FLOW is a state of total absorption in an activity where the individual is so focused that nothing else seems to matter. Time flies by and the activity becomes a joyful, even ecstatic, experience. Flow occurs most commonly when people are pursuing their passions, such as dance, music, arts and competition sports. However, students sometimes report entering this highly enjoyable state while studying, especially while they are studying subjects to which they are naturally inclined. To think of studying in this way may be unusual, given that it is something that students often avoid until assessment deadlines are looming. As something that students ‘have’ to do, rather than choose to do, its reputation is global – the Cantonese expression which refers to studying literally translates as ‘force-feeding the duck’.
The prospects for turning a seemingly mundane activity into a rewarding and all-absorbing experience are very exciting. Flow has the potential to increase the speed at which a student can acquire new knowledge, and ultimately lead to greater academic success. For this reason, Korean researchers Kwisoon Choe, Youngmi Kang, Bong Sun Seo and Boksun Yang (2015) investigated school students’ experiences of flow during study and asked them to describe how they had entered this highly rewarding and productive state. Here are the helpful hints that they uncovered:
- Get comfortable. Sit in a comfortable chair that encourages you to maintain good posture, wear comfortable clothing and make sure the room you are studying in is not too hot or too cold. Discomfort is a distraction, and flow requires the mind to be completely absorbed in the activity.
- Remove other distractions such as facebook, emails, games and blogs. Switching off mobile phones and minimising ambient noise from music and other people also encourages flow. Students often protest against teachers, parents and mentors who exhort them to switch off music, arguing that makes studying more enjoyable, that it doesn’t stop anyone from learning. The same arguments have been applied to being on facebook or talking to others while studying. The students’ argument is valid to a degree - learning can still occur while music is playing and while there are other distractions around. However, flow requires complete absorption in a task and you are less likely to enter this highly productive and enjoyable state while studying if you have music playing, emails and facebook open, or others interrupting you.
- Some students reported that flow was more likely to occur while they are studying late at night or at dawn. The more highly concentrated state may occur at these times for two reasons: (1) less activity around them, hence fewer distractions, allowing the mind to be better absorbed in the material, and (2) there are times during the day when we’re naturally energetic and productive and other times when our bodies slow down (for example, the 3pm slump is extremely common). Not everyone has the same patterns: some are morning larks; some are night owls; others are most productive in the middle of the day. The lesson to take from this would not be to study late at night just because some of your friends study late at night and think they are super productive at that time. Find the times of day when YOU are most energetic and, if you have this liberty, choose those times to study. When students try to study all day, their productivity tends to decrease significantly through fatigue. So, if you know the times that you are less productive, take a break then, go outside and get some fresh air, do some exercise or something else that you enjoy, and return to studying later, feeling refreshed and invigorated.
- Students are more likely to experience flow while studying material that interests them. Flow is more likely to occur while studying subjects that one naturally enjoys, reading interesting and well-written material, and when using multiple learning materials (e.g. CD’s, newspapers, audio visual aids to reinforce the same subject matter).
- Flow is less likely to occur when the subject requires rote memorisation. This should not, however, deter anyone from taking a subject that requires this type of learning, because it is often a necessary step in mastering a field that one is passionate about. Doctors need to learn anatomy; language scholars need to memorise vocabulary and grammatical structures; musicians need to understand basic chord structures. These are never the most enjoyable tasks involved in mastering any of these fields. But without learning the basics, you will never have the highly satisfying and flow-inducing experience of curing a patient, holding a conversation in a foreign language, or making music that delights both the performer and the listener. A productive first step may be to talk to your tutor or coach about the most efficient ways to grasp the material in the subject which requires rote memorisation. Use the most effective learning methods and choose a time of day for study when you’re likely to feel most energetic.
- Competition and assessment stress have an interesting relationship with flow. Flow occurs more often when imminent assessments spur the student into action. Students are also more likely to enter flow when they seek to ‘out-do’ each other in areas that they feel competent in. However, there is a negative effect on flow from constant pressure to achieve top grades and obsessive comparisons among classmates. These behavioural patterns suck the fun out of subjects which may otherwise be enjoyable, and reduce students’ resilience to disappointment as they base more of their self-worth on achieving very high grades.
As the graph below depicts, too little stress results in boredom and inertia, which distract students from their task and therefore inhibit flow. Too much pressure causes anxiety, which detracts from the mental resources that are available to complete an intellectually challenging task. Just the right amount of pressure provides enough motivation to get you started and puts you in a frame of mind which allows you to sustain productive action.
In order to stimulate flow while you are studying, find the conditions which provide just the right amount of pressure to put you ‘in the zone’. Ways to do this might include setting project milestones, increasing the stimulus to achieve certain outcomes in a set time period. Competition between friends can be positive when it provides a challenging but realistic benchmark to reach.
- Flow requires a match between the skill level demanded by the task and the skill level of the individual. The level of skill that the task demands acts as a stressor. Set the skill requirements too low and the task is too easy. The student gets bored. Set the skill requirements too high and anxiety emerges as the student feels stretched beyond their capabilities.
Studying is a skill, as is speaking a foreign language, playing a musical instrument or being a doctor. It is possible to think of studying as a skill that unlocks your ability to develop any other skill. The key to achieving flow while studying, as learning becomes more advanced, may be to upgrade your study skills. Ensure that the study techniques that you are using are well suited to the subject matter. For example, subjects that require rote memorisation may require different techniques to subject which require analytical reasoning, and different again to tasks which require creativity. As the subject matter becomes more advanced, ensure that your study techniques are still adequate.
If you try these suggestions and you don’t experience flow immediately, don’t worry, try again. Flow requires the right level of skill and skill take time to develop. However, the benefits will be rewarding and may unlock your potential and passion in many areas.
About the author: Stefan Goldfinch studied Philosophy and Psychology before pursuing a M. Psych (Organisational) at The University of New South Wales. Stefan gained full registration as a psychologist in 2014 and is a Member of the Australian Psychological Society (MAPS). Stefan currently works as an Organisational Development Advisor at the Hospital and Health Service in Townsville, Australia. He aims to promote Positive Psychology as a way of enhancing wellbeing and reducing depression and anxiety among adolescents and adults.