Flow state is a term to describe being completely immersed in a task, to the point where everything else fades away. Your attention and energy is directed toward a single objective and the outside world fades away. You lose track of time and your creativity and productivity expands.
Flow state is all about "being in the zone." Compared with other states of being, flow state is indescribably unique. When you're in the flow, you're totally immersed in whatever you're doing to the point that you tune out all distractions. Being in the flow can be an energizing and empowering experience.
What does a flow state feel like?
The phrase was created by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and coauthor, Jeanne Nakamura. He describes a flow state as a period of time when:
"The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Being in a flow state is like being in a trance, but it's positive rather than negative. In fact, some people describe it like being completely present after a deep meditation.
While you can't completely control being in a flow state, you can learn to harness it to help you perform your best when needed.
When you're in a flow state, you experience a mental clarity and sense of purpose that leaves you in a unique state of mind. Your whole being is involved and you're using your skills to the utmost.
In this flow state, there are neurochemical changes in your brain that enhance motivation, creativity and learning.
It produces dopamine, anandamide, norepinephrine, serotonin and endorphins, which are naturally created neurochemicals assisting your flow state to exist. It's also important to recognize that the reduction of these neurochemicals coming out of the flow state can create a "let down" for a brief period.
In short, in a flow state you find yourself totally focused on the task at hand and your body and mind are functioning at maximum capability.
You're totally absorbed in what you're doing and time seems to go faster than usual because you're not aware of what's passing you by.
Key factors for getting into a flow state
A flow state generally only occurs when a task or activity requires concentration and/or deep thinking to complete. It is most helpful when you have a high level of skill and preparedness for the task at hand. It also helps you if you’re totally interested in the task you're performing.
Flow has often been associated with athletes, artists, or scientists who are fully task-absorbed in order to achieve peak performance. However, in recent years during the information age, the flow state has also been shown to occur while accomplishing a variety of work, education and daily life related tasks.
The flow state provides a sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness. It generally helps to create a more positive mood and enhances well-being.
To understand how to learn about getting into a flow state, you first have to find tasks that really interest you. Start by finding something that you enjoy, have some natural talent in, and desire to take to the next level.
For example, if you love learning languages or playing chess, then make a point to do some of those things every day. You may spend most of your day at work, but learning about flow - and how to bring it on - can be done with anything you like doing in or out of the office.
This will keep you focused on your goals and away from things that don't help you reach them. The path to a flow state isn't easy at first. However, if you are passionate about what you're doing and keep at it every day, you'll see positive results in no time.
How to reach and maintain a flow state
Be clear on goals: If you don't have a clear and specific goal, it can be hard for you to get into flow state. If you don't have a specific problem or opportunity to focus on, your mind will start to wander. Instead, focus on what you want to accomplish with your task or activity. This helps keep you grounded and focused on the task ahead.
Eliminate external distractions
You must be focused and free from distractions. The biggest culprit is notifications you have set up to receive on mobile devices, such as calls, text alerts and emails. It's important to turn off push notifications on all of your mobile devices when heading into an important project or activity where having a flow state is needed.
You should also turn off music (unless you find music helps you focus) and ensure staff, family and even pets understand you need to be left alone for a while. A flow state comes about more naturally when you focus your mind only on the task at hand.
Your task has to be challenging: In order to get into the flow state, your task has to be challenging enough so it requires effort and focus to complete. In addition, you can't be afraid to fail at your task.
Many tasks are challenging enough to require effort but are too simple to be engaging and interesting. For example, doing your taxes or writing a blog post are pretty simple tasks that aren't necessarily challenging.
On the other hand, a chess game, coding problem, new business strategy, or trying to make the Olympic team requires significant cognitive and/or physical effort.
Are you looking to get into and utilize a flow state? Then you want to focus on a project that stretches you, but is not too far beyond the outer levels of your expertise. Reaching too far or putting too much on your plate can create frustration. The key is to find a task that is challenging enough to engage your mind while helping to put you in a state of flow.
