Flow State: How to Get Into It & How to Benefit from It
Suddenly, perception shifts. The outside world disappears. My mind falls still. I’m completely absorbed in the writing process, immersed in the fountain of words flowing from mind to screen. My fingers dance across the keyboard, moved by an electrifying force seemingly outside of myself. I’m not thinking about what to write, it’s writing itself. I feel joy. This is it. I have arrived at the elusive elixir of life: flow state.
Forgive me for the over-poetic introduction, but as fellow writers will understand, being in flow with writing is one of my happiest experiences. The same goes for artists oozing their creative passions onto canvas, athletes single-handedly leading their team to victory, musicians merging with the melody, programmers coalescing with code, ro book-fanatics disappearing into worlds of fiction.
Most people experience flow state from time to time. But it is far from a mysterious, elusive experience. The information on flow state is an interesting subject to study, and an enriching experience to be a part of. So, if you want to know more about how a psychological flow occurs, want to know more about flow research, or are looking to add more flow state to your life, this guide will show you how.
What is flow state in everyday life?
Experiencing a state of flow, whether as an individual or as a part of “group flow,” is one of the most interesting parts of the field of positive psychology.
The term was first applied in 1975 by the pioneer of flow literature, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and popularised by his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). As the title implies, Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: cheeks-sent-me high) was driven to the field of psychology to unlock the secret to what makes people happy in their day-to-day lives.
Born in Hungary, Csikszentmihalyi was affected by seeing those around him attempt to repair their lives following World War II. He moved to the US to study and was particularly inspired by artists and creatives, who appeared to have access to a type of inner-fulfillment from their work, that didn’t require wealth or other conventional means of happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi began to research experts from all fields, from poets to chess players, to surgeons and composers, who began sharing similar experiences of a trance-like state of complete absorption, one of ecstasy and timelessness, one in which you are completely involved in your task, have almost no self-consciousness about your actions, and lose track of everything outside of your focus.
Some forgot to eat, drink or sleep due to their level of immersion in their work. Eventually, Csikszentmihalyi explored more diverse demographics — from Italian farmers to Navaho sheepherders — all of whom spoke of similar experiences when performing at their best. Clearly, experiencing flow can happen anywhere, any time.
The common metaphor of being carried by water, or creativity “flowing out,” of feeling “in flow”, inspired Csikszentmihalyi to name these experiences the “state of flow.” You might equate the state of flow to being in the zone. It’s the experience of full concentration, hyperfocus, and attention on a task.
It’s crucial for deep work, high levels of creativity, and productivity. Csikszentmihalyi discovered that, unlike switching off or relaxing, the most enjoyable experiences usually involve some degree of challenge and effort.
Benefits of achieving flow state
As Csikszentmihalyi writes, “one of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.” Although it’s tempting to see the act of achieving flow purely as a productivity tool, research into flow has shown its positive impact on overall wellbeing. Flow is mostly intrinsically motivated, meaning the task itself is a big part of the enjoyment.
Flow is “an activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.” Consciously integrating flow state is a beautiful tonic to the time-obsessed, always switched-on fast-paced culture.
Anyone on the path of personal growth will benefit from flow state, too. Abraham Maslow’s description of self-actualized behavior involves making the optimal use of one’s potential, which studies have linked to flow state. Unsurprisingly, research has found that flow experiences are linked to:
- Greater happiness and satisfaction
- Improved performance: this covers all fields, from artists to athletes
- Higher levels of creativity
- Improved learning skill level
- Higher levels of purpose
- Improved motivation
6 characteristics of how flow occurs
Flow state isn’t only for an exclusive group of high-performers. All of us experience flow occasionally. The skill is identifying and learning how to increase its frequency by understanding what circumstances lead to this type of optimal experience.
To start by identifying flow states it’s useful to know common characteristics. Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura identify six factors that make up the flow experience:
- Absorption: In this stage of flow state, you become hyper-focused on the present moment.
- Merging of Action and Awareness: When you achieve flow, you become “one” with what you’re doing, acting in a way that feels automatic and spontaneous.
- Selflessness: Your sense of self dissolves, which includes any self-critical inner-commentary.
- The Paradox of Control: Despite feeling on autopilot, there’s a sense of assurance and ease in what you’re doing.
