Are you in ‘the zone’? Scientists can now measure your flow

TRONDHEIM, Norway — Plenty of us engage in certain activities that grab our full attention. For some, it might be writing or painting. For others, it could be exercising. Whatever the task, time seems to fly by while our complete focus is on what we’re doing. Scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) call this universal phenomenon “finding the flow,” and now they can measure it.

The word “flow” in this context isn’t limited to one research project. It has been a concept used by psychologists for almost 50 years. Why? Finding one’s flow can be very helpful.

Finding the flow zone can be important when teachers have to adapt their instruction. If we find the flow, we’ve also found the right level for the students,” says Hermundur Sigmundsson, a professor in the Department of Psychology at NTNU, in a university release.

Researchers say their new test can indeed measure flow, which can be useful across several contexts. The new method was developed by professor Sigmundsson and research fellow Magdalena Elnes.

The theory of flow was first introduced by Hungarian-American professor of psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. He used the term in positive psychology to define or refer to a very focused state.

“His theory is very important for many people. I have been working with it since 1989,” Prof. Sigmundsson adds.

woman with word focus on hand
Photo by Chase Clark from Unsplash

Csikszentmihalyi’s research has already been cited 170,000 times by researchers and is considered key for this field of study. According to the researchers, the “flow zone” sits somewhere between boredom and fear or panic. It can be found individually but has also been seen among groups.

“Flow occurs in the interplay between challenge and skill,” Prof. Sigmundsson notes.

Across many scenarios, flow is essential for producing good results. So, pinpointing where we find flow can tell us a lot about which challenges are the right ones for us and our skills. It goes without saying that flow can be very useful when a task is in need of accomplishing. Now, this new test developed at NTNU, called the General Flow Proneness Scale, can help measure when you’re nearing this zone.

“The test is easy to administer and can be used in several different contexts,” Prof. Sigmundsson comments.

The team at NTNU tried the test on 228 people between the ages of 18 and 76. Additionally, 23 people were tested twice, one week apart, in an effort to see if the same result would appear when some time had passed between the tests. The results were positive.

“I often use the term flow in my teaching, so it’s incredibly fun to have developed a test to measure the flow state,” Prof. Sigmundsson concludes.

The study is published in SAGE Open.

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