Have you ever experienced a time when you felt like you were “in the zone”? Where you were so involved in what you were doing that everything else around you disappeared and time seemed to stand still?
Psychologists call this experience “flow”, and it’s essential to making our lives more meaningful. We become much more productive in a state of flow but more importantly achieving flow and developing it in more intricate ways in our life leads to a more enjoyable and fulfilled life.
What is the definition of “Flow”?
“I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow—the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Before reading Mihaly’s book I had been aware of this phenomenon. However, I had thought of it to be something that existed only through something like a hobby or sport that required intense focus… like skateboarding or playing the piano. But in his book on Flow, Mihaly takes it a lot further.
To find out more about who Csikszentmihalyi is, including how to pronounce his name, click here
. Mihaly and his team of researchers developed the theory of flow
through interviewing people (from all walks of life, all across the world) about the times in their lives that they felt most content, most in control, and most in the moment. What they found was that the specific activity mattered less than you might think. It would make sense that creative, exciting work would easily induce flow
states. But they also found factory workers, farmers, and people living in intense poverty report flow
experiences. As it turns out, the actual experience itself matters less than the way you approach it. The “how” is more important than the “what”.
Csikszentmihalyi’s research also revealed some counterintuitive things about the optimal experience. He found that many of the activities people pursue in their leisure time (watching TV, in particular) were among the LEAST enjoyable. The most enjoyable moments were rather the ones full of challenge and even pain:
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times….The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Flow p. 3).
Certain activities can induce flow states more easily than others, to truly achieve flow requires deliberate intention and effort. Learning to achieve flow, you learn to control your consciousness and focus. It requires you to “concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else”, with the ultimate goal of leading to more enjoyment of the task and ultimately a more meaningful life.
Mihaly’s team found 8 specific characteristics to define a flow state. Here they are…
1. Clarity of Goals and Immediate Feedback
…as seen in many sports or the arts. A tennis player knows exactly what is required in order to win a game. The rules are clear. In every action, success or failure is immediately perceived. Sports and the arts are therefore classic flow-activities.
2. A High Level of Concentration on a Limited Field
This allows a person’s consciousness to delve deeply into the activity. In contrast, there are often chaotic and contradictory demands in daily life which may cause confusion and dissatisfaction.
3. Balance Between Skills and Challenge
The difficulty of a task has to provide the right degree of challenge to a person’s ability. A too difficult piece of music will leave a musician frustrated and disappointed, a too easy one leads to boredom and routine. So flow occurs in range between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’.
4. The Feeling of Control
Characteristic for flow is the feeling of heightened control over one’s actions. The expression ‘control’ is easily misunderstood. It can put many people off by its association with compulsive domination or nervous attention. Control in flow has none of these qualities. It is a state of security and relaxation with the complete absence of worry: the paradox known in Zen Buddhism as ‘control without controlling’.
Flow involves flexibility and ease; everything works harmoniously and effortlessly. A tennis match or a solo performance on stage may look strenuous from the outside; yet, if in fact the player is in flow, he or she does not experience any particular strain. The activity runs smoothly, guided by an inner logic. All necessary decisions arise spontaneously from the demands of the activity without any deliberate reflection.
6. An Altered Perception of Time
In a deep flow-state, one’s normal perception of time is on hold. Time can either feel condensed – two hours feel like ten minutes, or expanded – seconds feel like minutes. That is why the flow-mode is called ‘timeless’.
7. The Melting Together of Action and Consciousness
Complete involvement creates a state in which there is no room for worry, fear, distraction or self-conscious rumination. Performers do not feel separated from their actions; they are one with their performance. This feeling of unity can expand to a person’s surroundings (nature) as well as to a whole group of people working together (team flow).
8. The Autotelic Quality of Flow-experiences: IROI
From Greek autos – self and telos – goal. Not only achieving the goal of an activity is rewarding but the activity in itself is fulfilling. Flow is, therefore “Immediate Return on Investment”.
Why Should Flow Matter To Us?
“Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind”.
It has nothing to do with attaining increased “productivity”. Though that will happen. In fact, doing anything with this in mind will actually dismantle your state of flow in the moment. Flow matters because of the control it gives you. Instead of reacting to external events and stimuli, you take an active role in your life, from the most mundane moments to the most critical.
Working with people coming out of addiction it seems that this is often another distorted factor in the life of an addict. In many cases it seems the use of illicit drugs is an artificial way to get to a state of flow. However, it comes along with many unnecessary collateral costs. I think it’s reasonable to suggest that developing and increasing natural drug free flow states in our lives not only leads to a more fulfilling life but could also perhaps in part inoculate us from addiction and also be therapeutic for the addict in recovery.
How to Develop A State of Flow:
1. Begin With a Hobby You Love
If you dread a task, you’ll have a hard time losing yourself in it at the start. Most likely there’s something you do regularly that achieves a state of flow. This will just give you a name to put to it. Now that you’re aware of it you should be able to start applying it to other areas of your life. Eventually, some of the most mundane and unpleasant of tasks can be used to achieve flow by adding extra criteria to the skills you employ to complete the task.
2. Cut Out Distractions
You’ll never achieve flow if you’re distracted. Your brain simply can’t handle it. Certainly, there are circumstances in which distractions are unavoidable. But much of the time, you can work to minimize or eliminate distractions. Here are our favourite tactics for doing so:
- Wear headphones
- Turn your phone off
- Create a study space
- Close your door
- Schedule blocks of uninterrupted time on your calendar
3. Choose an Important Task
There’s work you love that’s easy and unimportant, and then there’s work you love that will make a long-term impact on your career and life. Choose to begin to develop the latter, as it will be a much more compelling use of your time, and natural motivation to the development of flow.
4. Eat Well
Hunger will naturally interrupt flow, so it’s important that you avoid it when working to achieve a state of flow. This doesn’t mean you need to snack. In fact, the opposite is true. High sugar junk foods and energy drinks will give you a short-term boost in energy but then you’re going to crash hard, drawing you right out of flow.
Instead, you need high quality fuel that will release glucose slowly into your bloodstream. What you eat depends on your dietary preferences and general tastes, but in general you can’t go wrong with nuts, beans, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and lean meats. Avoid processed snacks with lots of added sugar/sweeteners.
5. Don’t Multitask
Multitasking sounds like a great idea in theory. Doing multiple things at once is more efficient, right? Well, it would be, except that our brains don’t function that way. We can’t perform multiple conscious tasks at once without what’s called the cognitive switching penalty
. Essentially, every time you switch from one task to another, it takes your brain time to get back into the previous task you were doing. Since flow
is so dependent on pursuing a single task with laser focus, multitasking is its enemy and opposite.
Sleep is a game changer for your health and general well-being. But it’s also key to reaching flow states. If you’re tired, your ability to concentrate will decrease, and smaller distractions will more easily pull you away from flow. Remember a time of how alert and ready to conquer the world you have felt when you’ve had a good amount of sleep. By the same token, it’s important that you get not just a sufficient quantity of sleep, but also that your sleep is high quality.
I hope this article helps you firstly to be more aware of flow in your life and to developing and increasing it in your life. For more about this I definitely recommend reading Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
which also is available on audiobook on Audible.
If you have any examples of this in your life, or you implement this after reading this article or thoughts please comment them up.