What comes to your mind when you hear the term “flow state”? — Maybe you haven’t heard it before, or maybe you don’t familiarize it as a good productive practice in your work routine but you have definitely experienced it before. Some people call it being “in the zone,” or “losing track of time”. When I first heard of it, I thought about it as a term for describing a relaxing “doing nothing” type of activity and it kind of is, but it totally isn’t — bear with me here.
Have you experienced feeling immersed in a task that you lose yourself and there is no sense of time? We are not talking about psychedelics here, it is actually a powerful state of mind you can tap into if you just let it and learn to know yourself enough to do it.
What is flow?
In fewer and more concise words — the flow state is the experience of being completely absorbed in an engaging and enjoyable task so absorbed that your attention is completely held by it. It generally makes you lose the sense of time and self-consciousness, and it arises when the level of challenge of the task and the level of skill of the person are in perfect balance.
This balance point is an important point for achieving flow. The task should be challenging enough to capture your undivided attention, but not so difficult that it becomes a burden. You should also be skilled enough to tackle the task at hand without feeling defeated.
If the challenges are too low, you can get back into a flow state by increasing the difficulty of the task. On the other hand, if the challenges are too great, one can return to the flow by learning new skills. Flow is not only useful in the moment; it also pushes you, subconsciously, to become more skilled at what you’re doing and to seek out new challenges in order to experience flow more.
What happens when you’re in Flow State?
Although neuroscience has not fully understood flow yet, researchers recognize it as a distinct mental state. Engaging in a task that is challenging but not frustrating allows our brain to relax in an unusual way. Effortless focus activates the brain's Central Executive Network (CEN) and frees up other parts of our brains to make connections. Although you are working, flow is inherently restorative and pleasurable. When in flow, dopamine is released, which makes you feel more relaxed, optimistic, energized, and dedicated to the task at hand.
According to the psychologist Csíkszentmihályi, who is known as one of the co-founders of the field of positive psychology and the first to identify and research the phenomenon of flow, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow:
- Clear, attainable but not too easy goals
- Complete focus on the activity itself
- Strong concentration and focused attention
- Knowing that a task is doable; a balance between skill level and challenge
- Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome
- The activity is intrinsically rewarding
- Immediate feedback
- Lack of awareness of physical needs
- A feeling of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness
- Timelessness; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time
How to achieve flow?
More important than finding the balance between skill and challenge is learning how to acknowledge when you are in flow and understanding the factors that got you there, so you can implement them more frequently throughout your work routines.
Everyone is unique, and flow can’t be attained with the same recipe for everyone, but I am here to provide you with some resources and proven techniques that can help you forge your own path to flow.
1. Setting Specific and reachable goals
As you read on the list above, goal setting applies to everything in life, it is an essential component of the activities and experiences that support flow. We move closer to the ideal experience when we set a goal and focus all our efforts on achieving it.
Working on big projects can be overwhelming and hinder the ability to enter a flow state. Breaking down tasks into smaller goals and focusing on each one as we complete them helps us maintain our attention and avoid stress. This approach not only improves work performance but also creates an ideal workflow environment, leading to feelings of happiness.
2. Setting a pre-flow routine
Ideally, entering a state of flow is simply a matter of getting settled and getting started. However, there are times when this is difficult, even when we love and are highly skilled at the task at hand. As mentioned earlier, recognizing when you are in flow and identifying the factors that aided you to get there can assist us in establishing a routine of "warm-up" exercises to ease us into the flow state.
I like my rituals to set the tone for a flow session. It doesn’t have to be complex - for me, a simple cup of matcha tea, breaking my task into smaller pieces, and having an "explore" session of 15-20 minutes to read, watch a video, or listen to a podcast about the task ahead helps me get into the mood to achieve my flow state.
3. Task batching
Batch similar tasks together in order to hit autopilot, this enables the same area of your brain and eases you into the flow. Before starting your working sessions, take a few extra minutes to review all the tasks ahead for the day, and if possible, categorize them for your convenience. You can categorize them based on the time it will take you to complete them or their level of complexity/skill usage. Doing so will skyrocket your productivity levels and help you get lost in time and space when you hit the flow zone.
4. Plan ahead, pause later
Not every task from work can fit into a flow state, but we can make our efforts to try to make it work. Before starting your working session, map out the kinds of problems you might not be able to solve ahead of time, then create rules or guidelines to make fast decisions when encountering them. These decisions don't need to be perfect; they just have to be good enough. There is no need to push your muscle memory to solve them at that moment. This will allow you to avoid breaking and pausing your moment of flow. Have heuristics prepared to make decisions easily, if these shortcuts don’t apply, try to work your way around or over the issue, but don't stop moving.
Take this idea into your next work session, and figure out if this solution applies to your workflow. If not, take it as an opportunity to learn about it; how can you improve or prevent a pause in your flow state in the future?
We must learn to pay attention to the feelings that inform us of our mental condition, even though flow is a desirable state to achieve in our working days in order to make them more pleasurable, we can’t force it. The brain can’t stay in flow all the time, optimally the mind stays in flow for around 90 minutes to 2 hours, and you have to make the most out of this time, without triggering burnout.
Looking for ways to optimize the amount of time we spend in flow makes us more engaged, satisfied, and creative. As Csíkszentmihályi states in his book - We must strive for flow in all we do, from our jobs and everyday responsibilities to our leisure time and pleasures, if we want to be truly happy.
Sure, you can get things done by just doing the bare minimum, but why not aim for something better? When you learn to recognize and cultivate the state of flow, it can become a wonderful present you can give to yourself to achieve your work in less time and bring more joy to your everyday life.