Flow: The Most Productive Mental State
Effortless work ties philosophy to decades of research.
Have you ever been so engrossed in your work, that it seemed as though nothing else mattered? A state where time flowed without notice and even your basic desires fell from conscious thought? Perhaps you’ve been so enamored with an activity, that even in a crowded room, you felt alone.
If you can relate to any of these situations, you’ve likely experienced a flow state.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, credited with popularizing the flow state with his research in the 1980s and 90’s. Flow, as a mental state, is best described as being fully absorbed and joyfully engaged in whatever work you’re doing. Whether that’s in the office, on the field, or playing an instrument. The flow state is open to any experience you find enjoyable and engaging.
In one of the earliest interviews with Mihaly and research participants described flow as,
“My mind isn’t wandering. I am not thinking of something else. I am totally involved in what I am doing. My body feels good. I don’t seem to hear anything. The world seems to be cut off from me. I am less aware of myself and my problems.”
Flow is distinct from hyperfocus, where an individual may find it impossible to break away from a task. This state is common among people with ADHD and perseveration, where task-switching is near impossible. For folks in a flow state, interruption is possible, though often unwelcome as the state of flow is enjoyable and exciting.
Conditions for Flow
Initially, research on flow focused on the following three principles as necessary for entering the state.
- The task must have clear outcomes and goal associated with it. This presents the structure and guidance necessary never to need to stray from the task. As long as you can move from one job to the next, you can maintain flow.
- Direct, precise feedback on the work at hand. It’s critical that, as progress is made, so does the scope and challenge of the task at hand. This change allows individuals to face new problems rather than become mired in repetitive tasks.
- You’ve got to have a certain amount of self-efficacy and growth mindset. It’s vital you have faith in your ability to complete your work. Otherwise, you’ll fluctuate between anxiety and worry.
- It should be obvious, but freedom from distractions is essential to reach a flow state. One of the benefits of flow is its ability to tune out distraction, but, beforehand, you must hone your focus. This might be a quiet working environment, devoid of others, and without a phone or notifications to pull away from your attention.
Once in a state of flow, the next challenge is maintaining it until the task is complete. If the task is too simple or lacks reward, there’s a good chance you’ll experience apathy and boredom.
It can be challenging to tell when your work will switch from engaging to dull, but one of the central tendencies of these transitions is repetition. If you know your workday will be the same mindless task, you’ll want to focus efforts on other productivity hacks.
Keeping a flow state is also nearly impossible when the task at hand cranks up in difficulty. As soon as your mind is forced to attend to the areas it lacks, you’ll lose flow. To avoid this, it’s critical to scope your work. If you have a strong understanding of the expectations, and when you’ll need help, you can achieve the maximum amount of time “in the zone.”
Flow in the World
Interestingly, flow as a concept has been rediscovered countless times in almost every profession and religion, regardless of cultural association. When I taught, we referred to it as “teaching time” where an entire afternoon could melt away when lessons (and students) went as planned. In my current role, we see it as “chat time,” where the challenges are correctly scoped for our abilities.
Before western research even thought of the subject, Eastern practitioners of Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, all had their own words and experiences that we’d describe as a flow state. These religions saw the practice as overcoming the duality of self and object, where there was no distinction between the two — merely harmony.
Ironically, as Silicon Valley strives to improve the bottom line, it jumps on the latest productivity trends. It champions the open office concept and continuous communication among employees. Both are absolutely destructive to the focused environment required to reach a flow state.
Why Strive for Flow
Learning to trigger flow can have long-term, beneficial impacts on teenagers and adults. A series of studies highlight how the flow state can trigger longer commitment and fewer negative feelings later in life.
- Flow encourages individuals to come back to a task, thus building the foundations for lifelong, healthy habits.
- People who experience flow reports feelings of serenity and harmony. There is no distinction between who they are and what they are doing, it’s merely action.
- Flow encourages metacognitive processes that can make work easier. If you seek a flow state, it requires you to gain a better understanding of the goals and knowledge involved in your work.
Though, as noted in most of these studies, the exact brain mechanism associated with flow is still unknown. That means making a direct link between flow and feelings of happiness is limited. And, that most of these studies rely on correlation.
Flow and Focus
I stumbled on the concept of flow when I first started researching attention and concentration. At first, it seemed like the pinnacle of focus, a state that could only be achieved at the deepest levels of concentration. Now that I’ve done more work on both flow and focus, I believe they are genuinely distinct concepts.
When I need to concentrate on a problem, it’s because it is outside of the scope of my knowledge. I need to pull in other resources and hunker down. In these moments, my brain is incredibly active, and time may fade without my knowing, but I’m fully aware of all of it. I feel pressured to complete my work, and layers of thoughts start to stack on one another.
I believe this distinction is vital. Specific tasks require distinct avenues of focus. The better you understand what’s expected of you, the easier it will become to enhance your life.