8:00 AM. The alarm rings for the third time since 7:00 AM. Your slightly crumbled yoga mat taunts you from the corner of the room. On your phone, eyes still half-asleep, daily news of the pandemic blends with cheery Instagram influencers. The soft light from your window announces another cloudy day. A new day begins. Is it Monday or Wednesday?

1:00 PM. Sitting in front of the computer, you stare at your ever-growing inbox or your pile of work. A sense of dread grows in your chest. It’s not that the task is difficult; it’s just that all your good ideas are now like treasures buried in a thick fog. With constant distractions, focusing on one task feels like a constant battle with yourself. On your phone, a friend asks how your day is going.

“Fine – and you?”

6:00 PM. “What are we eating?” is the question that dictates your day. After dinner, once the kids are asleep or after the work computer is turned off, you reach the couch and open your favourite show. Finally, you can completely drift off. You know you should be sleeping by now, but the next episode is already underway.

Perhaps today was Sunday.

The recent publication of a New York Times article brought a bit more light into this well-known feeling that lingers through some of these days: Languishing. According to the author Adam Grant, “languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.”

Sociologist Corey Keyes describes in his paper that the danger in languishing is that most people are not aware that these symptoms can eventually lead to major depression and anxiety disorders if not acknowledged and addressed.

Given our current global context and paired with increased screen-time and social isolation, many people are particularly vulnerable to prolonged languishing. College students are part of this group. One research conducted in the United States and published in 2020 revealed that of the 195 college students who participated in the study:

  • 89% reported difficulty in concentrating;
  • 86% stated disruptions to sleeping patterns and;
  • 82% had increased concerns about academic performance.

However, as raised by Adam Grant, there is an antidote to languishing. It’s called Flow.

As described in our article on Motivation: a driving force of learning engagement:

“The flow refers to a psychological state of deep well-being, concentration and intense motivation, which is achieved when an activity constitutes a challenge perceived as equal to or slightly superior to the skills one possesses.”

The concept of Flow is well known, especially with training athletes and musicians. When deeply focused on a task, some people reported to be so immersed, almost trance-like, that time seemed to slow down. Their surroundings, noises and distractions were fading into the background. This state can provide a great sense of accomplishment in completing a task as well as a break from intrusive thoughts. Anyone can experience the Flow state while running, knitting, drawing, cooking, or even playing your favourite video game.

Game Design is another field that talks extensively about the Flow state. When making games, developers focus their attention on finding the “sweet spot” for players. It’s all about finding a balance between abilities and challenges. If the abilities are too high for the challenge, the player will be bored. If the challenge is too high for the abilities, the player will be anxious, or rage-quit. But if you fine-tune the learning path, allowing players to practice their abilities while slowly increasing the challenges, rewarding them for the small and big victories, there are very high chances that they will reach the Flow zone. And once you’ve experienced it, this feeling can become quite addictive (in the good sense).

Games are all about building skills. And this puts game and learning experience designers in a very similar position. The Flow zone is one of many concepts used in game design that can be applied when designing a course or training. As learning experience designers, our main goal is to facilitate learning in an environment that provides a sense of motivation, progress and, dare I say it, even fun. Not in the sense that it should distract learners from their goals, but ease their learning process, their Flow zone.

However, as Adam Grant puts it: “fragmented attention is an enemy of engagement and excellence.” As we are constantly bombarded with notifications, emails, news, our attention becomes highly interrupted. When college students have to sit through hours of content almost every day on a computer, the challenges to stay focused are… well, quite high. And what happens when challenges are higher than abilities? Anxiety and rage-quit.

Even if learners are not constantly immersed in the Flow zone, we can still get inspired by the concept and try designing engaging ways of creating courses or training. When planning content, we can also think of different ways to present it in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm or dull learners. It doesn’t mean that everything should become easy-breezy; on the contrary, it’s about helping learners help themselves.

As mentioned in our Game Design course Game Creators’ Odyssey, here are few tips that we can also apply to learning experience design:

Give Learners Space to Think

  • Use metaphors to give additional examples to a newly introduced concept. Especially real-life examples that learners will be able to relate to and integrate into their vocabulary.
  • Use explainer videos to alternate heavier readings or lectures. This will help learners zoom out from detailed content and step back a little. You can find many online, or you can try to make one yourself using PowerPoint!

Adapt the Path

  • Progressive unlocking of content can help learners focus on smaller chunks of content instead of seeing the course as one big mountain to climb, thus lowering anxiety. Each chunk can have its own mission-like objective motivating learners to reach small attainable goals.
  • Varying activity types between theory and practice. By giving a moment of uninterrupted time, such as playing mini-games that relate to your content, learners will practise their skills in an environment similar to a real-life situation but without real-life consequences.

Reward Them

  • By giving badges or bonus points, learners can gain motivation from external rewards. You can also track their performance by using a (non-mandatory) leaderboard. This can increase the sense of competition in some learners, which is an internal motivator to progress through challenges.
  • Let them help each other (that’s rewarding too)! Some learners are motivated by mentoring other learners because it gives them a sense of purpose. Plus, it’s a great way to deepen their understanding of the content. If they can memorize it, that’s good, but if they can assimilate it and explain it to someone else, that’s great.

Languishing is not necessarily a new word or concept but used in our current situation, it takes a new meaning. We can now name our – I’m Fine! – with something that allows us to unpack a little more about our mental well-being. Having a name for this also gives us multiple solutions to address the languishing symptoms, like reaching the state of Flow. The latter concept is also not a new one. Sometimes, however, it’s good to remind ourselves of the benefits of some good uninterrupted time and tiny victories, especially these days.

So maybe instead of wondering if today is Sunday or not, you might ask yourself: What will make me Flow today?

Alexandra Beauchemin

Alexandra Beauchemin

Learning Experience Designer @KnowledgeOne |
Game Design Mentor at NAD School

Alexandra Beauchemin is a Learning Experience Designer specializing in the use of gamification and XR technologies in learning experiences. Skilled in Communication, Design and Qualitative Research, she graduated in communication and cultural studies from Concordia University. Alexandra has a Master’s degree from NAD School focusing on the use of Game Design to create personalized and memorable player experiences.