8/19 – When Flow Doesn’t Happen

Judith L. Glick-Smith

Judith L. Glick-Smith

Judy G-S - Copy (415x500)

I’m all about flow. Being in a flow state brings me a sense of joy and the feeling of being authentic in the moment. This is a topic I have been studying for eight years and with which I feel intimately connected. Since beginning my study of flow—what it is, what triggers it (for me and for others), how to influence the environment to facilitate it—I have learned how to consciously create flow experiences for myself. Everyone experiences flow. However, the triggers for flow are not the same for everyone. Often we find ourselves in situations where we would ordinarily experience flow, but for one reason or another, flow doesn’t happen. Situational awareness facilitates the ability to recognize when this happens and experiential knowledge enables us to consciously initiate flow.

In mid-July, I traveled to Dallas-Fort Worth to deliver two presentations to two very different audiences. The first audience was the Society for Information Management’s Southwestern Regional Leadership Forum (RLF), an organization with which I am very familiar. I used to speak at this event every year when I lived in Dallas. The participants are up-and-coming leaders in information technology (IT). I’ve been an IT consultant for 35 years. These are “my people.” I’m comfortable speaking to other IT professionals. The second audience consisted of the volunteers in Rhome (Texas) Fire Rescue. While I am not a firefighter, I have been researching flow-based decision making in the fire service for many years. I have a nice comfort level with this audience, too. My topic for both audiences was “flow-based leadership”.

While I got decent reviews from both audiences, I knew that I was not “on” for either group. Flow didn’t happen. This is unusual for me. I love public speaking, especially when I get to talk about flow. Feedback from participants validated this. I had read slides (rather than using them as a guide); I didn’t sound prepared, even though I rehearsed; I sounded (and felt) unfocused; the firefighters I spoke to thought I was making a sales pitch. I was utterly and completely disappointed with myself.

In doing a self-evaluation afterward, I realized:

  • I wasn’t as prepared as I thought
  • I was not energized
  • I did not feel at peace
  • My mind was a jumble and out of focus from other things going on in my life

Notice the holistic nature of what was wrong. Everything—preparation, mind, body, spirit—was out of whack. This happens to all of us from time to time. Just to be clear, this does not represent “negative flow.” Flow is neutral; it is neither positive nor negative (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). For example, someone who derives joy from deviant behavior may experience flow while acting in an aberrant way. Either you are “in flow” or you are not.

Flow is a function of skill level and complexity of the activity. Flow happens when our skills are developed and we are sufficiently challenged. If we continue to develop skills without increasing the complexity of the activity, we will eventually become bored. If the complexity of the activity increases faster than we are able to improve our skills, our anxiety level will increase (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Consider critical incidents in the fire service. Not all emergency calls trigger flow states. One of the participants in my doctoral study on flow-based decision making made the observation that critical events in the fire service are emergent in nature. This is an indicator that decisions need to be made concurrently rather than sequentially. What facilitates this ability is preparation, training, and experience. He told a story about an incident where he didn’t feel “on,” either physically or psychologically. While he expressed some of the elements of flow, such as temporal distortion (feeling like “I was in kind of a slow motion movie”), he didn’t feel that he was in tune with what was happening in the situation. He did a size-up (an evaluation of the scene), but it took him a while to recognize what was on fire. His instructions to his crew were not clear. He told them, “I want you to establish a water supply,” rather than, “Here’s your hydrant; I want you to lay a line in.” His indirect communication led to questions and conjecture. This impacted the event, even though it ended well. When they got back to the station, a couple of the crew came up to him and asked him if he was alright. They recognized that he wasn’t “on his game” (Glick-Smith, 2012).

Stress can cause us to shut down when we have high levels of inhibition and low cognitive ability (Peat, 2008; H. L. Thompson, 2010). Another participant in my study was involved in the search and rescue of a number of children in a mobile home fire. The incident commander was a brand new lietenant with very little experience. The firefighters began to rescue unconscious child after unconscious child from the mobile home with smoke boiling out of the entrance. Firefighters didn’t know whether to keep going back to the mobile home to rescue more children or to help the EMTs try to resusitate the ones they had already rescued. The lieutenant froze; he couldn’t make the decision as to what the firefighters should do. The complexity of the incident far exceeded his perceived skill level. He walked away from the scene, back to the station. He left and never returned to the station again. He received psych evaluations and counseling, but he never fought fire again.

