In psychology, there is a concept of a flow state (more commonly known as being in the zone) where you lose track of time and awareness of your specific actions, and you are completely immersed in what you’re doing. In the state, you’re completely focused; you love every moment of it. This concept was popularized in the West by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience where he argues that people are usually the happiest when they’re in a state of flow. A person experiencing flow has the deepest enjoyment of the thing they are engaged in. People who are top professionals in their fields doing their greatest work are often in this state while performing.
In a paper written by Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi titled The Concept of Flow, they reduce the characteristics of the mental state down to six things:
1) Intense and focused concentration on the present moment;
2) Merging of action and awareness;
3) The loss of reflective self-consciousness;
4) The feeling of control;
5) Temporal distortion (losing track of time);
6) An experience that the activity is intrinsically rewarding.
Getting Into A Flow State
The theory states that three conditions have to be met in order to reach the mental state. Note that these are necessary, but not sufficient conditions to reach the state of flow. In other words, these conditions need to be met, but are not enough alone to reach the state. They are as follows:
1) One has to be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress;
2) The activity must have clear and immediate feedback;
3) The activity must be challenging enough for the person doing it, and it must be appropriate for their skill level.
The chart below illustrates the types of states in relation to the challenge and skill level when a person does an intentional activity. The conditions have to be just right to get into the flow state.
If you think the amount of work getting into this state sounds a lot like getting into ketosis, you’re not completely wrong. Getting into a flow state requires the correct amount of balance between a person having the sufficient skillset, and doing something that is within a person’s reach. The activity also must be cooperative and provide enough feedback.
Flow In Climbing
The flow mental state in relation to climbing is of interest because the environment is conducive to having flow occur often. Routes are graded and when you’re indoors, they’re marked (first condition), feedback is immediate (sending or falling on the route lets you know if you’re doing well, or need improvement - second), and people often work on reasonable reach routes (you can consistently climb V4s, so you often work on V5s - third condition). Imagine a beginner climber trying to climb something out of their reach, like a V4. Such an undertaking would be much too difficult, and they would likely be repelled from the activity, and as a result not finding it very appealing and enjoyable. Flow acts as a magnet to the activity, and it can be very addicting. Once you understand the mental state of flow, you’ll likely start seeing this in many different contexts, such as in a professional setting. Think of the times you’re at a job that is not challenging enough or is not engaging. You lose interest and become unhappy while doing it. Jobs that are not clearly defined lessen the likelihood of getting into the flow state. Consider the jobs that offer slow or very little feedback — the only reward, in this case, may mostly be financial in such a setting.
Laying the Foundation For Flow In Climbing
In my first year of climbing, I placed most of my focus on strength training and spent little time on honing my technique. Not surprisingly, I did not reach the state of flow as much as I currently do now. It wasn’t until when I began to shift my focus on technique that I became happier with my climbs and more immersed in the experience. This feeling keeps me returning to the gym and working on projects outdoors.
In a recent video, I covered the three common mistakes that beginners make when flagging.
If you are unfamiliar, flagging is defined as utilizing pure body positioning, instead of power or endurance, to statically make the next move on a route. Flagging can save a climber energy overall, often enough to help them send a route. To effectively use techniques like flagging, a climber must practice it to the point where it becomes essentially second nature, that is, they must train their ability to recognize patterns. A climber must adjust or amend their schema and script in relation to climbing.
In psychology, schema is defined as a pattern of thought that organizes information and the relationship between them. You can think of schema as a way your brain puts information into different buckets. A behavioral script is a sequence of behavior for a given situation. Schema and script are like grooves that are dug in through time and experience, and these are good in that they act as an efficient way for you to act in certain situations, but they can also be detrimental or hold you back under new paradigms, like in climbing if you’re new to it. During my second year of climbing, when I decided to focus on technique, what I was doing was effectively adding and making adjustments to my script and schema. The process takes concerted and dedicated effort and is not necessarily glorious, but it rewires your brain, which improves your skill set and in turn, helps you reach the state of flow.
To best rewire my script and schema, I increased my volume and amount of training days to focus on technique as a way to address any blind spots I let develop from relying solely too much on my strength to power through routes. This initial shift was uncomfortable and made certain moves more difficult to accomplish, but once I passed an initial hurdle and once things became second nature, it became apparent that the new technique I was using is a better way of going about the route.
Utilizing Flow To Progress
The best way to think about flow in the context of goal-oriented activities is when you’ve reached a plateau in your progress. When you find yourself stuck at a level, you'll also find that you have not reached the mental state of flow in a while. When this occurs, it should be a clear indicator for you to explore any potential weaknesses you may have developed in your foundational knowledge. This may also mean reverting back to examine some of the basics that your advanced knowledge rests on, as painful and onerous as it may be, especially to your ego.
Next time you’re at the gym, think about your own progress in climbing and if you’ve reached the state of flow. Note your skill level and the perceived challenge of the routes you attempt. This may lead to a shift in mindset, and it may allow your mind to learn and relearn new concepts, resulting in rapid and unexpected growth.