The Concept Of Flow

Have you ever found yourself so focused on what you were doing that the hours passed by in the blink of an eye? Maybe you were so involved in your task that evening came and you realized you hadn’t eaten lunch. It’s possible that you were “in the zone,” or what we could call a state of flow. 

Flow was first described by psychologist Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. It’s when athletes are at their peak performance, artists are one with their canvases, and surgeons perform procedures that are so well-rehearsed, they’re almost like a dance. Being in flow isn’t the same as relaxing while doing gentle, leisurely activities, nor does it mean that we’re under extreme or prolonged stress. Instead, it’s the perfect balance of challenge and enjoyment, where the reward is not the outcome, but the process itself.

In a world driven in part by material things, it may be that the happiest people are not those that have more, but those who spend more time in flow! 

What Does “Being In Flow” Feel Like?

Being in flow means that we have become completely immersed in the task we’re doing. We’re present and mindful of the moment at hand, where external thoughts have drifted away. When we’re struggling to complete a task, it can seem to take forever, but in flow we lose all sense of time. 

In this state, the mind feels organized and calm. Dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, is released as a result, giving us a sense of pleasure in the activity, and motivation to keep going. Instant feedback from our activity tells us what’s working. That way, we know if we’re making progress towards the objective, for example, if you’re on a long hike, the shrinking gap between you and your destination shows that you’re advancing towards the goal, and the closer the gap gets, the better you’re likely to feel. 

In flow, we are challenged at just the right level, and we know our goals are achievable. We understand what to do and how to go about it, which can create a sensation of smoothness in our actions. The mind, body, and our tools act as one, as we skillfully move through the activity. So skillfully in fact, that being in a flow state can increase our productivity by 500%. 

The feeling of being in a flow state can be so powerful that we can accomplish incredible, almost superhuman feats. You may have watched (cringing behind the safety of a cushion, if you’re anything like me) an extreme athlete free-climbing a vertical rock face, where one slip could cost them their life. They may do this, not for the adrenaline rush, but to experience a “life-affirming” state, which allows them to trust their intuition and, literally, go with the flow.

The Conditions For Achieving A Flow State

If you’re thinking that spending more time in flow sounds appealing, join the club! People all around the world experience great satisfaction by finding flow through their work and hobbies.

But flow isn’t guaranteed to just happen for us. The path to achieving it requires patience, self-compassion, and an openness to new experiences until we find what works for us. Nevertheless, there are certain conditions we can curate to increase our chances of finding flow.

Obtain The Perfect Balance Between Challenge And Skill Level 

We’ve all had that experience where we couldn’t get something done as well as we wanted to, so we felt frustrated and gave up. On the other hand, a task that presents no challenge can become boring and unstimulating. Activities that lead us to flow are challenging, yet attainable. The challenge level is set slightly above our current skill set, so that we continue to grow and perfect our skills, without stressing over whether we can achieve our goal. 

At this perfect intersection between challenge and skills, we can experience a flow of success. The way your fingers glided over the keys of the piano, or those 1000 words that danced effortlessly from your fingertips and onto the page; this kind of feedback from our tools and environment tells us we’re on the right track. Experiencing success in real-time can then build our self-esteem and create positive emotions. This heightens our experience by expanding our scope of attention, enriching creativity, and intensifying our intuition.

Be Mindful And Free Of Distractions

Being in flow means being mindful of the present moment. Concentration is important, as it requires us to make decisions intuitively in response to our stimulus. In fact, some of the world’s most renowned art has been created in isolation, away from distractions. You may have seen some of Frida Kahlo’s striking self-portraits, but did you know that many were created after an accident, which led her to spend lots of time alone and immersed in her craft?

This doesn’t mean that flow can only be achieved when we’re alone. You only need to watch Serena Williams’s singular focus on the tennis court, or observe the members of a rowing team pull in perfect unison, to know that flow can also be achieved with others. 

Eliminating distractions from our environment sets us up for success. This might look like turning off all notifications, wearing noise-canceling headphones, or making sure our tools and surroundings are organized. Regular meditative practices can help train the mind to stay focused, starting with just a few minutes and building up to extended lengths of time. Such hyperfocus can give us a sense of time standing still, yet many hours may pass by unnoticed. 

The Ritual Is More Important Than The Goal

Flow is autotelic, meaning we’re intrinsically motivated to keep going, without the promise of external rewards. If we’re focused on the outcome, we stop ourselves from being mindful of the moment, and may experience frustration or impatience with the task. 

Aristotle’s thoughts on habits were famously summarized by Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The keen-eyed among us might realize that by focusing on rituals, there’s a good chance we will achieve excellence in our craft, as we have created all the conditions for success.

A work of art or a completed project are happy outcomes of being in a flow state. But at its core, flow isn’t about what we will get at the end, it’s about doing something for the joy of it! 

How to Find Your Flow

To find pursuits which can help us to achieve flow, we can think back to times when we truly enjoyed what we were doing. When we lost all sense of time, forgot any worries, and were attentive to the moment. 

Once we have these memories, we can identify the conditions surrounding the activity. Was it a creative one that required us to use certain artistic skills? Was it a physical activity in which we tuned into the wisdom of the body? Was it alone or with others? Spotting patterns and similarities helps us choose our flow activities. And if we can’t find examples of flow in our past experiences, we can be open to trying new ones, until we find a good fit!

When we’ve found activities that promote flow, we can try others that are similar. For example, if you like painting, you might like to try photography. Yoga? Try pilates! Embracing activities that we’re curious about, which are similar to what we already enjoy, can open up more opportunities for finding flow. 

What to Do When You Find Your Flow

In Japan, there are regions called Blue Zones, in which people live long, happy lives, right into their 100s. Blue Zone residents attribute this, in part, to having found their Ikigai. This is what the French might term their raison d’etre, or life’s purpose. Ikigai is about flow; finding bliss through something you love, so that you start every day excited for life. 

Finding our flow, Ikigai, or raison d’etre could help a person find their identity through their goals, values, beliefs, and interests, which in turn could make them successfully unique in their career. In the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi we meet Sukiyabashi Jiro, whose sushi restaurant attracted customers from miles around. True to the principles of flow, Jiro was in it for the love of his craft! But his passion for his craft made him a sushi legend, while creating a successful business. 

By considering what we love, what we’re good at, what we can earn money for, and what the world needs, we might identify a rewarding career that is aligned with who we are, and which may even do good in the world. 

When we’re more aware of the things that can inspire joy and satisfaction with ourselves and in our lives, our dreams know no limits. It all becomes a matter of channeling our passion and finding our flow!