Have you ever been doing something and completely lost track of time? Have you ever felt “in the zone”? In those times you may have felt like nothing else mattered; you may have even forgotten to eat or not heard people talking to you. Did you notice how deeply focused, happy, creative, productive and at ease you were during those times?
This experience of being “in the zone” is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state”. The flow state not only feels fantastic but also boosts your productivity, creativity and wellbeing and can provide you with a powerful way to reconnect with what matters to you in life.
What is flow?
Csikszentmihalyi began studying the state of flow while he was researching happiness and seeking to understand what created a life worth living. What he discovered was that people who spent time in a flow state were happier and more satisfied with their lives. He also found they were more productive and creative.
You may experience flow when cooking, writing, playing music, creating art, practising yoga, writing poetry, pondering philosophy or solving mathematical problems.
So what exactly is flow? In his book, Flow, Csikszentmihalyi explains that flow is a unique state of consciousness that allows you to perform and feel your best. The flow state allows you to feel a sense of harmony and a desire to continue what you are doing for the sheer joy of it. Flow often occurs when you are doing something you are good at, that you love and that stretches you without causing you anxiety.
The activities that take people into a flow state vary widely. Most people are aware of athletes experiencing flow, or getting “in the zone,” but flow can be accessed in many different ways. You may experience flow when cooking, writing, playing music, creating art, practising yoga, writing poetry, pondering philosophy or solving mathematical problems.
Are you aware of what activities get you into a flow state? When was the last time you experienced this blissful and high performance state in your life?
How flow feels
While the activities that lead to a state of flow are varied, the associated feelings of being in flow are universal. Csikszentmihalyi has identified these eight core feelings associated with being in flow:
- Concentration: complete absorption in what you are doing; being super-focused while all other distractions disappear
- Clarity: knowing what needs to be done at each step of the way; receiving immediate feedback on your progress
- Confidence: a suspension of self-consciousness and your “inner critic”
- Freedom: free from worry and the fear of failure
- Timelessness: time is distorted and can feel like it slows down or speeds up
- Empowerment: balance between skill level and the challenge you are facing
- Control: a sense of mastery over yourself and the challenge
- Enjoyment: the activity is rewarding in itself
Your brain in flow
While the state of flow hasn’t been widely researched and scientists don’t completely agree on what is happening in the brain, neuroscientist Arne Dietrich has his own theory. Dietrich has found that in a state of flow certain parts of the brain become temporarily down-regulated; they become quieter.
The areas of the brain that become quieter are those involved in self-awareness (superior frontal gyrus), impulse control and self-monitoring (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) and higher complex thinking (prefrontal cortex). These changes in your brain allow you to experience intense focus and absorption, while also silencing your inner critic and fears.
“When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system.”
This combination makes it easier to think creatively, take action, be more productive and enjoy what you are working on. In his book The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler says that in a flow state we are “far less critical and far more courageous, both augmenting our ability to imagine new possibilities and share those possibilities with the world”.
In a state of flow your sense of self expands. In his book, Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi explains: “In flow we are too involved in what we are doing to care about protecting the ego. Yet after an episode of flow is over, we generally emerge from it with a stronger self-concept; we know that we have succeeded in meeting a difficult challenge … paradoxically, the self expands through acts of self-forgetfulness.”
The super-focused nature of being in flow is also why it is such a productive state to work from. A focused brain is far more efficient and effective than a distracted brain. In flow you solve problems faster, make new connections, power through more work and often experience new insights and breakthroughs.
I have experienced this first-hand when moving into a flow state when presenting on stage. I may be nervous before I walk on stage, but as soon as I’m in front of an audience, my brain moves into a type of auto-pilot mode. I’m no longer analysing or worried about how I might be being perceived; I am deeply in the moment, which feels joyful, freeing and effortless.
While my brain feels like it’s on auto-pilot, I’m also aware that it’s working hard and making new connections. Often, as I speak I have new insights that didn’t come during my preparation phase. To me, the flow state is quite magical and a unique experience of trust, exploration and revelation.
The healing power of flow
The flow state also changes the chemistry in your brain and can play a significant role in healing. Kotler explains that being in a state of flow boosts the immune system, saying, “When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system.” The five neurochemicals Kotler is referring to are dopamine, noradrenaline, endorphins, serotonin and anandamide. He continues, “Stress-causing hormones are flushed out of the body in flow.”
