Flow State: Definition and Tips to Get Into Flow
What is a flow state and how can it help you enjoy yourself and focus more when working? In this article, we'll talk about the research behind flow and how you can get into a state of flow.
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Do you want to learn how to stay focused and engaged in your work? Then the research on flow may help. In this article, we'll define a flow state, discuss how flow states are thought to affect human experience, and give you some ideas for how you might create your own state of flow.
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What Is a Flow State? (A Definition)
A flow state can be defined as a sort of effortless attention. When in flow, we are deeply absorbed in our activities yet there is no feeling of exerting effort. It also involves a feeling of high-energy positive emotion (similar to excitement or enjoyment) and unique physiological activation patterns that resemble patterns similar to both positive feelings and high attention (Ullén, de Manzano, Theorell, & Harmat, 2010).
More specifically, flow is thought to involve 9 components (Csikszentmihalyi 1990):
The Flow State of Mind
The 9 components of flow make up a state of mind characterized by positive feelings and a sense of ease. Let's go into these components a bit more to better understand this state of mind.
A state of flow is thought to occur when we are engaging in activities that are just the right difficulty for us—they are challenging but doable given our skill level. The activity is right in our sweet spot.
While in flow, there is no awareness of the self doing the activity. Our actions just feel effortless or automatic (Jackson & Marsh, 1996).
Clear goals are set from the outset of the flow state or in the process of doing the activity. This way, we are very clear about what we need to do.
This is the feedback we get from our engagement in whatever task we're doing. Specifically, we recognize that we are succeeding or on the right track. We can feel that we're doing well.
When in flow, we feel totally focused on the activity at hand. Our thoughts and actions are well-applied to whatever we're doing.
A sense of control
When in a state of flow, we feel like we can do anything and that we are in control of what's happening.
Loss of self-consciousness
In daily life, we tend to have thoughts in the back of our minds about how others view us. But in a state of flow, we're not worrying about what others think of us. We feel and act confidently without a sense of self-consciousness.
Transformation of time
In flow states, time can feel like it's moving either faster or slower than usual. We may feel like time slows down, allowing us to think clearly, or time speeds up, feeling like it is just flying by.
This experience is thought to be the end result of flow. It's a feeling of being intrinsically motivated or feeling like the task itself was enjoyable, regardless of any goals that the task may be attached to.
How to Get Into a Flow State
A flow state can feel ellusive. We want it, but how do we get it? Here are some suggestions from the research.
What helps us get into a flow state?
Intrinsic motivation and flow. Some personality traits make some of us more likely to enter flow states. For example, intrinsic enjoyment—or the tendency to feel enjoyment from doing activities themselves, even if they are not tied to external rewards like money or prestige—may be linked to more frequent experience of flow. Boredom coping—or the ability to do boring tasks in ways that are more enjoyable—might also be related to flow (Ullén, de Manzano, Theorell, & Harmat, 2010). This suggests that if we work at boosting our intrinsic motivation, we may have an easier time getting into a flow state.
Expertise and flow. Researchers suggest that we may be more likely to get into flow when working on tasks that we have some expertise in. When we have expertise in doing an activity, we have already automated some of the difficult parts of that activity. So researchers suggest that doing a challenging activity related to an area where we already have expertise may be qualitatively different than doing a challenging activity unrelated to an area of expertise (Ullén, de Manzano, Theorell, & Harmat, 2010). For these reasons, they say that it may be easier to get into flow when working on tasks that we have some expertise in.
Video: How To Get Into The Flow State
How to Enter a Flow State
Positive emotion and flow. An important thing to keep in mind if you desire to enter a flow state is the role of positive emotion. It may be that positive emotions precede or are an important precursor to flow. We know that a flow state is enjoyable but many of the experiences that emerge as a part of flow can emerge simply from experiencing positive emotions.
For example, a review article reminds us that positive emotions can result in lowered self-consciousness and alterations in the perception of time. This suggests that positive feelings may help us get into a flow state and that negative emotions such as worry may interfere with a flow state (Ullén, de Manzano, Theorell, & Harmat, 2010).