Triggers of Flow

I found the triggers of flow for firefighters, which usually happened at an unconscious level, are awareness (of self and the situation), size-up (knowledge gained through active analysis of the environment), complexity, physical and psychological readiness (“it feels right”), stress, consciously triggering flow, confidence, and something out of the ordinary (e.g., “weird,” “odd,” “crazy,” etc.). In the firefighter stories I collected, the most common events that triggered flow were (a) a recognition that something was out of the ordinary; (b) a threat to the firefighter’s personal or team safety; and (c) child involvement, especially when the incident began with a woman in the driveway.

Something Out of the Ordinary

Recognition-primed decision making (RPDM) depends on recognizing familiar situations and patterns, and, then, based on this recognition, acting according to past experience or training. What throws an individual into a flow state, where he or she feels challenged, is often something out of the ordinary. In other words, the decision maker recognizes something is a “mismatch or anomaly” within his or her sphere of experience. The firefighters in my study and in Klein’s (1999) work talked about using their intuition. However, this was difficult for them to describe. “Firefighters’ experience enables them to recognize situations quickly…intuition grows out of experience” (Klein, 1999, p. 33).

The stories the firefighters told were out of the ordinary. There were triggers such as sensory awareness (“the taste of breast milk,” “there was a woman screaming in the driveway”). They used words like “something wasn’t right,” “it was a crazy night,” “it was weird,” “the building was evil.” All of these were indications that the incident or situation was outside normal experience. The firefighters were aware of the differences from both training and their previous experience. The deviation from the expected was the trigger for the flow state.

Threat to Personal Safety

One firefighter told the story of his involvement in an incident where fireworks were being set off at a party at a friend’s home on the lake. His family was with him. Prior to the fireworks display, he decided to wander down to the lake’s edge, from where the fireworks were going to be launched. He sized up the situation and made the determination that the crowd was too close to the display. He went back to his family and told them to back up. They resisted his urging. Just then one of the fireworks burst open and exploded. Because the man who was going to set the fireworks off had carefully organized the other fireworks in a way that would be easy for him to light, the exploding firework lit all the fuses. Mayhem ensued. The fireworks were shooting into the crowd. The firefighter wrapped himself around his family and yelled, “Run, run, run!” He was acutely aware of his surroundings—even having the presence of mind to knock over a tall propane canister that was being used for cooking to minimize the risk of it being hit by one of the rockets.

In this situation, the trigger was the initial explosion coupled with the knowledge he had gained in the size-up and the instinct to save himself. Yet, he was able to prioritize his actions and take care of his family as well as be aware of other potential dangers (the propane canister).

Child Involvement

Out of 49 stories I collected while doing my research, 14 involved children. The trigger for flow in most of these stories was a screaming woman in the driveway. However, in one of the stories the anomaly was that the mother was not hysterical.

She was just standing out in the parking lot and pointing up to the room. Everything happened in a nano-second. It was weird because you usually hear the mom screaming before you even get off the rig. This mother appeared unconscious….When we went up to the room, there was another weird vibe. There was a man in the apartment. He was just pacing back and forth. He pointed to the baby’s room. When we ran into the bedroom, we saw this baby, who was maybe one year old. The baby was unresponsive. I remember knowing right away that this was really weird…It was one of the first shaken baby syndrome incidences in [our] county.

Consciously Triggering Flow

How firefighters dealt with the trigger varied. While some participants recognized when they were “game on,” “in the zone,” or “in the flow” at the time, only one firefighter in my study said that she consciously decided to enter the flow state. In multiple stories, she told me the trigger for the flow state and then said, “I hit the kill switch,” which enabled her to focus on the task at hand (one of the characteristics of flow) and not get caught up in emotions or the unfolding drama. Everyone else said that flow happened at an unconscious level.

There are five pillars of flow that must be in place for flow to happen: Knowledge of our own triggers of flow, preparation, physical readiness, mental alignment, and spiritual connection.

Knowledge of Our Own Triggers

Most of us are not involved in situations where a child is in trouble or our safety is threatened, but we do experience things that are out of the ordinary. The triggers of flow are not going to be the same from person to person. To be able to consciously initiate flow, you have to understand what puts you in a flow state. You can achieve this by paying attention when you recognize that you are in flow. Ask yourself, “What was I doing just prior to this feeling? What were conditions in my environment?” Sometimes, flow comes from our decision to push ourselves a little harder through the activity, thereby introducing more challenges. This is the act of presencing. When you know what triggers flow for you, you can begin to put into place the conditions that bring about flow, thereby maximizing your flow experiences.


