I recently became a bit obsessed with figuring out what “optimally challenging” meant.
“In short, the needs for competence and self-determination keep people involved in ongoing cycles of seeking and conquering optimal challenges.” (Deci & Ryan, 1985)
Note: My emphasis
In a nutshell, when goal setting, you don’t want to set goals that are impossible, but you also don’t want anything too easy, either. You want something that is just right. That is to say: optimal. I have heard this referred to somewhere as “Goldilocksing”, but I don’t remember where, and I’m not smart enough to have made it up myself.
But, I digress…back to “optimal challenges“.
My quest for quantifying and qualifying what, exactly, constitutes the optimal challenge led me to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, specifically, his work on the concept of “Flow”.
His concept of flow is represented below, in this chart I adapted from his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Clearly I couldn’t find a stock photo of the chart and blessed you with my art skills:
So what does this have to do with finding an optimal challenge?
Well, if you look at the “Flow Channel”, it runs from tasks that are Low Skill/Low Challenge through tasks that are High Skill/High Challenge. Basically, if your goal is appropriately difficult, you will be in Flow (or the “Zone”, or whatever the cool kids are calling it). Here are a few helpful notes:
- If the Skill level is higher than the Challenge, you are going to get bored, which is not in Flow, and will lead to abandonment of the goal.
- If the Challenge is much greater than the Skill level, this will cause worry and anxiety about performance, which is also not a state of Flow, and can also cause goal abandonment from frustration.
In order to have optimally challenging goals, we need to have our skills and challenges constantly in balance. This makes Flow a “living” state that is constantly changing as our skills grow, requiring us to raise the levels of our challenges appropriately enough to remain in Flow. Incidentally, another option, theoretically, would be to drop our skill level (derp!) to meet a lack of challenge (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008).
So what does this mean to you and I?
It means that it is critical that we honestly assess ourselves in order to ensure that our tasks are just challenging enough to keep us in flow, yet not so difficult that they cause undue anxiety, and not so easy that they put us to sleep. For most of us, this type of objective assessment can be quite difficult, which is why coaches can be invaluable tools in helping us to our goals.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination human behavior. New York: Plenum.