Flow is a state where you’re completely engrossed in a task with your entire mental or physical energy. You’re so invigorated by the activity that you even lose track of time.
Ayrton Senna, the 3 time Formula One racing champion described what he experienced during the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix. “I was already on pole, and I just kept going. Suddenly I was nearly two seconds faster than anybody else, including my teammate with the same car. And suddenly I realized I was no longer driving the car consciously. I was driving it by a kind of instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel.”
Senna was in the flow state during the competition and that brought his best performance out.
But, do only the top athletes have such experiences? Of course not. You and I have the same feeling many a time.
Try to recall working with your entire attention on a task you loved. For example, playing a musical instrument, exercising, or working on a project. Here are a few things you experienced:
- Your motivation came from within and you wanted to do your best on the task
- You enjoyed solving any challenge you encountered to reach the goal
- You were so immersed in the task that you lost track of time. You looked at the clock and exclaimed, “Wow, is it 2 PM already?”
But do you go through the same emotions for all the tasks? Unfortunately not. During some of your tasks, you could hear the clock tick every single time while you waited with frustration for it to end.
Why the difference? Time moves at the same pace irrespective of the task you work on. Why do you feel that the time stalls on one occasion, but on the other, it just whizzes by?
The answer lies in whether you were in a state of flow or not.
In this article, we delve into the flow state with comprehensive details. We’ll talk about its characteristics, the neurological science behind it, the conditions necessary, real examples, and ways to get into flow.
- What is the flow state?
- When does flow occur?
- Characteristics of flow state
- Why flow makes neurological sense?
- What are the conditions to achieve a flow state?
- Examples of flow state:
- How to achieve flow state?
- 1. Identify your core area:
- 2. Balance your skill and the challenge
- 3. Eliminate distractions
- 4. Spend time building expertise every day
- 5. Challenge yourself to explore
- 6. Expose yourself to new experiences
What is the flow state?
Flow is a state of mind where both your brain and body are deeply involved in an activity out of self-interest. Though it sounds tedious, in reality, you don’t put in conscious effort in a state of flow. Your practice and mastery aid your subconscious mind to run on autopilot.
When does flow occur?
Flow occurs under different circumstances for different people but the below two conditions form the foundation:
- You enjoy the task and you’re at least reasonably good at it
- You’re performing the task out of your interest, not because someone asked you to
Without these two conditions, you’re unlikely to reach a state of flow.
Characteristics of flow state
Every person has a different experience in a flow state of mind. If you compare what Ayrton Senna felt with another Formula One Champion like Michael Schumacher, he’ll tell you about a different state of mind and body. Same sport, same championship, same goal, but an entirely different experience.
Despite the differences, here are characteristics common to the flow state:
- You put in your best effort
- You’re self-motivated to perform the task to your best ability
- You enjoy the challenge because neither is it too easy nor too difficult
- You experience contentment performing the task, irrespective of the result
- You lose your self consciousness and fail to capture a portion of what your five senses are feeding you
- You’re at your peak concentration level with very minimal distractions
- You experience a distorted sense of time where the clock seems to move faster or slower based on the activity you’re doing. Hours can seem like minutes or seconds move one millisecond at a time.
- An example for time moving slower: A ballerina in the state of flow can sense every second that passes by during a 2-minute performance
- An example for time moving faster: A writer in a state of flow puts together 25 pages only to realize 3 hours had gone by
- When you’re in the flow state, materialistic needs take a backseat. You don’t feel hunger or the need to visit the restroom until a threshold.
Why flow makes neurological sense?
Science explains the difference in our experience when we’re in a state of flow.
Your mind can only process a limited amount of information at a time(though the limit is large). But, at every moment you’re awake, your senses gather a vast variety of information. You feel the breeze graze your skin, you smell the fragrance of your partner’s perfume, you hear cars honk, you see how your friend walks and you taste the flavor of ice cream. That’s a lot to deal with even though our brain has abilities superior to a supercomputer.