Preparation is about readiness. People who understand how flow works, spend the time to prepare themselves, even if preparation activities don’t put them in a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003). Preparation refers to training and to experience. It refers to taking care of the tools of your trade. It refers to rehearsing—repeating the activity until it is ingrained in you at cellular level. This is what enables recognition-primed decision making. The activity is so familiar to you that, when you are challenged by something out of the ordinary, you can continue to function at an optimal level with confidence.

Going back to my original example where I was not in flow for either of my speeches, I had rehearsed, but my first mistake was in trying to give almost the same speech to two very different audiences. The next mistake I made was that I went to the RLF workshop early that morning instead of taking the time do my usual morning routine. I wasn’t speaking until 10:30. I thought that, if I heard what they were discussing, I could incorporate or address discussion points within my speech. This was actually where the disaster occurred. When I tried to retrofit points from the early discussion into the presentation, I lost my place and forgot key points. I fell back to reading the PowerPoint slides, but, even then, this didn’t pull me back to what I had rehearsed.

Physical Readiness

Both physical strength and cardio-vascular health contribute to our sense of overall well-being. Attention to physical fitness through play and exercise is essential to our ability to initiate flow states (Seligman, 2002). I know that when I work out, my mind is clearer and sharper. When I travel, I am really bad about not sticking to my regular workout routine. On the morning of my first speech to RLF, I didn’t work out. I didn’t even go for a walk (the bear minimum that I need to get the blood flowing).

While not all firefighters I know take the time to workout everyday, most of them have some physical regimen they follow on and off the job. Their life is in service to others. They understand the concept that being in service to others means that they have to take care of themselves and their equipment first—not in a selfish way, but in a selfless way. Their outward focus is what drives them.

Mental Alignment

When we are mentally aligned we are better able to be situationally aware. In other words, we are able to actively watch and assess so that we can respond in the best way possible using “mental simulation” (Klein, 1999). The ability to react effectively requires feedback, active awareness, and low levels of inhibition, three common elements of flow. People tend to lower their inhibitions when stressed (Peat, 2008). When we are stressed, strategies that worked in the past may no longer be valid. This allows for the consideration of a variety of alternatives based on perception and cognition. The individual rejects the ideas that are not productive or feasible and selects those that appear to work for the situation. Conversely, people with high levels of inhibition and low cognitive ability shut down in the face of the stress of intractible situations, like in the story of the lieutenant incident commander who had to decide what to do with unconscious children. (Peat, 2008; H. L. Thompson, 2010).

I had not been able to confirm my schedule following the RLF speech. I had lined up friends to go visit and with whom to stay the rest of that week. One of those friends was unreachable and I had planned to stay with her for two nights. I had to scramble to make other arrangements. Plus, I was worried about why I couldn’t reach her. Kahneman (2011) defines cognitive strain as being “affected by both the current level of effort and the presence of unmet demands.” This negatively affects creativity and intuition. This cognitive dissonance took psychic energy that pulled me away from the task at hand and stripped away my ability to integrate new information into my talks spontaneously. Because cognitive strain is mitigated through preparation, had I rehearsed my talk a few more times after my conversation with the workshop leaders, I might have changed the outcome.

Spiritual Connection

Wednesday in the Georgia Smoke Diver training program is a pivotal day for students. The big drill of that day is called Five Evolutions. The essence of the drill is that students enter the burn building from the second floor of a three-story building. Inside the building are five lines of fire hoses that instructors have strategically wound throughout the building like a knotted up chain in a jewelry box. The student has to find his or her way out of the building by following one of those hoses. They have to come out of the building on the same hose on which they started. They then have to go back into the building on the next hose line and repeat until they have followed all five lines out of the building. They have to do this on two 30-minute air packs. After each evolution, they have to wait in line for their turn to go on the next line.

Just prior to the drill Smoke Daddy weaves in and out of the line quietly speaking to each student individually. Heads nod and Smoke Daddy moves to the next student. From my vantage point as an observer, this ritual appears to calm the student. I have taken many pictures of the students standing in line. Their faces are telling in terms of emotion and state of mind. When I ask what they were thinking as they stood in line, responses are very similar: “I was praying,” “I was getting my head right,” “I was clearing my mind.”

Alan Watts (2003) wrote about Buddhist Middle Path or Noble Eight-Fold Path of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Firefighters exercise the sort of detached compassion Watts wrote about. Awareness is what facilitates their ability to do this (Greenleaf, 1977). Firefighters have a moral commitment to help others (Taylor & Wolin, 2002). They have a “duty to act”, which refers to his or her responsibility to help others both on and off the job because of their specialized training and expertise (American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2002).


