What Is The ‘Flow State’?

Table of Contents (click to expand)

There are times when people develop tunnel-vision into their work, forgetting about the things happening to and around them. Psychologists have thoroughly documented this phenomenon, providing ways to voluntarily access this focused state.

There are times when you’re working and the day ends without you even feeling it pass. You are so engaged in the things you’re doing that you even skip meals, not realizing that the sun has already set. Even though you worked your brains out and forgot to eat lunch, there is a feeling of contentment, a sense of satisfaction. This act of complete immersion in an activity is what psychologists refer to as flow.

Office life. Woman works at office. - Vector( Viktoria Bykova)s
Sometimes there is no recognition of the passing of time when we are engrossed in engaging work. (Photo Credit : Viktoria Bykova/ Shutterstock)

Flow is essentially when you are “in the zone” and you completely forget about yourself and your surroundings. It’s only the work you are doing that remains, putting you completely “in the moment”. Time seems to fly by, and while you may get tired, you barely notice.

Psychologist Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has coined the term “flow”, following his extensive research with athletes, musicians and other creatives regarding their experiences of total immersion in their craft. He is noted for his work related to Happiness and Creativity in individuals. Csikszentmihalyi argues that being able to enter the flow state is paramount in creating work that is fulfilling. He goes so far as to say that achieving flow on a regular basis is the key to happiness in one’s life.

If that’s the case, understanding what it is and how to achieve it would certainly enhance one’s experience of life, so let’s jump right into it!

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What Is Flow?

Our nervous system can respond to about 110 bits of information per second. In order to hear and understand what a person is saying, the nervous system needs to process about 60 bits of information per second. That’s why we can’t pay attention when more than two people are talking at the same time; it is a situation of information overload.

When a person is completely immersed in a task, such as playing a musical instrument, they’re using their entire capacity to monitor the task. They don’t have any attention left for being aware of things going on in their bodies, let alone things happening outside of themselves. They forget their problems at home, as well as any feelings of hunger, thirst or tiredness.

The person completely loses their identity; their sense of self disappears from their consciousness, as they simply do not have the attention for it.

Double exposure of the female eye and tunnel with train car in subway - Image(FTiare)s
Tunnel vision makes us lose our sense of self. (Photo Credit : FTiare/ Shutterstock)

It seems impossible to do a thing very well, something that requires complete concentration, and still maintain a sense of self. The artists that Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed told him that when they reach this state, they feel like their body is doing the task on its own like their work was literally just flowing through them. This description was so common among his interviewees that he made it the name of this unique state – Flow.

These states have been talked about and experienced since the dawn of mankind. Various eastern religions, like Buddhism, have described these states as being completely in the moment, entirely devoid of ego.

The advantage of interviewing masters of their craft was that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi could infer the most suitable conditions and process to reach this state of flow.

Also Read: Can Humans Actually Multitask?

How To Enter Flow State?

Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi lists the following experiences as being in the state of flow:

  1. Complete focus on the present moment.
  2. Action and awareness merge together.
  3. A loss of the sense of self.
  4. A sense of complete control over the task at hand.
  5. A total loss of time, not knowing how much time passed.
  6. Feeling satisfied, experiencing the activity as immensely rewarding.

You might experience all of these sensations or a mix of them when you reach this state. A flow state can be reached by doing any task, although doing things that hold intrinsic value to the person will increase the chances of getting to this state. The activities don’t need an external push for people to do; they are things a person deems worthy and feels a purpose in pursuing.

Intrinsic Value Closeup Concept. American Dollars Cash Money,3D rendering. Intrinsic Value at Dollar Banknote(Borka Kiss)s
People tend to work more willingly for things that hold intrinsic value to them. (Photo Credit : Borka Kiss/ Shutterstock)

Dr. Csikszentmihalyi further breaks down the conditions that must be met to achieve a flow state:

Setting Clear Goals

Before starting the activity, there should be a clear idea of how you’re going to proceed in the task. This should be reverse engineered with the end goal in mind. The goal should be broken into bite-sized pieces, so once you start doing the task, there is no need for you to think about what comes next. This will provide direction and structure for the task at hand.

target goals vector icon success business strategy concept - Vector( Bakhtiar Zein)s
Clear goals provide structure and a target to hit, an ideal setup for good results and effective feedback. (Photo Credit : Bakhtiar Zein/ Shutterstock)

Clear Feedback From The Task

As you get started with the task, you will want to know how you’re fairing in doing it. There should be clear feedback about your success in completing the task. When playing an instrument, the feedback is hitting the correct notes, while in writing, it could consist of articulating your thoughts in a clear and concise manner.

Iconic illustration of satisfaction level. Range to assess the emotions of your content( Lyudmyla Kharlamova)s
Constant feedback is necessary to gauge the success in performing the task (Photo Credit : Lyudmyla Kharlamova/ Shutterstock)

A Balance Between Challenge And Skill Level

This balance of the difficulty of the task at hand and the ability to complete it is paramount to achieving the flow state. If the challenge is too easy to do, there will be apathy towards it, resulting in boredom and a wandering mind. If the challenge is too hard and the skill doesn’t match the task, anxiety will creep in, resulting in quitting the activity in a relatively short amount of time. There is a sweet spot to aim for here, where the challenge is hard enough that your skills can solve it, or even lie a bit outside the skillset, such that it is necessary to be alert. This inspires confidence in the task, which helps you go in-depth and reach the flow state.

challange vs skill
A balance between challenge and skill level ensures the flow state.(Photo Credit : Oliverbeatson/Wikimedia Commons)

Also Read: Why Do We Zone Out And Daydream?

In Conclusion

Research says that the level of happiness received from material gains diminishes as gains increase. We only need a certain amount of material wellness to be happy; after that, it starts to make less and less difference to the level of happiness we experience. On the other hand, the dissection of flow states shows that there is a primal sense of satisfaction and happiness in being in the now and forgetting your sense of self from time to time.

So, with all this in mind, hack into your flow state, but don’t forget to eat lunch!

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References (click to expand)
  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi · The Father of Flow. The Claremont Graduate University
  2. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow - the Flame. The Claremont Graduate University
  3. Mihaly C. (2008). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics). Harper Perennial Modern Classics
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About the Author

Vishal is an Architect and a design aficionado. He likes making trippy patterns in his computer. Fascinated by technology’s role in humanity’s evolution, he is constantly thinking about how the future of our species would turn out – sometimes at the peril of what’s currently going on around him.