When was the last time you were so absorbed in an activity that you completely lost track of time?
That was a tremendous feeling right? It was as if nothing else existed in the world but you and the activity. You were in a state of flow.
What is Flow?
Flow refers to a mental state in which you are completely immersed in your activity. In a state of flow, you are fully engaged and bursting with energy, and this helps you complete an activity successfully. Everything seems to come naturally, and sometimes you exceed your own abilities.
The state of flow is so marvelous, we wish we could summon it anytime we need to do something. But the harder we try to concentrate, the more distracted we seem to become.
But there are ways you can get into a state of flow much easier. In this article I will give 5 steps you can take to get into a state of flow.
Unlock The Superpower of Your Subconscious
Our brain is at the heart of all the efforts we undertake. As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, there are two modes in which the brain forms thoughts: Fast and Unconciously (System 1) and Slow and Consciously (System 2)
System 1 responses are quick, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic and unconcious.
System 2 responses are slower, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating and conscious.
When we see this distinction in the light of flow, we can clearly see which one is favorable for most activities. Before you begin, you want the conscious self to initiate efforts; he knows what needs to be done. But after that, to get into a state of flow, the unconscious self should take over.
Ideally you won’t be disturbed by your conscious self until the activity is done. Then your conscious self can take a look at the result, make adjustments and decide on the next task.
How Does Flow Feel?
You are completely in the zone. You are not thinking about how, what, when and why. You are just doing it. Your efforts come spontaneously and you burst with creativity. Your thoughts are aligned to perform this task, and this task only.
Your actions flow as free as a river. Your motions are fluid and your mind is free of worries. You simply feel excited and confident, as you perform the activity effortlessly. There is no ego, no concern about the opinions of others.
Often, you only realize that you were experiencing flow afterwards. During the state of flow you were not actively gauging your state of mind.
5 Steps for Getting Into A State of Flow
These five steps will help you trigger a state of flow whenever you need to.
1. Ensure your basic needs are met
In preparation for an activity, make sure your basic needs are met.
You don’t want to be taken out of your flow by the distraction of one of your primal instincts. If you feel you are getting hungry, your bladder is about to explode, or that your armpits are reeking of sweat… All of these are little distractions that don’t need to occur.
Make sure that you ate properly, are well-rested and that you have a water bottle within arms’ reach.
Manage yourself like a Sim
Think of this like managing your sim in The Sims. Whenever one of the basic needs is not met, this will distract him from the task at hand and he becomes unmanageable. Whatever the activity, he is constantly disturbed by one of his deficiencies. The Sim becomes tired, agitated, or so grumpy that his whole though process is impaired. If you don’t want this to happen, you need to keep your energy bars full.
You’re not you when you’re hungry.
~ Every Snickers commercial.
2. Remove External Distractions
Disconnect yourself from the outside world. Remove all distractions in your environment. In het
In everyday life, there are millions of things that can distract you. Think of a notification on your smartphone, overhearing a conversation between two people, a cluttered desk with snacks or unfinished work, the neighbors that struggle to get their newborn to take a nap.
Decide for yourself the best place to do your activity, and design this place so that you can perform optimally. This place may be outside the house, such as a library or study area. Also look into some good noise-cancellation headphones.
Deep down you know what distracts you most. So turn off notifications and put your phone away.
3. Clear Your Mind
Even when you eliminate all external distractions, you can find yourself fencing off your own thoughts. These internal distractions come from the conversations that go on inside your head. Think of — no wait, don’t think of — all the worries, anxiety and stress.
You have to clear your head before you start your task, so that the duration of your flow is longer.
Quieting the mind means LESS. Less thinking, calculating, planning, controlling, worrying, fearing, regretting, judging, hoping and less trying. It sounds cliché, but less is truly more.
Journaling, meditation and mindfulness
One way to accomplish this is to write out your worries in a journal so that they can leave your brain’s thought buffer and thus be a concern for later. Meditation is also a great way to unwind and become more mindful.
At this point you will naturally think to yourself: How quiet is my mind? If I were to close my eyes right now, how long can I go without thoughts? One minute? 10 seconds? Even less?
