Deep, effortless concentration: re-examining the flow concept and exploring relations with inattention, absorption, and personality

  • Jeremy Marty-Dugas
  • Daniel Smilek
Original Article


Conceptualizing the construct of flow in terms of ‘deep and effortless concentration’, we developed two measurement scales designed to index individual differences in flow during ‘internal’ tasks, such as thinking (deep effortless concentration: internal—DECI) and during ‘external’ tasks, such as while playing a sport (deep effortless concentration: external—DECE). These scales were highly correlated, indicating that individuals prone to experiencing flow in external contexts are also prone to experience flow in internal contexts. Nonetheless, a measurement model construing internal and external flow as related, but separate, constructs was found to fit the data significantly better than a model where they were construed as a single construct. We then explored associations between flow and various forms of everyday inattention. In addition, we explored the relation between flow and the Tellegen Absorption Scale (TAS), an index of absorption, as well as the Big Five personality traits. Amongst other things, we found that flow was negatively related to inattention, indicating that people who experience flow more frequently may experience relatively less inattention in everyday contexts.



We wish to thank Dr. Erik Woody for his helpful and insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper. As well, we wish to thank three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions on our manuscript. This research was supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) discovery grant awarded to Daniel Smilek, a Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship in Science and Technology awarded to Jeremy Marty-Dugas.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical standards

