to face it every day until you have that breakthrough were you accomplish what you set out to do. The harder the challenge, the sweeter the nectar, the more satisfying the result.

    Maybe that should be the word instead of thrill. Satisfaction is what I want to achieve. Not fun. When I’m in flow, there is no satisfaction, but when I’m in deliberate mode, the satisfaction is great, because I’m always inching forward.

  17. I think both flow and tedious work are important aspects of exceptional performance. If you are doing surgery, the flow must be there. Your performance at that time of surgery should be the product of hard work (ie decision making on why and how to do the operation) and a system that you, as a surgeon, have developed which is the same every time you are doing surgery. You don’t invent things while doing familiar parts of an operation while being absolutely prepared to go beyond your comfort zone if faced with an unfamiliarity (which shoudlve still been anticipated during your tediouisnwork phase).

  18. Great account. I love this conversation. I feel like “fun” is a throwaway word. For me Flow is about engagement. Flow is when you lose yourself doing something you care about, the ultimate state of engagement. Challenge is essential to Flow and while you might not have fallen into the Flow Channel that day, you were training for it, building your skills so that the next challenge might not be as frustrating. Also, I bet you had moments of Flow even if the whole day wasn’t that much fun. Just sayin’.

  19. I’m confused whenever I try to think of this in abstract terms.

    I suppose I might be an addiction to ‘feeling happiness all the time’, which biases my view of what I do. Happiness is called the ultimate goal, even though it is a transient thing; we think that if there is a shorter-in-time route to happiness than the current one, then we should take it. And when we think of goals that take work which does not directly in the moment involve ‘happiness’, we are slightly repulsed. When we wonder why we are doing the work, we always think, ‘…because the result will give me happiness’. Then we say, ‘Couldn’t I just do something now that isn’t work that I enjoy to give me happiness? It will be quicker.’

    Perhaps you are saying that there are two kinds of happiness, one which results from work and should be defined differently, one which results from some immediate activity. And you are saying that the one which results from long term deliberate practice, which does not suck but is not ecstasy either, is better in some qualification.

    (Or you could say that happiness is an attitude to all things one does…)

  20. I think both flow and tedious work are important aspects of exceptional performance. If you are doing surgery, the flow must be there. Your performance at that time of surgery should be the product of hard work (ie decision making on why and how to do the operation) and a system that you, as a surgeon, have developed which is the same every time you are doing surgery. You don’t invent things while doing familiar parts of an operation while being absolutely prepared to go beyond your comfort zone if faced with an unfamiliarity (which shoudlve still been anticipated during your tedious work phase).

  21. Put plainly, the knowledge work community does not yet have the right vocabulary for describing the type of experience I had this morning — an experience that is not suffering, but then again is not immersive flow either.

    Oh yes it does, it is called “Arousal”.

    If Flow is the state where the challenge level meets your skill level, Arousal is when you push beyond it, but not so much that you become anxious about it.

    I, too, think that we should study Arousal more, and mainly how we can create tasks and challenges for ourselves that pushes us, but doesn’t trigger the anxiety that could make us pull back.

  22. I learned about this while taking aptitude tests at the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (highly recommended). Some tests flowed and I felt I’d done well. Others were frustrating and my performance irritated me. But the results shocked me: with the “enjoyable” tests I was in the bottom 5%. But with the frustrating tests I was in the top 5%.

    It re-calibrated my sense of what my “best” work felt like. And it wasn’t flow. Perhaps, as Leonard suggests, I was feeling arousal.

  23. @q Darned right! People are using the word “flow” to mean very different things.

    “Flow” as used by Csíkszentmihályi is an optimal state of arousal and focus, where you are fully engaged with a task that you find demanding. It is the state where you perform at your best. It is not the kind of self-indulgence described in the article, where piano students cop out and play at a level too low to produce flow. Deliberate practice can certainly create a flow state. In fact, if it doesn’t happen within 15-20 minutes, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  24. “Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels.” That’s how I would potentially describe the fulfillment at the end of a hard day doing what you knew was the best way to get to the results you were looking for.