Luckily, thoughtlessness is a trainable skill. Meditation is an excellent tool for training your mind to quiet down.
4. Pick the right challenge (and one at a time!)
Do something you love, prioritize your tasks and do not multitask.
When you start working, make sure there is a gradual build up of difficulty. If you immediately start with a challenge that is extremely difficult, the frustration will take you out of concentration. Therefore, start with a short task that is relatively easy and slowly build up the difficulty.
The activity should also not be so easy that you get bored. Here again, balance is the key word. Ideally, your task is just beyond the top of your abilities, thus providing enough challenges and learning moments.
Three conditions to achieve flow
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who popularized the concept of flow in the late 70s, states that there are three conditions that must be met in order to achieve flow:
- The activity must have clear goals and progress.
- The task must provide clear and immediate feedback.
- There must be a good balance between the challenge of the task and one’s abilities (see graph below)
5. Visualize the end result
The very same flow can also send you down a path that is not worthwhile.
If you fire up your PlayStation and become fully immersed in a game of Rocket League, you can also start experiencing flow. But this is an undesirable state of flow when there are important tasks waiting. So beware, flow can literally captivate you.
Therefore, it should be clear in advance what you want to achieve. Take some time to visualize your desired end result. Only think of the destination, don’t give yourself verbal instructions on how to get there. You don’t need to think of a fully coordinated plan, you will automatically fill in the gaps along the way when you dive into your activity.
Start Your Activity
When you feel ready to start your activity, try to remain loose. Flow will come naturally, not if you force yourself.
Flow During Physical Activities
If you are about to do a physical activity, your movements should be fluid. Your limbs should move in undulating motions, with rotations coming from the wrists, hips, knees and spine. There shouldn’t be much thought in the actual motions themselves, because your movement with be primarily based on muscle memory.
When you try too hard, your actions become forced. Your muscles will tighten, your eyes squint, your teeth clench and your entire body will be in an awkward, stiff posture. The perfect recipe for injuries. You are fighting against natural motions, so it is better to take a step back, shake off your stiffness and recompose yourself.
When you feel unleashed again, give it another shot!
Flow During Mental Activities
For mental activities, it is often your internal dialogue that prevents you from getting into a state of flow. You are battling your inner voice. And this voice can be very mean and pessimistic. You may even start cursing at yourself. But it is unlikely that you will perform any better after that.
It can be frustrating when the flow is not occurring or when you run into obstacles. But don’t try to overcompensate. Instead, try to choose the route of least resistance every time. If this means that you need to switch to an easier task, so be it.
Don’t get caught up overthinking. For example, if you are working on a text, don’t be afraid to write a bad phrase. Let your pen move freely across the paper or your fingertips dart across the keyboard. You can always think of a better synonym later on or decide to delete some sentences.
When I was writing this article, my mind was continuously switching between English and Dutch, my mother tongue. Instead of forcing my brain to find the correct translations for my Dutch thoughts, I just wrote a complete mishmash of English and Dutch sentences. This way I wouldn’t have to Google for translations, better synonyms or to double-check my grammar. All that had taken me out of my focus, which would turn writing a quick draft into a time-consuming chore.
What causes you to get out of flow?
Counterintuitively, a man’s best effort is done when he is not thinking.
There can be external and internal distractions that get your out of your flow. It can be someone interrupting you, an annoying sound or the fact that you have to get off the train. Sometimes it is your very own mind pulling you out of it.
As soon as you start reflecting on your actions or taking a break, you are getting out of the flow. Every time you regain consciousness, you put the flowing river to a halt and it is likely that the stream is dry by the time you return.
Flow is a mental state in which you are fully immersed in your activity. Everything you do will feel naturally and your efforts will most likely be fast and unconscious. You are completely in the zone and the outside world does not seem to matter.
You can get into a state of flow by:
- Ensuring your basic needs are met
- Eliminating external distractions
- Emptying your mind
- Picking the right challenge
- Visualizing the end result.
Flow comes when you loosen up, so don’t try to force yourself!
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
In his monumental book, Mihaly discusses his view on happiness. He states that the best moments in our lives occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something worthwhile. Thus, the state of flow is the key to a happy and meaningful life.