In firefighting, as well as in life, awareness, specifically situational awareness, drives the ability to evaluate a scene and to do triage. It enables the knowing necessary to guide the dynamics of a system. Being prepared physically, mentally, and spiritually enable you to operate within those dynamics at an optimal level.

I observed my first Georgia Smoke Diver training in November 2011. It was early in the week. The candidates were learning how to use thermal imaging cameras in a smoke-filled burn building. Smoke Daddy David Rhodes asked me if I wanted to go in the burn building. At first, I said, “No.” But then I thought about it. How would I ever really know what they experience if I didn’t suit up and go in? I changed my mind and said, “Yes.” They had me in full gear before I could change my mind. Into the burn building I went with one of the instructors, Captain Charlie Long.

Everything I had been hearing from all the firefighters in my doctoral study came at me in a rush. I had 70 pounds of gear on my body. At the time, I was not in good physical shape. I felt completely encumbered. All my senses were stripped away. The mask prevented me from tasting or smelling. I couldn’t see for all the smoke. I couldn’t feel anything, because of the gloves. I couldn’t hear, because the noise in the burn building was confusing. In a building that is burning, firefighters have told me, the noise can be deafening.

While I am not generally claustrophobic, I felt like I was closed in. I realized that my being frightened was causing me to breathe air too fast. When we made our way to the burn room, I could see on the thermal imaging camera that the temperature just above my head was over 600 degrees (cool, by the firefighters’ standards). I felt my internal body temperature begin to rise. Captain Long coached me through this adventure and kept me focused outward. The urge to turn inward, to submit to a panicked state, to rip off my face mask was huge, but Long helped me resist. That is how many firefighters die in fires, he told me. I managed to stay in the building for about 15 minutes. When I exited, my paradigm had changed dramatically. It is one thing to listen to people tell you their stories. It is another thing to experience what they mean by awareness. The takeaway was that, in firefighting, firefighters must be situationally aware of themselves, their surroundings, the fire, and also be able to conduct a search for victims, if necessary.

This is also true for the rest of us. Flow is about attending to the task at hand. Whatever the activity, by paying attention to what we are feeling in the moment, where we are physically, and how we are impacting others around us, and what our personal flow triggers are will help us consciously initiate flow. But preparation, physical readiness, mental state and spiritual well-being are simultaneously necessary. If all of this is in alignment, awareness and action merge and we are in flow.


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2002). Emergency: Care and transportation of the sick and injured (8th ed.). (B. D. Browner, A. N. Pollak, & C. L. Gupton, Eds.) Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Glick-Smith, J. L. (2012). The path of the razor’s edge: An examination of the flow experiences of firefighters. ProQuest: UMI 3481816.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power & greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Klein, G. (1999). Sources of power: How people make decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Peat, F. D. (2008). Gentle action: Briging creative change to a turbulent world. Pari, Grosseto, Italy: Pari Publishing.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Taylor, V. H., & Wolin, S. (2002). The new normal: How FDNY firefighters are rising to the challenge of life after September 11. New York, NY: Counseling Service Unit of the FDNY.

Thompson, H. L. (2010). The stress effect: Why smart leaders make dumb decisions–and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Watts, A. (2003). Become what you are. Boston, MA: Shambhala.


About the Author

Judith (“Judy”) L. Glick-Smith, Ph.D., has been a communication and organizational development consultant since 1983. She is President/CEO of MentorFactor, Inc., which focuses on helping organizations facilitate flow-based work environments. Judy has a Ph.D. in Transformative Studies with a concentration in Integral Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has a Master of Science in Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University. She is currently doing an ethnographic study of Georgia Smoke Diver, an extreme experiential training program in the fire service.





  1. Larry Kunz on August 21, 2015 at 7:22 am

    Thank you, Judy. I’ve learned a lot from this. I’d like to become more aware of what my own “flow triggers” are. Can you recommend a resource?

    • Judith Glick-Smith on August 23, 2015 at 6:21 pm

      Hi Larry–The best sources I can point you to are in the bibliography for this article–particularly the books by Csikszentmihalyi. My dissertation has an even more extensive list of references. You can view my dissertation on LinkedIn or I can send it to you. Also, I’m happy to talk you through the process, if you want.


  2. Monica on August 21, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    Nice assessment of your experience! I can relate to your descriptions of what you intended, what actually happened, and the factors that affected you. This is good stuff. Thanks for sharing it!

  3. Steve on August 24, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    Good Job Sis-in-law. I can relate to those “bad flow days” After one of “those calls” I just wanted a do over! Those that had less that desirable outcomes are the ones you remember most. Something you learn to live with.

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