When I was in my 20s I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Being able to get into a flow state through writing was what helped me get through such a challenging time and also helped me recover. I discovered that when I spent time writing, something profound happened: I didn’t feel tired, in pain or sick. Once I stopped writing, the sensations returned, but in a flow state my bodily sensations were suspended.
These moments of freedom allowed me to trust that my body could recover. I felt more hopeful and empowered knowing I could enjoy blocks of time in my life when I didn’t feel sick. The flow state allowed me to feel like I had some control over my experience of life.
The flow state didn’t just allow me to feel more resilient; it also gave my life more meaning and helped rebuild my confidence. The flow state reconnected me back to myself and reminded me of what I was good at and what I enjoyed about life.
5 steps to finding your flow
So how can you improve the quality of your life by tapping into a flow state more often? By exploring the following five steps you can start to incorporate more flow into your life and begin to feel more joy, creativity, productivity, meaning and fearlessness.
1. Practise self-awareness
Do you know what activities take you to a place of flow? To enjoy more flow experiences, become more aware of how you feel when you are engaging in your life. Start to notice what you do that suspends time, quietens your inner critic, feels effortless, engages your skills, challenges you, leads to new insights and is deeply satisfying. Once you have this self-knowledge, look at how you can incorporate these activities more into your life to increase your overall wellbeing.
If you aren’t entirely sure what moves you to a flow state, it’s time to try new things. It’s time to uncover what allows you to feel most free, connected, creative, productive and confident. Maybe your flow experiences will come when you try something new, like learning how to paddle-board or teaching a course. What activities have you thought you might enjoy but haven’t tried yet? What new experiences could you say yes to over the next few months?
2. Reduce distractions
Flow follows focus. How present are you in your life and work? Do you allow your brain to work on one thing at a time, or do you spend most of your day multi-tasking? You can encourage the state of flow in everyday activities by reducing distractions, giving your full attention to the work you are doing, being in the present moment and de-cluttering your work and living spaces.
3. Suspend self-judgment
Do you spend too much time “in your head”? Do you regularly over-think things and get wrapped up in worries, so much so that you don’t take action or work on things that are meaningful to you?
One of the biggest barriers to accessing flow is the distraction that often happens inside your own mind, also known as your “inner critic”. As soon as your mind becomes consumed by questions like, “Is this the right thing to do?” or “Is this the best use of my time?” or even “Am I good enough?” you block the opportunity to experience flow.
Quietening your critical inner voice and suspending self-judgment will help you to experience more flow in your life. In a state of flow you are more willing to engage, take action, express and create. In what areas of your life do you need to let go and stop over-thinking? What things do you want to do in your life but fear and worry has stopped you?
4. Set new challenges
Csikszentmihalyi discovered that flow doesn’t happen when you are under-challenged or over-challenged in your life. If you feel under-challenged you become bored and if you are over-challenged you become anxious. Neither boredom nor anxiety improves performance, confidence or happiness.
To stay in flow you need to keep challenging yourself at the right level. Consider how you can take on new challenges that actively engage your skills, without moving you into a state of anxiety. What can you do in your life to set new challenges that engage your skills and stretch you a little?
The beauty of seeking a flow state by challenging yourself is that you are always growing. Csikszentmihalyi says, “It is this dynamic feature that explains why flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We either grow bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.”
5. Give yourself permission
One of the defining features of the flow state is enjoyment. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “autotelic”. The word is derived from the Greek auto, meaning self, and telos, meaning goal, referring to the idea that an activity can be rewarding in and of itself.
How often do you do things for the pure joy of it? Have the pressures of being an adult and needing to be responsible crowded in and changed what you do in your life? Have you given up activities that allow you to experience flow because they don’t feel “productive”? Maybe you have stopped creating art, singing, gardening, cooking, taking photos or working on a project because it doesn’t feel like it’s leading anywhere.
You can encourage the state of flow in everyday activities by reducing distractions, giving your full attention to the work you are doing, being in the present moment and de-cluttering your work and living spaces.
Feeling like everything you do must lead to an outcome can stop you accessing and enjoying the flow state in your life. In order to feel more flow in your life you must be willing to give yourself permission and time to engage in the activities that activate this healthy and harmonious state within you. While it can feel indulgent to make time for activities that are joy-based, it’s these very activities that lead to a greater sense of happiness, health and fulfillment.
There are many times in life when you have to do things, but the truly beautiful and enlightening moments are the times you are living and working in flow. The combined sense of timelessness, effortlessness and increased creativity, along with the reduction in fear, worry and self-consciousness, makes the flow state a truly optimal place to live.
This article was first published in WellBeing Magazine.
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