Thanks for your question. It is a good one because finding and understanding flow is a terrific aim to shoot for. Let’s begin with the working definition of flow — just so we are on the same page. This is the definition offered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow.
“The event is freely chosen; The goal is clear;
There is a high degree of focus;
A loss of self-consciousness occurs by engaging in the action; Time is distorted;
Feedback on performance is immediate and concrete; There is a sense of control in the situation or activity; The challenge is high, but there is balance between ability and the task; Bodily needs are less noticed; There is effortlessness in the activity because it is intrinsically rewarding.”
This may be more deeply understood by the term Wu wei of “effortless action in Taoism and Confucianism.
The flow idea involves having the right amount of skill and challenge in a task to keep you engaged. This means that you are not wanting too much anxiety nor too much boredom to enter into the flow zone. To effortlessly engage in something that requires skill and a challenge means your focus is 100% engaged and the task itself becomes its own reward. When we study this process the term used for this engagement and absorption is “autotelic.” The meaning of this is to have a spontaneous connection with a task that you are fully engaged in because it matches your skill level and challenge in front of you.
“A flow state at a whim,” as you have described it is likely to be where the issue is. The game isn’t challenging you enough and has become a tad boring and now something else has become a distraction. That isn’t likely to be a flow state either since you are struggling to get back to the task at hand, which is the game.
Think of tit this way, if you were learning to juggle eggs the skill and challenge level, in the beginning, would have a tad too much anxiety of breaking them. But once you have mastered the process and gotten really good at it you would go into flow. But let’s say you did this every day for six months and it became too boring. The challenge in it was gone, and you became distracted. The boredom would lead to disengagement and you’d be out of the flow zone.
The trick of staying in the flow zone when you have become an expert is to keep adding small challenges to keep your interest and engagement. I would tell the juggler to replace one of the three eggs they were juggling with a delicate teacup. This slight shift in the game would eventually make all the difference in increasing their attention, engagement, and flow.
Your job is to figure out how to make the playing of your game a tad more challenging for your skill level.
Wishing you patience and peace,
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral