The chirp of a bird outside your window breaks you from your trance.
You look up from your desk and think: “Where was I?”
You’ve been working for hours, but it felt like minutes. Your conscious mind was totally embraced in the task at hand, in a liminal space where nothing else mattered.
What you’ve created wasn’t easy, but it’s pretty darn good. You’ve made a satisfying amount of progress on a tricky task. And it was enjoyable, too.
That experience? It’s called the flow state.
Flow is that magical time when you’re working on something challenging, the outside world is shut off, and you’re so deep in concentration that time seems to disappear.
Flow lies in the intersection between enjoyment and challenge, and if we take a moment to understand it, it can hugely increase our life satisfaction, as well as our productivity.
What Is A Flow State?
The concept of flow was first identified in 1975, and popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, it’s:
“…the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”
It’s made up of six important parts:
- Intense concentration on the task at hand.
- A merging of action and awareness - “being and doing become one”
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- Agency, or a sense of personal control over the situation
- A distortion of the perception of time
- Autotelic experience, or the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding, rather than the expected outcome
It’s a state of both high challenge and high skill—a place where we’re capable of stretching ourselves to overcome difficulty.
This graph shows the ideal conditions for flow to occur (top right):
That combination of challenge and skill is where we find satisfaction, happiness, and growth — and it’s something we should all aim for.
What Flow Is Not
It’s not easy.
The word “effortless” shouldn’t really be used when talking about flow. Some think that it’s a state of pure joy, where we love the work so much it just pours out of us like a river.
But that’s disingenuous (and against Professor Csikszentmihalyi’s thesis, as shown by the graph above).
Really, it’s a state where hard work meets joy and meaning.
It’s the time when we show ourselves what we can really achieve: where we operate to our highest potential.
And it’s not for beginners.
The act of learning how to do something won’t always allow us to get into flow. During practice, there’s a level of conscious self-analysis we need to improve on during each attempt; a lot of stop-start-change as we go along. Getting into the zone in a specific discipline is something that needs to be learned and practiced.
Barbara Gail Montero’s critical piece for Aeon, “Against Flow”, highlights the difference between expert performance and flow:
"Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that flow is conducive to optimal experience. But it doesn’t tell us anything about whether it is conducive to optimal performance. So look for flow when you want to feel better, but not necessarily when you want to do better. This doesn’t mean that performing is always unpleasant; in my experience, it’s not quite as bad as the comedian Steve Martin makes out in his memoir Born Standing Up (2007), where he writes:
‘Enjoyment while performing … would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford.’ Still, enjoyable performances are not necessarily the best performances. Relinquishing the quest for pleasure is sometimes the only way to embark on that never-ending path to perfection."
It’s also possible to get into a flow state doing unhealthy activities. For example, you can actually get into a flow state by playing addictive video games or gambling. So, it’s not specifically achieved in a positive way—but we can, and should, use it positively.
The Psychology Of Flow
Flow has been studied extensively in music and sport; two areas where the confines of creativity are relatively easy to measure.
However, it can also be achieved in writing, dancing, puzzle solving, public speaking, socializing, and other activities. If you’ve ever been in a conversation so engaging you lost track of time, that conversation might have transcended you to a flow state.
Flow has been studied extensively by psychology researchers. It’s not a mystical experience. It’s measurable and real, and it appears to be achievable by many, if not all, people.
Essentially, anyone involved in contemplative, creative, or thoughtful endeavors can achieve a state of flow.
There’s also a really interesting correlation between flow states and those that experience synaesthesia (interplay between sensory experiences) and ASMR.
ASMR is a flow-like sensory experience, fairly new to scientific research, that involves intense relaxation in a trance state along with tingles along the head and neck. It’s brought on by quiet sounds like whispering, or ambient background noise. As one study puts it:
"Anecdotal reports of ASMR describe states of focus, of greater ‘presence’ and of relaxation which are consistent with the non-active aspects of flow.”
If you’ve ever gone down the YouTube rabbit-hole of ASMR videos, you’ll know that it’s a pretty interesting experience, and can really put you in a relaxed, focused mood.
And so, if you put flow in context next to this, it becomes a little clearer what flow is: a response to certain stimuli. Just like hypnosis and meditation. Research shows that ASMR can be induced by a “fairly consistent set of triggers” and so can creative flow.
So how exactly can you set up those stimuli, and invoke those flow state triggers?
How To Induce The Flow State
The ability to induce a state of flow is highly useful in art, business, and life. There are a few simple things you can do to ensure you’re able to achieve it.
