Why your e-learners need to work in flow

Do you know that feeling when you are totally absorbed in a task and time passes by without you noticing? This is known as a state of flow. Being in a state of flow paves the way for deep work, a style of work that requires complete focus on a difficult task. We are much more capable than we think of working through a task in a flow state. Learning tools need to be designed with flow in mind to allow deep work to be done.

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Table of contents 

  1. What is flow theory?
  2. Deep work and flow
  3. What are the benefits of working in flow?
  4. How to implement flow in your e-Courses

What is flow theory?

Steve Kotler, author and executive director of the Flow Research Collective, describes flow as a state of ‘effortless effort’ [1]. We don’t feel the clock ticking, and our brains zoom in on what’s in front of us. Think of a basketball player at the end of a game; they need to score the winning shot and play in flow. The basketball hoop seems to grow bigger as they approach it and all their focus and energy goes into shooting the shot. This ability to move through a task without feeling the strain of effort or constraint of time is flow.

The term ‘flow’ dates back to Goethe in the 1700s. Nietzche also wrote about flow, but Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is commonly referred to as the term’s godfather. The foundation of flow psychology is a search for happiness. Csikszentmihalyi, especially, wanted to know when people feel the happiest. He discovered that operating in this other state of deep concentration, where tasks take on a sense of flow, directly impacts joy.

Deep work and flow

Most people have lost the ability to work for long, uninterrupted periods. This isn’t their fault; our world is set up for shallow work, like sending emails, checking internal messages, and answering phone calls. Deep work is about changing how we work to ensure proper concentration, shifting towards working in blocks of time rather than shallow stints. Flow is a mental state that enables individuals to unlock their potential and perform optimally. Deep work is far more accessible from this flow state.

What are the benefits of working in flow?

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow and happiness are intertwined. Put in other words, we feel our best when we are working on something in a deep and meaningful way. There are more benefits to flow, such as

  • Emotional regulation
  • Engagement and performance
  • Intrinsic reward

Emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is a lesser-known benefit of flow but a significant one nonetheless. The zoomed-in effortless concentration we feel when working in a flow state helps to regulate our emotions by tuning out worry and other emotions in our lives. This works because our brains are so concentrated on a particular task that there is no capacity to switch to another emotional state [2].

In elite-level sports, for example, the cost of focusing on how important this match is would completely disrupt the person’s concentration. Being in a state of flow, where time falls away, doesn’t leave room for anxious thoughts and increases performance. Similarly, e-learning material should be immersive, allowing total engagement and concentration to get the best results.

E-learning material should be immersive, allowing total engagement and concentration to get the best results.

Engagement and performance

Being 100% involved in a task will naturally lead to excellent results. It’s about working at your optimum, where your skill level is stretched. This gets you out of your comfort zone but keeps the task within your ability. That’s a critical difference between flow and deep work. You can work deeply on a task that is not challenging, while flow requires you to push the limits of your capabilities [3].

Flow puts us in control of our learning, where you are so personally invested in a task that you are motivated to do your best. Another reason performance and engagement maximize in a flow state is that our inner critic is silent. We can have a fully immersive learning experience without that nagging voice that tries to put us down.

Intrinsic reward

Working in flow is intrinsically rewarding because it triggers the release of dopamine in our brains, the ‘happy’ hormone. Dopamine is directly linked to motivation; the happier we feel, the more motivated we will be. Several common dopamine triggers include novelty, unpredictability, and complexity.

Complexity, in particular, relates to flow. We know that learning material needs to push our capacities to their limits to reach a flow state. Feeling stretched makes us intrinsically happy because we grow and learn [4].

How to implement flow in your e-Courses

So we know that flow is beneficial to learning, right? It’s then essential to work out how to embed it into e-learning courses to get the best results from your participants. Creating e-learning content with an LMS provides the scaffolding for flow! There are three main parts to the flow scaffolding:

  • Time tracking
  • Remove distractions
  • Increase challenge with skill

Time tracking

Natural attention spans fluctuate and so getting into flow can be challenging. The time will likely fly once your participants are engaged with the material, but there are several ways you can help learners stay on track. For example, consider adding the following features to your online Courses:

  • Pomodoro method
  • Slide timer

Pomodoro method

The Pomodoro method was invented in the 1990s by an entrepreneur named Francesco Cirillo. Cirillo used a tomato-shaped timer for his focus sessions, giving the technique its name [5]!

It’s usually done in 25-minute cycles with a five-minute break and then a more extended break every hour. However, 50 minutes of concentration followed by 10-minute intervals is another option. There are many versions of the Pomodoro timer available online.

Slide timers

Alternatively, our LMS provides participants with slide timers. These are great guides for how long to spend on material! However, breaks are necessary for proper concentration, and as a Course designer, you choose when they happen. Set them as early as 25 minutes into the content or provide natural breaks in the material. Don’t forget you can add time limits to breaks too!

Remove distractions

Distractions disrupt flow! Flow is about deep concentration and losing track of time [6]. Constant distractions are incompatible with this learning framework. That’s why it’s essential to turn off your phone and tune in to flow. E-learning participants should also find a quiet spot to do their work where they are unlikely to be interrupted!

Learning without interruptions is not always possible, especially given our busy lives. Consider using noise-canceling headphones to get in the flow on the go!

Once you’re in flow, minimizing distractions is more important than ever. Research shows that in the 15 minutes after you’ve been disturbed, there’s a 50% greater risk of errors. Not to mention that it can sometimes be impossible to re-enter the flow state after a disruption.

Research shows that in the 15 minutes after you've been disturbed, there's a 50% greater risk of errors.

E-learning Courses should be designed with as little distraction as possible. This can be a tricky balance, making the material engaging and fun while not too stimulating. An LMS can structure the process of building an e-learning Course with a support team on hand any time you need it!

Increase challenge with skill

Matching the challenge to the skill level is a crucial part of flow. Learning occurs outside your comfort zone, but not so much that it makes the challenge too difficult. Our brains like to be stretched. Think, for example, of doing a crossword puzzle, a short exercise that can be pretty tricky. Every time we successfully finish a crossword, we get a dopamine hit to motivate us to keep going.

E-learning works on the same principle as the crossword example. We need to create small challenge chunks to get the best out of the participants. As the skill goes up, so does the challenge. We can’t stay in this challenging zone for too long, though, as it takes a lot of concentration and effort. That’s why we must remove distractions and get in flow to get the best out of learning participants!

Join the flow revolution and see your e-learning Courses transform!

Useful resources

  1. Youtube
  2. ResearchGate
  3. Timely
  4. PositivePsyhcology
  5. CSU Global
  6. eLearning Industry

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a flow state?
    Flow is a state that someone only enters when completely immersed in a task. It has many benefits, such as increased productivity, better performance, and greater satisfaction!
  • Why does learning need flow?
    Learning and flow are best friends. Entering a flow state speeds up the learning process and leads to better results. Learning is most fulfilling when in flow; we feel at one with ourselves, and time passes by in a blink!
  • How can an LMS help with creating flow in online Courses?
    An LMS can be the scaffolding to flow. An online Course builder helps create a flow state for learners because features that support flow, like limited distractions and slide timers, can be added to the Course.

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