Have you ever heard someone explain that they were completely “lost in the moment” or “in another space and time” when creating a piece of art, playing a game, coding computer software, or having an intimate conversation? If so, then you’re familiar with the concept of “flow”.
“Flow” is not an urban legend or some mere theory. This state of being or level of consciousness—when one is totally and contently absorbed by an activity— is empirically supported as the optimal state of human performance. Research by DARPA under the U.S. Department of Defense and the Flow Genome Project has even found that being in “flow” can boost human productivity, learning, and skill mastery by 490%.
What is “flow” and where do I get it?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist, has dedicated his life to studying optimal human experience and was the first to coin the term “flow” to describe such a state. Csikszentmihalyi postulates that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen,” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 3). Flow can therefore be translated from something that you simply do or that magically happens to you, to a broader way of being when relationships, situations, and challenges are met with an enjoyable engagement and exercise of skill.
Furthermore, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology—a field of study focused on the aspects of human nature that allow individuals to thrive—defines “flow” in his theory of Authentic Happiness as complete and absolute engagement that exercises your highest abilities and creativity. Seligman explains that when one deploys intense skill and focus to overcome an obstacle, the total engrossment in the activity results in more feelings of accomplishment and, subsequently, happiness.
Flow state generates a cocktail of endorphins in the brain, increasing norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, and serotonin, according to neuroscientists at Bonn University in Germany. The resulting effects are relaxed muscles and increased focused, aka superhuman powers. A brain in flow state also experiences an “efficiency exchange,” as described by Arne Dietrich, a neuroscientist from the American University in Beirut. During this process, the implicit system in the brain which is responsible for exercising skills operates without interference from the explicit system—or the higher cognitive functions that can cause over-analyzing or second guessing—resulting in liberated creativity.
“Flow” is starting to sound pretty good, right? Lucky for us, now that science has a better understanding of what “flow” actually is, we can actually practice and learn how to access and utilize it on demand.
Tips for tapping into “flow”:
- Identify a creative pursuit, physical activity, hobby, or any other form of work that you thoroughly enjoy.
- Select a task associated with your chosen interest that requires time and dedication and will have long-term impacts on your goals. Make sure this task is challenging, but not impossible so that your full attention is required yet you won’t get frustrated or distracted.
- Find out when during the day you are most productive. This might be early in the morning after a good night’s sleep or late in the evening when your free from your daily responsibilities. Whenever it is, carve out a space free of distractions at a time when you are alert, energized and can concentrate.
- Train yourself to sustain focus for extended periods of time. This will require as much patience as practice, and don’t be too hard on yourself–there’s a why reason Nirvana is rare. Turn off your phone, close all unnecessary internet browsers, lock your study door and whenever you catch your attention drifting from your task, gently remind yourself to bring it back.
- Allow yourself to enjoy. Try not to think too much about the finished goal. Instead lose yourself in the process. Revel in your creativity. Congratulate and reward yourself for your productivity. And remember that “flow state” is about finding happiness and fulfillment in the journey.
Additional ways to practice “flow”:
- Gratitude Journal: Keep a notebook next to your bed and practice writing down 10 things every day that you are grateful for either when you wake up in the morning or before you go to bed. Csikszentmihalyi explains that happiness experienced through flow is not curated through external rewards (new shoes, a big house, etc.) but rather from internal, personal experiences that are under our control. Gratitude practices help to make the channels of internal satisfaction more easily accessible.
- Meditation: Learning how to quiet your mind has all sorts of positive impacts on mental clarity, focus, creativity, and can also decrease stress and anxiety. Practicing meditation on a consistent basis will help you tune out the world and get lost in flow.
- Sensory deprivation: Similar to meditation, sensory deprivation tanks (or float tanks) help teach you how to silence your thoughts and tap into your inner mind and prowess, allowing for mental breakthroughs and more moments of true inspiration.
- Heart Rate Variability (HRV) Training: By training your brainwaves to synchronize with your heartbeat you can artificially stimulate a state of calm focus, similar to that generated by meditation. You can practice HRV with the help of a biofeedback sensor, available online.
- Daydream: Seems a little counter-intuitive to productivity doesn’t it? However, studies on creativity and “a-ha!” moments show that oftentimes mental breakthroughs come when the brain is at ease and your consciousness is less busy. Try to incorporate mental breaks into your work habits and allow your mind to wander. Who knows what you mind find there?
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.