Can We Gain Command Over Our Ability To Enter Flow States?

Professor Giovanni Moneta provides insight into the power of using flow metacognition to create deeper flow states at work.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 15, 2023

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences explores how believing you can create and regulate a flow state actually improves your ability to enter one.

I recently spoke to Dr. Giovanni B. Moneta of London Metropolitan University, United Kingdom to discuss these findings. He explains the concept of flow metacognition, how to build confidence in the ability to self-regulate flow, and its exciting implications in academic and professional contexts. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate flow metacognition and flow at work?

Putting together "flow at work" and "flow metacognition" took me about a quarter of the century.

I encountered "flow" at the University of Chicago in the late Eighties, when somewhat accidentally I took a postgraduate seminar on creativity taught by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the flow pioneer. The encounter turned out to be a game changer, and the coursework written for the seminar turned into one of my first journal articles.

As flow is more frequently experienced in achievement contexts – study, work, sports, and structured leisure – I focused my research on what we could call the "productive side of flow", that is the opportunity that the flow state offers to enhance one's cognitive productivity and performance in challenging contexts.

The research question has been ever since: what makes some individuals so remarkably capable of entering and exiting a deep flow state depending on the requirements of the situation and apparently without exerting any effort?

I encountered "metacognition" twenty years later when, somewhat accidentally, I read Adrian Wells and Gerald Matthews' (1994) revolutionary theory of psychological dysfunction.

In a nutshell, the theory states that psychological dysfunction is maintained by:

(a) perseverative thinking,

(b) maladaptive use of attention, and

(c) maladaptive coping,

These conjointly constitute a cognitive-attentional syndrome (CAS). Maladaptive metacognitions are theorized to maintain the CAS, and to become active whenever an individual encounters a problematic situation.

At that point, I started thinking that the mere absence of maladaptive metacognitions is certainly useful but not sufficient to succeed in challenging endeavors, and that therefore there must be a range of adaptive metacognitive beliefs of an agentic type that support identification of alternative pathways and flexible goal restructuring – in two words, "adaptive coping".

This implied that a fuller understanding of coping would require drawing from both positive psychology and clinical psychology, combining specific contributions from the two domains into integrated conceptual models.

Five years later, my co-author, Edith Wilson, decided to pursue a PhD under my supervision in search of adaptive metacognitions that would support and regulate flow at work.

The research question then became more specific: could it be that workers who experience flow more frequently and intensely do so because of their metacognitive beliefs? And if we were able to "steal" their secret, could this knowledge be shared and applied by others in order to achieve greater cognitive productivity and performance?

Can you briefly describe flow metacognition and how it is linked to coping and self-regulation?

Till now, we have identified two flow metacognitions:

  1. Beliefs that flow fosters achievement, and
  2. Confidence in ability to self-regulate flow

The first metacognition represents a positive appraisal of the flow state because when in flow one feels completely focused on the activity, more capable of generating ideas, thinking more clearly, and essentially being able to achieve more.

The second metacognition represents one's perception of being able to create the conditions in which flow occurs, to be able to enter flow at will and to quickly re-enter flow after an interruption, as well as to be able to sustain flow for long times and till the completion of a challenging task.

In terms of the Theory of Planned Behavior, the first metacognition can be viewed as "attitude", whereas the second as "confidence".

The second, self-regulatory component of flow metacognition can support coping by using flow as a tool to crack a difficult problem in a difficult situation. Consider, for example, situations where intrinsic interest might be low (not an unusual experience at work) or where the challenges of the activity might be overwhelming because of time pressure or lack of resources: workers with a strong confidence in ability to make flow happen no matter what may be able to enter flow in order to overcome their lack of intrinsic interest and/or to take the bull by the horns.

In sum, beliefs that flow fosters achievement constitutes the platform to develop the intention to enter flow in order to cope with a challenging situation, but it is not sufficient to trigger those cognitive and emotional processes that precede the occurrence of the flow state. To actually enter the flow state in a coping effort requires confidence in the ability to self-regulate flow.

What was the methodology of your study? What were your key findings?

The study used a simple two-wave panel design, in which all study participants completed standardized scales that we developed years ago measuring flow metacognition and flow at work at two points in time, about three months apart.

The study generated two key findings:

  1. Confidence in ability to self-regulate flow measured in the first wave predicts flow at work measured in the second wave,
  1. Flow at work measured in the first wave does not predict confidence in ability to self-regulate flow in the second wave

The first finding suggests that being able to self-regulate flow leads to experiencing more intense flow at a later time, whereas the second finding suggests that having flow experiences per se does not lead to an enhancement of the self-regulation of flow. The key implication of these findings is that confidence in ability to self-regulate flow is a potential target for interventions.

Your research mentions the Autotelic personality. Could you expand further on this and whether people with different personality types can also experience flow?

