Today, I am going to be “in the zone.”
I am going to be completely focused on my most important task. I am going to work without distraction. I am going to perform at my highest level. I know what needs to happen, and I know how to do it. I am motivated, and I know I can do it.
That is what it means to be in the zone and achieve flow.
The Flow Experience
According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, to achieve flow requires us to calibrate the difficulty of the challenge to our capacity so that it is just at the edge of what we are able to do. Paul says, “It is about finding that sweet spot where your mind is stimulated by a challenge that is difficult enough to energize you, but not so hard as to frustrate you.”
Everyone has experienced days like that – when everything goes right. It seems easy, almost effortless. We enjoy those days when they happen, but later wonder how it happened and how long it will be before it happens again.
The good news is you don’t have to wait. What I am describing as being in the zone is what psychologists call Flow State. Finding flow does not have does not have to be a mystery. It is possible to operate this way consistently.
Think about professional athletes. They are doing something challenging. Yet they consistently perform at a high level. It is the same for musicians, academics, and top performers from every discipline. The point is that this is not something that happens randomly. You do not have to wait for it to happen. You can be intentional about creating the conditions that lead to a flow state.
Just think how great it would be to experience flow in your everyday life. In this article, I will explain what flow state is, how it can supercharge your productivity, and methods for getting into the flow state.
What Is Flow State and Why Does It Matter?
Flow state is a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe being fully immersed in a task, to the point where everything else fades away. All your attention and energy is directed toward a single objective and you completely forget about the outside world. Your creativity and productivity surges and you lose track of time.
In many ways, flow state is similar, or even synonymous with, mindfulness. It’s giving your full attention to the moment and task at hand, and not worrying about anything else.
Csíkszentmihályi and coauthor, Jeanne Nakamura, published an article entitled Flow Theory and Research in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology describing flow as “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment, and the experiential approach to positive psychology that it represents.”
Csíkszentmihályi gave a TedTalk in which explained seven characteristics for what it feels like to be in flow.
Seven Characteristics of Experiencing Flow
- Completely absorbed in what we are doing
- A sense of ecstasy
- Great inner clarity
- Knowing that the activity is doable (even if it is difficult)
- A sense of serenity (no worries)
- Timelessness (focused only on the present)
- Intrinsic motivation
Csíkszentmihályi describes flow state like this:
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these [flow state moments], the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.
8 Elements of the Flow Experience
In an article published on the positive psychology website, Csikszentmihalyi describes eight characteristics of flow:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
Keys to Achieving Flow States
There are THREE key things to note from this passage:
- Flow states are deeply enjoyable, creative, and even happy
- The flow experience allows you to achieve difficult things (mastering a piece of music, beating a personal best, etc.)
- Flow state doesn’t happen automatically or passively and requires strategic effort
In other words, being in the flow state allows you to achieve great things, but you have to take action to achieve the flow state. Flow states do not happen automatically. There is no guarantee, but flow research indicates there are actions that you can take to optimize your state of flow.
Which, of course, raises a critical question: what actions can you take to get into the flow state?
Here are 6 simple, yet highly effective steps that I recommend to achieve a state of flow.
1. Create A Flow State Ritual
A flow state ritual is an action (or series of actions) you take every time you’re about to start working on a critical task. This action is a signal to both your brain and your body that you’re about to give all your focus and attention to one task, and that you won’t allow anything to distract you. This ritual helps put you in the single-track mindset required to enter the flow state. Your goal is to leverage positive psychology to create an optimal experience.
Maybe your ritual is meditating for ten minutes, clearing your mind of all the distractions and clutter of the day. Maybe your ritual is slowly and deliberately making a cup of tea as you contemplate the task at hand. Or maybe you take a short walk outside to get your blood moving and the creative juices flowing.
The point is simply that you perform the same task every time before you enter the flow state. This repetition will eventually cause the ritual to be a Pavlovian signal of sorts, triggering a biological response in your body that prepares it to focus.
2. Choose Your Most Important Task
You don’t want to waste flow state on trivial tasks like answering emails or engaging in a mundane discussion on Slack. Rather, you want to work on something that’s truly important for your life and career.
I recommend combining the “eat that frog” technique with flow state. Eating your frog is a term coined by Brian Tracy that refers to focusing on and completing your most important task first thing every day. By focusing on what’s most important, you ensure that you make meaningful progress on important projects every single day.
Your most important task demands your best focus. Flow occurs when you combine your intrinsic motivation to do great work with taking action on your most important task.
