The Flow State. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Some call it “being in the zone.” It’s that sweet spot where the outside world seems to melt away. Writers and Inventors have been known to find it. Artists and Athletes frequently experience it.
It’s been recognized for at least 30 years, but no doubt many people throughout history have made their way to this mysterious, yet accessible, state of mind. In 1990 psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi introduced the concept of flow and described it as being in a “peak experience”. He said, “the best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits, in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Author Steven Ketler said it this way,
“Time slows down. Self vanishes. Action and Awareness merge. Welcome to Flow.”
Achieving the Balance
Although being in the flow requires specific conditions and actions, it’s something anyone can achieve. Educator Carol Ann Tomlinson explained,
“When challenge and skills are in balance the activity is its own reward.”
One example might be when a runner reaches a point where they are pushing themselves to their ultimate best. They have the skills and ability to go the extra mile, and challenge themselves to do so. As the brain responds with dopamine, the activity becomes almost effortless. The result is the state of flow.
Research shows that when your brain is in the flow, the prefrontal cortex activity is reduced. This may be the reason why we feel distortions of time and less interest in things outside of ourselves. We become totally absorbed in the action and devote our entire focus on the activity at hand.
Clear Goals and No Distractions
So how do you enter into the flow state? You might start by eliminating distractions. Journaling can be a useful tool to clear blockages that might limit your ability to focus. Five or ten minutes of meditation is another way to help calm your mind and let go of the endless stream of thoughts running through your mind.
Turn off your cell phone. You can even put a sign on your office door that lets people know you do not want to be disturbed. That way you can be sure to have the right environment to focus without interruption.
Next, have a clear and specific goal in mind with a definite outcome expected. When planning to work on a task, project, or activity, know with certainty what it is you are going to do.
When you are preparing to enter your flow state, let your brain know what the plan is. People have routines and rituals in other parts of life without really realizing it. But it sets the scene for what you expect to happen.
For example, many people have bedtime routines. They might get into their pajamas, have a cup of tea, brush their teeth, and read a few chapters in a book. This becomes familiar, and your brain knows the next step is going to be sleep.
The same thing can occur when attempting to work in a state of Flow. One example might be to prepare your room or workspace. Remove all distractions. Get a bottle of water and a snack or two to have handy throughout your work time. Sometimes you can be so consumed with your flow state you might forget to eat or drink water. So setting that up ahead of time can help you to remember self care while you’re working. Set the lights to the level that suits the activity. Put on music if that’s helpful to you. Remind other people that you don’t want to be interrupted for a period of time.
Another pre-flow ritual might be in preparing for a sports activity. Putting on your work out clothes and gathering the items you will use tells your brain you are getting ready to run, play a game, or climb a mountain. Put on the shoes you use only for this event. Get your water bottle and protein bars. Do some warm up exercises.
Plan, prepare and implement your pre-flow rituals in the same way every time. By creating this repetitive activity before you start, you remind your brain what you’re doing and what is coming next.
Focus on the Present Moment
When you are working on any project or embarking upon a challenging activity, focusing on the present moment will give your full attention to it. If you allow your mind to be distracted by something you’re going to do tomorrow, or other tasks that need to be done, you will never find yourself in the zone. Focus all of your attention and energy on achieving your goal.
American Mountaineer Aron Ralston said,
“I kind of entered a flow state. I’ve been there before when climbing. You are not thinking ahead. You are just thinking about what is in front of you each second.”
When you reach this state of being in the flow, it’s not uncommon to experience timelessness. Have you ever been doing something and felt like you could do it forever? That’s being in the flow. When your actions synchronize with your mindfulness in the moment and you are achieving a high level of productivity, feelings of flow may occur.
Author Denise Linn said,
“When you’re being truly creative, time stands still, and you enter a dimension that can carry you beyond the ordinariness of everyday life.”
Discover what time of the day or night are your most productive hours. Use those times to your benefit to create space to enter into your flow state. What are the peak times when you are most aware, creative, and energized?
Author Ken Robinson wrote,
“One of the strongest signs of being in the zone is a sense of freedom and authenticity”.
When personal control is a part of what you’re doing, it takes things to another level. When your talent, skills, and abilities are stretched to the limit and you are doing your best work, it can be almost euphoric. Telling yourself, “I got this!” and becoming even more focused and absorbed in the moment is what flow is all about.
Rewards and Achievements
Receiving positive feedback can help keep you going in a state of flow. When your rewards and achievements are recognized along the way, it helps to keep you engaged. That’s one reason video games are able to hold people’s attention for so long. Every time you win a prize or get to the next level, you are energized to keep going!
This can be utilized in any activity you are engaged in when you want to give yourself motivation. A runner gets physical rewards. They also gain encouragement when they reach milestones along the way. Success in what you’re doing often increases your desire to do more.
Whatever you are working on, remember to recognize your progress and give yourself rewards for your efforts. Activist and President Nelson Mandela said,
“Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead.”
Celebrating each level of a task completed can offer renewed excitement for the next step.
Alternate Time and Energy
Your brain can’t stay in the flow state indefinitely. You’ll need to shift back to other tasks after a couple of hours. So prepare well and take advantage of this focused energy while you are connected with it. Use your time management skills to bring balance to daily living and make your flow sessions creatively productive.
Alternating the flow state with other tasks can help your brain rest in between. For example, an artist may spend a period of time working intently on their masterpiece. Then take a break and walk in a garden or do household chores. Mixing up your activities between flow states can help you refocus when you are ready to go back to it.
Getting into the flow can be an experience that takes you to higher levels of accomplishment and creativity. When preparing to access this beneficial state of mind, begin by setting clear goals and eliminating distractions. Plan a pre-flow ritual to enable your brain to know what your expectations are. Take care of yourself throughout your work or activity, and make it easy to focus on the present moment. Remember to celebrate your achievements along the way and embrace the rewards.