Want to experience creative flow? Here’s how to change your perspective

Celtics fans try to distract the Warriors Stephen Curry (30) as he gets ready to shoot a free throw. The Boston Celtics host The Golden State Warriors in game 4 of the NBA Finals at TD Garden in Boston on June 10, 2022. Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Writers, athletes, gamers—they’re all hoping to experience “the zone” where hard work comes easily and the most satisfying results are flowing.

That often mythical goal is the subject of a study by David Melnikoff, a Northeastern visiting research scholar in psychology, who has assembled a formula that can help people establish a sense of flow and achieve goals of all kinds.

David Melnikoff, a Northeastern visiting research scholar in psychology, poses for a portrait on Tuesday July 5, 2022. Melnikoff has assembled a formula that can help people establish a sense of flow and achieve goals of all kinds. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“‘Flow is the feeling of being completely immersed and engaged in what you’re doing,” Melnikoff says. “The goal of the research is to take this coveted but hard-to-harness experience and make it easier for people to cultivate in their own lives by grounding it in a mathematical formula.”

Melnikoff’s simple formula, I(M;E), was tested in five experiments that covered a variety of activities. It revolves around three variables. The means (M) are the action you take. The ends (E) are the result. The mutual information (I) defines the relationship between the means and the ends.

Your approach is crucial. The more you know about the action (how jogging helps you lose weight, for example) the more likely you are to achieve the sense of flow and fulfill your goal (of losing weight, in this case), according to Melnikoff.

Melnikoff spoke with News@Northeastern to explain why it can be unhelpful to approach goals in terms of winning or losing. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is a simple way for people to apply your theory to their own lives?

Let’s say you’re a basketball player. You’re shooting hoops and you’re quite good at it. Our theory says you should experience more flow if you think about it in terms of streaks. How many baskets can I make in a row?

There are cases where athletes want to succeed so badly that they put extra pressure on themselves, which in turn prevents them from succeeding. How does your theory account for the pressure to achieve?

So let’s say I’m that basketball player. I’m on the free throw line. The whole game is on the line. I’m not in a flow state at all. I’m in my own head. All the pressure is on me.

You’re taken out of the zone, so to speak, when your end-state boils down to this binary outcome: You’re going to either win or lose the game.

It’s about the importance of perspective?

Generally speaking, flow tends to benefit from having end-states that can take on many possible values. 

Streaks are almost always going to be more flow inducing than non-streaks. And you can usually think of a way to frame what you’re doing in terms of, “How many times can I do something successfully in a row?” 

Broadly speaking, when you’re thinking in terms of streaks, what you’re doing is increasing the number of possible end-states. 

If I’m thinking, “Am I going to make the shot or not,” then there are two possibilities: make or miss. 

If I’m wondering, “How many am I going to hit in a row?” now there are literally infinite possibilities. Any non-negative integer could be the answer to that question. 

Going from non-streak framing to streak framing is a way of transforming the number of possible end-states from two to infinity. The more possibilities you can create for yourself in the way you construct the task or just privately think about it, the more flow that activity will induce.

In the example of sports, you’re saying there is a better way to think about it than a simple win-or-lose outcome?

If you’re training for a race and you’re thinking, “I can win or lose,” that’s not as good as thinking about what place am I going to come in and that I want to come in the highest finishing position possible. 

So if I’m racing against 20 people, I’ve gone from two possible end states—win or lose—to 20, one for every possible position. And so I’m getting more information. 

And then every day I train—every day that I observe whether or not I stuck to my training regimen, for instance—I’m literally getting more information. Which would make the whole experience more flow-inducing, according to our theory.

For media inquiries, please contact Ed Gavaghan at e.gavaghan@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.