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If you’ve ever been so absorbed in a task that you lose track of time, then you’ve experienced flow. But being in a flow state does more than just make the day go faster. It has a positive impact on your life, health, productivity, and well-being.
To understand what makes the flow state so magical, you’ll need to understand what it is and how it works. Learn more about the science behind flow and how to get carried away.
What is a flow state?
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known as one of the cofounders of the field of positive psychology, was the first to identify and research the phenomenon of flow. Even if you’ve never heard the word before, you likely have other names for the experience. People call it being “in the zone,” “in the groove,” or “losing track of time.
What is flow state?
The flow state is the experience of being so absorbed by an engaging, enjoyable task that your attention is competely held by it. You generally lose sense of time, self-consciousness, and anything that doesn’t have to do with the task at hand.
In flow, you feel as if you could keep doing whatever you’re doing forever. There’s no one experience that leads to flow. It could happen while you’re reading, writing, painting, running, or gardening.
Although there’s no one activity guaranteed to create flow, there are some common characteristics of flow state that people experience. Not all of these are always present. But the more factors are present, the more likely you are to experience flow.
10 characteristics of flow state
1. Attentional focus
In flow, whatever you’re working on has your complete attention. You’re not thinking of anything else. Someone would have to work to get your attention or to interrupt you from the task at hand.
The activity has to be the right amount of difficult. Too easy, and it won’t be absorbing enough. Too challenging, and you won’t be able to get into it.
To trigger flow, the activity has to have some point to it. It doesn’t have to be grandiose — you could be playing a video game or coloring a picture. But in order to direct your attention, you have to have something to direct your attention to.
There is a give-and-take of energy in the activity. Ever spend hours playing one of those puzzle games on your computer or phone? They’re engrossing because they give immediate feedback. You win a game, finish a level, or earn a star — which keeps you playing because you feel like you’re doing well.
5. Personal control
You’ll have a hard time getting into flow if you feel like the activity or situation is out of your control. As a spectator, it’s difficult to have the mental absorption and sense of engagement that characterizes a flow state.
When you’re in flow, you feel lost in the activity. This triggers a sort of altered consciousness around time. It can speed up or slow down — but either way, you’re a little surprised when you check the clock. This transformation of time comes from being completely absorbed in the present moment.
In flow, you have a feeling of calm. You’re absorbed in the task, but not stressed out or worried by it. You feel less self-conscious and even less anxious. This particular characteristic lasts beyond the experience itself, since being in a state of flow balances cortisol and stress levels.
8. Intrinsic motivation
To get into flow, the activity itself has to be rewarding for its own sake, independent of the outcome. For example, if you enjoy swimming, you can be in flow whether you’re competing, exercising, or just splashing in the pool. The results are secondary to the task itself. Csíkszentmihályi called this an “autotelic experience.”
9. Disconnect from physical needs
When you’re in the zone, you might temporarily forget that you’re thirsty, tired, or need to use the restroom. You have a loss of self-consciousness from being fully engaged in the activity. In this mental state, you may forget to eat or stay in an uncomfortable position a bit too long.
Perhaps most importantly (and frustratingly) you can’t multitask your way into flow. In order to get in the right state of mind, you have to give all of your attention to the task at hand. It makes sense — after all, you can’t experience attentional focus without giving your entire attention to something.
What happens to your brain in flow state?
What makes the flow state so special? Neuroscience hasn’t completely figured it out yet. Researchers have recognized that flow is a distinct mental state. It arises only when the level of challenge of the task and the level of skill of the person are in balance.
Working on a task that is engaging — but not so difficult as to be frustrating — lets our brains relax in an unusual way. When we are engaged in effortful focus, the brain’s central executive network (CEN) is engaged.
When we are “doing nothing,” the default mode network (DMN) takes over. This part of the brain is associated with daydreaming, but it plays an important neurological role. Our levels of activity are significantly higher when in the DMN, even though we don’t look like we’re doing much at all. Counterintuitively, this part of the brain is also active during flow.
When we are in a flow state, our minds are fully engaged in the task at hand in a way that seems to free up other parts of our brain to make connections. Although you are working, flow is inherently restorative and pleasurable. When in flow, dopamine is released. This neurotransmitter makes you feel more relaxed, optimistic, energized, and dedicated to the task at hand.
How flow state benefits physical and mental wellness
Understanding how dopamine works is critical to understanding human behavior. When we experience something positive, dopamine helps us register it as pleasurable and encourages us to do it again. It’s the source of many of our habits, cravings, and impulses. According to Psychology Today, “It is no exaggeration to say that dopamine makes us human.”
Our physical, mental, and emotional well-being are directly tied to our dopamine levels. When they’re out-of-whack (whether too low or too high) we can become ill or engage in self-destructive behavior.