When you’re working on your most important task, it’s much easier to enter the flow state because you’re aware of the stakes. You know that if you don’t accomplish this task, the project won’t move forward and you’ll come to the end of the day feeling like you didn’t achieve much of importance. Choose the thing that’s most important to you and give your full focus and energy to that thing.
3. Identify Your Peak Creative and Productive Time
It is difficult to achieve flow when you’re tired and don’t have much creative energy. When you’re in this low-energy state, it’s challenging to focus. After all, your mind is like a muscle – it can only do so much in a single day. If you’ve used all your brain power on unimportant tasks, you won’t be able to generate the laser focus required to enter the flow state.
The solution? Determine when your body and mind are at their peak in terms of creativity and energy. For most people, this is in the morning. They are fresh from a good night’s sleep and their body is at the crest of an ultradian cycle when energy is highest. It’s during these peak performance times that you’ll find it easiest to fully focus and do the deep work that occurs in the flow state.
4. Eliminate All Distractions
Flow state is somewhat fragile. In other words, it’s easy to be yanked out of it by simple distractions. This means that it’s absolutely essential to eliminate all possible distractions.
- Close your email.
- Shut down Slack.
- Put your phone into “Do Not Disturb” mode. If you are an Apple user, you can take advantage of Focus Mode to eliminate distractions.
- Shut your office door (if you have one) or put on headphones and listen to focus music.
- Clear your desk of any items that may distract you (memos, mugs that you’ve been meaning to clean, etc.).
Your goal is to isolate yourself as much as possible. Obviously, you can’t be isolated for an entire day. There will be times when you need to chat with coworkers or clients, as well as respond to emails and texts. But during the period when you’re in the flow state, you can’t afford to be distracted. Your environment should be encouraging flow instead of resisting it.
Flow States Need The Right Environment
I have heard the analogy that the brain is like a computer. While there are some similarities, there is important difference. A computer works in the same way regardless of its environment. However, there is a significant relationship between your psychological flow and your environment. Your mind does not function the same way your home or office as it would in the middle of dessert or on a ship that is sailing through a stormy sea. The environment makes a difference in mental state and your brain activity.
5. Set A Pomodoro Timer
As noted, you can’t be in flow state indefinitely. Your brain can’t sustain it and the demands of your everyday life may not allow it. Using the Pomodoro method enables you to create both a starting and ending point for your flow state sessions. It also ensures that your brain can rest and rejuvenate after a period of deep focus.
Ideally, your flow state session will last for at least four, 25-minute Pomodoros (90-120 minutes). After you’ve done the four sessions, you can give your brain a longer break (at least 15-20 minutes). During this longer break, you’ll probably come out of the flow state. This is why I recommend trying to do at least four Pomodoros.
6. Achieve Flow
Initially, you may find the flow experience hard to achieve or maintain. If you’re accustomed to constantly answering emails, chatting with coworkers, or texting with friends, creating sustained focus will not be easy. It is important to keep practicing. In time your psychological flow will become easier to achieve.
Start small. Start with the goal of entering flow state for 15 or 20 minutes. If this is too difficult, make the time even shorter. During these initial sessions, you’ll probably find your mind wandering and be tempted to check your email or hop on social media.
Don’t give in to the temptation.
In many ways, focus is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes and the easier it is for you to enter the flow state. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t able to immediately work for 90 minutes straight on your most important task.
The more you work at it, the easier you’ll find to achieve flow.
The Power of the Flow Experience
In a culture that is overwhelmingly distracted, flow state can give you a significant competitive advantage. While other people are struggling to gain momentum on important tasks and projects, you’ll be getting the most important things done every day.
Novelist Neal Stephenson, who writes spectacularly long books, helpfully puts it this way:
The productivity equation is a non-linear one…This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time chunks [aka flow state], I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
Is it challenging to enter flow state? At times. Does it require discipline and a commitment to stick with it? Certainly. But the rewards for regularly achieving flow state are staggering.
It’s how the greatest musicians achieve mastery.
It’s how novelists are able to write 300,000 words.
And it’s how you can significantly increase your overall productivity.
Next Steps For Achieving Flow
Find out when you are most productive and creative during the day and decide what your flow state ritual is going to be. Once you have both information you then need to eliminate all distractions such as email, instant messaging, etc. You can start the flow state process by doing the ritual at your most productive time and directly work on your most important task for the day. If you have issues staying in this state, use the Pomodoro method, and don’t forget to keep practicing.
If you are unable to maximize your productivity, there could be some other underlying reasons for this. Our free Productivity Quiz will help you uncover what those reasons are and we will send you a personalized plan on how to overcome those.