This is an excerpt from Running Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,Philip Latter & Christine Weinkauff Duranso.
As stated earlier, the nine dimensions of flow do not haphazardly or randomly present themselves. In almost all instances, the three antecedents must be in place in order for the process outcomes to follow. Just as years of training, a good night’s sleep, and proper hydration set the stage for a good race, you must have specific goals, an attainable challenge, and unambiguous feedback in place to experience flow.
Preparing yourself for flow actually begins well before the antecedents. You can’t read this chapter and assume the mind will magically make up for a lack of physical preparation or overcome personal struggles that have left you emotionally wiped out. A sport such as running can take years to master. Understanding that mastery and where you want it to take you is paramount in the quest for flow experiences.
Knowing what you want to accomplish is the first key to experiencing flow. Consider your runs. Sometimes you set out with no objective other than to enjoy yourself. You find value and pleasure in those runs for their own sake; hearing the rhythm of your breath, your heart, or your footsteps can be incredibly rewarding and peaceful. Other times you challenge yourself by setting concrete goals and pushing your body and mind to achieve them. These workouts and races test your limits.
The latter scenario is more likely to induce flow, even though the first run may be enjoyable in its own right. One important distinction between the relaxing run and the flow-inducing run is the type of goal. The first run exemplifies an abstract goal, one less tangible such as running for the sake of running. The flow-inducing run begins with a more concrete goal, such as running a predetermined distance at a specific pace. The quantitative nature of a concrete goal allows you to more easily measure performance. Knowing you’re on the path to achieving your goal sets the stage for all the flow components that follow.
Think back to Shelby’s flow experience. For months before her race, Shelby dreamed of placing in the top 10 at the state championships and running at a pace as close to 20 minutes for 5,000 meters as possible. These long-term goals drove her training objectives throughout the year, even as her health deteriorated. The panicked breathing episode the morning of the race left Shelby wondering whether those goals were still realistic.
"I honestly didn’t believe that I could reach the top 10 that morning," she explains. "I felt confident that I would be okay while I was running, but I really didn’t know what to expect from my body. I had trained since the end of track season for that moment, and I knew I had the fitness to reach my goal, but I just wasn’t sure my lungs would keep up."
Despite those concerns, Shelby toed the line feeling well. She started with more conservative goals in mind, and as her body reacted well to the challenges at hand, she increased her expectations until they matched her season-long objectives. Those rising standards provided the necessary challenge to push Shelby into a flow state and led to an All-State performance.
Shelby’s story provides examples of long-term, short-term, and moment-by-moment goals. Long-term goals provide needed directions on an epic journey. These directions can include a season-long training plan that successfully alternates hard and easy days, nutritional planning, supplementary exercises, and a tapering phase that helps you arrive on the starting line fit and fresh. Without a long-term vision directing your training, the odds of injury or staleness greatly increase. Setting long-term goals also helps you establish realistic expectations for progression over a series of months and years. If you run at a pace of 20 minutes per 5,000 meters, running that distance in 16 minutes by the end of the season is unrealistic. However, after 5 years of dedicated training, that goal may be attainable. Long-term goals provide the incentive necessary to keep training for an extended period of time.
Short-term goals are easier to bite off and dictate your daily training. Research in motivation (Dweck 1986; Emmons 1992) suggests that human beings are more likely to persevere toward larger, more abstract goals when smaller, incremental goals are present along the way. If the dream is to qualify for the Boston Marathon, then running a successful workout will increase your motivation to keep training hard enough to make it to the starting line in Hopkinton. With concrete goals in mind, a bad run or a bad week is much less likely to deter you in your long-term quest.
Having a moment-by-moment awareness of your goals makes them more pliable and can better fuel your motivation. These goals can be immediate (e.g., controlling your breathing up a steep hill) or a constant reinforcement of important short-term and long-term goals (e.g., running 3:10 in the marathon to qualify for Boston). As discussed later in this chapter, flow experiences narrow your focus almost entirely to the task at hand. By keeping your goals at the forefront of your thinking, you stand a better chance of achieving them. At the same time, being able to adjust your goals on the fly - if your skill level or the challenge at hand proves to be higher or lower than expected - better allows you to maximize your potential on that day.
No matter what type of goal you’re setting, it should always relate to the activity. Setting a goal of experiencing flow sets you up for disappointment, and according to some research (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), it may actually hinder you from experiencing it. Shelby had hopes of experiencing flow while competing at the state meet, but her goals were specific to her race. Flow was the byproduct of a perfect storm, not the storm itself.
Learn more about Running Flow.