Flow rewards us for the mental engagement and attentional focus that keeps us growing. The neurological and subjective experience of flow has benefits — both in and out of flow state. Here are some ways flow benefits your well-being:
1. Higher productivity
People in a flow state often find that it correlates with peak performance. These peak experiences are often due to the total attentional focus — coupled with a lack of self-consciousness. This enables people to be more productive while using less energy.
2. Increased satisfaction
Because of the high levels of engagement in flow, people often feel more satisfied with themselves and their work. They experience a dopaminergic reaction, boosting their positive experience both during and after flow.
3. Improved emotional regulation
Improved focus and increased confidence help to reduce anxiety and stress. These gains are also associated with improved emotional regulation. Researchers suggested flow as a positive alternative to unhealthy and unproductive coping mechanisms.
How do you achieve flow state?
Once you understand how flow works, you can set up your schedule and work environment to make it as flow-conducive as possible. Here’s a guide to how to get into flow more often — and stay there.
1. Choose clear goals
Part of getting into a flow state means working on a task that has a specific, finite outcome. You’ll find that it’s easier to achieve the right frame of mind when you know exactly what you’re working on. While you could set a time goal, it’s often more effective for the task to have a designated end or completion point. Knowing what you’re out to accomplish also gives you a sense of control.
2. Make it challenging
Activities that are the right amount of challenging are more engaging. If you can’t alter the task, you might be able to change other factors to make it harder. For example, I used to work in a role that required a lot of data entry. When I got bored with it, I’d race myself to see how fast I could complete the entries or how many I could do in a certain amount of time. Finding ways to make a routine task more challenging made it more enjoyable.
3. Make it easy to focus
Take time to look at your calendar and block off periods where you can work without distractions. You may want to schedule these blocks around certain activities or times of day when you’re naturally more productive and alert. Learning more about your circadian rhythms can help you identify your most productive times of the day.
“Inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand.”
Jeanne Nakamura, positive psychologist and flow researcher
4. Take care of yourself
In the state of flow, you forget about food, water, sleep, or how long you’ve been sitting on your foot. While this is great for staying focused, it’s not so great for your body. Create self-care routines that help you stay comfortable and taken care of so you can stay in flow longer. You might leave a bottle of water on your desk, a protein bar within easy reach, or invest in a supportive desk chair.
5. Turn your phone off
Part of eliminating distractions means turning off your phone. It deserves its own category, though, because it doesn’t help to block off your calendar if you’ll be carrying a distraction in your pocket. Once you’ve communicated that you’ll be unavailable for a certain amount of time, put your phone away. Turn off your notifications or use an app like Forest to prevent you from sneaking back.
6. Create a pre-flow ritual
You can help your brain get into the zone by creating a ritual. For example, before I write, I check my messages, put my phone on silent, grab a beverage, and turn on “focus” music. It doesn’t have to be formal, practical, or the same for every activity. It’s just a way of cueing your brain that you’re about to get to work — and that it should, too.
7. Get to know yourself
It’s hard to get into flow when we’re doing something we don’t like — but it’s worth paying attention to why we don’t like it. Is it too easy? Too hard? Too boring? Do we not know how to do it well?
Take the data entry example. I love working with computers, I’m competitive, and I love to learn new things. Data entry involves computers, but not usually a whole lot of learning. Making it a game worked for me because it tapped into my competitive nature.
I could also have made data entry more engaging by turning it into a learning experience. I could use it to learn proper finger placement on the keyboard or macros (shortcut keys). Although the activity itself wouldn’t change much, the perceived challenge of the activity would. This is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as challenge/skill balance in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
I truly believe that we might not enjoy everything, but we can find almost anything enjoyable. If we work to find something worth learning in every task, we can transform nearly anything into a flow experience. Aiming to experience this state of mind as often as possible leads us to happier, more satisfying lives.
How long can you stay in flow state?
The brain can’t stay in flow all the time. In a creative, flow state, the mind works optimally for about 90 minutes to 2 hours. You can make the most of this time with techniques like the Pomodoro method. Focused periods alternated with brief periods of rest allow your brain to be its most efficient and creative without triggering burnout.
It is possible to have multiple periods of flow in a day, which is very healthy for both you and your brain. For example, you might get your best work done early in the morning, go for a run to clear your head in the afternoon, and get lost in a book before bed. These are three distinct flow experiences, but each contributes to your well-being in a different way. And to be honest, that sounds like a great day.
Learn to go with the flow
Flow may be the most enjoyable of all human experiences. It might even be the secret to happiness. Flow is intrinsically rewarding, lowers our stress, and brings meaning and joy to just about any experience.
Looking for ways to maximize the amount of time we spend in flow state makes us more engaged, satisfied, and creative. Whether you’re working, playing, or something in between, you feel better when you’re in flow.
Bringing the concept of flow to our everyday life helps us to stay present as we continue to grow.
BetterUp Staff Writer