- Timelessness: Along with selflessness, past and present also seem to disappear, moving you deeper into the present moment.
- Intrinsic motivation: The activity is inherently rewarding, or “autotelic” (containing its own meaning or purpose).
To achieve flow is to find peak experience
Although each of these experiences can sometimes be experienced independent of each other, with Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state, they are all present. Looking at the above list, it’s not surprising that flow states are so desirable!
They share many similarities with Maslow’s peak experiences, which he described as “the most wonderful experience(s) of your life: the happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture.”
However, while flow states can lead to peak experiences, not all flow states are outstanding, life-defining moments. Instead, they’re much more common, even daily experiences for those who are able to enter “the zone,” sometimes for a few moments at a time.
The four stages of the flow cycle
It helps to understand what Harvard professor Herbert Benson discovered as The Flow Cycle. His research has displayed the effect flow has on the brain’s neurological processes.
As a result, Benson distinguished the four different stages in the cycle as:
Struggle: Flow typically begins with a fairly unpleasant state. Because a certain level of challenge is required to activate peak performance, the process starts by overloading the brain with information. As the learning stage unfolds, there’s a chance of feeling frustrated or impatient. This can include researching, learning a new instrument, physical training, etc.
Release: After the intensity of the struggle period, the next stage in the cycle involves switching off. This requires taking attention away from the task, which gives time to tap into the subconscious mind.
Flow State: Returning to the activity after the release stage provides an opportunity for the magic to happen — laser-like focus and the loss of time. At this point, feel-good chemicals are released into the brain, including dopamine. Research has also defined flow as a spectrum, from micro-flow to macro-flow, depending on the intensity of this stage.
Recovery: It’s common to associate recovery with physical training, but flow states require recovery time, too. Due to the processes the brain goes through, there comes an inevitable crash. This is time to step back and decompress.
Understanding these cycles is important, along with putting the experience into perspective. In the world of productivity hacks and a craving for optimal performance, it’s good to keep in mind that flow state is a transient, temporary experience.
The shadow of flow state
At Goalcast, we like to explore the nuances of topics, offering as comprehensive an overview as possible. Before moving on to tips on how to get into flow state, first, a quick detour to the shadow of flow. Because of the level of enjoyment with flow states, some people end up chasing the “high.” But the flow state is not something to be experienced consistently.
According to Csikszentmihalyi: “While flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue in those who experience it… like other forms of energy, from fire to nuclear fission, [flow] can be used for both positive and destructive ends.” In The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler, a modern pioneer of optimal performance and flow state, agrees, warning of a “serious dark side of flow.”
Because of the above stages, and the neurological processes, flow state can become a form of escapism. Jamie Wheale, the director of the Flow Genome Project, also warns that flow can produce “bliss junkies,” who are people who “think the magical ease of the flow state is the goal. When they confront the difficulty of the day to day, they’d rather reach for a pill or a new lover or another meditation retreat than get down to hard work.”
Studies have linked flow state to addictive behaviors, such as online gambling. Others found flow states can reduce risk awareness and lead to riskier behavior, for example with rock climbers or those involved in extreme sports. This is a valuable reminder to remain dedicated to self-actualization as an ongoing process and to integrate flow into your life. With that in mind, let’s explore the best way to do just that.
What criteria help us achieve it?
One of the key elements in how to achieve flow state is the level of challenge. When a challenge is too demanding, it can become frustrating and tempting to give up. If the challenge is too easy, it’s easy to lose focus or become disinterested. Csikszentmihalyi identified that the experiences leading to flow state weren’t passive, relaxing activities, such as watching TV, but those that made use of skills.
In the diagram above, you can see that flow is the sweet spot between the level of challenge, and the level of skill. Flow state is intrinsically motivated, which means the activity itself has meaning. However, the original flow theory suggests three criteria that are required to enter flow state:
- Structure and direction: it helps to have clear goals for the activity, with a clear sense of progress.
- Clear and immediate feedback: this allows for performance to be adjusted as demands change, which in turn maintains the flow state.
- A balance between perceived challenge and perceived skill: keeping the above model in mind, flow is best achieved when the person performing the activity feels capable of completing the task, even if extremely challenging.
