What is Flow?
Flow, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970’s, is used to describe the sensation of being so immersed in a task, that all distractions, time and mental clutter melt away. It’s likely we’ve all experienced ‘being in the zone’ at some point where we are completely absorbed in the task at hand. This is flow, an optimal state of mind, where we are deeply focused and performing to the best of our abilities. The idea of ‘performing’ is an important characteristic of flow. While time and distractions might melt away when we’re reading an exciting novel, or bingeing a netflix series, these are passive yet captivating activities. Flow is experienced during challenging yet engaging activities where we are actively involved.
What are the Benefits of Flow?
Flow is a state that can be experienced by anyone, and can be achieved for all kinds of activities and tasks. Typically, flow is associated with professional athletes, musicians or creatives, who become immersed when practising their craft. Yet, as long as there’s a match between your skillset and the task at hand, it’s completely possible for anyone to achieve flow. Before we discuss the core components of flow, why does it matter? It might sound impractical to be losing track of time, and even unrealistic when we have busy lives to juggle. It can seem like a one off luxury that we experience from time to time. Is there any need to actively pursue flow states?
However, flow can lead to us feeling more motivated, productive and empowered. In this state, we are working to our highest potential on tasks that matter to us. It can be easy to mistake flow as something that comes easily. But, really, flow is about engaging in work that we find challenging enough, which enables us to focus on the process rather than the outcome. Our hard work begins to provide a natural sense of joy because we become so immersed. This leads to a feeling of fulfilment, and accomplishment both during and after.
Flow often leads to higher quality outputs, which creates a positive feedback loop that makes us want to continue. Naturally, such experiences can build our self-confidence. In flow, we work automatically with a sense of clarity and deep focus. Thoughts and feelings, such as self-doubt, lack of motivation, and stress, disappear from our minds and give us space to work. Through this experience, we are not only feeling good, and performing well but also, seeing a positive end result.
- Our actions and consciousness fuse together to create a workflow that feels automatic. This leads to clarity while working and a feeling that things are ‘clicking into place’ as we progress through the task.
- We experience a deep level of focus, where we are completely immersed in and concentrated on the task at hand.
- This high level of focus means self-reflection is reduced and changes in our environment are less likely to be distracting. The thoughts and feelings that might typically cloud our minds take a pause during flow.
- We feel a sense of control and ease during our workflow. There’s a belief that we can maintain our current performance level during the task.
- Our goals are clear, we know what has to be done and the aims guiding us. This contributes to our workflow feeling automatic.
- There’s a positive feedback loop where we unconsciously monitor our progress. The more engaged we feel, the more positive feedback we get, which leads to the encouragement to continue with the task.
- The experience has autotelic properties, where the process feels rewarding, not just the outcome. Through focusing on the journey, we gain a sense of intrinsic reward, and may unlock news ideas and insights.
- Our perception of time shifts, we lose track of time and might not notice that time is changing. We have no sense of hours passing or how long we’ve been working.
- There will be a balance between our skills and the task at hand. Typically, tasks we complete during flow are something we care about and are good at. It’s not too easy or too difficult, but just challenging enough to keep us actively engaged.
5 Tips for Reaching a Flow State
Identify Natural Flow States
It’s likely you've experienced flow at some point, or during certain tasks and activities. These states of flow can be examined so that we’re able to recreate them. You can identify flow using the nine components we listed above. Some easy to pick out indicators are losing track of time, and experiencing a deep focus that can’t be broken by distractions. When you notice this happening, you can then see if other components of flow align with your current state.
Additionally, observe yourself during these flow states, what are you doing physically and mentally? For example, physically you might be participating in a hackathon but mentally, you’re engaging in team focused problem solving. Alternatively, you might be alone at your desk, completely immersed in a creative task. This will be unique to you, and highlight the motivations that drive your flow states. You can then try to recreate this for other tasks and activities.
Have a Flow Routine
The more often we shift into flow, the easier it will get. Flow can become a repeatable routine that we implement into our lives. For high concentration tasks that we complete often, we can create a pre-routine that prepares our minds to enter flow. These mental cues can be small, such as a short walk, or preparing a cup of tea or coffee before you begin the task. Another good habit for entering flow is meditation, not only can this prime our brains for a flow state, but also this can make achieving flow more likely in future. Meditation teaches us how to manage our focus and distractions. In a way, flow is a form of ‘active moving meditation’.
Choose the Right Tasks
First, it’s important to avoid multitasking and instead, choose a single and focused task or activity. These tasks ideally have a clear outcome or goal and require some brain power. Flow state often occurs when we complete tasks that are both enjoyable, yet challenging. This depends on your skills and interests but the better the match between your skills, and task, the more likely flow is. If a task is too easy, you’ll become disengaged but if the task is too hard, you’ll feel unmotivated. This is why matching tasks to our skillset is important.
Follow Peak Creative and Productive Time Periods
Naturally, we all have those times in the day where we feel more focused, creative and energetic. These are perfect time periods to practise flow and allow the process to align with your peak productivity periods. Even if you’re not sure of when these times are, you can begin to identify when you feel at ease, and have a sense of control. This way, you can prepare yourself with a routine to enter flow state, and make use of the lack of mental obstacles, since you already feel motivated.
Flow is a state of complete focus, where distractions have no power. So, why do we need to eliminate them if they fall away? While distractions might go unnoticed during flow, they can be a barrier for entering flow. The less we have to occupy our attention, the easier it is to get started on our tasks and reach a flow state. Distractions can be both external, such as our environment, or internal, like our emotions and thoughts.
For our environments, we can aim to curate an ideal focus space, where interruptions are less likely. This could be silencing notifications, or setting limits for distracting websites that we gravitate towards. Likewise, our physical spaces can be better suited for focus, if we tidy up our workspaces, and set the mood with lighting and sounds that allow us to achieve concentration. For our internal distractions, journaling and meditation can help us to declutter mentally, and start tasks with a clear mind.