How to Achieve State of Flow

February 25 2021

Man in state of flow working on two screens. Solo freestanding touchscreen monitor is the second screen

Man in state of flow working on two screens. Solo freestanding touchscreen monitor is the second screen

How to Achieve Flow State

When people refer to being “in the zone,” they are often talking about being in a state of flow. It means complete immersion in an activity. You are totally focused and deeply absorbed. You are beyond distraction. Your inner monologue chatter goes quiet. Physical feelings are obsolete. Time slows and work becomes enjoyable. You reach peak emotional well-being and also peak productivity.


What exactly is a State of Flow?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (check out his TED talk Flow, the Secret to Happiness) and professor Jeanne Nakamura popularized the concept of flow. They interviewed a variety of high-performing people including mountain climbers, chess players, surgeons, and ballet dancers, and found that people achieve a changed state of being they called flow when they are appropriately challenged and focused. This “flow state” leads to increased well-being, growth, and happiness.

When we think of the flow state of mind, we often think of the arts, yoga, or sports, but flow isn’t limited! You can achieve a true state of flow while working and even while carrying out day-to-day tasks. Flow state can be experienced in almost any activity, as long as it has clearly defined goals and the appropriate balance of skill use and challenge. You won’t find flow in a state of relaxation, but instead in a state of concentration, challenge, and focus.


Benefits to Finding the Flow State

There are some incredible benefits to finding flow. Operating in a state of flow elevates your mood and confidence, increases your engagement, and improves your performance, all while maximizing productivity. In a state of flow, you experience a deep sense of concentration so you can work without getting distracted. Your body and mind will know what needs to be done. You won't even have to think about it.

Even better than all that? According to Harvard professor Teresa Amabile, people report higher levels of productivity, creativity, and happiness for up to three days after experiencing flow state.

Researchers have been studying the flow phenomenon for years and have found a variety of incredibly important benefits. Fritz & Avsec confirmed that experiencing flow is an important predictor of emotional well-being. Ryff, Singer, & Love found that flow plays an important role in healthy aging. Fullagar & Mills found that flow correlates positively with motivation in studying students’ learning habits.


So How Do You Do It?

According to Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura, flow is based on a few key components.


Specific Task

You achieve flow when you are working on a single specific task or a clear list of tasks that flow one into the other. No multitasking is allowed here.


Clear Goals and Outcomes 

You need clear ways to measure success so your mind isn’t spending time figuring out when it will be done. Flow requires a sense of ease and an elimination of anxiety.


Elimination of Distractions 

For the same reason there is no multitasking in flow, there can also be no distractions. You achieve flow from a very singular focus on the task at hand. Here are some tips for eliminating distractions.


Challenge  

Flow state requires the perfect balance of skill vs challenge. Make sure you’re doing a task that you are good at, but also one that will challenge you. The challenge must be manageable though. If the challenge is too demanding you may drop into negative emotions and anxiety which hinder a flow state.

And that’s it. Just go! Focus on the task at hand - make sure it is a clear task that is challenging to you and has a clear outcome and... flow. 

Of course, that’s easier said than done. You will likely go through some struggle reaching flow, it’s even a major tenant of the state of flow phases. The best part of the struggle phase is that your brain does some incredible things. It starts naturally chunking (associating and finding patterns), which is a major productivity boost. So, accept the struggle for what it is, don’t get in your head about “whether you’re succeeding or not” and just focus on the task at hand. The flow will come if you are set up to find it, but it will take some practice.


Tips for Reaching a State of Flow

  • Set yourself up for flow success. Eat a healthy meal, get the right amount of sleep, drink water, and make sure you stay hydrated throughout the day.  
  • Know and utilize your peak productive times. Some people are better at working in the morning, some at night. Know what works for you and take advantage of it.
  • Create a mental cue or routine to help you set your brain up to enter flow. This may be a quick stretch or meditation, or a regular morning routine. Find something that helps your brain know “oh, this is the beginning of flow” so it can reach flow quicker every time.
  • Stay Focused. Check our focus tips here.
  • An element of focus that is a bit more ephemeral, but just as important is the loss of self-consciousness. If you are judging yourself or the work you are doing while you are doing it, you will not be able to find flow. Stop judging!
  • Listen to music that helps you focus. Music can help block out internal and external distractions, but make sure it is repetitive and familiar to you. If not, it may become a distraction itself!
  • Challenge yourself: “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills,” Csikszentmihalyi says.

Flow State Activities

These activities, detailed by Csikszentmihalyi may help bring on a flow state. They are also great ways to start your workflow if you are looking for a new routine or mental cue.

  • Ground yourself in your body. Stretch, practice yoga, or do something physical (anything you like!) to bring you into your body.
  • Focus your mind. If you are having trouble remaining focused, take a few deep breaths or meditate for 5 minutes.
  • Remember the physical and mental sensations you felt when you fulfilled a goal. Concentrate on those before beginning a task. Close your eyes and remember them or write them down.

Flow State Triggers

Steven Kotler, the Executive Director of the Flow Research Collective, explains that flow can only arise when all of our attention is focused on the present moment. He details 17 triggers in his book that focus and guide our attention. His collective also offers seemingly intense flow state training for a price.

Kotler’s first four triggers are aligned with Csikszentmihalyi’s teachings.

  1. Intensely Focused Attention
  2. Clear Goals
  3. Immediate Feedback
  4. Skills vs. Challenge

Then We Have:

  1. High Consequences: when the consequences are higher our brain naturally has an easier time focusing because there is a “danger” or a need to do so.
  2. Rich Environment: complexity requires more of our attention, leaving us less room to become distracted.
  3. Deep Embodiment: connecting to all 5 of your senses will shut down self-consciousness and create a great brain space for focus.
  4. Creativity and pattern finding.

There are also 9 social triggers if you want to work to achieve a group flow state


A Flow Game-changer

When I started working towards a state of flow I was ticking all of the right boxes until I actually got on my computer to start working. I had eliminated all of my surrounding external and internal distractions and was starting my task when all of a sudden I found myself constantly lost in a sea of tabs. Even when working on a single specific task I often need to reference more than one thing on my computer. For example, I need to reference a website or study while I’m writing. The second I click away to find that study, I am immediately distracted, first, by having to find the right tab and then, by all of the other things I clicked in the meantime. Half of the time, once I start clicking away I am so out of my flow state that somehow three clicks later I’m on Twitter. 

Even if you aren’t as distractible as I am, clicking away to switch windows or even to switch between more consolidated and organized tabs does interrupt the state of flow. You need to eliminate all interruptions to achieve flow. Clicking away from the task at hand is essentially just interrupting yourself. In fact, it takes 25 minutes to regain focus every time you get distracted,

A second monitor for my computer reduced this problem almost completely. (Yes I still have to stop myself from checking Twitter sometimes.) With Sidetrak, I slide out my monitor, put my reference document there and my state of flow comes with a slight turn of the head, instead of being constantly interrupted.

Finding a flow state in your work reflects directly into your life. A consistent flow state helps you become a calmer, more self-assured person with easy command over your work. Finding flow also allows you to increase productivity so you aren’t stressing about what you didn’t accomplish when you walk away from your computer.  And just like practice makes perfect in the process of achieving flow, the old adage also applies to your overall life flow. If you are practicing calm and focus while you work, it will naturally slide its way right into your whole life.