During the 1992 NBA Championship finals, Michael Jordan hit six 3-pointers in 18 minutes then turned to the crowd with an iconic shrug. Later, he said he was so “in the zone” he literally didn’t know how he did it.
He was talking about, of course, that thrilling feeling of flow. A term coined by the late positive psychology expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow is the state of being hyper-focused, fully absorbed and energized by the task at hand.
“Flow is the feeling of being immersed and engaged in what you’re doing, and we care about it because people tend to perform best and feel their best when they’re in a flow state,” says David Melnikoff, a psychologist who researches the nature of motivation.
Indeed, research has shown that finding oneself in a state of flow enhances productivity, learning and academic achievement, and overall well-being. “But we don’t really know much about it and we don’t really know, therefore, how to cultivate it,” Melnikoff says.
In trying to better understand this razor-sharp state of mind, he and his colleagues came up with a formula to harness flow and improve engagement in any task at hand. They published their findings last year in Nature Communications.
The team ran a series of five experiments on participants that gauged their flow levels according to tasks being carried out. The tasks themselves were a series of digital games featuring a combination of tiles.
Successful participants — groups ranged from 400 to 1,000 members — received monetary rewards, longer periods of time to complete the game and more chances to improve their outcomes.
The scholars, in turn, kept their eyes peeled for what tweaks to these tasks, if any, increased or decreased the participants’ flow. They tracked this by having players answer questionnaires about how immersive, engaging, engrossing and addictive the games were.
Magic Formula for Flow
From these observations, the research team was able to distill a simple mathematical equation: I(M;E).
The M stands for means, or the actions that you take to bring about a goal, and the E stands for ends, or the result of those actions. The final variable, I, represents mutual information. In other words, this is the information that exists between the means and the ends.
“Flow emerges to the extent that the actions you take in an activity reduce uncertainty about the outcome of that activity,” Melnikoff says.
The overall idea is that when your actions substantially reduce uncertainty surrounding the outcome, that activity is more flow-inducing. Activities in which your actions reduce very little uncertainty about your outcome, however, are not.
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Flow in Games
This is why gamification in apps often does a good job of hooking users in, Melnikoff argues. Entertainment apps, fitness trackers and language-learning apps often use “streaks.”
Streaks work much better than simple outcomes like victory or loss, in the same way that open-ended questions work better in conversations than yes-or-no questions; there are many different outcomes, and the more you go on the clearer the outcome becomes.
“There’s not much uncertainty you can reduce when there are only two possible outcomes,” Melnikoff says. “But how many successes can you get in a row? That could be 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. That’s a lot more uncertainty that I’m able to reduce.”
It’s a compelling and novel explanation for what gives rise to the flow state, says Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor studying grit and self-control at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in this study.
“I myself have revised my syllabus for next semester, changing pass-fail assignments to graded assignments,” Duckworth continues. “According to Melnikoff’s theory, the greater the number of possible outcomes, the greater reduction of uncertainty.”
How to Hack Flow
While applying this particular formula to something as physical as sports may appear challenging, Melnikoff says it’s easier than it seems.
When a game starts, there is often a lot of uncertainty about how it’s going to go — but each action brings players leaps and bounds toward their end goal, reducing uncertainty. That, in itself, is fertile ground for flow to flourish.
There are also tons of tricks that you can immediately use in your own life, Melnikoff adds.
If an activity is so difficult that it feels frustrating, for example, lower your expectations. Instead of aiming to succeed on each attempt, try to succeed just once in a series of attempts. Just make sure “the number you allot yourself is challenging but attainable,” Melnikoff says.
Alternatively, if an activity is so easy that it feels boring to you, try rewarding yourself for streaks of consecutive successes. When it comes to the typically easy and boring task of answering emails, for example, see how many days in a row you can clear your inbox — then give yourself a reward that’s appropriate for the length of your streak.
Aiming for Perfection
Of course, no formula is perfect, and there’s still a lot of work to be done to figure out how else to implement this knowledge into our everyday lives. Flow fluctuates over time, for example, and this formula cannot yet explain how to best harness that variation.
There are also questions about whether a single formula can encapsulate all that flow is, according to Jeanne Nakamura, the co-director of the Quality of Life Research Center at Claremont Graduate University, who was not involved in the study.
This is because the state of mind often also includes some of the most memorable and intense experiences of people’s lives. Distilling flow into a formula might be helpful, especially to understand the conditions that give rise to the state.
“On the other hand, it’s unclear that a single condition can account for entering and staying in flow,” Nakamura says.
Scholars are also still trying to figure out what flow looks like in couples, sports teams, work groups and other collectives, she continues.
“Is it a matter of each individual member of the group experiencing flow, or is there more to it? What are the conditions that give rise to it? How is it sustained?” Nakamura says. More research is certainly needed before such questions can be answered.
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