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The data generated and analyzed for the current study are available online in the database Open ICPSR. The title is Deep, Effortless Concentration: Re-examining the Flow Concept and exploring relations with Inattention, Absorption, and Personality—September 2017, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. The persistent link for this data is The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Aherne, C., Moran, A. P., & Lonsdale, C. (2011). The effect of mindfulness training on athletes’ flow: an initial investigation. The Sport Psychologist, 25(2), 177–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arbuckle, J. L. (2016). Amos (Version 24.0) (Computer Program). Chicago: IBM SPSS.Google Scholar
  3. Asakawa, K. (2010). Flow experience, culture, and well-being: How do autotelic Japanese college students feel, behave, and think in their daily lives? Journal of Happiness Studies, 11(2), 205–223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: a proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230–241.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Carriere, J. S. A., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2008). Everyday attention lapses and memory failures: The affective consequences of mindlessness. Consciousness and Cognition, 17(3), 835–847. Scholar
  7. Carriere, J. S. A., Seli, P., & Smilek, D. (2013). Wandering in both mind and body: individual differences in mind wandering and inattention predict fidgeting. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne De Psychologie Expérimentale, 67(1), 19–31. Scholar
  8. Catley, D.E.L.W.Y.N., & Duda, J.L. (1997). Psychological antecedents of the frequency and intensity of flow in golfers. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 28(4), 309–322.Google Scholar
  9. Cermakova, L., Moneta, G.B., & Spada, M.M. (2010). Dispositional flow as a mediator of the relationships between attentional control and approaches to studying during academic examination preparation. Educational Psychology, 30(5), 495–511.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cheyne, J. A., Carriere, J.S.A., & Smilek, D. (2006). Absent-mindedness: Lapses of conscious awareness and everyday cognitive failures. Consciousness and Cognition, 15(3), 578–592. Scholar
  11. Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (2008). The revised neo personality inventory (neo-pi-r). The SAGE Handbook of Personality Theory and Assessment, 2, 179–198.Google Scholar
  12. Crawford, H. J., Brown, A. M., & Moon, C. E. (1993). Sustained attentional and disattentional abilities: differences between low and highly hypnotizable persons. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(4), 534.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Crust, L., & Swann, C. (2013). The relationship between mental toughness and dispositional flow. European Journal of Sport Science, 13(2), 215–220.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1978). Attention and the Holistic Approach to Behaviour. In K. S. Pope & J. L. Singer (Eds.), The Stream of Consciousness (pp. 335–358). New York: Plenum.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1988). The flow experience and its significance for human psychology. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 15–35). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass. (Original work published 1975).Google Scholar
  17. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & LeFevre, J. (1989). Optimal experience in work and leisure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(5), 815.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. (2010). Effortless attention in everyday life: A systematic phenomenology. In B. Bruya (Ed.), Effortless attention: a new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action (pp. 179–190). Cambridge: The MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. de Manzano, Ö, Cervenka, S., Jucaite, A., Hellenäs, O., Farde, L., & Ullén, F. (2013). Individual differences in the proneness to have flow experiences are linked to dopamine D2-receptor availability in the dorsal striatum. Neuroimage, 67, 1–6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Derryberry, D., & Reed, M. A. (2002). Anxiety-related attentional biases and their regulation by attentional control. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 111(2), 225.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Feldman, G., Hayes, A., Kumar, S., Greeson, J., & Laurenceau, J. P. (2007). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: The development and initial validation of the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised (CAMS-R). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29(3), 177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hamari, J., & Koivisto, J. (2014). Measuring flow in gamification: Dispositional flow scale-2. Computers in Human Behavior, 40, 133–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Han, S. (1988). The relationship between life satisfaction and flow in elderly Korean immigrants. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 138–149). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Harari, Y. N. (2008). Combat flow: military, political, and ethical dimensions of subjective well-being in war. Review of General Psychology, 12(3), 253.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Harmat, L., de Manzano, Ö, Theorell, T., Högman, L., Fischer, H., & Ullén, F. (2015). Physiological correlates of the flow experience during computer game playing. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 97(1), 1–7.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Hockey, R. (2013). The psychology of fatigue: work, effort and control. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jackson, S. A., & Eklund, R. C. (2002). Assessing flow in physical activity: the flow state scale-2 and dispositional flow scale-2. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 24(2), 133–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jackson, S. A., Ford, S. K., Kimiecik, J. C., & Marsh, H. W. (1998). Psychological correlates of flow in sport. Journal of Sport and exercise Psychology, 20(4), 358–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Jackson, S. A., & Marsh, H. W. (1996). Development and validation of a scale to measure optimal experience: the Flow State Scale. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 18(1), 17–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jackson, S. A., Thomas, P. R., Marsh, H. W., & Smethurst, C. J. (2001). Relationships between flow, self-concept, psychological skills, and performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(2), 129–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. John, O. P., Donahue, E. M., & Kentle, R. L. (1991). The Big Five Inventory–Versions 4a and 54. Berkeley: University of California.Google Scholar
  32. John, O. P., Naumann, L. P., & Soto, C. J. (2008). Paradigm shift to the integrative Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and conceptual issues. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: theory and research (pp. 114–158). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  33. Keller, J., Ringelhan, S., & Blomann, F. (2011). Does skills–demands compatibility result in intrinsic motivation? Experimental test of a basic notion proposed in the theory of flow experiences. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(5), 408–417.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kennedy, P., Miele, D. B., & Metcalfe, J. (2014). The cognitive antecedents and motivational consequences of the feeling of being in the zone. Consciousness and Cognition, 30, 48–61.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Kihlstrom, J. F. (2011). Tellegen Absorption Scale. Accessed 4 June 2018
  36. Kline, R. B. (1998). Principles and practice of structural equation modelling. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  37. Landhäußer, A., & Keller, J. (2012). Flow and its affective, cognitive, and performance-related consequences. In Advances in flow research (pp. 65–85). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lee, E. (2005). The relationship of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in university students. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 166(1), 5–15.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. Levitin, D. J. (2014). The organized mind: Thinking straight in the age of information overload. Penguin.Google Scholar
  40. Macbeth, J. (1988). Ocean cruising. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 214–231). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Martin, A. J., & Jackson, S. A. (2008). Brief approaches to assessing task absorption and enhanced subjective experience: Examining ‘short’ and ‘core’ flow in diverse performance domains. Motivation and Emotion, 32(3), 141–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Marty-Dugas, J., Ralph, B. C. W., Oakman, J. M., & Smilek, D. (2018). The relation between smartphone use and everyday inattention. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5(1), 46–62. Scholar
  43. Moore, B. A. (2013). Propensity for experiencing flow: The roles of cognitive flexibility and mindfulness. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(4), 319.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Mosing, M. A., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., Madison, G., & Ullén, F. (2012). Heritability of proneness for psychological flow experiences. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(5), 699–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Nadon, R., Hoyt, I. P., Register, P. A., & Kihlstrom, J. F. (1991). Absorption and hypnotizability: Context effects reexamined. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(1), 144.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). The concept of flow. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 89–105). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Pain, M. A., Harwood, C., & Anderson, R. (2011). Pre-competition imagery and music: the impact on flow and performance in competitive soccer. The Sport Psychologist, 25(2), 212–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Pates, J., Karageorghis, C. I., Fryer, R., & Maynard, I. (2003). Effects of asynchronous music on flow states and shooting performance among netball players. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4(4), 415–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Peifer, C., Schulz, A., Schächinger, H., Baumann, N., & Antoni, C. H. (2014). The relation of flow-experience and physiological arousal under stress—can u shape it? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 62–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Ralph, B. C. (2017). Media multitasking and performance on attentionally demanding tasks (Doctoral Thesis). Accessed 4 April 2018.
  51. Ralph, B. C., Seli, P., Wilson, K. E., & Smilek, D. (2018) Volitional media multitasking: Awareness of performance costs and modulation of media multitasking as a function of task demand. Psychological Research (under review).Google Scholar
  52. Ralph, B. C., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2014). Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life. Psychological Research Psychologische Forschung, 78(5), 661–669. Scholar
  53. Raven, J.C. (1962). Advanced progressive matrices. Set II. London: H. K. Lewis & Co. Distributed in the USA by The Psychological Corporation. San Antonio. Texas.Google Scholar
  54. Raven, J.C. (1965). Advanced Progressive Matrices. Sets I and II. London: H. K. Lewis & Co. Distributed in the USA by The Psychological Corporation. San Antonio, Texas.Google Scholar
  55. Ross, S. R., & Keiser, H. N. (2014). Autotelic personality through a five-factor lens: individual differences in flow-propensity. Personality and Individual Differences, 59, 3–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sato, I. (1988). Bosozoku: flow in Japanese motorcycle gangs. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. S. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness (pp. 92–117). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Seli, P., Carriere, J., & Smilek, D. (2015). Not all mind wandering is created equal: dissociating deliberate from spontaneous mind wandering. Psychological Research Psychologische Forschung, 79(5), 750–758. Scholar
  58. Seli, P., Risko, E. F., & Smilek, D. (2016). Assessing the associations among trait and state levels of deliberate and spontaneous mind wandering. Consciousness and Cognition, 41, 50–56. Scholar
  59. Sirois, F. M. (2014). Absorbed in the moment? An investigation of procrastination, absorption and cognitive failures. Personality and individual differences, 71, 30–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Smilek, D., Carriere, J. S., & Cheyne, J. A. (2010). Out of mind, out of sight: eye blinking as in-dicator and embodiment of mind wandering. Psychological Science, 21(6), 786–789.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Smyser, C. H., & Baron, D. A. (1993). Hypnotizability, absorption, and subscales of the Dissociative Experiences Scale in a nonclinical population. Dissociation: Progress in the Dissociative Disorders, 6(1), 42–46.Google Scholar
  62. Stavrou, N. A., Jackson, S. A., Zervas, Y., & Karteroliotis, K. (2007). Flow experience and athletes’ performance with reference to the orthogonal model of flow. The Sport Psychologist, 21(4), 438–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Swann, C. (2016). Flow in Sport. In L. Harmat, F. O. Anderson, F. Ullén, J. Wright & G. Sadlo (Eds.), Flow Experience (pp. 51–64). Switzerland: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Swann, C., Keegan, R. J., Piggott, D., & Crust, L. (2012). A systematic review of the experience, occurrence, and controllability of flow states in elite sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(6), 807–819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Tellegen, A. (1992). Note on structure and meaning of the MPQ Absorption scale. University of Minnesota (Un-published manuscript).Google Scholar
  66. Tellegen, A., & Atkinson, G. (1974). Openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences (“absorption”), a trait related to hypnotic susceptibility. Journal of abnormal psychology, 83(3), 268.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  67. Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö, Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52(2), 167–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö, Theorell, T., & Harmat, L. (2010). 10 The physiology of effortless attention: correlates of state flow and flow proneness. Effortless attention: a new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action, p. 205.Google Scholar
  69. Ullén, F., Harmat, L., Theorell, T., & Madison, G. (2016). Flow and individual differences—a phenotypic analysis of data from more than 10,000 twin individuals. In L. Harmat, F. O. Anderson, F. Ullén, J. Wright & G. Sadlo (Eds.), Flow experience (pp. 267–288). Springer International Publishing.Google Scholar
  70. Ulrich, M., Keller, J., & Grön, G. (2016). Neural signatures of experimentally induced flow experiences identified in a typical fMRI block design with BOLD imaging. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(3), 496–507.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  71. Ulrich, M., Keller, J., Hoenig, K., Waller, C., & Grön, G. (2014). Neural correlates of experimentally induced flow experiences. Neuroimage, 86, 194–202.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Wang, Z., Irwin, M., Cooper, C., & Srivastava, J. (2015). Multidimensions of media multitasking and adaptive media selection. Human Communication Research, 41(1), 102–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Wright, J. J., Sadlo, G., & Stew, G. (2006). Challenge-skills and mindfulness: an exploration of the conundrum of flow process. OTJR: Occupation, participation and health, 26(1), 25–32.Google Scholar
  74. Wright, J. J., Sadlo, G., & Stew, G. (2007). Further explorations into the conundrum of flow process. Journal of Occupational Science, 14(3), 136–144.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada

Personalised recommendations