Have you ever had a moment—say, when you’re playing a video game—where you enter a state of pure focus?
A state where you’ve felt completely in control?
Where all of the distractions around you just melt away?
Where you’re 100% immersed in what you’re doing, and time doesn’t matter?
If so, you’ve probably entered the flow state.
When I first learned about the flow state, I was working at a company that made educational video games. Whether it was an app about science or learning Chinese, the goal of every single game we made was the same: to get the player to experience flow, so they were fully engaged in the content and more focused on learning.
After that, I realized that if I looked, I could find the flow state everywhere
It was in the running route that I took every day.
You know the feeling: you’re struggling for the first mile or so, but then you hit a moment—a moment where everything else melts away. You’re completely present and aware of everything you are doing at that moment, from the rhythm of your breathing to the pounding of the pavement under your feet.
It was in the essays I was writing, when I entered that moment of deep focus.
It occurred when I was hell-bent on trying to learn a new piece on the piano or starting a new run on my skis. And every time I entered that state, I found myself getting more enjoyment out of whatever I was doing AND being more productive.
There’s no denying: the flow state is seriously powerful. But what exactly is it, and how do we tap into the flow state to achieve more and perform better?
That’s what I’m going to show you here.
What is the flow state?
At its simplest, the flow state occurs when you’re deeply immersed in the task at hand.
When you’re in flow, you are in a mode of effortless attention: you’re completely focused, but you don’t necessarily notice time passing or the amount of energy you’re actually putting into what you’re doing.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of the positive psychology movement, sums it up best in an interview with Wired magazine:
Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
Although the principles of the flow state are the same, it occurs at different times and in different ways for each person. You might find that you achieve flow when you’re taking a spin class, while your friend might find they achieve flow when they’re dancing.
The nine components of the flow state
Remember the point I mentioned earlier about how the flow state causes you to immerse yourself and lose track of time? That’s just one of many components that need to occur for you to enter flow.
When you induce this state, you’ll experience nine different elements.
1. Challenge-skill balance
This is the sweet spot where your skill level is perfectly matched with the task at hand. Sure, it’s tough—but the flow state causes you to find an equilibrium where the challenge is just hard enough to stimulate your mind without being too tough to cause anxiety.
2. Merging of action-awareness
At the point where you enter flow, you no longer are aware that you’re actually doing something. Rather, you feel like you’re moving automatically with very little or no exertion of effort.
3. You have clear goals
You know what you want to achieve and how to get there. Every action you take in the flow state is bringing you closer to that goal.
Goals transform a random walk into a chase. You need clear goals that fit into a hierarchy, with little goals that build toward more meaningful, higher-level goals.
4. There’s clear feedback
In flow, you can clearly feel that you’re doing well. The best way to think of this is like playing Super Mario Bros: As you go through a level, you hear positive “dings” and “yahoos” as you pick up items or jump at the right time, which signals that you’re doing well.
5. You experience a high level of concentration
Focus and immersion are two of the most common words associated with the flow state—and for good reason. When you enter this mode, you’re 100% involved in what you’re doing and experience a heightened level of awareness.
6. There’s a sense of control
Nothing feels like it’s getting out of hand in the flow state. You’re in full control of your actions and able to manipulate your body effortlessly to achieve your goal.
7. You lose the feeling of self-consciousness
What does your hair look like? Are other people judging you? In flow, your mind says, “who cares?” During this state, you act completely confidently, without a worry or fear about how you’re being perceived by those around you.
8. Time shifts
When you’re in the flow state, you’ll experience a distorted sense of time. It might feel like time has completely slowed down, which allows you to focus, or you might feel like time is just flying by.
9. Autotelic experience
Autotelic is the sense of an activity having a conclusion or purpose in itself—and this is usually the end result of entering flow. At the end of whatever you’re doing, you’ll feel like you enjoyed the experience and that you were intrinsically motivated throughout the task, irrespective of any goals that might have been linked to the activity at hand.
