Maybe you’ve had the same fantasy, you’re fully engaged, energized, passionate, and living the life of your dreams. You’re rising to your potential and pushing beyond. You’re reaching your highest aims, connected with your “people” and still having more gas left in the tank.
If you’re like me, this sounds too good to be true. But the science of flow intends to help take us to this very destination.
We’ve all been there, even if for a moment. The time when you were lost in what you were doing. Time vanished and you thought only of what was right in front of you. Maybe you were running or writing. Perhaps you were speaking in public or conducting a meeting. Or, you spent five hours playing a video game, feeling as if only minutes had passed. If you’ve had an experience like this, you’ve been in a state of “flow”.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Me-high Cheek-sent-me-high), is credited with first describing the Flow experience in these terms. Known as the father of positive psychology, Csikszentmihalyi set out to qualify what a meaningful life entailed8. Upon his journey, he discovered those who reported the most fulfilling and meaningful lives reported a state characterized by Flow.
Definitions vary, but Steven Kotler, an expert in flow, states Flow is “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.”12
The benefits of Flow are many. Flow makes activities more enjoyable, provides better emotional regulation, greater enjoyment, and fulfillment, greater happiness and motivation, increased engagement and performance, more learning and skill mastery, and more1. Flow is a state of peak performance, where we’ve stretched just beyond our ability.
Csikszentmihalyi reported that “…the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile2“. Our highest version of ourselves is within reach when we consider the experience of Flow and the possibility that it can be applied to many areas of our lives.
Working With Flow
The “Flow state” (or being in the zone), can be experienced at work. Flow characteristics often align with the nature of work. For example, complete concentration, a clear goal or desired outcome, immediate feedback, and a good balance between challenge and skills are all required for Flow as well as work2.
Elon Musk is an example of someone who experiences Flow with an extreme challenge/skill balance.
What’s this mean?
This means Musk sets his goals or challenges requiring a much higher skill level than his current level3. Even so, he knows he’ll acquire the necessary skills along the way. This challenge to his skill level can be a catalyst for Flow. If this challenge/skill balance is set too low, it risks the individual losing interest in achieving the goal. If too high, many can feel defeated and give up.
Research shows that people can be up to five times more productive in Flow4. Flow can be extremely beneficial for those working in this “state”.
One of the biggest flow killers is the ever-present distraction. Whether it be the cell phone or the girl (or guy) in the next cubical, anything that breaks your focus breaks your flow5. This is often the major barrier when trying to achieve Flow at work.
Athletes And Flow
In Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, he explores the connection between Flow and action sports athletes. He describes Flow in this manner as “a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” In the book, Kotler points out that extreme athletes are breaking records at an exponential rate compared to traditional athletes6. For example, the scaling of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park used to take teams of people a few days to complete. In the early, 2010’s it could be done by just one athlete in a few hours. There are countless examples illustrating the same point. Something interesting is happening in adventure sports.
What’s fueling this exponential expansion in the adventure sports realm?
Runner’s high is thought of as a low-grade Flow state, for example. As a matter of fact, this “high” was once thought to be caused by endorphins but is now known to be the result of endocannabinoids. These are natural chemicals released in the brain when doing pleasurable activities (endocannabinoids are also released during orgasm)7. Their effects can also be pharmacologically triggered by cannabis or marijuana use, hence the namesake.
(Note: The Author makes no endorsement for illegal substances.)
Education and Flow
Flow states seem to produce increased and more efficient learning9. Being highly engaged with the learning process and the state of Flow itself being autotelic, or rewarding in and of itself, (two characteristics of Flow) provides a model of understanding this idea. Immediate feedback, often present in the academic setting, can be a trigger for Flow10, for example.
Evidence suggests that creating a “Flow Center” in schools, where students are free to choose puzzles, games, and challenging activities causing them to engage in problem-solving increases learning. The activities in the Flow Center familiarize students with the processes needed in other areas of study but in a state of enjoyment and full engagement. This results in increased academic performance among participating students.
Writing is commonly an activity in which (ahem, myself included) many experience Flow. Ernest Hemingway recommended not writing too much at one time, to “never to empty the well of [his] writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well.”11. Hemingway advised not to write when not in Flow. He also instructed not to think about writing when not writing. Whatever may be derived from Hemingway’s words, it is clear he is describing a very specific state, call it what you will. The traits in this state align very clearly with the Flow State.
Flowing Down the River of Life
The research surfacing on Flow is exciting and inspiring. The vision of increased engagement, productivity, meaning, and purpose that Csikszentmihalyi initially described in those living the most fulfilling lives is attainable. Neurobiologists and researchers are breaking down what biochemical markers are involved in creating a Flow State as well as what external environmental factors are necessary to create this state.
In general, start here:
First, challenge yourself. In order to achieve flow, the activity you are taking part in needs to be slightly challenging. Not too challenging, not too easy. You want to find a good balance of your skills versus the challenge. Next, you have to have a clear goal, purpose, or intention behind what you are doing. This is best suited to be intrinsic motivation. Third, you’ll need to be uninterrupted. Interruptions are the Flow Killer. Make space to have uninterrupted time for Flow. And finally, be process-focused, not focused on the outcome. Be present in the process. There is a time to consider the outcome, but not during the process itself.
Hopefully, you’re excited. For the next three weeks, I’ll focus on some deeper elements of Flow and the current research.