What is the Flow State?
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist
Are you the type of person that gets bothered by endless distractions? Maybe you struggle to finish essays because can’t stop checking for updates on Facebook. Or, maybe you switch endlessly between different tasks at work.
Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. is known for his work on creativity, but is best known as the man behind the idea of “flow state” or “getting in the zone.” He is the author of over 120 articles and books about what it takes to be fully immersed in whatever you are doing. This happens to all of us, whether we are watching our favourite film or trying to do something complicated at work.
The Flow State is often described as the most productive and creative state of mind for us to be in. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi would argue that achieving the flow state regularly is a key element of our happiness. In other words, when we learn how to enter the flow state, we increase our productivity, creativity, and happiness all at the same time.
It’s also important to note that “being in the zone” can become an automatic process. By performing a task that you are highly skilled at, you won’t have to consciously think about what you’re doing or how you’re doing it.
I know from personal experience that I am better able to reign in my wandering thoughts more effectively now that I have read what Mihaly has to say.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi breaks down “getting in the zone” in a few different ways.
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were.”
Ulterior motives can lead you down a negative path in life, which is something that Mihaly agrees on. Selflessness is important.
“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
Using the “flow” often means that we are not 100% aware of what we are doing. Think about Tom Brady throwing touchdown passes in the Super Bowl. He had a split second to make decisions on where he was going to pass. He wasn’t thinking about touchdowns; all he was thinking about was getting the ball to the receiver.
By blocking out the thought of a touchdown and possibly losing his cool, Brady could make those winning throws.
“Few things are sadder than encountering a person who knows exactly what he should do, yet cannot muster enough energy to do it.”
As the physio at Fremantle Football Club, I sometimes came across football players who wouldn’t work as hard as they could to get over injuries. It’s not that they didn’t want to get better; they just weren’t in “the flow state” about doing everything they possibly could to recover.
Going Out Of The Comfort Zone
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
Going out of your comfort zone is easier than you think, trust me. Sure, you were nervous about backpacking around Asia, but you ended up having the time of your life. When we step out of our comfort zone, we go into the “flow” for protection.
How To Get In The Flow State
Achieving the flow state or “getting in the zone” can also be looked at as the experience of mindfulness. It is that heightened sense of awareness that an athlete experiences during a game or what an artist feels in their most creative state. The good news is that you don’t need to be either of these to be in the flow state. All it takes the choice to increase mindfulness by taking the following steps.
Intensely Focused Attention
Producing flow requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration, deep focus. This means multi-tasking is out. Only concentrate on one thing at a time.
If you set some clear goals, your mind can stick to them rather than wandering off on another tangent.
Having a teacher or mentor to give some immediate feedback is important. Otherwise, you might not know whether you are succeeding or not. This can keep you in the zone instead of being stuck in your own feedback loop.
The Challenge/Skills Ratio
If the task is too dull, attention can wander, and you will not be focused on what you are doing. How many times did your mum or dad ask you to vacuum the house as a kid, only to have a go at you for missing spots? It was a boring job, so you didn’t get in the zone and pay attention.If the task is too hard, the “flight” response can kick in to break your concentration. Whatever you are doing needs to be just challenging enough to keep you in the flow.
When there is danger lurking in the environment, we don’t need to concentrate very hard. Adrenaline gets us into the zone.
A rich environment is one that has a lot of novelty, unpredictability or risk. Think about when you are on holiday in a new city; you are focused on every little detail around you, from the way people are speaking to the movement of traffic on the roads. Your brain is in the flow state.
Share Clear Goals
Working in teams or groups can be challenging. Getting in the flow state is difficult if people are not on the same page. Sharing ideas helps everyone to get in the zone together. The situation should be focused so that team members can tell when they are close to a solution, but one that is open enough for creativity to exist.
Team communication will help people to stay focused. If someone is holding something back, this could disrupt the team and cause people break their concentration.
Teams that work closely have a shared language and a common identity. Think about the top soccer teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their players almost have a telepathic bond which allows them to get in the zone when they are playing.
Equal Participation And Skill Level
Flow is most likely to happen in a group setting when all participants have an equal role in the project. If amateur rugby players compete against professionals, the amateurs soon feel out of their depth, and the professionals get bored.
Innovation and frequent failure go hand in hand. There’s no creativity without failure, and there’s no group flow without the risk of failure.Mental, physical or creative – the group has to have a fear of failure to produce group flow.
Sense Of Control
A sense of control combines being free to do what you want and being good at what you do.
Always Say Yes
This means interactions should be constructive rather than argumentative. You will find it harder to focus if you are always locking horns with people.
If you look under the hood of creativity, what you see is pattern recognition. This is the brain’s ability to link new ideas together and create focus. Risk taking gives you the courage to bring those new ideas into the world.
Benefits of the Flow State
By being in the flow state, you can not only increase happiness, but you can also encourage more positive emotions. Due to those positive emotions, you’ll find that you’re better able to cope when things take a downturn, or negative thoughts try to creep in. It’s also been shown that people in the flow state achieve a higher level of performance in their work and daily habits.
What are your own experiences of being in the flow state? Head over to the Fill Your Cup Facebook page and tell us.