Flow state is a state of consciousness where nothing else matters except for what's right in front of you in the moment when your attention is fully focused on it. This comes most naturally when I'm doing something that I love, like playing a video game or doing a sport. I've never had to drag myself to play the Legend of Zelda in the same, where I might need to push myself to study auto work on a project.
But what if there was a way to get into that flow state and get addicted to studying and work?
Let's explore five ideas that we can apply right now from video games that help us get into a flow state and get addicted to studying.
So the first concept is called appropriate difficulty. If I get to a boss in any video game that's too hard, I might try for a while, but then I'm likely to give up equally. If a game isn't challenging me and I'm just randomly walking the character around, it's gonna get a little bit boring.
If I'm getting beaten all the time, or if I'm winning too easily, I'm not gonna want to continue. Flow State is a state of optimal experience and intrinsic motivation available to any person, regardless of age, gender, or cultural backround. The main way to create this flow experience in a game is to have a balance between the difficulty of tasks for players to accomplish and the level of their ability or skill to accomplish those tasks.
Tasks that are too hard for players to perform will result in frustration and tasks that are too easy will require very little effort and result in boredom. In both cases, the players lose their motivation and continue. The task I'm doing needs to match my skill level and challenge, but not frustrate me.
Now, my skill will increase if I play. So the difficulty of the game needs to increase as players progress, and that's why bosses at the end of a level are way harder than enemies at the beginning. And it's the same for studying. The first time you encounter something new, it's gonna seem really, really difficult.
But as you gradually work through things in a bite size way, you'll build up that knowledge and suddenly everything will unlock and you'll reach those threshold concepts where everything becomes very, very obvious. If you think back to the first time you learned about plant biology, it was obviously really, really difficult and challenging.
But as you're introduced to the concepts, do active recall questions and sit exams, it gradually becomes easier and easier and easier with time. And then you can master things and teach others. When you're studying for exams or working on a project, you need to make sure that you're studying at the right level for yourself.
If you go over concepts that you already know or just read over topics, that's very passive and even though it can feel quite simple to do, you are much better challenging yourself and using test questions and active recall to really make that knowledge stick. However, if you also do the opposite and try and jump into very, very difficult, complex applications of knowledge, without starting off and building understanding around the things that you are learning, you are also gonna become really frustrated.
For example, when I first learned about neurology in medicine, some of the concepts like multiple sclerosis seemed complicated because I didn't understand some of the underlying neurophysiology. Once I'd been introduced to that in lectures and in many exams and tests, that then unlocked my ability to understand what was happening in MS around some of the nerves cells and then it became much more logical and easy.
Know What To Do Next
When you start revising, you need to build up that knowledge over time and not be afraid to make mistakes and go back over topics to unlock them. If I think about some of my favorite video games, or sports, or even just going to the gym for that matter, I can spend hours and hours playing because it feels easy to get started.
When I switch on my PlayStation or walk into the gym, I know what to. I know how to do it, and I know that I'm gonna be free from distractions. It's really, really easy to get started and to continue playing even when things start to get harder. One of my favorite breakdown videos looks at how Nintendo built the starting levels for Mario Games.
When you start playing, you literally just run Mario around and then you're introduced to a new concept like jumping on Goomba's heads. This rewards you with some points and a little. As the level then progresses, you need to make more precise jumps and you build up on this skill. The game naturally guides you and then introduces more challenges as you progress.
And it's the same with big open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Elden Ring. Even though you can do whatever you want and go anywhere, you never feel lost, and it always feels obvious what to do. And it's the same with studying. If I put my books out on my desk the night before and I've planned what I need to do, it's then easy to get started and get into that flow state.
On the other hand, if I have absolutely no idea what I'm learning or how to learn, it's then way harder and I'm much more likely to procrastinate. In his book, Hooked Nir Eyal talks about a mini-experiment where one group of new students were told to go and get a flu shot and another group were also asked to get a flu shot, but were given a time and a canvas map showing where to go.
The group with the set time to get a flu shot and a map showing them where to go almost all got a shot while the other group just didn't.
When I plan out my study sessions, I'll try to use a process that makes things easy. I'll study at the same desk at the same time each day, and I'll make sure that I know what I'm going to.
And this can really be accomplished by building a plan and a process before you actually get down to doing active recall questions or reading over notes. What you want to do is map out what you need to do every single time you sit down in your desk, because then there's no excuse not to know what to do and not to know how to continue and move on to more challenges that will lead to deeper learning.
When I play any video game, I'm a massive completionist. I want to find every secret, unlock every challenge and trophy, and I want to get that hundred percent completion rating, and this is because it gives me a little bit of a dopamine hit. Whether you're playing an RPG and leveling up your character or getting to the next level, or just defeating the next fighter in Street fighter.
Completing things and hitting those goals rewards you with that dopamine hit. In learning and studying, setting clear goals and then achieving them gives a similar reward function. In his book, Hooked Nir Eyal goes into the habit formation process and the psychology behind it. A person needs to receive a trigger, perform an easy to complete action, receive a variable reward that relates to that trigger, and then must invest time in the experience to form a habit where the trigger to take action is no longer external, such as a calendar notification but comes from that internal motivation.
Emotion plays a huge role in game design with the goal to delight the player and make the experience enjoyable. I actively want to go back to playing the Legend of Zelda as I know there are secrets to unlock and I'm emotionally connected to the world's story and the characters.
Our body's physiological reward response is to release dopamine, giving you that feeling of joy. And studies have shown that our craving for dopamine causes a stronger emotional reaction than receiving the reward itself. Games will often employ variable reward mechanics, such as loot crates and random results to engage players.
