Monday, August 10, 2015

Taking a break to get in the flow

One of the most interesting concepts in learning is the idea of "flow," a concept proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of not so challenged that you're frustrated, but not so easy that you're bored. 

When applied to game design, this makes a lot of sense. Tic tac toe is the perfect example on the too easy end of the spectrum; at some moment in time, you realize that you can either win or tie EVERY SINGLE TIME (depending on the relative skill of your opponent). I tried to explain this to my 8 year old a few weeks ago at dinner when she tried to challenge me to a match, and then went on to show her that if she played her first play in a corner or in the center each game, and she made sure to pay attention, she'd never lose. I almost felt bad, ruining tic tac toe for her, but I honestly could not be excited about playing her. It is the game equivalent of absolute boredom for me. 

Opposite for me is any Call of Duty or, more recently, Flappy Bird. Seeing as I can't get past the first or second challenge (in CoD, I have yet to make it past "training"), I give up because my hand-eye coordination is not good enough to make me successful in these games without more effort than I'm willing to invest. In other words, they are too hard and I give up, frustrated. 

What does flow look like for learning? There are metrics we can look to, such as time on task or self-reporting channels like surveys. Research on flow in learning typically relies on experience sampling to gauge engagement. When it comes to flow, it's all about the feeling. So what are those feelings? I like this definition from David Farmer (1999)
  1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
  2. Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
  4. Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
  5. Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
  6. Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
  7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward

In the end, flow is about optimizing what you're getting out of what you are putting in. When I think about this for learning, it's not just about the feeling, it's about the outcome. I'm in the flow when I am engaged and learning and excited about what I'm doing. I'm feeling proud of my effort and good about myself. I'm having fun. 

The past few months I've been trying to learn a few new things, but the one that has been the most challenging has been learning the ukulele. I hate to admit it. It has been hard for me. Me, voted most musical in my high school graduating class, has been struggling with the ukulele. IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE EASY, I tell myself. I get frustrated. I am definitely not in the flow. 
This is a small image of my Evelyn Evelyn ukulele
from Amanda Palmer. I love it. I need to play it. 

That's the thing about flow. People tell you to get in it, but HOW do you get in it? When you need to learn something hard, how do you get past the point of frustration to get to appropriately challenged? 

The truth is, you have to practice. You have to persevere. Eventually, things get easier and you get better. But in that point of frustration, you take a risk if you keep pushing. You can start to HATE the thing that is frustrating you. I will tell anyone who asks that I don't like Call of Duty. It's not because it's a bad game (although first-person shooters aren't really my cup of tea). It's because the day that I was trying to learn the controls to make it through the game orientation, I felt pressure. I couldn't do it. I was frustrated, and then I gave up. All of my negative feelings transferred to the game. I know that if I played again, in a less stressful environment, MAYBE I would like it, but I would have to get past my negative feelings towards the game and my previous poor performance. 

It's why people who struggle to read say they don't like to read. 

It's why girls who are told they aren't as good at math don't go into STEM careers. 

It's why women who go into STEM careers have a hard time staying when their work environment is gender biased. 

When we can't get into the flow, it's hard to love something. It's hard to want to do it all the time. We all seek flow. 

So what can you do to get past the frustration? Here are some tips I try:
  • Find a patient coach or teacher. Sometimes you just want to feel supported. Don't find someone who wants to do it for you. Find someone who wants to be your cheerleader.
  • Walk away for a little while. You may need to take a break before you jump back in. Don't let your negative feelings build up; find ways to shake off your frustration before trying again.
  • Break down the task into smaller pieces. In learning the ukulele, I needed to admit I wasn't going to start out playing a whole song. If I just practiced transitioning between chords, and practiced until I was good at it, it felt like a victorious step along the journey to playing my first song. 
  • Decide if the effort is worth it. Sometimes, it's really ok to walk away. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything because I never learned how to play Call of Duty or because I never scored higher than 4 on Flappy Bird. Some things just aren't worth the effort or frustration. 
The ukulele is worth it. I'm still working up to my first song :)