Imagine you’re immersed in a single task, so absorbed and deeply focused that time seems to slip away, and the worries of the outside world fade into the background. Your thoughts, feelings, and emotions are completely aligned with your actions; you’re truly and completely “in” what you’re doing. You’ve found the “flow state.”
The flow state — often referred to as being “in the zone” — is a powerful state of mind that occurs when you are completely involved in an activity. The term was coined by the psychologist Michael Csikszentmihalyi and has become popular among athletes, creatives, and occupational therapists alike. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when you find your flow, “time flies, the ego falls away. Every movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one. Your whole being is involved, and you’re performing your skill to its utmost.” This state of mind has been found to increase creativity and productivity with a sense of ease and enjoyment; as author Steven Kotler states, “No one ever has a bad time in a flow state.”
Sounds too good to be true right?
This is because it’s so ingrained in our culture that any kind of success comes from struggle and stress. We then create a resistance, which leads to distraction, procrastination and prevents us from getting into our flow. But learning about the flow state can help reframe how we approach a challenge. As Kotler tells us, when you achieve flow, “You don’t have to force yourself to work hard. Rather, it seems to go automatically. It seems as if you are ‘flowing’ through your work.” So start shifting your attention away from “forcing” and more towards “flowing.” Here are some tips to get started.
Embrace the challenge
Csikszentmihalyi tells us that “no trait is more useful, more essential for survival, and more likely to improve the quality of life than the ability to transform adversity into an enjoyable challenge.” Frame a challenge as a new opportunity, a way to stretch your brain. See it as a welcome relief, rather than something to resist and struggle with before you even begin.
You may feel like you’re lying to yourself at first, but with practice, you can convince yourself of your capabilities. Csikszentmihalyi notes that “It is not the skills we actually have that determine how we feel but the ones we think we have.” In other words, believe you can do it, and you’ll be in the right frame of mind to actually be able to.
Get. Off. That. Phone. Switch it off and put it in another room. Forgot what’s happening outside the window and give up trying to multitask. Tidy your desk, clear your mind and get ready to go.
Research shows that 15 minutes of undivided attention is needed to bring you into a flow state, so factor in time for the “false starts.” Once you find your flow, you’ll begin to ignore the world around you. Minimize distractions before you begin and soon they’ll disappear by themselves.
While the flow state allows you to enjoy what you’re doing for its own sake, it’s helpful to have a clear idea about what you want to achieve so that you have the motivation to focus. Set an intention and get ready to take action.
…but focus on the process, not the end product
Once you have your goal in the back of your mind, bring your full attention to the present. It’s easy to let what you want to achieve get in the way of what you’re actually doing. The aim here is to be absorbed in the process. Don’t let the “goal” be part of it.
Try to lose yourself in the moment, without worrying about what comes next. Once you notice your mind getting distracted, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Come back to the present moment and try to get “flowing” again.
The more you practice eliminating distractions and being intentional with your energy, the more likely you are to reap the benefits of the flow state. Although productivity is a happy by-product, achieving happiness and fulfillment is really the main goal.