When I study or work on any project, I'll break what I'm doing down into goals and I'll set myself a challenge. I'll also be really, really specific. For example, when I was studying for medical finals, I set myself a challenge of doing 2000 active recall questions within a week. I'd then break that down further and set myself a challenge of doing a set number of questions a day and trying to exceed it.
This became a personal challenge for me, and my competitive mindset meant that I was going to achieve that every single time. I'd also factor things like breaks and going to the gym as reward mechanics themselves. This allowed me to focus on completing those goals, but it also gave me a reward at the end of that study session where I could then relax and reflect back on what I'd achieved.
When you're studying or working if you employ this goal setting and reward mechanic in your own studying and work, you'll eventually trick your brain into no longer needing that external trigger and your own internal triggers related to the reward and dopamine release will mean you'll want to get down to studying and you'll want to get that work done in the time allowed.
Make It Fun
Now video games are inherently fun. They're bright, they're colorful, they're enjoyable, and there's a story to them that emotionally involves you. And I get it. Reading through a textbook probably doesn't give you that same kick or enjoyment out of life. But what if it did? Well, we need to think about how we're actually studying and working.
Not only is rereading and highlighting not an effective way to learn, it's also pretty boring for the most part. Whereas doing active recall questions is a little bit more exciting and a little bit more fun because it inherently brings to the goals and challenges. But what if we take things to the next level?
Well, let's look at apps like DuoLingo and Shiken that are bright and are fun and bring in lots of game mechanics. When I'm learning Spanish on Duo, the app and interface is really bright and really colorful, and it's got lots of fun characters. There's a learning path that's completely mapped out that adjusts to my own skillset as I work through and I'm being rewarded and I'm also competing against others on a leaderboard.
All of these things are things that you might expect to see in games. If we look at apps like Shiken, there are also elements of games like Pokemon where you can actually unlock new characters and get that completionist feeling as you work through and do questions. Going a step further, think back to your favorite board game or playing Trivial Pursuit or playing an online quiz game.
You get that buzz from the challenge, whether it's a challenge against the clock, completing a question in a timeframe, or completing against your friends. You are going to be learning along the way because you're involved in the game and you're actually enjoying it. Whether it's the competition gaining points and leveling up, or just in the actual interface, feeling a little bit more fun and engaging and able to grab your attention than just mindly reading through a textbook passively.
Think about the last time you played a sport. It was probably with other people or against someone, so it was in a social environment. If you're playing Call of Duty online, you're either working with or you're working against others to actually win the match. And this is where social dynamics come into game design.
And it can also be applied to how you study if you study with others. Not only does this make you more accountable, it also makes things more fun as it's a lot more social as you can connect and have a bit of fun with the people that you're studying with.
Now, when I was studying and revising for exams it could really scary and I definitely wouldn't look forward to them. But then I discovered something called the growth mindset and wanting to improve, and this completely changed my outlook on how to learn and study, and I enjoyed failing and I wanted to get better at every stage in my development.
In 2017, Mark Rober asked his YouTube followers to play a simple computer programming puzzle that he made. The object of the puzzle was simple and clear; to get a car across the maze by arranging the code blocks that represented typical computer programming operations. This was relevant to his audience, was playful and was easy to access with a challenge and a clear goal.
But what the 50,000 followers who took part in the challenge didn't know was that Mark randomly served up two different types of game. In one version, if you hit run and weren't successful, you didn't lose any of the starting points. You were shown the message "that didn't work, please try again". However, if you hit run in the second version and weren't successful, the program sent a slightly different message "That didn't work. You lost five points. You now have 195 points, please try again".
Now, the difference between those two messages revealed something very significant about the human psyche. 68% of the people who didn't lose any points ultimately solved the puzzle, yet only 52% of the people who lost five points were able to complete the puzzle successfully. That's a delta of almost 16%.
Another piece of data Mark collected was how many tries the players took before they gave up. The group that didn't lose any points averaged around 12 tries while people who lost five points averaged about five tries. The group that made more attempts saw higher success rates than the ones that made fewer attempts.
The difference between the two groups originated from the different messages that they were shown on failing, and Mark termed the results of the experiment, the Super Mario Effect. He said, when it comes to games like this, no one ever picks up the controller for the first time, and after jumping into a pit thinks, I'm so ashamed. That just doesn't happen. What really happens is they remember that there's a pit right there and their job becomes to not fall into that pit the next time. While playing a game, we learn from the failures, but we don't focus on the failures and studying needs to be the same.
In studying, you are gonna get active recall questions wrong. You might even fail exams, but ultimately you are always learning and often you learn most from these failures. If your character dies or you don't complete a level, it's not the end of the world and you'll just get up and know that you'll get better next time through practice.
You need to put in the hard work and the hours, and then you'll be able to cross the threshold of defeating those difficult questions.
Now, as a quick bonus point here, I just want you to think back to the last time that you really enjoyed doing anything, whether that was playing a video game or sport, or whatever it is that you like.
Now, chances are that when you are actually in that flow state and you're really enjoying it, you're gonna learn anyway. You see us humans, we're geared up to learn. We've learned all our lives, but when we're actually needing to study for exams, sometimes it can feel really, really difficult because we perceive it to be a chore.
If on the other hand, you're actually enjoying what you're doing and you set your mindset to really embrace learning, then you're gonna learn much more easily. Learning isn't difficult if you know how to learn properly, but it does take a little bit of hard work to really master some of the difficult concepts, and it's no different to any video game or sport.
When you first start off your character's gonna be a low level and you're gonna be rubbish. Then with practice and with multiple failures, you're gonna get better and better and better. And often to get into that top 1% of elite athletes or elite video game players it's the people who put in the hours and practice, practice, practice who become the best. And that's what you need to do with studying.