The concept of "autotelic personality" is the most complex puzzle in flow theory. Csikszentmihalyi theorized that autotelic individuals possess distinctive "metaskills" including curiosity, persistence, and low self-centeredness, which would enable the self-regulation (e.g., starting, sustaining, and modulating) of flow experiences.

Researchers have identified a wide range of personality traits that are associated with frequent and intense flow experiences, and added them as pieces to the puzzle. For example, flow proneness was found to be associated with the Big Five traits of conscientiousness and openness to experience, and negatively with neuroticism.

However, the puzzle is not yet complete, and having so many personality traits associated with flow carries the risk of triggering "flow-anxiety", that is the fear of not having the "right" personality profile to experience flow.

The concept of flow metacognition has the potential to provide a shortcut to flow. The basic idea is that, when tackling demanding tasks, autotelic individuals would activate not only general adaptive metacognitions, but also metacognitions specific to the flow state, which in turn would facilitate the experience of flow when it is most needed to cope with the challenges of the activity.

As such, flow metacognitions could capture a – or possibly "the" – core self-regulatory element of the construct of autotelic personality. Adrian Wells (e.g., 2011) and his collaborators have shown that maladaptive metacognitions – unlike personality traits such as the Big Five traits – can be effectively modified through metacognitive therapy.

Therefore, flow metacognitions may also be modifiable. If this were possible, as Prince says "You don't have to be beautiful to turn me on", we would be able to say "You don't have to have a beautiful personality profile to turn flow on". Only future research will tell if the dream comes true.

What are some practical takeaways from your research for the average person? What could be some ways to gain confidence in making flow happen?

We still do not know the answer. Therefore, I can only provide three intuitive suggestions based on the integration of a range of sources.

  1. Firstly, if you experience flow only accidentally, apparently due to rather unpredictable environmental conditions, try engaging in reflection, possibly in a mindful state, on your past flow experiences: this might lead to insight about something that triggered flow but you did not notice at the time. If you pinpoint one or more potentially relevant details, try engaging in reflexivity, exploring strategies that you could adopt to create the conditions in which those potential triggers will kick in.
  2. Secondly, flow is only one of several mental states – such as mindfulness or reflexivity – that can be defined as "optimal", and it is not optimal for every single situation. As Ernest Hemingway – certainly both a "flow-er" and a "meta-flow-er" – beautifully explained:

    "I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it" (Hemingway, 2004, pp. 15-16), and then "All I must do now was stay sound and good in my head until morning when I would start to work again" (Hemingway, 2004, p. 45).

    He also had a remarkably clear understanding that when in flow it is difficult to evaluate the quality of one's own work:

    "I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day" (Hemingway, 2004, p. 4).

    This means that when in flow we are less critical of our own work, and hence the key to success is not to be in flow all the time, but rather to enter and exit flow frequently throughout an endeavor, in order to maximize dynamically focus and vision.

  3. Finally, engaging in ideation (e.g., brainstorming) and idea implementation/evaluation as neatly distinct and separate in time phases of problem solving may hinder your flow potential. Try instead, as an experiment, the "hands on" approach to problem solving of the expert craftsman.

    First, as soon as you hold on to a reasonable idea, try implementing it partially into a prototype solution, and evaluate it critically. Then, go back immediately to the drawing board to either improve the original idea or generate a new one, and again implement it in a prototype solution and evaluate it critically.

    This intense and recursive transition process between ideation and implementation/evaluation may, by its own nature, compel you to enter and exit flow frequently. And by practicing the expert craftsman approach you may enhance your flow metacognition.

In sum, my advice is threefold.

  1. Firstly, work toward learning how to self-regulate flow.

  2. Secondly, as you learn this "metaskill", do not force flow, but rather use it flexibly in a dynamic combination with other optimal states to find the balance of optimal states that works best in your endeavors.

  3. If by following this advice you find that your intrinsic interest and enjoyment of work and your performance grow, it means that you are doing the right thing for yourself and the people working with you.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where do you see the future of research on this topic going?

I am now analyzing data from a study conducted on undergraduate university students at the start of their course of study. Preliminary findings indicate that flow metacognition predicts more flow in studying, which in turn predicts more achievement motivation in studying, which in turn predicts higher first year GPA.

If confirmed, these findings would add real life value to the construct of flow metacognition: if we were able to enhance students' self-regulation of flow through specific interventions, students could develop more achievement motivation, learn more and better, and enhance their academic performance.

I see two main promising directions for future research. First, it would be useful to conduct longitudinal studies with longer follow-ups and multiple waves of data collection, with the aim of capturing those developmental experiences that trigger the enhancement of flow metacognition.

Moreover, it would be useful to develop a software platform wherein study participants can engage in problem solving while being monitored, with the possibility of being provided with unobtrusive feedback aimed at helping them to achieve a cognitively productive flow state; such a platform could then become the "playground" to try and test specific interventions aimed at enhancing flow metacognition.

These research directions in combination could provide us with useful information on how to help workers and students to become more capable of self-regulating flow in their endeavors.