Have you ever been so focused, so utterly concentrated on an activity that reality slips away, time stops, the world around you slides out of view?
It might be a hobby that has consumed you, a work task that demands and receives total attention or it might be reading a novel that you don’t even think of putting down.
If you have, you probably entered the ‘Flow State’ when the brain is at its most productive, a way of thinking that is entirely focussed on the now.
Experts in this area of brain activity regard Flow State – being ‘in the zone’ – as a highly efficient way of humans getting something done without the usually cacophonous clamour from the rest of our mind.
Business experts use the concept to improve performance in the workplace, but it works equally as well in downtime or for people who want to increase happiness and contentment within their lives.
The state was first identified by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his 1975 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He detailed the experiences and consequences of flow and showed that it is much more than just being productive, it can ultimately lead to a more enjoyable life.
Csíkszentmihályi coined the phrase ‘Flow State’ but the concept has been around for millennia and found particular resonance in Buddhism.
Csíkszentmihályi says there are a number of factors that accompany the experience of flow. While many of these components may be present, it is not necessary to experience all of them for flow to occur. They are: Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable; strong concentration and focused attention; an activity that is intrinsically rewarding; a feeling of serenity; a loss of self-consciousness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing; immediate feedback, knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented; feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome; lack of awareness of physical needs; complete focus on the activity itself.
Csíkszentmihályi believes when you are completely involved in the process of creating something new you do not have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels – if you are hungry or tired, for example – or to listen to your mind chatter. People in flow sometimes say it is as if they do not exist.
Csíkszentmihályi and his research team developed the theory of flow through interviewing people from all walks of life, all across the world, about times they felt most content, most in control, and most in the moment. What they found was that the specific activity did not really matter but creative, exciting work would easily induce flow states. However, they also found factory workers, farmers and people living in intense poverty who reported flow experiences.
Csíkszentmihályi found that for many people, the most enjoyable moments in our lives were these intense times of concentration and challenge. He said: “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
But while certain activities can induce flow states more easily than others, to truly achieve flow requires deliberate intention and effort, because in learning to achieve flow, you learn to control your consciousness. According to Csíkszentmihályi it requires you to “concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else”, with the ultimate goal of leading a more meaningful life.
“Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind,” Csíkszentmihályi adds.
So how can you achieve it? There are number of ways of entering Flow State consciously and here are a number of tips which could be a starting point for you…
Find a challenge: Choose something that you enjoy doing. It can be anything, whether it’s work, playing the piano, writing a novel, skiing, cycling, playing golf, anything.
Develop your skills in order to be able to meet the challenge: Remember that if something is too easy you will be bored and your mind is likely to wander so you won’t achieve the flow state. But if something is too hard you will be overwhelmed and you will not be able to achieve that subconscious competence that is necessary for it.
Set clear goals: You want to be very clear on what you want to achieve and how you will know whether you’re succeeding.
Focus completely on the task at hand: Eliminate all other distractions. Do not allow anything to take your attention away from the task that you are performing; if your concentration is broken you are going to exit the state of flow.
Make sure that you’ve set aside sufficient time: It is very likely that it is going to take you at least 15 minutes to start to get into the flow state and a while longer after that until you are fully immersed. Once you enter the flow state you want to make sure that you make the most of it, instead of having to stop prematurely because you have to do something else.
Monitor your emotional state: If you meet all of the requirements above, but you are having trouble entering the flow state, monitor your emotional state. If you are aroused – angry, anxious or worried – try doing something that will calm you down. Do you feel that your energy level is low and you’re feeling sluggish? Do something to pick up your energy levels, whether it’s doing exercise, having a healthy snack or reading something motivational.
There is no exact formula for achieving flow, but you should also make sure you are not hungry as your body will break your flow state to tell you to eat. Cut out distractions, so consider wearing earphones and make sure you have had enough sleep and specify a period of time for others not to disturb you.
Now you can go with the flow. Follow these steps to try to achieve it:
Step 1 – Before you begin the activity, pause, then take three deep slow conscious breaths. Let the mind be fully engaged in the breath for that time and nothing else.
Step 2 – Focus all of your attention in the present moment. Pretend for the moment that past and future do not exist. Awaken your sense perceptions and be fully present in the now.
Step 3 – Slowly, with deliberate movements, go about your activity. Make it into a meditative practice but with an intensity of focus.
Step 4 – Remain alert and keep the mind fully attentive to what you are doing in that moment only – not allowing it to slip off into unconscious mind chatter. Be completely absorbed in the activity. You will find it ‘comes alive’ when you practice it with mindfulness. If your mind does slip off into ‘autopilot’, simply guide it back to being intensely engaged in what you are doing.
It may take practice to enter the state of flow more readily; but you will recognise it, and reap the benefits when it happens. Then, with continued application, you will find it easier and more fluid so that when life presents you with challenges and opportunities: to create, develop or contribute, you can produce your best