You may have experienced a flow state at some point in your life—that sense of fluidity between your body and mind when you are completely absorbed by and intensely focused on something beyond the point of distraction. Time feels to have slowed down, and your senses feel like they have been heightened.
As action and awareness sync to create effortless momentum, you are one with the task at hand. Some describe this sensation as being “in the zone.” This is the flow state and is available to anyone, whether they are engaged in physical activity, a creative endeavour, or a simple day-to-day task.
- The flow state, popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, describes a state in which you become completely immersed in whatever you are doing under the right conditions,
- The flow state can be created with respect to the nature of the task. These tasks have certain distinctive characteristics. Research on the construct of the flow state revolves around two primary theories: the transient hypofrontality hypothesis and the synchronisation theory of flow,
- Flow experiences can manifest in various ways for different people. It usually happens when you are doing something you enjoy and are quite skilled at. It is also a skill that can be acquired with practice.
What is the Flow State of Mind?
The flow state, popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, describes a state in which you become completely immersed in whatever you are doing under the right conditions.
The flow mental state is less prevalent during periods of relaxation and more commonplace during challenging and engaging activities, even more so when the activity is for a personal cause and brings enjoyment or is a source of intrinsic motivation that demands a certain level of commitment.
People frequently use the term “flow” to describe situations in which they are being productive, whereas a person can be in a state of mindfulness regardless of whether they are performing a task.
Five Characteristics of the Flow State
The flow state can be created with respect to the nature of the task. These tasks have certain distinctive characteristics such as:
- They are difficult but not insurmountable.
- They are rewarding, giving you a sense of pleasure or purpose.
- They are in-depth, requiring time and energy to make progress.
- They require an intense focus, making it difficult to distract people in the flow of their tasks. The focus is so strong that when interrupted, they may become irritated.
- They build persistence. There is some evidence that being in flow can alleviate the frustration of a difficult task, allowing people to persevere.
The Science behind the Flow State of Mind
Research on the construct of the flow state revolves around two primary theories: the transient hypofrontality hypothesis and the synchronization theory of flow.
- In the former theory about the transience of the frontal lobe in the brain, an executive function temporarily deteriorates. This decline prevents a person from actively thinking about themselves, allowing them to focus entirely on the task at hand. According to functional MRI (fMRI) studies, there is less activity in the prefrontal cortex during flow, an area involved in executive functioning.
- In the synchronization theory, however, regions of the brain communicate more effectively during flow. A person’s ability to control and coordinate their activities improves, indicating higher executive functioning. Neuroimaging studies conducted during hypnosis and meditation show increased activity in the frontal cortex.
A key antecedent of flow is the challenge/skills balance, which indicates a state of high mental workload due to deep involvement in the task. This has been demonstrated in flow psychophysiological studies, where decreased heart rate variability was observed during challenge/skill-balance in a knowledge task. Furthermore, there appears to be a specific neurocognitive activity pattern for flow induction.
Experts show a shift away from the frontal left hemisphere of the brain, as evidenced by a reduction in it, resulting in a significant increase in frontal alpha (brain wave pattern between 8 and 12 Hz that signifies a state of relaxation). This aids in fostering a state that provides neuronal resources to the right brain’s visual-spatial processes, enhancing performance.
How to Induce or Achieve the Flow State?
Flow experiences can manifest in various ways for different people. It usually happens when you are doing something you enjoy and are quite skilled at.
This state is frequently associated with creative arts like painting, drawing, or writing. It can, however, occur while participating in a sport such as skiing, tennis, soccer, dancing, or running. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
- Remove distractions: It is more difficult to experience flow when there are things competing for your attention in your environment. Reduce distractions in your environment so you can fully concentrate on the task at hand.
- Select something you enjoy: If you are doing something you despise, you are unlikely to achieve flow.
- Changing the task: Dull, repetitive, or too easy tasks may not induce a flow state. If at all possible, a person should try to make these tasks more enjoyable, meaningful, or challenging. On the other hand, they can simplify tasks that are too difficult or complex.
Five Benefits of Flow State
- Better performance, fewer distractions, and less self-criticism
- Increased motivation to finish tasks
- The ability to devote more time to tasks
- More practice, allowing for the development of skill and competence
- The more intrinsic pleasure in completion
Fortunately, achieving the flow state is a skill that can be acquired with practice. It is critical to remember that flow is a dynamic and constantly changing state. As your skill level improves, you will need to adjust the level of challenge required to help initiate a state of flow.