By Greg Conderacci
“Flow” – that wonderful high you get when the bike seems to be rolling effortlessly under you – may be one of the main reasons you ride.
The great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi fathered the concept of flow — of being so immersed in an activity that you are completely absorbed by it. In flow, there is a rush of joyful energy in the task and the effort seems minimal. In his book with Susan Jackson, Flow in Sports: The Keys to Optimal Experiences and Performances, they use the words of a world-class cyclist they call “Simon,” to describe the “Nine Fundamental Dimensions of Flow.”
Nine Dimensions of Flow
Simon describes how he experienced each of the dimensions on the bike:
- The Challenge-Skills Balance –“There’s a certain point at which you can convert stressful situations to challenges…which is where the flow sort of triggers off and you go, and it is like nothing is going to get in the way”
- Action-Awareness Merging — “It doesn’t seem like you’re sitting on a bike…It’s like you’re part of this machine that you were born with, and it’s how you move.”
- Clear Goals — “You can almost touch or know that you can predict the outcome of the event before it actually happens.”
- Unambiguous Feedback — “What gear you’re riding; what position you’re sitting in; where the second, third, fourth, and fifth riders are sitting in the bunch; what numbers are in the breakaway; how many riders there are in front of you — all these things take your attention.”
- Concentration on the Task at Hand — “I rode four hours one day in the rain and sleet, and I don’t think I remember anything other than the white line on the road, going underneath for four hours. And the guy’s wheel in front of me. For four hours, that’s all I remember.”
- Sense of Control — A feeling of “unshatterable self-esteem” — that he could take on anything and be able to get through it.
- Loss of Self-consciousness — “You can let go of worrying about how others see you and whether you have what it takes to be successful.”
- Transformation of Time — In describing an event that took 11 seconds, “It felt like you’d slowed everything down and made sure everything was right…it felt real quick, but everything felt slow at the same time.” Sometimes, hours pass like minutes; minutes like seconds — and the other way around.
- Autotelic Experience — The experience is so rewarding, people do it for its own sake. “There’s no experience in sport that is as exhilarating or rewarding as being in flow. That’s what makes me keep riding, knowing that I might get it again.”
“Flow provides a glimpse of perfection,” the authors say, “which is why we seek it again and again once we attain it.”
For me, I most commonly feel flow on my bike, but I’ve experienced it in front of a class, in intense conversations, on the archery range with my bow, and even doing very routine tasks like cleaning my house. If you want to see what truly intense flow looks like, check out a teenager playing video games.
Don’t Fight the Flow
Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, described the feeling of “flow” when he said, “When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”
Ultra-distance cycling relies heavily on flow. What does not work is thinking about every mile, every hill, every pedal turn and, especially, how far you have to go. When the brain turns toward the immediate discomfort and away from the joy of the overall experience, flow vanishes.
In my energy seminars, people will often ask me how I can spend 24 or more hours on a bicycle when they couldn’t even imagine doing that in a car, much less at their jobs. My response to that is simply “flow.” I like it.
Watching great athletes do their thing can be flow-inspiring. The player or team that suddenly catches fire during a game and scores repeatedly and (apparently) easily is often harnessing flow. Think of ballerinas, figure skaters, Julius Irving in basketball, Michael Phelps in swimming, Yo-Yo Ma on the cello, John Belushi on Saturday Night Live.
The most common place to find flow is in doing something you love to do. Flow is often a consequence of living your life mission, which we will address in a future column.
Next: The “Secret” of Finding Flow
Greg Conderacci is a marketing consultant and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, non-profit entrepreneur, and investment bank chief marketing officer. In Getting UP!, he brings you the same skills he teaches at a top graduate school and Fortune 500 companies. Lots of people promise better performance … Greg proves it. Using his energy techniques, in 2015 he rode a bicycle across America in just 18 days — averaging 150 miles a day.