Flow state, the brainchild of Hungarian psychologist and positive psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a laser-like state of focus achieved by those at the peak of their ability.
A runner hitting his stride on a forest trail, body and breath in rhythmic unison, is in flow state. An artist uninterrupted in her studio, scattering paint on a canvas and creating dimension with backhand sweeps of vibrant color is in flow state. A coffee roaster dumping beans into a hopper, smelling the aroma of the roast to gauge the perfect caramelization point is also tapping into this concept called flow.
Things in flow state are done purely for the enjoyment, where the end result fades to complete absolution in the moment. Distraction falls by the wayside as the engaged party is completely absorbed in the activity. It’s the difference between work that feels like work, and work that doesn’t.
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 worthwhile.
Intrinsic motivation is the key that unlocks flow state
Instead of escapism, learning to achieve flow in our work or hobbies is more valuable than any two week vacation, and here’s why. When you achieve flow, you don’t need to jettison satisfaction to some remote island for your two week vacation. An experience of flow engages intrinsic motivation, thereby producing the optimal environment where work can be enjoyed.
Csikszentmihalyi asserts: “A person can make himself happy or miserable regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside’ just by changing the contents of consciousness.” So in rearranging the contents of consciousness, there are some secrets to achieving flow.
Skill level must match challenge level
We can’t achieve flow if we’re bored and we can’t achieve flow if we’re stressed, so finding it requires that special sweet spot of mastery and challenge hidden in the things we love doing for its own sake.
Staying in the channel of flow requires enough counterbalance of effort that either boredom or anxiety does not creep in. This will push us out of that sweet spot to either overexert ourselves, or to lose focus through distraction.
Create environments for total immersion
While the perfect conditions to block out distraction look different for everyone, common sense informs us that the less inputs of stimulus, the better. This limits external influencers that invade concentration and block out flow.
The brain is an incredible processor, but if we are taxing it with competing stimuli, it won’t achieve optimal performance. This means if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone, while also listening to music, and composing a thesis paper and thinking you might enter flow, you’re not going to get there.
Unplugging from distracting external stimulus is essential for flow. Remember, we are trying to reorder our consciousness to direct energy toward mastery, not trying to champion multitasking.
If you need inspiration for flow, watch a child playing in a sandbox. While they may move on to other things or eventually become distracted, for those key moments of play, it’s total immersion. You can snap a finger in front of their face, and likely, they won’t react to it. Total immersion is the goal.
Flow = conscious effort taking a backseat
Victor Frankl presented similar flow-inspired ideas as Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it, he asserts that the more strained effort put toward reaching a particular goal, the less likely it is to come about. While it’s good to have real goals and to put hard work behind them, he’s speaking more directly to mindset surrounding that goal.
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
Focus too hard, and the conscious mind plays interference, unable to step out of the way for the body to do what it does best. You see this a lot with athletes who are placed in the highest levels of competition, like the Olympics, who reach their shining moment, but are not able to perform at that level. Some see it as choking under pressure or nerves, but those who understand the mind know that it’s a disordered headspace that deters even the most elite athletes.
Worry and self-consciousness disappear in flow
Have you ever experienced your personal best game of shooting hoops, or most creative songwriting session when no one was watching? There’s a reason for that.
Self-consciousness consumes a great deal of energy that should be dedicated to entering flow. If you’re able, steal away to a quiet corner of the office or take a work sabbatical for the day, finding a spot where you can really escape helps flow happen. If it’s an activity you want to master that you normally do with someone else, try going it alone. Removing the competitive element might be the cork you need to unstop. When the looming threat of failure or embarrassment is removed, the mere enjoyment of the activity takes over, ushering in a true experience of flow.
Results not measured as the activity becomes an end in itself
This may be counterintuitive, but in flow, the means justify the ends. In fact, it’s not about the ends at all. The result of what happens is a mere byproduct of the activity. Flow is not about mastery in the sense of conquering tick marks of improvement on a chart, it’s an experience that has inherent value in the present. This leads to the deepest levels of satisfaction in our work. This is where we feel most satisfied in our work and our play.
There’s no exterior reward required when the work has afforded us the experience of mastery. No vacation can do that. No performance review, or raise, or complement from a peer rivals the experience.
Greater flow will help us tap into that intentional yet strange self-guided state of finesse we are all looking for in our work. Work that is fulfilling. Work that challenges us but hands back the gift of practicing a skill we enjoy for a purpose we care about.