Vasily Pindyurin/Getty Images

Formula Pins Down What Gets People in the ‘Flow’

Can you get yourself into a creative and productive "flow" intentionally? Researchers say it is possible and have created a formula to explain it

Researchers have developed a mathematical theory of flow, and argue that it is possible to enhance immersion and engagement in almost any task by manipulating a few key variables.

The immersive and often exhilarating experience of “flow” while playing sports, making art, or working is a much sought-after state of mind associated with peak creativity and productivity, which is why artificial intelligence programmers and human resource departments alike are eager to find ways to cultivate it.

But can you really order up the ingredients to achieve such a subjective experience?

Yale University psychologists say “yes.”

Ryan Carlson, a doctoral student in the psychology department, Paul Stillman, an associate research scientist in marketing at the Yale School of Management, and David Melnikoff, formerly of the psychology department and now of Northeastern University, published their formula in Nature Communications.

“These principles underlying flow may be unconscious but they are not random—and work within a biological system that can be described in mathematical terms,” says Melnikoff, corresponding author of the paper.

The basic equation underlying their computational theory of flow is relatively simple: it computes the mutual information between desired end states and means of attaining them, a quantity expressed as I(M;E). Exercise is one example they use to illustrate the concept.

When people exercise, they have a desired end state, say, losing five pounds. People also have a means of attaining their end state, perhaps jogging. Whether they jog and how often and far is the means and is informative of whether they will achieve their end state.

“Our theory says that the more informative a means is, the more flow someone will experience while performing it,” Melnikoff says. “The formula is a way of mathematically quantifying exactly how informative a particular means happens to be.”

Exercise companies such as Peloton are adept at creating an immersive experience by making means highly informative. For instance, they use exercise output to rank users on “leader boards,” which dramatically increases the amount of information riders get from their means of exercising.

“There are thousands of positions on the leader board where a rider could finish—thousands of possible end states—and the rider’s performance reveals which of these end states will occur,” Carlson says. “That is a lot of information, far more than you’d normally get from a workout. When is the last time exercising allowed you to rule out literally thousands of possible end states?”

Optimizing I(M;E) is also a key goal of artificial intelligence programmers. In essence, AI experts are trying to build machines that behave like people in flow states, the authors argue.

Melnikoff, Carlson, and Stillman say in theory the formula for flow can improve performance for almost any task, a potentially valuable tool for human resource departments seeking to increase worker interest and productivity. But they also realize some inherent limitations using these principles to improve outcomes of tasks—personal interest and talent.

For instance, Melnikoff knows a master gardener who says she experiences flow in creating beautiful landscapes, a passion he does not share.

“Because I’m an incompetent gardener, the means of gardening provides zero information. I already know the end state—a dead garden,” he says.

Source: Yale University

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.