Over the years, these conditions have been critiqued and built upon. In 2013, Dr. Owen Schaffer expanded on the original model. He identified 7 behaviors that help achieve flow state, which are:
- Knowing what to do: this requires clarity around what action needs to be taken. Are you clear on what to do? Do you have an adequate level of knowledge?
- Knowing how to do it: developing skills and understanding is often required. For example, unless you’re a musical genius, it’s highly unlikely to experience flow the first time you pick up a new musical instrument. But, having developed new skills, and knowing how to play, flow becomes possible.
- Knowing how well you are doing: it’s useful to have a feedback-loop of understanding to know you’re doing the job well. This in turn creates more motivation and higher chances of achieving flow state in everyday life.
- Knowing where to go: this is related to goal setting, and having a clear idea of the overall purpose of the activity at hand. What North Star inspires you?
- High perceived challenges: having a constant willingness to challenge yourself, and step outside of the comfort zone into the growth zone, is a hallmark of achieving flow state.
- High perceived skills: this includes the desire to approach skill development with a growth mindset. Are you motivated to refine your craft? If you’re an athlete, that might mean dedicating yourself to beating personal records. Or if you’re a writer, looking at ways to refine your craft.
- Freedom from distraction: modern living is full of distraction! But flow state requires time away from mobile phone pings and social media notifications. Setting aside time, free from external temptations, is a powerful tonic for flow state.
Hopefully, these descriptions are useful in giving a fuller picture of what flow state is. You might be questioning what activities in your life are primed to enter “the zone” and enjoy the benefits of flow. Before providing tips on how to get into flow state, let’s explore more real-life examples.
Examples of activities in which you can experience flow
As previously mentioned, most people experience flow from time to time. Once identifying what flow feels like, and how to get there, the next task is to increase its presence. But where are you likely to experience flow?
Studies have found flow appears in a diverse selection of activities, including:
- Music: one of the fastest portals to an experience of flow. There are numerous studies showing positive correlations between both playing and listening to music. Although it might seem obvious that finding rhythm while playing music would induce flow, studies have found that flow can be more intense while listening alone.
- Information technology: this includes a range of activities, from video games, word processing, programming, visual design, and online research (as someone who often falls down Google rabbit holes, I can confirm).
- Sports: perhaps one of the most well-known vessels for flow state, sports of all kinds can trigger the sense of timelessness and optimal performance. This isn’t only for athletes but applies to anyone.
- Learning: considering all of the benefits of flow, it’s a no-brainer that it plays a role in learning and education. In particular, getting into the flow state while studying develops persistence and commitment.
- Hobbies: there also appears to be a sense of what Taoism calls “effortless effort” with achieving the flow state. This is most clear when it comes to hobbies, those tasks you become completely absorbed in, whilst having fun.
Now there’s only one place left to explore: the nitty-gritty, the practical, the ways you can invite more flow.
How to get into flow state: 8 practical tips
As Steven Kotler says, “flow is still a happy accident when it happens. All we can do is make you more accident-prone.” Keep in mind there are no hard and fast rules to guarantee flow state. Instead, you want to set the environment and mindset to invite flow with ever-increasing frequency. To do that, here are 8 practical tips.
1. Keep a flow journal
If you’re still familiarising with flow, it helps to begin by noticing the times you effortlessly fall into the state. Is this something you notice with physical challenges? Creative expression? Intellectual challenges? Listening to or playing music? Notice patterns of when you’re most likely to experience flow, and distill what you can from those moments. Is there a particular time of day? Are there common threads you can learn to apply more frequently?
2. Practice mindfulness
At the core of the flow state is complete absorption, or concentration, in the present moment. It stands to reason, then, that the practice of mindfulness is a useful tool to invite more flow. “The concepts are very similar,” Ellen Langer, Harvard professor and author of Mindfulness, told the BBC. “The major difference is that mindfulness is a state of mind that is available to everybody virtually all the time. It’s not an unusual thing.”
Langer’s approach to mindfulness differs from Eastern meditation practices. It’s as straightforward as looking for the novel in every moment. “Looking for new in the familiar leads us to be mindful,” Langer adds.
3. Minimize distractions
This tip flows (see what I did there?) nicely from the first. A first step in minimizing distractions is usually looking at our immediate environment. For example, making sure your workspace is free from clutter or temptations. Turning off your phone. Logging out of email. These are all highly useful tools. However, the same applies to internal distractions: thoughts that take us away from the present.