1. Make Sure You’re Focused On The Right Tasks
It’s almost impossible to get into the flow state if you’re doing something you don’t like. Remember, you’re looking for experiences that are inherently enjoyable, meaningful, or satisfying. So the first step is to aim for autotelic experience.
We all have to do unpleasant things in life. Even in our dream job, we might have to reply to emails, chase invoices, or have uncomfortable conversations. But there’s usually at least one part of working life that you can really enjoy. Can you carve out time to focus on that?
Chris Bailey, author of Hyperfocus: How to Work Less and Achieve More, explains:
“If you find it difficult to become immersed in your work throughout the day, it’s worth questioning whether your tasks are difficult or complex enough. If you’re frequently bored, consider whether your job takes advantage of your unique skill set. If your mind is still frequently wandering, it’s a pretty good sign your tasks aren’t complex enough and don’t consume enough of your attentional space.”
2. Practice Makes A Perfect Flow State
Following on from the above points on performance vs. flow, you need some level of skill in doing something before really achieving the heights of a flow state.
Speaking, writing, coding, leading, painting. Each of these disciplines has the potential for a flow state of activity.
But it’s almost impossible for beginners, as they’ll be focused on learning how to do the thing first. It’s only after you reach a state of competence that you’ll be able to cast away the shackles of learning and really get into the zone.
How do we get good at getting into this optimal zone?
- Learn how others do it
- Try it yourself
- Analyze your performance
- Try again, based on what you’ve learnt
3. Find The Right Environment
Distraction is the enemy of flow. Being in a place conducive to creative thought and focus is critical for inducing a flow state of mind.
Some have the fortune of a home office, or somewhere quiet to hide away when things get busy and loud, like this Trello user:
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It's Wednesday and that means we feature a #WhereITrello winner 🌻💡 "Thank you Trello for helping me stay organized and mind dump during my PhD 🙌🏽🙏🏽 — check out the post on my page!" - @scholarculture ________________________________________ #WhereITrello - a weekly feature where we want to see 👀 and hear👂🏽about where you're using Trello and on what. Post a pic of Trello on your desk, farm, rug, wherever you work and tell us your story on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #WhereITrello for a chance to win limited edition swag every week! --- **We'll announce winners every week and will ship over some limited edition swag 👕
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If you don’t, there are some measures you can take.
If you’re in an office, perhaps ask your coworkers to keep the chatter to a minimum, or try using noise-cancelling headphones. If you can, sit somewhere quiet where not many people walk through your peripheral vision. People-watching can be a tempting distraction, too.
Music or ambient sounds can be really helpful; preferably calm, repetitive, atmospheric sounds so your brain doesn’t focus on melody or words. ASMR sounds can help, of course, and even some comforting rain sounds could do the trick.
4. Take Care Of Your Creative Health
Your ability to be creative, and achieve a lasting flow state, hinges upon your energy and health. It just won’t happen if you’re exhausted and overworked.
We all know what the basics are, and as long as you do them properly, you’ll be healthy.
In the words of Tom Rath: Eat, Move, Sleep.
Usually, one of these three is being neglected when we’re not feeling creative, or can’t get into the zone.
I’d complement this with a deeper dive into rest—specifically, the four types of rest, outlined by Dr. Matthew Edlund, in his book ’The Power of Rest: Why Sleep Alone is Not Enough’.
His four types are:
- Mental rest - Meditation, reading fiction and things unrelated to your work, appreciating your surroundings, and letting your mind wander, rather than looking at your phone.
- Social rest - Using social connectedness to relax, like hanging out with friends, playing a team sport, talking on the phone, or giving and receiving long hugs. Our psychological needs for contact can be forgotten when we’re in the zone with our work.
- Spiritual rest - Appreciating the beauty of nature, going to a place of worship, or just taking time to think about the big questions in life. This can give us some much needed perspective on where we’re spending our energy.
- Physical rest - Getting horizontal, relaxing those muscles, taking a bath, sleeping late, or stretching out with some yoga. Walking and exercise can count as rest if you normally sit down all day. Your body will thank you.
Get those four necessities covered and you’ll be in an ideal state to achieve creative flow, longer and more often.
Finding And Tapping Into The Fountain Of Flow
The flow state, as mysterious as it seems, is legitimately achievable. When you really get into the zone, you’re capable of some pretty extraordinary creative feats.
Sometimes you’re tasked with doing things you don’t want to do. But challenge will keep you awake, full of life and vibrant. Stretching yourself to overcome challenges is part of the journey of life.
Sure, if you’re not enjoying your job, it’ll be hard to find purpose in everyday tasks, but that can act as a spark to try to find a new challenge. In that case, it might be time to ask yourself a question:
Are you just coasting? Or are you finding flow?