The Theory of Flow and why it’s important for (happy) colorists

I’ve wanted to write an article about the state of flow – a heightened emotional and mental state of focus – for a long time now. What does flow have to do with coloring? you may think. To be honest, not much. Flow is not a concept reserved for artistic expression, even though the person who does experience flow often is actually artists, designers and the like. If you’ve ever experienced “Runner’s High” you’ve probably been in “a state of flow” as well.

That’s because flow is action-oriented, it’s not something which can just “happen” while you’re watching TV for example.

As concept, “Flow” can be described as:

“[…]  the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” (Source: Wikipedia)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the biggest contributers to the theory of flow, defines “Flow” as:

“Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction.”
(Source: Learning Theories)

Flow – an introduction and what it means for your coloring hobby

According to the theory of flow, three “conditions” must be met to actively enter a state of flow – or “being in the zone” as the concept of “Flow” is often referred to.

First of all one must perform an activity with a clear goal and visible progress. This adds direction and structure to the activity.

Second, the task must provide immediate feedback – for example the color laydown on paper. This will help navigate any changes that arise and allow for adjustment which will maintain the state of flow.

Third, there has to be a fair ratio of perceived challenge versus perceived skills. If you want to paint a picture like a pro artist – but you’re new to coloring, this will create friction between your experience and your expectations to yourself, leading to frustration and exclusion of the state of flow.

If these three conditions are present, a positive state of flow is attainable in the body.

The Six factors of Flow

Some of the key contributers to the concept of “Flow” is are Jeanne Nakamura and the above-mentioned Csíkszentmihályi who defines six different factors that describes the state of flow in the body:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on what you’re doing this moment
  2. A merging of action and awareness. You’re 100% fully aware of every action you take – every stroke, why you’re choosing this or another color. It can feel like the colors have their own life in your hands and you’re just the facilitator through which they express themselves in the creative process.
  3. A loss of self-reflective self consciousness. “Why did I use this color” or “What to paint now?” – these questions disappear while you’re “flowing” so to speak. You just paint, you don’t reflect on your choices or any other action during your coloring.
  4. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity. You know what you want to color, how to color it – or as a minimum it just flows from your hand when you put the pencil onto the paper. The process of creation is happening while you’re doing it.
  5. A distortion of temporal experience – also known as time and place feel like they disappear. We all know the feeling of just being lost in what we’re doing. That’s the flow energy taking over!
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience. When what you’re doing feels extremely satisfying and that in itself is very rewarding.

Please notice that these six factors can happen independently of each other when coloring, but according to Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi all six must be present at the same time to fully give a sense of flow. When these factors are present, you will experience three things, sometimes independent of each other:

  1. A feeling of “Immediate feedback” – aka the paper, the colors blend so beautifully that it’s like they were always meant to be this way together.
  2. Feeling that you have the potential to succeed.
  3. Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible. (Oups, I need to pee. NOW!!” 😉 )

Hyperfocus and why it is not “Flow”

Some people seem to misplace the concept of hyperfocus with that of flow. Hyperfocus is a great for very short bursts of assignments that needs tending to, for example a crisis at work that needs solving and so on. Being in the state of Hyperfocus for too long is what often leads to stress because the body can’t uphold this state for long periods of time and when pushed too much, people often crash.

Hyperfocus can also be thought of as a state where everything else is forgotten which leads to negative consequences – e.g. gamblers at a jackpot table spending the entire fortune on games in a hyperfocused state of mind directed on the game. The core is that the one assignment you’re doing make the other things or projects in your life suffer. That’s an important difference between flow and hyperfocus.

I see a lot of “hyperfocused” people on social media. Some of them are so focused on keep coloring that a state of exhaustion sets in when their creativity is spent on one or several pictures time after time with no pause in between. Sometimes these people forget to take care of other important stuff in their lives. Then their coloring hobby actually leads to burn out and stress!
That’s why I did the post about the importance of doing a coloring detox once in a while: As richly giving it can be to immerse oneself in a complex coloring process or picture, your brain need to relax and “recharge” before starting another complex drawing with lots of little details.

How “Flow” can be an ally in your life and not just as a colorist

Flow is basically the modern concept of mindfulness. You’re fully aware, but as a state of mindfulness can be achieved with no action, it differences a bit from flow. The state of 100% awareness is the same though. It is widely know though, that “Flow” and mindfulness reduces stress and generally make you more mental alert. As you can see in the illustration below, flow is the highest achievement in the mental landscape of daily life.


The model of flow


A lot has been written and said about coloring and how it helps fighting stress, anxiety and a lot of other mental illnesses. With the state of flow we’re a bit closer to know why – because stress, anxiety and depression are a build-up of spending too much mental energy on any area of our lives – or our lives in general. Mindfulness, coloring, knitting, physical exercise – all contribute to relieving mental illness with purposeful actions. Because when we act the mind gets a coffee break. And we all know how darn much we actually need this coffee break during a work day.

Watch this TED talk with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi for more information about flow and happiness.

Books about “Flow”:

Flow: The Psychology of optimal experience

Finding flow – 9 steps to unlocking the flow state