7 min read

Find Fitness Flow (3 Things)

Flow Image

In 1990, Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi (that’s a mouthful, I know; pronounced CHEEK-SENT-ME-HY-EE) published a book entitled, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”

Dr. Csikszentimihalyi, a positive psychology researcher, had been working on the concept of “flow” for many years, dating back to the 1970’s.

Now flow is not necessarily a new concept, it is referenced in ‘Jeet Kune Do,’ — for all of you Bruce Lee fans out there — and if we looked back even further through a history of Buddhism and martial arts I’m sure we could find numerous other references to the term or concept.

Mihaly, was just the first to really research and define flow as, “optimal experiences when the challenges we face are exquisitely matched to our abilities.”

Flow, is the ultimate engagement in whatever you are doing at a moment. The relationship between what you have to do and what you can do is near perfect.

A challenge is neither too easy, nor too difficult. Hence one of the goals of mastery is achieve flow and flow helps one achieve mastery.

At the gym, things like reading a magazine while riding the bike or running on the treadmill while watching T.V. are the polar opposite of flow. It might help you get through something you don’t enjoy doing but it doesn’t help you be engaged in the process.

Hence I suggest you aim to gradually reduce distractions like that the more advanced a trainee you get; With the one exception being that of music — which has been shown to be mood boosting and can enhance your workouts while TV requires more attention and is more distracting.

Likewise, eating food with the T.V. on is a distraction, or trying to eat your lunch or snack while you work — this could be a habit you aim to reinforce even, try it a couple weeks.

Not only do you not work well, or really pay attention to eating, but you lose out on the flow that can be the result of eating. You are distracted and therefore, not in the moment.

Would you watch T.V. at work and expect to get anything done?

If you are going to master your body composition, how it looks and feels you have to start seeking moments of flow, attentiveness and engagement with the task at hand.

As an experiment, in the ways of flow, try this online video game out.

Not surprisingly, the name of the game is flOw, and it was inspired by Dr. Csikszentimihalyi’s work. If after 5 minutes of playing you don’t feel more focused, refreshed or engaged — provided you tune out external distractions — I’ll give you, your money back — if there were any money exchanged, luckily for me, the game is totally free.

This simplistic game proves one thing. Humans, like the organism in the game, thrive off of our interaction with our environment and our growth as individuals working towards the mastery of one or more subjects or activities.

We make mistakes, we learn from them. We gradually introduce new stimuli and learn from that too. This flow is the essence of mastery.

I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who quit an exercise or diet regime, do so because they were unable to feel like they were making progress or that the requirements of the program were outside their current skill set.

This made the experience painful to cope with, and much easier to drop. Put another way, they were unable to find flow in the tasks of fitness or nutrition.

Other people who do have continual success with food and exercise appear to be able to work through them easily in a flowing manner.


I think partly play has an important role. When was the last time you had fun at the gym or being active?

It is an innate part of our human nature, watch any child develop, play is integral in development on a multitude of well-being levels.

With play comes what is Mihaly refers to as “autotelic experiences.” Autotelic is derived from the Greek auto (self), and telos (goal or purpose).

In an autotelic experience the goal is self-fulfilling and thus the activity is it’s own reward, not the end result — which is again why you’ll hear me preaching process-oriented goals, over outcome-oriented goals, any day of the week!

Yet this is not how a majority of weight-loss experts would tell you to lose weight, nor is it how most people go about trying to lose weight or get fit.

Flow then leads us to the concept that Daniel Pink calls, “Goldilocks tasks.”

Dan explains this concept perfectly as, “Tasks that are not too hot, nor too cold, neither overly difficult nor overly simple.”

Tasks, are of course, one of the 4 key components of building autonomy, so at this point hopefully we are starting to see the connection between the 3 secrets of motivation and fitness success.

One of the biggest set-backs towards progress with weight loss, body composition or other physical goals is the mis-match between what people view they must do and what they actually can do.

Or, as Daniel Pink puts it, “When what you think you must do, exceeds what you actually can do, the result is just frustration and/or anxiety. When what you must do seems just to easy, people get bored.”

Let’s face it, most people have some very interesting ideas as to what you must do in order to look or feel a certain way, and that is often just not the case. It’s about imagination and meeting yourself where you’re at.