Challenging tasks and flow. If we want to get into a flow state, a good first step is to set the scene for the states of mind discussed above. For example, flow can not occur when we are doing things that are too easy or boring. So, we might be thoughtful about the difficulty of the tasks we're doing, being sure that they are sufficiently challenging, but not so difficult that we struggle. Whether or not a given task is challenging for us depends on our areas of expertise, so we may have to do some brainstorming and experimenting to find our sweet spot (Ullén, de Manzano, Theorell, & Harmat, 2010).
Video: Losing Yourself in Flow State
How to Stay in Flow State
Attention plays a key role in entering and staying in a flow state. Intense concentration or focus, perhaps the defining feature of flow, means that all of our attention is invested in the activity. Our minds are not wandering, we're not worrying about other things, and we're not thinking about what other people might think about us or our work.
Staying on flow requires that we keep our attention steady—boredom, anxiety, or apathy can pull us out of a flow state. Boredom leads our minds to wander. Anxiety leads to worry and may lead to self-consciousness, which steals our attention and lowers our focus (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). That means that staying in flow might involve increasing the difficulty level of our tasks over time. This kind of continual monitoring of your activities and your skill level may help ensure you stay in a flow state and help you achieve flow more often.
Music to Get Into the Flow State
If you want to listen to some music while you work that doesn't have distracting lyrics and melodies that might pull you out of flow, check out these videos with music for flow.
Video: Flow State Music - Alpha Binaural Beats, Study Music for Focus and Concentration
Video: Flow State (Continuous Mix)
Flow State & Focus
The founding researchers of flow were originally studying creativity. They noticed that when painting was going well for artists, the painters developed a deep focus, persisting in their work. They would even ignore hunger and overcome fatigue to continue to paint (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). This experience, now understood as a flow state, is when we are completely focused, so much so that we might forget to eat or use the bathroom. Thoughts, feelings, wishes, and actions are all aligned.
Given flow occurs when we are engaging in activities that are at just the right level of challenge, it is a precarious and fragile state. A slight shift where the task becomes more challenging (or we become more skilled, making the task boring) can shove us out of flow (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014). To stay focused we need just the right amount of 'meat' to keep us fully engaged. If we're bored, our mind will want to other things. And if the task is too hard, we'll feel overwhelmed, tired or anxious. That means that focus—and flow—are benefited from having the right conditions.
Flow State & Mindfulness
Both flow and mindfulness seem to be good for well-being. Plus, they both involve being present, actively engaged, and attentive (Reid, 2011), so we might think that they cooccur. But if we take a closer look, we see that mindfulness involves maintaining awareness of all the things going on in the moment, whereas flow involves losing awareness of all these things. And indeed, the research shows that flow and mindfulness are negatively correlated (as one goes up, the other goes down; Sheldon, Prentice, & Halusic, 2015).
Given both of these states are good for us, it may be beneficial to reflect on how and when to prioritize each experience. Mindfulness can help prevent our mind from wandering to unpleasant or irrelevant thoughts. But if we seek a state of flow, while we are working for example, we might not want to control our thoughts. In fact, we may want to just let go and allow our thoughts, ideas, and actions to come and go naturally. Benefiting from these two processes may just involve being thoughtful about when to use our minds for different purposes.
The Benefits of a Flow State
Maybe the benefits of flow are obvious by now, but let's be clear about how a flow state can be good for us and our well-being.
Video: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, The Secret to Happiness
Flow State Products, Tinctures, and Supplements
There are many supplements on the market that purport to help activate the mind, help with focus, and support brain health, all of which may help with flow. Here are a few herbs that the research suggests can be beneficial.
Flow State Charts
Here are a couple of charts to help you continue to think about what flow is.
Books on Flow State
Want to keep learning about the flow states? Here are some good books to keep building your knowledge.
Articles That May Help You Get Into a Flow State
Given flow states rely on generating positive emotions, focusing attention, and clear goal setting, learning how to do these things may be helpful. Here are a few articles that can get you started: