When was the last time you felt passionately engaged in a project or activity?
Maybe you were playing the guitar on your back porch, your eyes closed and the crickets chirping along to the beat as you enjoyed the summer air. Or perhaps you were working on a chapter of your memoir, gazing at the screen with a smile as your mind filled with images of a favorite moment long ago.
As we played our favorite piece on the piano, performed improv on stage with our theater troupes, or coded the last bits of an exciting update to our app, there was one thing that united us: We were all experiencing flow — that magical transformation of time when we’re completely immersed in the moment.
As shown in the scenarios above, we can naturally slip into a flow state. But did you know we can also achieve it on purpose? Learning new things and achieving our goals can be easier and more enjoyable with the flow.
In this article, we'll explore the concept of flow and discover how to get into a flow state using a few simple tricks.
Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known as the father of positive psychology, first described the concept of flow in his groundbreaking 1990 book, "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." Although Csíkszentmihályi wasn't the first to recognize this mental state, he was the first to name it. His study called this state "flow" because many participants said the experience felt like flowing along a river.
Csíkszentmihályi's research showed that people's happiness isn’t derived from leisure activities or relaxation but from intense moments of engagement called flow. We enter the flow state when we're so absorbed in something that we completely forget about everything else around us. We don't seem to notice our surroundings as if time has slowed down or even stopped. We may even lose track of who we are and what we're doing.
This state of mind has been described as "in the zone" or "in the groove." When you're in flow, you're fully immersed in your activity without feeling any effort. No external reward is involved — you're just doing it for its own sake. In this state, there’s no judgment or self-consciousness, just euphoria and happiness that results in more creativity and efficiency.
As Csíkszentmihályi described in his 2004 TED Talk, "There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other."
According to Csíkszentmihályi, achieving flow state requires the presence of certain conditions. Flow is likely to result when most of these nine components are present, but not all are required:
When many of these factors combine, your chances of achieving flow increase significantly.
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Everyone has the potential to achieve a flow state — the only requirements are sufficient mastery of the task, strong internal motivation, and uninterrupted time to focus. However, science has proven that some people are more likely to reach flow than others.
According to a landmark study, the ability to achieve flow is primarily determined by personality, not intelligence. Researchers discovered that while flow ignores factors like race, gender, or culture, it doesn't turn a blind eye to personality — results of the study clearly demonstrated that specific personality traits increase the chances of finding flow.
For example, people with high levels of conscientiousness showed positive correlations with flow states, possibly because they spend more time practicing to achieve more challenging goals. High levels of neuroticism, however, hindered the ability to obtain flow, probably due to how traits affect the cognitive and emotional processes that support flow.
Flow can also be affected by other factors. Passion for your work or hobbies can increase the likelihood of achieving flow, thanks to intrinsic motivation. Additionally, a growth mindset makes flow more likely since it motivates you to tackle complex tasks and persist through setbacks.
An adventurous spirit means you're more open to going with the flow (pun intended). Naturally curious people who enjoy new experiences and learning new things are more likely to achieve a flow state. Additionally, Csíkszentmihályi suggested that people who overlearn — continue to study after already knowing the material — achieve more significant flow states, which is promising for lifelong learners.
The benefits of flow are plenty, and it all begins with what’s happening in the brain during flow. In a state of flow, a waterfall of feel-good neurochemicals streams from your brain, including:
These chemicals do more than just make you feel good. Norepinephrine and dopamine help you focus, blocking distractions and reducing your chances of making careless mistakes. Additionally, they allow us to recognize patterns, making it easier to connect ideas. These boosts to learning and performance lead to enhanced productivity. Studies show working in a flow state can increase productivity by up to 500%.
In addition to productivity, research has shown that flow leads to more creativity and vice versa. In flow, you can think more clearly and explore possibilities without fear or limitation. The lesser-known anandamide stimulates lateral thinking, which can inspire intuitive insights and generate creative ideas.
Researchers have also found that flow promotes enhanced well-being, especially for autotelic personalities. During flow, the happy chemicals serotonin and dopamine boost feelings of pleasure, joy, and reward. Additionally, they can reduce anxiety and stress. Engaging in flow-inducing activities during a research study revealed that flow reduced negative emotions and alleviated uneasiness.
In addition to improving mental health, a flow state can positively affect your physical health. Research has uncovered that flow states decrease heart rate variability and lower breath rates. They're also linked to improved immune function and reduced inflammation.
With so many benefits, it's no wonder that people are interested in how to get into a flow state at work. A few hacks known as your “flow triggers” can help you get into the flow.
Flow researcher Steven Kotler has identified and compiled 15 typical flow triggers, certain pre-conditions that can induce a flow state. Flow triggers are unique to you and include psychological, environmental, social, and creative factors, such as shared goals or high consequences.
If you're ready to reach peak performance and increase productivity, here are a few tips to help you discover your triggers and flow.
Knowing how to get into a flow state provides many benefits. Working in flow can improve your performance, enhance your productivity, and increase your happiness. Set yourself up for an optimal experience and promote flow with these hacks. Just remember, flow is all about being in the moment and letting go of your inhibitions. Embrace your inner curiosity and see where it takes you. Before you know it, you'll be in a state of flow.
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