Minimizing distractions, then, involves a mixture of mindfulness, to avoid being carried away by thoughts, and the physical environment. Can you set aside a few hours with your phone switched off, or, better yet, in another room? Do you have a designated space where you won’t be disturbed? Are you “decluttering” your mind?
4. Avoid multitasking
As flow state requires a level of hyper-focus on a task, multitasking is one way to prevent ever reaching the enjoyable depths of absorption. Studies have found that multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40 percent. The term multitasking has even been challenged, as technically, our brains only handle one task at a time. Even when we feel we’re multitasking, we’re actually rapidly “task-switching.”
For the best chance of entering flow state, dedicate yourself fully to the activity. Cal Newport introduced the concept of deep work in his bestselling book of the same name. He distinguishes this from shallow work, and defines it as “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work is a form of flow that promotes high levels of productivity and satisfaction. It pays to start small — say 30 minutes of distraction-free focus — but can be developed over long periods. As a writer, spells of deep work are essential to my practice. On a good day, I can write in flow for a maximum of 2 hours, before needing a break. With that in mind, I schedule writing time in 2-hour blocks.
5. Don’t be distracted by time
This is a personal one, but something I find highly valuable. My nature is to be hyper-aware of the time. I’ve had to do a lot of work around my planning and scheduling tendencies. However, if I’m excessively concerned about the time, I find it harder to concentrate on the present. When I wish to enter flow, I focus on duration, rather than the time on the clock.
For example, my 2-hour writing blocks will be timed, so I know when the two hours are up. During this time, I don’t wear a watch and hide the clock on my computer. That way, I’m not tempted to glance up to see how long I’ve been writing (or how long is left of that shift). Equally, because I have a timer set, I know I don’t have to worry about running over. Then, I find the state of timelessness easier to access.
6. Nourish the body
In an era of hyper-productivity, it can be tempting to choose output over wellbeing. However, you perform at your best when adequately nourished, and well-rested. Remember the stages of flow above? They include recovery for a reason. By exercising, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, staying hydrated, you’re more likely to be at your sharpest and increase the likelihood of flow.
7. Tune into the body
Not all flow activities are exclusively cognitive. As someone who spends a lot of time in the world of ideas, researching, writing, and thinking, I find the experience of flow outside of mind to be some of the most rejuvenating. With the practice of mindfulness, it pays to deeply tune in to the body whilst engaging in physical activities — whether sports, running, weight lifting, yoga, or walking in nature.
Taoist philosophy of “going with the flow” is perhaps the truest ancient philosophy of such states. Lao Tzu talks of wei-wu-wei, or doing, not doing. In an introduction to the text, Stephen Mitchell explains this process, poetically capturing how flow can be experienced through the body:
“A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is a paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.”
8. Set up flow triggers
Over time, flow state becomes easier to access as you understand what circumstances best encourage those happy accidents. Steven Kotler notes the importance of flow triggers — ways to direct us toward the present, so flow becomes more likely. As you understand what works for you, you can almost reverse engineer flow by setting up those triggers.
It’s easy to passively wait for flow to arrive, that blissful moment where you’re carried away by the divine force. But triggers shape your environment and mindset, whether the state is present or not. For example, my morning writing routine begins post-meditation. Before checking social media, email, or my phone, I’ll brew a coffee, sit down, put on my headphones, and write.
The times I feel ready to step into flow with ease are rare. But, by setting up these triggers and having worked to cultivate flow over time, the majority of the time, once I’ve started the task, I’ll eventually enter the elusive state.
Flow state is synonymous with optimal or peak performance. It’s an experience of enhanced awareness, joy, even ecstasy. There are many benefits from integrating flow state into your routine, not least due to the benefits on wellbeing. Finding the sweet spot of tasks that challenge you and use your skills adds to a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Yes, it can boost productivity and help you get more done. But perhaps more importantly, it can help you tap into the state of playfulness and fun, and remind you of the simple joy of being present and engaged with life — a worthy discovery ignited by Csikszentmihalyi’s noble mission to explore the meaning of happiness.
To keep this journey of self knowledge moving, check out our piece on the importance of shadow work.