A masterclass from research on the flow state.
Attention is our most precious resource.
It’s also one we’re giving away like free sweets. We give up hours of attention each day with little to show for it — scrolling Facebook, watching YouTube compilations.
What if we could spend this same time in an intensely rewarding way?
This is where the flow state comes in. In 1975, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a famous psychologist and founder of positive psychology, investigated which states people felt the happiest in: which enabled them to find meaning in their lives.
He interviewed rock climbers, surgeons, shepherds, artists, and scientists of all incomes and backgrounds. He found they all held the ability to attain a state of “effortless absorption and control” in common. They felt the most satisfied with their time spent in that state.
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The flow state isn’t a magical, unobtainable superpower. All of us can, and do, enter flow when consumed by something we are passionate about.
However, most of us do this by accident — flow is the reason it’s so hard to say no to “one last match” before you sleep.
By examining how flow is induced, how it works, what it feels like, and how we reach it, we can channel this powerful state of mind to gain more from our lives, and our endeavours within them.
Where can we find flow?
We reach flow during an activity we find both challenging and doable.
Take a look at the above diagram. How difficult you find a task — its challenge level — is measured on the y-axis. Your skill level — how capable you are of accomplishing that task — is measured on the x-axis.
Flow is the opposite of apathy. The task is engaging, challenging, attainable. It may be tough, but you know you can do it. This is the necessary bedrock for flow.
High challenge level + high skill level → flow
Note that this is “high” for where we’re at. It’s not an objective definition of “mastery”. A good amateur tennis player will find one match challenging that a professional would find a breeze: they experience flow there, without having to throw themselves into Wimbledon.
Flow is the sweet spot between challenging and attainable. It’s the match you have to play hard to win at — but know that you can win.
In flow, colloquially called “the zone”, people experience:
- intense concentration
- loss of self-consciousness
- sense of serenity & control
- single-minded focus
- “tuning out” of non-task-related surroundings
- forgetting to eat & drink & sleep
- joy from the task itself
- uninterrupted focus and desire to complete
- distorted passage of time — don’t notice time passing
It can be experienced in almost any human endeavour: coding, playing an instrument, writing a novel, playing tennis, gaming, working out at the gym, painting, cycling.
A final crucial aspect to flow is clear and immediate feedback. We need a task where we can see whether we have done wrong, what is going right, and what our target is, easily.
Take the above examples. The coder has error messages; the pianist hears the song played smoothly, or a wrong note; the novelist sees their word count increase, their plot progress; the tennis player wins or loses the point; the gamer wins or dies in the match; the gym buff lifts until they cannot; the painter sees the colours work together, or an accidental smear was made; the cyclist aims to reach this office location or that finish line.
High challenge + high skill level + feedback = flow.
How do I get there?
- Choose a task. To start easy, pick something you’re interested in, right now. What do you want to accomplish, right now? It could be learning a new song; coding a small project; writing another chapter.
- Check it meets the criteria. Is it going to need you to concentrate? Is it doable? What is your feedback?
- Fulfil your needs first. You can’t concentrate properly if you’re desperate for the toilet, or starving. That’s just masochism. Give yourself five minutes to sort yourself out: go to the bathroom, have a snack, get a glass of water. Gather the materials you’ll need in front of you.
- Switch off all distractions. Hide your phone in another room. Block all social media using extensions such as BlockSite. Get a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door if you must! Remember, being snapped out of this early is the enemy. It takes ~25 minutes to refocus properly.
- Take the plunge. Be prepared for adjustment pains starting off. Push through them. Starting a new task is the most mentally taxing part for our brains. Flow needs breaking into, like ice.
- Flow is experienced in the middle of things. With the right conditions now set — clear goal, clear feedback , no distractions — there comes a point when you forget yourself. You’re moving with the music, your hands know what they’re doing before you do; you’re leaning forward eagerly, typing and deleting and thinking and testing another solution.
- Keeping up flow. You’ll stay here until distracted by an internal/external need, or the task is complete. Remember: in flow, you’re absorbed, and determined to keep at it. If your mind is wandering after a few hours, it’s time for a quick break to reset yourself. Movement breaks — where you get up and walk around — are good for your creativity and productivity. It’s okay to have one period of flow, a break, and then another.
- Exiting flow is a little like exiting a trance. You’ll suddenly blink back into things: remember who you are, remember your surroundings, stretch. Wait, two hours have passed? A really lovely and rare example of this on camera is Jodie Comer, Emmy-winning actress, visibly blinking and “snapping” back out of it at 2:32, here. You just witnessed an actor be in, and come out of, flow.
Treat the above steps as a taster experiment. What helps you? What distracts you? It’s beneficial for you to jot this down afterwards — alongside what time of day it was, the task type, and how you felt — to do this more often.
You’re unique here: you might get into flow easily at 10 AM, where mine tends to happen at 3 PM; you might find an incredible sense of freedom playing basketball, but not understand the hype around writing. Challenge, skill, and hobbies vary wildly from person to person — the feeling is the same.
Explore and learn what is conducive to your flow, and you have the keys to the kingdom.
- The easiest states to push into flow from are arousal and control. Remember that diagram? Flow is neighboured by arousal (high challenge — medium skill) and control (medium challenge — high skill). Arousal is when we’re stretched just past our capacity; “out of our comfort zone”. It’s where the task is hard, and most of our improvement happens. Improve enough, and you can break through into flow. Likewise, for a task that feels too easy, ramp up the difficulty. Increase the tempo of that piece, or set yourself half an hour to finish the task. Gradually ramping up our skill level and our task difficulty is where the magic happens.
- Flow is more enjoyable than rest. You heard that right — you’re more likely to enjoy working at what you love than watching TV. There is a noted disconnect between what we think will make us happy, and what actually does.
- It’s about the process, not the result. When flow is achieved, the work is autotelic: done for its own sake. For the Olympic sprinter in flow, they’re loving each footfall — not the idea of the finishing line. Apply this in your work by cutting out arbitrary targets beyond your control: no “I hope this piece gets X likes on YouTube”, no “I hope this app gets downloaded by X people”. Focus on doing the very best you can on a minute-by-minute, tangible basis. Focus on the content, not the response.
Summary & Further reading
- High challenge + high skill level + feedback = flow.
- Cut out distractions like they’re tumours. Multitasking isn’t a thing.
- Jot down the environment, time, and task of times when flow worked for you (and when it didn’t).
- Actively focus on learning from mistakes when stretched.
- Adjust tasks to be more challenging when they’re too easy.
- Find your sweet spot.
To hear from the man himself, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi shares his early research into the flow state in this illuminating TED Talk. He’s also released a book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which covers flow in easy, accessible detail.
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” -Viktor Frankl
If you have personal flow experiences to share, or questions, just drop a few lines below. I’m excited to hear them.
Good luck experimenting, focusing and finding your flow more often.