  25. Mr. Newport I am a fan of your work. However, I have read a couple of these posts, refuting Flow, and I think you’re missing the point. I know you quote Professor Ericsson and that’s all well and good. But I think there’s a misunderstanding at play here. Csikszentmihalyi is quite clear that Flow is NOT an enjoyable state to be in. You have implied, multiple times, that Flow is somehow enjoyable. Ericsson’s quote says that very thing. Au contraire. The experience of Flow is only enjoyable upon reflection. Stated differently, we’re happy we did it. But in the moment it can be rather uncomfortable.

    Perhaps I’m missing something. I will admit that I haven’t read all of your articles. However, in your article “Flow is the opiate..” you point out Strategy #1 as being “Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.” The clear implication being that Flow occurs only while doing easy things. Again, I believe this to be a misunderstanding. Please allow me to quote Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”

    Properly understood, Flow is ALL about getting better. We’re hard-wired to enjoy the process of improving. The way I understand it is that Flow is our best chance to overcome the second law of thermodynamics. Which is important because entropy is basically the governing law of the universe.

    I don’t tend to believe that it’s difficult to resolve the Flow/DP puzzle. I think that Flow basically is Deliberate Practice. The goal of each event being improvement. Csikszentmihalyi would call it an increase in, “complexity.” (Which is why I understand it to counteract an increase in entropy.) But whether one calls it “improvement” or “increased complexity” I think that person would be describing the same phenomenon. This is an idea I think a couple people in this thread have touched on. For example, “yora” and “apteryx.”

  26. This whole thing is quite dicey. Because, though you have objected to Flow, you still seem to agree with it. Here’s a direct quote from the post you published on 12-22-11, “do the very small number of things you do very well.” Indeed, you referred to this as your mantra. And, that was only a couple weeks before the current post.

  27. Hey cal!

    Love this article! While working on this theorem you kind of suffered. Though suffering is always pain without meaning. You obviously experienced a degree of pain. Still there was a meaning behind this pain. Pain with a meaning is surrender (not in terms of giving up but in terms of dedication. As a overplayed cheesy example it is like a woman who is giving birth to a child. Nobody would ever call the pain experienced during a birth as suffering. So this experience you had (or we all have when we go through pain for a greater meaning) is closer to surrender .

    What do you think?

  28. Cal
    Did you read and study book “Flow”?
    My understanding is that “flow” is not incompatible with “deliberate practice.”
    Pre-conditions of “flow” are the same:
    * Clear Goals: both major and minor step by step, not confusing and contradictory
    * Immediate Feedback: is what you are doing getting you closer to goals or not
    * Challenges of activity are matched with skills of the person.
    “Flow” state produces focus and is “enjoyable”, not “pleasurable.”
    The joy comes from focus and sense of accomplishment, not from external rewards.

    A subtle but important distinction is that “deliberate / purposeful practice” requires us to push challenge to upper edge of the skill. Clear goals and feedback are still required.
    For most people “flow” is an excellent gateway to growth, since it provides a framework where discipline can be focused on pushing the boundary, not on the overall process.

    I would even argue that without leveraging “flow”, “deliberate practice” is not even possible on the long run, for most of people. One can force or be forced to practice hard a few times, but not sufficiently to achieve greatness in any domain without intrinsic reward of flow state.

    Based on descriptions from book “a Mind for Numbers” and class “Learn how to learn” by Dr. Barbara Oakley, it appears that foundations of “flow” and “deliberate practice” may be based on physiology, how human mind works.

    I really like ideas from your books and I am quite curious how do you see this connection?

  29. This strikes me as the distinction between (1) a nice walk in the park (2) strength training and (3) overtraining/repetitive stress injuries. (1) is flow and (3) is work that sucks.


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