What are the benefits of entering the flow state?
Being in flow doesn’t just make an activity more enjoyable. It comes with a ton of benefits, including:
- An improved ability to regulate your emotions. As you experience the flow state over and over again, your emotional complexity grows—making it easier to manage different feelings that come up in daily life.
- More enjoyment out of activities. You might hate running normally, but once you enter the flow state, you suddenly enjoy it. No matter what you’re doing, the flow state makes it more enjoyable because you feel a strong sense of fulfillment and reward from the task at hand.
- You’re more productive. In flow, you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing and focused without distractions. As a result, you’ll be more engaged and perform better, whether that’s building a presentation for work or engaging in physical activity.
- Improve your skills. If you want to keep entering the flow state, you must constantly push to improve your abilities to achieve the right balance of challenge and skill. This is a great motivator to learn more or get new information to achieve flow in the future.
- Intrinsic motivation. Think back to when you were a kid and you ran around just because you enjoyed it. That’s the same feeling you get during the flow state—a feeling that you just want to do something because you WANT to, not because you have to.
Five ways to activate the flow state
In case you haven’t gathered, the flow state is an awesome state to be in, particularly if you want to enhance your productivity. But rather than going about your daily activities and hoping that you’ll enter flow, there are a few things you can do to put yourself in the best position possible to induce this state.
Get rid of any distractions
This is a tough one, particularly with so many notifications and devices to check. However, you’ll give yourself the best chance of experiencing flow if you remove as many distractions around you as possible.
Pop on your noise-canceling headphones, turn on “do not disturb” mode on your phone, or lock yourself in a room that’s free of pets or housemates. This way, you’ll be able to divert all of your attention to the task or activity.
Mindfulness and flow go hand-in-hand. When you’re in a flow state, you are completely aware of what you’re doing, and you’re in control—and meditation is one of the best ways to bring more mindfulness into your life.
If you’ve never meditated before, try an app like headspace or Calm. These platforms have guided meditations which are invaluable if you don’t know where to start. Even five minutes a day will help increase your mindfulness in daily life and, in turn, improve your chances of inducing flow.
Give yourself plenty of time
Flow doesn’t just happen. Remember what I mentioned earlier about running? It takes at least a mile for me to start feeling that sense of flow—and the same goes for other activities. That’s why flow is best for longer activities rather than short bursts.
Give yourself enough time to actually get into the right headspace and to get a rhythm going. Equally, make sure you have enough time to enjoy the feeling of flow once you get there.
Adjust the challenge
There’s no tried-and-tested method to reach flow. You might not hit the right state because what you’re doing is too easy and you’re getting bored, or because the task is too challenging so you’re not getting enough enjoyment out of it.
Have something that’s overly easy? Experiment and adjust your activity to either make it more enjoyable, meaningful, or challenging. The same goes if something is tough: try to take it down a notch or break it down into smaller, more manageable steps.
Experiment with music
When I was preparing for my high school exams, one of our teachers told me that to concentrate, I should listen to baroque music at a volume that was barely audible.
I know—it sounds weird. But I was open to trying anything at that point. So I found a playlist and hit play. Within fifteen minutes, I was knee-deep in study and maintained my level of focus for well over two hours.
I’ve been using baroque music for concentration ever since.
Music is a really great way to help induce flow (provided it doesn’t become a distraction). The next time you want to achieve a deep level of focus and flow, pop your headphones on and try some baroque music or binaural beats to put your mind in the zone.
It’s always better to go with the flow
Experiencing flow is, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying and enjoyable states of being. You perform better, build up your skills, AND it helps you gain more meaning from the experience. Most importantly, it’s your secret weapon in achieving next-level productivity from any task you’re doing, whether it’s at work or in your spare time.
While inducing flow is a skill in and of itself, it’s absolutely one that you can absolutely get better at. Be patient. Practice, experiment, and remember to keep adjusting the challenge as you achieve mastery.