With flow as a foundation, there are 3 components of mastery to consider:

1) Mastery is Mindset Oriented

Yes, here is that elusive third component to weight-loss success. Mindset requires the capacity for you to see your abilities, not as fixed, but as infinitely improvable. You can start today with little-to-no experience and accumulate a ton of skill in a relatively short amount of time.

“All human beings tend to underestimate what they can do in a day and over estimate what they can accomplish in a year.”

~ Author Unknown

No one ever talks about this but there are many types of goals.

Essentially there are qualitative goals and quantitative goals. Then you can break those down further into performance goals (or results or outcome based goals – the ones that most people are familiar with), process goals (small wins), learning-based goals and experience-based goals.

In the case of mastery, I recommend focusing on qualitative measures and more specifically learning-based and process goals.

The rationale for this in my experience is that emphasis on learning means one can transfer a problem — in our case lets say a movement or nutritional habit — to several different related problems. Whereas if the emphasis lies on completing a performance goal, a lot of learning is lost along the way.

Everyone competing in any given space (olympics, business, etc…) is trying to win (the sport, new business, make more money, etc…).

The people that end up winning however don’t spend so much time focusing on the outcome, they spend time focusing on the process. The things that add up to an outcome.

Example: This is the difference between going to the gym with the aim of learning to run or squat properly and going to the gym with the sole intent on completing a 5k in 25 minutes or squatting 315 lbs. The latter objectives fail more than they succeed.

If there is no emphasis on learning, not only does it make the performance goal much more difficult to accomplish, we increase the likelihood of injury, drop out, lack of buy-in, etc…etc…

Learning goals build a foundation, the focus lies on improving upon what you already know. Performance goals narrow focus to the extent that we often ignore factors that might help us succeed. Focus on the process of learning too, and process based goals. Discussed here.

Crafting your own system is also generally good advice.

2) Mastery is Uncomfortable 

I didn’t say this process would be like smelling roses.

Ever heard of the 10 year or 10,000 hour rule? Ya it’s a generalization and you could be at 3000 hours really, or 20,000 depending on what you needed to be an expert in. However, the point that some opponents miss is that it isn’t about 10,000 hours or not, it’s about understanding that becoming a master takes time.

Mastery will require a lot of deliberate practice.

The point is that success requires effort, emotional fortitude, perseverance and determination. No one starts their career as a stud or a star in their field.

Don’t expect the process to be a walk in the park. Plan for relapse, have a course of action to follow when you derail. Come up with a plan B. Even a plan Z.

This involves a little kaizen-like approach to make small incremental improvement and often intense dedication.

Every now and then, one must stop and ask, “could I be doing this a little better?”

However, it is not necessarily all bad. There are many enjoyable experiences towards working in line with your values, on what is important to you and making progress.

Even when progress is set back, the ability to get back on the horse is essential, but so is enjoying the ride.

3) Mastery is Infinite

Lastly, unlike goals — which are designed to be achieved and therefore ‘end’* — it’s impossible to fully realize mastery, which makes it simultaneously frustrating and alluring.

*Save self-fulfilling goals, which are generally designed to be nearly impossible to complete. Different discussion for a different time.

Mastery is about the unwilling, uncompromising nature of an individual to strive to get better. Even when they are already pretty damn good.

Elon Musk could have stopped with PayPal and have introduced a pretty good way to pay for things in the modern way. But no, then he started an electric car company (Tesla). Then against all odds he has a cheap space travel company on the side (Space-X). More recently he has written white papers on rapid transit (Hyperloop) and started yet another company with the hopes of speeding up and cheapening underground tunnelling (Boring Company).

He might fail on all of those things yet and no one is saying we should all strive to be Elon. Strive to be you!

I’m saying, to keep going is to provide a deep intrinsic source of motivation.

You may be asking: Why reach for something you will never obtain?

The better question to ask: Why not reach for it?

There is something alluring about reaching for a dream, where would we be today if others did not strive for the impossible?

People like Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King would not have inspired generations of people and nobody would challenge conventional norms.

Even if you don’t get everything you want accomplished, mastery is part of the path to personal greatness.

Mastery, isn’t perfection, it’s merely the ability to express the utmost with a minimum and to keep working out the kinks.