The optimal experience: How to get into a flow state in 7 steps

Learn how to get into a state of flow to reach peak performance and increase your productivity with these seven steps.

How to get into flow state: person arranging wooden cubes and circles

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.

What is a flow state?

How to get into flow state: close up shot of an hourglass

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."


What are the characteristics of a flow state?


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:

  1. A balance of skills and challenge. A simple task will bore you, while a very difficult one far beyond your skill level will frustrate you. Ideally, the task difficulty should be just beyond your abilities, so that it is challenging but still attainable.
  2. A clear goal. Clear objectives tell you what needs to be done and how to do it. Clarity provides a sense of direction and helps you measure progress.
  3. Immediate feedback. The task itself should provide you with clear feedback right away to reinforce your progress toward your goal.
  4. Concentration focused on one thing only. The key to achieving flow is focusing your full attention on the task. Multitasking divides your attention and prevents flow, which decreases your productivity.
  5. A feeling of control or mastery. Flow is more likely to occur when you feel confident and capable. When you aren't distracted by worry or self-doubt, you can devote all your attention to the task.
  6. A sense of effortlessness or ease. You should be able to effortlessly and naturally perform your activity without feeling like you’re struggling or pushing yourself. This lets you focus on the task rather than yourself.
  7. Altered time perception. Time seems to slow down or stop as you get engrossed in your actions. You can concentrate more on the work rather than the passing time.
  8. Consciousness-action integration. Your conscious and subconscious minds work seamlessly together in flow to make your actions effortless and automatic.
  9. Autotelic (intrinsic) motivation. To achieve flow, you need to be intrinsically motivated from within. Extrinsic motivations, such as rewards or punishments, can actually hinder flow.

When many of these factors combine, your chances of achieving flow increase significantly.

Who can experience a flow state?

Csíkszentmihályi flow state chart

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.


What are the benefits of achieving a flow state?

Lightbulb and paper airplanes

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:

  • Norepinephrine
  • Dopamine
  • Serotonin
  • Anandamide
  • Endorphins

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.


Wondering how to get into a flow state at work? Try these tips

David's bust, hourglass and a computer mouse

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.

  1. Find your passion
    Remember the activity we described at the beginning? You probably didn't notice how fast time passed. The flow comes more easily when you're doing what you love. Self-motivation makes it easier for you to stay focused and engaged in your work. If you're unsure about your passion, try exploring new hobbies or activities. You may find something you're naturally good at and enjoy doing.
  2. Challenge yourself
    You’re more likely to experience a flow state when you’re working on a single task outside of your comfort zone. What is the appropriate level of challenge? Finding your sweet spot is vital — if a task is too easy, you'll get bored, but if it's too complicated, you won't do your best work. Working just beyond your level of skill is best. The proper challenge versus skill balance will allow you to achieve peak performance while still having something to work for.
  3. Set clear goals
    A clear goal makes it easier to stay focused and on track. It's important to set SMART goals, ones that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. By creating well-defined goals, you'll feel more motivated and satisfied after you achieve them.
  4. Get into a routine
    Establishing a routine can also help you get into the flow. Create a series of tasks that help you get into the right state of mind for flow, and follow the routine whenever you begin a deep work session. Stretch your muscles, enjoy a favorite beverage, or light a candle with a particular scent. When you consistently do the same actions, your brain will signal that it's time to focus.
  5. Remove distractions
    Getting into a state of flow can be challenging if you're constantly being interrupted by external distractions. Set your work day up for success by choosing a quiet place to work where you won't be interrupted. Close your door if you can, and post a Do Not Disturb sign. Turn off your phone and silence any other notifications that might disrupt your concentration.
  6. Be in the present moment
    Flow occurs when you fully engage in what you're doing and forget the outside world. Pay attention to your senses and concentrate on the task at hand. When your thoughts wander, just bring them back to the present moment. If you’re finding deep work a challenging task, try to bring mindfulness into your everyday life to practice staying in the present moment. Meditation can help you better understand your thoughts and how to control them.
  7. Take breaks
    Although the state of flow is about uninterrupted focus, there's only so long your mind can concentrate. Periodic breaks are essential if you want to reach an optimal experience. If you're losing concentration or just not doing your best work, try taking a quick walk or stepping out for fresh air. Just don't grab your phone — texting or scrolling social media during a break prevents your brain from recharging as effectively as going unplugged.
  8. Be open to new experiences
    The willingness to try new things can also help you achieve a flow state. Letting go of your inhibitions frees you to truly go with the flow. To become more open to new things, do something outside your comfort zone. Take a different road to work, try a new video game, or join a friend for an activity you've never done. Flow states are easier to achieve the more unique experiences you have.
  9. Be persistent
    Learning how to get into a flow state can take time and practice, but it's worth the effort. If you don't succeed at first, don't give up. Try a variety of approaches until you find one that works. Remember that the flow state is an individual experience, so what works for others might not work for you. Be persistent in your efforts, and you'll eventually find your way of achieving flow.

Discover flow and learn for a lifetime


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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