Deliberate Practice vs. Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Anders Ericsson are both prominent psychologists who have devoted their careers studying experts. Essentially they studied how they became experts, how they practice, and what they experience. They both may have similar research interests, however, their accounts for how these experts came to be couldn’t be more different.

Ericsson, as mentioned in a former blog, discovered the 10,000 hour rule of practice. He suggests that it isn’t just the amount of hours you spend practicing that makes the difference, but it’s also how your practice. This is where the deliberate part comes in. Experts are very purposeful and focused within the thousands of hours they practice. This deliberate practice spans over 10 years, which is what leads to mastery according to Ericsson.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests a different approach. He has found that mastery happens when one experiences flow. Flow is described as a state of complete concentration that leads to a feeling of spontaneity. It has been described as feeling “effortless,” “relaxing,” “in control,” “time standing still,” and “you don’t have to think about it, you’re just doing it,” while delivering an exceptional performance.

Angela Duckworth in her book GRIT compares and contrast these two different approaches. Where Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow is an enjoyable experience, Ericsson doesn’t believe deliberate practice to feel the same. Also, where flow is described as spontaneous, deliberate practice is described as carefully planned. Deliberate practice requires working where challenge exceeds skill, and flow is experienced when challenge and skill are balanced. Furthermore, deliberate practice is exceptionally effortful, where flow is described as effortless.

As the book GRIT asks, who is right?

To find the answer to this question Angela Duckworth sent questionnaires regarding flow to those who already completed her Grit Scale. She found that grit and flow actually go hand in hand. Those who scored high on the Grit Scale also experienced flow more than the less gritty participants.

Her conclusion became: Gritty people do more deliberate practice and experience more flow.

As she says, deliberate practice is a behavior and flow is an experience. Ericsson studied what experts do to become experts, while Csikszentmihalyi studied how experts feel when performing.

From what I’ve studied about flow and deliberate practice I have to agree with her conclusion. Flow and deliberate practice are NOT the same thing. It doesn’t have to be either or. In order to reach mastery, deliberate practice is essential, however, flow is not. In order to experience a top-notch performance, experiencing flow can help make that happen, but it is not a requirement.

Practice is also not the enjoyable part, but performing is. This is why deliberate practice requires challenges exceeding skill where in a performance the challenge and skill are matched. You put in increased amounts of effort during practice so that you can shut off your mind and let your body flow when it comes time to perform. The intensity that you put into practice is not needed during the performance. This is when you should trust your abilities from all of the hours of deliberate practice you put in and allow flow to take over.

Although flow is a huge part in experiencing mastery in your performance, I still believe that it is not essential. Flow doesn’t happen every time. How else, even with deliberate practice, can you put on the performance you need when you aren’t in flow?

It is still possible. Learn how in my next blog.

Stay tuned. 🙂

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