Choose work you love and aligns with your values
When you choose work that aligns with your values, it can also help put you into a flow state. In fact, when you're working on something that you actually care about, you'll naturally engage with a deeper level of concentration and creativity.
Closely related to choosing work that aligns with your values is finding work that you enjoy. Some tasks can be boring or tedious, which can also make it difficult to get into a state of flow. A flow state may only last 30 or 40 minutes or possibly up to 2-3 hours if you are fortunate. You want to make certain you spend this time on priority tasks you care about.
Look for feedback
A positive feedback loop is necessary to keep the brain engaged. For example, the runner receives positive feedback when muscles contract and propel the body forward; the student receives positive feedback when the teacher reads part of his or her paper out loud; and the musician receives positive feedback when the audience applauds.
In business, especially if you are in a leadership position, it can be hard to get the kind of feedback that helps to reward and motivate you. In cases like this, you can set up measureable micro-goals to gain the clarity you need.
Settle your mind and leave your ego behind
The good news here is that your ego will usually fade away when in a deep flow state. But connecting with your flow state isn't always easy to do. This is especially true if you have an active to-do list and invoices that need to be paid floating around in your head.
Do your part before diving into your key project or activity and shift your mind into a state of physical and mental relaxation. You can do this best by doing some deep breathing or a short meditation session. At a minimum, take a few deep breaths and pause for a few seconds after each breath.
Another thing you can do is stop and think about all the things you need to do for the day. Then jot them down in your journal to get them out of your mind and visualize yourself accomplishing each task. This step will clear your mind of stress or worries. When your mind is at ease, you're ready to get into the flow and focus your energy on the primary task at hand.
Know and use your daily peak energy time
Your daily peak energy time may vary from day to day, but in general, experts suggest the best time to focus on flow state is in the morning. You may be someone who has an energy rebound after lunch and a walk, so you may want to wait until later in the day to work on your flow state activities.
Prepare your body
Make sure you're well rested and have any necessary supplies before you begin your task or activity. Flow state usually requires a high degree of focus and physical energy, so it's counterproductive to be tired before you begin.
Flow state requires total focus, so multi-tasking is counterproductive. In fact, trying to multi-task may even prevent you from getting into a state of flow. Now, you may be working on a project or problem with a number of elements. In this case, it will usually be more efficient to try to separate and tackle each task in sequence to the degree possible.
Focus on your curiosity
Your flow state requires you to be curious and open to novelty and new ways of doing things. This means staying open and not judging your work yet. Flow state requires a sense of playfulness and open-mindedness.
Energy and ideas flow in from all around us. When you are open to unleashing your imagination, you may find yourself coming up with intriguing concepts and ideas that can positively transform a project or provide a unique solution.
The right kind of music can help
The right kind of music can help you focus your mind and tune out distractions. However, it's important to choose music that helps boost your mood and makes you feel good about what you're doing.
Most people who use music to help stay in a flow state lean toward classical or techno. Music with lyrics and new music you've never heard before will usually not be helpful when trying to maintain a flow state.
Finding flow on demand
While conventional wisdom leads us to believe humans are happiest on a beach with a tropical drink in their hands, new research states otherwise. More people find they are truly happy when in a state of flow. Human beings feel their best when working deeply and creatively on something they find challenging.
Creating flow doesn’t have to be a once-in-a-blue-moon experience. You can train yourself to get into that state of mind more regularly. The more practice you have with flow states, the more you can reliably move into them when needed.
You start by paying attention to the physical and emotional steps that lead up to your flow state. Where are you? What are you doing? How are you feeling?
The secret to getting into your flow state lies in discovering what energizes you and tapping into that energy. For some it is solving problems with data or nailing a dynamite sales page. Some people get in the zone by handling impossible engineering challenges and yet others simply thrive on feedback.
Whatever works for you is what you need to key in on. Cultivating a flow state on a regular basis will make it easier for you to tap into your highest potential.
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