As per Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the author of the best-selling book, Flow, our nervous system can only process a maximum of 110 bits per second. It’s up to you to decide if you’ll most of your processing capacity on one single task or several concurrent activities. If your brain needs to handle different tasks, it’ll do a mediocre job at each of them. But, if you channel all that processing power on a single activity, you’ll deliver your best.
You can test this out in real life too if you like. Sending an email is an easy activity, right? And talking to your friend? Even easier. Now, try to do them both together. You’ll struggle to type words or miss what your friend said. If your brain needs to handle different tasks, it’ll do an average job at each of them. But, if you focus on one task alone, you’ll do better.
To enter a flow state, you must work on only one activity with all your attention. Sure, your senses will remain active, but you’ll minimize your brain’s job if focus on a single task alone. Compare that with alternating between tasks, checking your phone, and peeping outside the window. You give your brain a hard time because not only does it have to handle the information gathered by your senses, but also the chaos of other activities you’re involved with.
What are the conditions to achieve a flow state?
Different people experience flow for different activities. Let’s go through some of the prerequisites to enter the flow state. Due to the difference in our personality and core area, all of these aren’t mandatory. The more of these you meet, the higher your chances of entering and maintaining the state of flow.
The exceptions are the routine tasks you perform without thinking such as tying your shoelaces or taking a shower. Though you can perform them on autopilot without any significant conscious thought, such activities don’t constitute the flow state because neither do they challenge you nor do you enjoy them.
1. The motivation should be intrinsic:
You’re far more likely to achieve flow if you’re working on an activity you like to spend time on. Though some people reach flow on tasks that others asked them to finish, the percentages are low.
As per the self determination theory, the presence of competence, autonomy, and relatedness provides intrinsic motivation to perform an activity.
2. Have clear goals:
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.Lewis Caroll
When you begin a task without a goal in mind, you’ll run around in circles, procrastinate at every opportunity, and only put in as little effort as possible. You can’t blame yourself for it because you haven’t informed your brain what it needs to do.
When I first started writing content for my blog, I would sit in front of a computer with a thought, “Ok, I need to come up with content for an article.” The process would take forever and many a time, I would be staring at a blank screen doing nothing.
When I made a minor change to my approach, my writing changed too. “Ok, I will draft a skeleton article for 30 minutes, after which I will spend the next 30 to write 500 words.” The new message helped my brain understand what it needed to do and by when. It transformed the output of my writing time. I follow the same practice even today. At times I fail to meet the target I set, but I know my brain tried its best.
3. The gap between skills and goals:
To attain flow state, you must attempt tasks that make you “a little uncomfortable”. The name originates from the story of the three bears and the little girl named Goldilocks. Long story short, she preferred the porridge which is neither too hot nor too cold, the one that had the right temperature.
If you look for immediate results and attempt extreme goals which are way above your skill level, you’ll feel defeated and lose the motivation to persist. Instead, aim to incrementally challenge yourself.
For example, if you have never exercised before, don’t aim to work out an hour a day for 5 days a week. That’s too big a shift to attain flow. You will stop exercising because the whole experience will turn gruesome.
On the other hand, if you can reach your goal without challenging yourself, you won’t achieve a flow state either. That’s because your mind and body find the job too easy.
In principle, to achieve the state of flow you should neither set a goal that lies well within your expertise nor what is far beyond your skills. The sweet spot lies right in between where your goal is both challenging and attainable.
You can target unrealistic goals in the long run, but if you want to achieve flow, keep your daily expectations realistic.
4. Your expertise with the task:
You cannot pick any random task and achieve a flow state even if you’re brimming with intrinsic motivation. You also need to be reasonably good at the task.
During your early days with any activity, you cannot achieve flow. You’ll get there only after you sharpen your skills. Don’t kick yourself if you struggle to reach the flow state in the early days. It takes patience and expertise in the task to attain the flow state.
5. Tasks must have immediate feedback:
You have a higher chance of achieving flow if you receive immediate feedback on your performance. The feedback doesn’t have to come from an external source or a person. If you can sense how you’re performing, that works too.
For example, an athlete can sense how things are going during practice even in the absence of a coach. But, a sales professional practicing a pitch will have no clue about its effectiveness.
Unfortunately, not all tasks can provide you immediate feedback. You will have to come up with creative ideas to measure or sense your performance.
Here are some examples:
- If you’re a writer, true feedback comes from the readers, but if you wait until then, you cannot achieve flow while you’re writing. Instead, you can set a goal for the number of words to target or you can re-read what you just wrote and be your own critic.
- If you’re a sales executive practicing a conversion tactic, record your pitch and evaluate how it sounds. Another option is to sit in front of a mirror and assess your body language and posture.
Examples of flow state:
Flow state in music:
Top musicians perform in a flow state. Their practice and expertise have fed the information deep into their subconscious mind. Even if they have to play a sophisticated note, they can do it effortlessly.
Research conducted on musicians showed how the flow state causes physiological changes too. During the experiment, professional classical pianists played a musical piece 5 times while their respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, facial muscle, and head movement were measured.
The results showed that when the musicians were in a state of flow, their heart rate and blood pressure reduced, and their facial muscles relaxed. The performance didn’t take a toll on their mind and body. It helped them relax.
Flow in sports:
Different people have used unique terminology to describe the state of flow in sports.
In the book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey refers to the experience as “being in the zone”. He explains how tennis champions at the world-class level play in a flow state. You’d assume the Federers and Nadals think hard when they’re competing at the Grandslam. But, during the game, their conscious and subconscious actions gel together as one piece like milk and flavor in ice cream.
Martial arts uses the term Budo while Karate refers to the flow state as Mushin.
Moto GP rider Wayne Gardner described his flow state with the words, ”During these last five laps, I had this sort of above body experience where I actually rised up above and I could see myself racing. It was kind of a remote control and it’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever had in my life.” When he was asked how did he do that, he simply replied ”I have no idea.”
Flow at the workplace:
Hollywood movies show employees experiencing a flow state when they’re at work. In the movie, The Social Network, the angry Eduardo Saverin picks Mark Zuckerberg’s laptop and slams it on the floor.
Just before he does, Justin Timberlake’s reaction summarizes how much the flow state matters to the people who have developed a routine of them. He knows Eduardo is looking to confront Mark, but he says, “He’s wired in,” which meant “Leave him alone in his flow state.” Also, it was a cowardly way of escaping a difficult conversation.
Most IT employees assume they cannot reach a flow state at work because of the distractions surrounding them. Take a cue from movies about startups where you’ll notice people zoned in their work wearing earphones.
You’ll achieve a flow state at work only if you’ll make an effort to reduce distractions and get there.
Flow in gaming:
If you’ve visited a gaming cafe or have a gamer at home, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The gamer is deeply engrossed within the game and is oblivious to his surroundings. Yes, that’s because of the noise cancelation headphones he’s wearing, but the other reason is that during the peak moments of the game, he’s in the flow state, making conscious decisions and letting his unconscious reflexes execute them.
Why does an employee fail to experience the same feeling at the job that he’s paying him a fat paycheck, while a gamer reaches the flow state faster? That’s because any gamer plays a game out of self-interest and is eager to win. Most games become incrementally difficult as they proceed which helps sharpen his skills.
Whether you consider gaming useful or not is beside the point. The whole circumstances surrounding gaming offer the right platform to achieve the flow state.
Flow in art and creative fields:
Like music, flow is common in other fields of art and creativity too.
- A painter is in the zone while bringing his next painting to life
- A writer puts together pages of her new book in the flow state
- A public speaker presents with vigor by experiencing flow
Like gaming, the field of art and creativity facilitates flow because the candidates have chosen the activity out of their self-interest and put in efforts to improve their skills.
Flow in academics:
Many students cannot hold their focus during study time. They feel the urge to peek into their phone or watch the street from their window. Due to their lack of interest, some students believe reading isn’t meant for them. But is that true?
If I gave you your favorite comic or a book on a topic of your interest, your mind wouldn’t wander as much, would it? Therefore, your lack of interest stems from the subject, not your personality. You’re unable to hold focus because you don’t have an intrinsic purpose to study.
Unfortunately, students do not have the choice to pick only the subjects of their choice during academics. Therefore, whenever you fail to achieve flow state with studies, don’t undermine yourself. It has less to do with your ability and more to do with the subject.
In fact, do not aim to achieve flow in the subject you’re least interested it. Instead, find other techniques to grasp the material faster despite the distractions. One such method is called overlearning, which suggests practicing what you’ve studied. If you study science, look around you to spot any connections even if they’re vague.
But again, you cannot practice all subjects even if you want to, for example, history. Another approach is to use the Feynman technique where you teach what you’ve studied. You can either find a real person to teach or assume a virtual student is sitting right in front of you.
The Feynman technique helps you understand the gaps in your knowledge and serves as a reality check.
How to achieve flow state?
The prerequisites and the examples above should have already given you an idea of how to achieve the flow state. Nevertheless, in this section, we’ll discuss how to induce flow state.
1. Identify your core area:
Most people fail to achieve flow because they’re working on a task they don’t truly enjoy. They picked it up because someone else asked them to or due to an incentive involved.
A prevalent example involves employees of IT companies who cannot reach flow at their job. If you’re one of them, that’s simply because you don’t enjoy what you’re doing. That’s not different than trying to win an archery competition when you have no interest in archery. Sure, you have a shot at winning, but the other person who has a genuine interest has a greater chance because he’ll put in more effort than you will.
To achieve flow, you will have to begin with an area you enjoy spending time on. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your passion, but at the very least it shouldn’t be a task you hate.
For example, students fresh out of college pick their first job like picking an item from a bag of free goodies. Many join the company which offers them the highest salary irrespective of what the role demands them to do. Circumstances or the need for money can lead to such decisions, but the first job shapes up a person’s professional career.
To achieve flow, pick an expertise you love. If you cannot, at least choose a field you don’t hate.
2. Balance your skill and the challenge
Let’s categorize people into three types
a. Those who stick to what they’re doing
These are the people who aim small, reach that goal early, and remain where they are. For example, if you want to achieve a moderate salary(which over 50% of the people in that domain do), you can achieve that goal within your first 5 years at work.
Once you get there, you stick to your routine and do the same activities day in and day out. But, you can only achieve mastery if you indulge in tasks that challenge you every day.
b. Those who try too hard
These are the people who are eager to reach the target in the shortest time possible. Therefore, they expect big results in a short time, only to disappoint themselves and give up.
For example, in the blogging industry, new bloggers read a success story of a normal person like them making 100K a month with their new blog. So, they start their own blog with an expectation to hit a similar result. But, the people who achieve audacious goals in short term are exceptions and usually come up with other practice which aided their success. If you aim for such targets, you’ll lose motivation and give up because the challenge is too difficult for your skills.
c. Those who incrementally challenge themselves
These are the people who start at a grassroots level and then increase the difficulty little by little.
The technique goes centuries back in history where Milo of Croton, a 6th century B.C wrestler, carried a newborn calf on his shoulder every day. He continued the same practice for four years, during which the calf grew into an ox, making him stronger little by little. The incremental challenge helped his muscle grow and develop enormous strength over the years.
If you challenge yourself to improve your skill one step at a time, you have a higher chance of maintaining enthusiasm. You will stretch yourself little by little and enjoy the process. Persistence and incremental challenge help you achieve flow state in the long run.
