Go with the flow
I just finished reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience”. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi’s work focuses on happiness, creativity and success. He is best known for his work on flow.
In Csikszentmihalyi’s own words, Flow is the state of:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Focus and concentration are the foundation of flow. When we’re engaged in flow we engage all of our physical and emotional resources to act and learn. And, flow isn’t just a way to maximize our potential, it is also very a strongly intrinsically rewarding state of mind.
Most researchers seem to think that flow is a uniquely human trait. I find this odd because it seems to me that flow is the natural state for a mentally balanced dog. In my experience, dogs have an absolutely wonderful natural tendency to become completely immersed, and find great joy in, even the simplest of tasks.
Flow is a complex abstract concept. If you’re interested you really need to read Csikszentmihalyi’s book. For those who want the Cliff Notes version, this video presents an accessible short description of flow:
The video emphasizes the importance of flow in education. When we are challenged in ways that stretch our skills without stretching them too far, we tend to move into flow. I think that this is true for dogs as well as for humans.
Flow is important to dog training in two ways.
First, if you experience flow regularly as you work with your dog, not only will you be driven to seek out more of the good feelings elicited by the positive experience, being in the flow state also puts you on the right track to master the art of dog training.
Second, when the dog experiences flow during training sessions not only does he get more out of the work — because the work itself becomes intrinsically rewarding he’ll learn to look forward to training sessions.
How can we harness the power of flow? According Csikszentmihalyi there are five essential steps involved in transforming the performance of physical acts into flow*. The first time I first read these steps I was shocked by their striking similarity to a class handout I wrote some time ago explaining how to set up a dog training session.
Combining Csikszentmihalyi’s steps with mine I came up with the following blueprint to achieve flow in dog training:
- Start by setting an overall goal that includes several measurable sub-goals. Having a plan in place, even an informal mental plan, before you get started helps keep you focused on the task at hand. Measurable stepwise sub-goals help provide a sense of accomplishment along the way.
- Find ways to measure your progress. Define how you plan to measure success at each step in the process. This will keep you on task and remind you to keep giving your dog helpful input as you work. Humans have an unfortunate tendency to obsess about end goals. It’s important for us to remember that in flow the journey, not the destination, is our goal.
- Make successively finer adjustments both to your performance and to your dog’s performance as you progress. Strive for better performance in many different sub-parts of the task. Working on different parts of a task helps keep training interesting. Mastering one part of a task also frees mental resources to focus on other parts.
- Look for ways to use your training skills to deal with unexpected outside forces that act as distractions. Use novelty to keep your dog (and yourself) interested in the work. Remember the importance of surprise in learning.
- Increase the level of difficulty as your skills and your dog’s skills improve. Regularly adding new challenges improves skills and helps prevent boredom.
A wonderful side benefit of a flow-centered training program is that, because it is strongly intrinsically rewarding, sharing time in the flow state enhances the relationship between you and your dog. It also provides excellent cross-training opportunities to enhance your dog’s ability to exercise self-control.
* Chapter 5, page 97.