Maintaining a Flow State.

What is flow theory, and how can you use it to improve productivity and personal progress? By the end of this post, you’ll understand what is a flow state, and learn practical techniques on how to achieve and maintain a flow state for optimal productivity.

First thing’s first — what is a Flow State? Have you ever heard someone say they were “in the zone”, or “wired in”? The phrase tends to come up a lot in sports or creative activities, like painting. Flow theory describes a state of mind in which they are totally absorbed by what they’re doing, almost getting lost in it. Whether it be a run or a portrait, being “in the zone” makes you feel like the world around you has slowed down to accommodate the time you need for the task you are devoted to. That, in essence, answers the question of what is a Flow State.

The phrase was coined by the psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. Mihály was known as a researcher in positive psychology, focusing his research on happiness and creativity, and he became interested in the state that artists describe in which they seemingly “forget” to sleep or eat because they are so absorbed in their work. Mihály sought to find a way to describe the feeling of being carried away and he settled on ‘Flow’. 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

What is a Flow State?

So how do you know you are in the Flow? An article in Harvard Health describes the elements of the experience as such: 

You aren’t thinking about yourself. Your awareness of yourself is only in relation to the activity itself, such as your fingers on a piano keyboard… You aren’t interrupted by extraneous thoughts. Instead, you are completely focused on the activity - mastering or explaining a line of thinking in your work [for example] or visualizing your way out of a sticky chess situation. You are active. Flow activities aren’t passive, and you have some control over what you are doing. You work effortlessly. Although you may be working harder than usual, at flow moments everything is “clicking” and feels almost effortless. You would like to repeat the experience.

Everyone feels these sensations individually, at some point in time, in their work. The key difference here is that when you are in a Flow State, you are experiencing all of them at the same time. A major factor in this is making sure the task you are working on achieves a balance of skill and challenge levels. Too challenging for your skills, and it can cause anxiety, but not challenging enough, and it will cause boredom. 

But is it actually possible to manufacture a Flow State? 

First off, choose one important task to work on. A Flow State is not the time to practice your multitasking skills or to work on something that is unimportant and both of those can invite boredom or distraction and disrupt your Flow. The task should have clear goals, and an easy way to measure progress and feedback. For example — a climber climbing a mountain has a goal of getting to the top, and he can see as he gets closer and closer to the summit. 

While climbing, if a particular route is not working, the climber can decide to go a different way, all with the goal of summiting the mountain. It is however important to commit to the journey, or the current moment in the task, in order to maintain the Flow. So, to continue with the example of a climber; when climbing the mountain, the climber is focused on where he is stepping so he doesn’t trip or make a dangerous misstep. His goal is always at the back of his mind, but he is acting from moment to moment. 

After you’ve chosen your task, you need to work to eliminate your external and internal distractions. That means, turning off the notifications on your phone, working in a space where you won’t be distracted, and doing what you can to eliminate that constant stream of consciousness going through your mind. One tactic is to start practicing mindfulness meditation. The meditation app, Headspace, says it best in their blog about Flow State and Flow Theory:

a mind that is trained to be more present and at ease with itself - calmer, clearer, and content - is more likely to experience the flow state because we are training in non-distraction and focus. ‘if we can learn how to apply focus moment-to-moment, then we’ll see that play out in our longer-term goals’ says founder Andy Pudscombe.
Image of man and woman meditating on yoga mats outside

Just to be clear — meditation is not an active part of maintaining a Flow State. Rather, it can help you to achieve the kind of distraction-free mental state that is key for the Flow. It is a daily or weekly addition to your routine that helps you learn to live in the present moment and control your wandering thoughts, both of which can better your experience of the Flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says; 

The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.

So even if he isn’t mentioning mindfulness or meditation by name, he does recognize that the state of control and understanding of your thoughts contributes to your experience of Flow. 

One of the key elements of achieving and maintaining a Flow State is to work at your BPT - your Biological Prime Time. Your BPT is the time of day when you are at your peak performance capability. This is different for everyone, and the only way to accurately measure this is by keeping track of your most productive and most energetic hours over a few weeks and analyzing the averages. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi recommends working in the morning, but for some of us, that may not be the time when we feel most energetic. Use those peaks and valleys of energy to your advantage, and try to work on a Flow State when you are most energetic so that a drop in energy levels doesn’t drop you out of the Flow. 

Finally, create a mental cue for yourself before entering a Flow. Have you heard of Pavlov’s dogs? In 1897, Ivan Pavlov proved that just as dogs drooled when being served meat, they could be conditioned to drool at the sound of a bell. By ringing the bell every time meat was served, the dogs began to associate the sound with meat so that even when no meat appeared, they’d salivate merely at the sound of the bell. That’s classic conditioning, and conditioning works on humans, too! Well, a good way to cue your body that you are preparing to enter into a productivity flow is to condition yourself, by doing the same thing every time.

Whether it be a positive affirmation like, “I am focused and productive, and am ready to achieve my goals” or taking a series of deep breaths if you do the same thing every time, eventually your body will take that as a cue that it is time to focus, let the distractions melt away, and let the Flow take you to your goals. 

Once you have these Flow State triggers at your fingertips, maintaining a Flow state is fairly simple. Activities like mindful meditation can contribute to your ability to focus and by working with your body rather than against it, you’re setting yourself up for success in achieving your Flow State tasks. But of course, we all need encouragement at one point or another so that we don’t interrupt our own flow. 

There are some simple things you can do to maintain your Flow State - for example, staying hydrated and nourished. These help to keep your energy up and distraction down. Also, listening to music — not just any music, preferably something without words. Binaural beats and other ambient music can be great for stimulating creativity and keeping distractions at bay. 

Being “in the zone”, or “wired in” isn’t just for athletes and hackers. It goes by many names but working in a Flow State can enhance productivity, satisfaction, and happiness with your work. Today we learned about some Flow State “triggers” to help us achieve the flow. These are; eliminating distractions, working on a specific task that strikes a balance between challenge and skill level; working at our BPT, and creating a mental Flow State cue. To help maintain the Flow we can listen to wordless music, stay hydrated and nourished, and practice mindful meditation. 

In the end, flow theory and a flow state is a state of mind guiding you towards your personal progress goals and is another way to work on YOU. 

This week we want you to pick one of the flow triggers and start using it. See what impact it has on the work you’re able to produce.

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