3. Eliminate distractions
Today, you have umpteen opportunities to waste your time on. You can read hundreds of text messages, scroll through a neverending news feed, or binge-watch TV forever. If that wasn’t enough, constant emails, instant messages, and meetings demand your attention too.
To achieve mastery in any skill in the current world, filtering such distractions out is no longer an added bonus, but a mandate. If you walk through your day without making any effort to cut the noise out, you’ll lose more time than you think.
People who have attained world-class skills will tell you how they managed to focus. Their techniques will be different, yet each of them would have made a conscious effort to steer clear from their distractions.
4. Spend time building expertise every day
Getting into a state of flow requires the ability to do a skill well enough. No matter how highly motivated you are, you cannot achieve flow as a beginner at any task.
Therefore, when you’re new to a skill, spend time improving your ability. You can call it flow state training if you like. You will fumble during your first few attempts, grow frustrated, and even assume that you’re not cut for it. But, don’t give up if you want to achieve mastery in that skill. The successful people you know endured the same challenges before they reached the elite level.
Most people do not take the time to improve the skills in the core area. They prioritize other routines and responsibilities with the mindset, “I will …… when I find the time.” You can fill the blank with read a book, take up a course, learn a new tactic, or any other practice that hones your skill.
The best way to achieve mastery is to spend time every day to improve your expertise, even in little ways. 30 minutes of practice appears like nothing, but a year later, you’d be surprised to find out how far you’ve come.
5. Challenge yourself to explore
Have you found yourself lazing through a task at half your efficiency and speed? That’s because when you allow your brain to run on autopilot, it will choose the most comfortable method and consume all the available time to complete a given task. Such behavior hinders your potential to enter the flow state.
When you challenge your brain to stretch its limits little by little, not only do you enjoy the activity, but you also increase your chances of entering flow. That said, don’t take it too far and attempt something which is way above your current skill level.
If you’re unsure how to challenge yourself, here are a few ideas:
- Use a different technique to do a routine job
- Allow yourself less than the usual time to complete the job(Use a timer to keep track)
- Learn about related techniques even if they’re not directly applicable to your skills
- For example, I read about fiction writing tips even though I don’t intend to write in that genre. They’ve taught me tricks that I apply to my personal development content.
- Find out how other people approach the same goal and their techniques
6. Expose yourself to new experiences
You’ve heard the story of the frog in a well. No matter how intelligent you are, if you stick to your individual knowledge, you limit the expertise you’re capable of achieving.
Do not stick to your perspective alone. Step out of the well and expose yourself to the vast world around you which is filled with brilliant people who can teach you a trick or two.
You don’t have to stick to your core expertise alone. You will improve your knowledge if you branch out into other areas associated with the skill.
For example, you will become a better programmer if you participate in customer engagement. You will become a better salesperson if you understand how technology powers your product. You will become a better investor if you study human behavior.
Do not limit yourself to the academic bounds of your core skill alone. If you engage in other activities related to your expertise, you will spark new connections in your brain cells that traditional knowledge never would.
If you want to increase your chances of reaching a flow state:
- Meet or talk to experts in your field
- Attend seminars, take up courses and read books on related areas
- Take up online challenges or participate in groups of like-minded people
When you hear about the flow state for the first time, you’ll assume that only accomplished monks or successful people can achieve such levels of focus. But, that’s not true. Every person gets into a flow during certain activities with or without one’s knowledge. I can guarantee that you have experienced flow when you were performing an activity that you loved. That should instill the belief in you that you can do it again. And again. And again.
All it takes is a touch of expertise and a pinch of persistence to make it a daily habit. This article has all the information you need to achieve flow. Now, you have to go out there and make it happen for you. Will you?
NPR. (2015, April 17). What Makes A Life Worth Living? NPR. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/399806632.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, April 28). Flow (psychology). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).
Cherry, K. (n.d.). How to Achieve Flow. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-flow-2794768.
Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, April 22). Milo of Croton. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milo_of_Croton.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.