The word “Flow” typically brings to our mind – natural smooth movement of water, air, clouds, energy, particles etc. Beyond the natural flow, this term has been used to depict intense concentration in a certain human activity. In sports, athletes use the phrase – “being in the zone” to describe the same concept.
It is rather easy to find flow, mostly unconsciously, in entertainment activities – for example – playing games, watching a movie, listening to music, relaxing on the beach, traveling to a new place for vacation, reading a nail-biter novel etc. It is relatively harder to find flow in conscious activities which are more demanding.
It is understandable that, the activities that put us in “unconscious flow” are result of conscious flow state efforts on someone’s part.
In this article, we will focus on “Finding Flow” in activities that matter, the ones we want to pursue, and desire favorable outcomes. These are challenging activities which stretch us to our potential – for example: learning a new skill, doing a breakthrough innovation, competing in a sport, writing a book, composing music, creating an art form, reading with purpose etc. We will explore how to bring our “Unconscious” Conscious in Flow.
One can argue that within the realm of conscious activities – along with motivation, accountability plays a huge part in the success of outcomes. It is easy to discover flow where activities are more structured, and we have an external accountability compared to activities which are ambiguous, unstructured and require self-accountability.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talked about “Flow” as:
“being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”
Flow (or Flow state, used interchangeably) has a notion of “action” built in it implicitly. Action alone is not sufficient to get in “Flow state”. One can find Flow in only the activities which one really intends to do and is intrinsically motivated. Finding flow on a task which you’ve no intention to do – is putting yourself through more suffering. One must find activities that give deeper purpose and meaning – really understanding “why” – this is the stepping stone.
It is important to choose the right level of challenge matched with your current capacity – it cannot be too easy, it cannot be too hard – just enough to take you to the next level. Finding your intrinsic motivation requires a continuous discovery phase. You know you’re intrinsically motivated in an activity when your “heart” leads and “mind” (thought) follows. Intention requires a combination of purpose and action. To accomplish any deep action or to do any deep work – one must create the right space and find flow to achieve the right outcomes.
You know you’re intrinsically motivated in an activity when your “heart” leads and “mind” follows.
Sometimes Flow state comes to us as an accidental “visitor“. When it comes, we love those moments, learn quite a bit, and cherish them. We crave for more instances like those, but seldom we organize our lives for them. With deliberate practice, Flow can be found consciously.
Flow is an “active” state. Getting into Flow state requires us to be aware in the moment. Awareness begins with suspension of attention. Flow state allows us to focus energy on the task at hand. When we are in a conscious Flow state – there is a high level of engagement, productivity, and creativity. It is effortless and total bliss. We feel as if time has slowed down, we want such an experience to continue forever.
In Flow state, we focus on the journey and experience joy in the moment. We can think more broadly and are not distracted. There is a calm urgency. We’re aware of our inner world – our thoughts, feelings, and emotions – as well as outer world.
When in Flow, we can focus and reach peak performance. We function from higher cognitive levels. We make better connections. We are grateful for what we have. We make ground breaking innovations.
Flow state is an addictive state. Once you have it you want “more” of it and you “value” it. There is an effort to decode the science behind Flow state. The science describes that while in Flow state our body releases five of the most potent neurochemicals for motivation, learning, and well being – norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and oxytocin. If you’re interested to learn more, check out Flow Research Collective.
We can prepare to embrace for “Flow state” for independent as well as group activities. Based on my personal experiences and research on this topic, here are some insights and steps on getting into Flow.
Step 1: Choose and Organize
- Choose what you are doing. Choice has immense power.
- Clarify why you are doing what you are doing.
- Balance challenge and skill level. Be realistic and define the sweet spot.
- Choose who you are with.
- Choose where you are.
- Organize for success (in whatever way you define it).
Step 2: Plan to manage your time and energy
- Plan to have a dedicated “chunk” of time to get into Flow state.
- It helps to have blocks of time allocated for “Maker time” or “Focused time” (check this article) on a regular basis in your calendar.
- Keep your energy for most important and controllable tasks in your life.
Step 3: De-clutter your mind
- Before you start, de clutter your mind from all thoughts and distractions that may bother you while you choose to focus on the most important thing.
- This can be done using many techniques, for example: writing down list of things that are bothering you and keeping them aside; do a short visualization meditation, a focused body scan, or as simple as watching your breath for couple of minutes.
- Do whatever that makes you feel good – make yourself a special cup of coffee or tea, listen to your favorite music etc.
Step 4: Engage and Monitor yourself while pursuing flow state
- When engaged in the activity, try to hold some attention to monitor yourself. Record the observations that are needed to further improve your own dimensions and levels of flow state. This will help you continuously renew your craft.
- Keep your commitment for the time chunk you allocated. Getting into flow takes effort – if this activity really matters to you – keep trying. Take breaks as appropriate.
- Be mindful, if your attention wavers – bring it back to the activity at hand.
- To achieve Flow state in newer and challenging activities you will have to persevere. It is quite natural that you will go through rhythmic patterns – with peaks and valleys – just push through.
- Allow yourself to find the balance between doing something well and letting go of trying to do something well.
One needs to strive to get into Flow state constantly in activities one pursues to truly experience learning, joy, creativity, and contentment.
Only with deep work in conscious and constant Flow state, we can become “sui generis”. Be the best version of yourself!
Oh my, always young at heart, friend,
all I wish for you is,
find what matters,
set the intention,
get into conscious flow,
harmonize all dimensions,
follow through and repeat.
thou shalt experience whole being …
I would love to hear from you on how you get into “conscious” flow and why it matters to you. Please share your thoughts, experiences, and stories.
[Originally published on LinkedIn]
References and Further reading/watching
Flow: The psychology of Optimal experience (Book, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2008)
Flow, the secret to happiness (Ted Talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2004)
Flow Research Collective, Decoding science of flow (Steve Kotler)
Manage your energy not your time (Article, October 2007, Harvard Business Review)
The Puzzle of Motivation (Ted Talk, Dan Pink, July 2009)
Acknowledgments and Gratitude: Thanks to Todd Hollow-Bist, Chad Hattrup, Endre Voros, Karise Swainson, Sameer Bhangar, Ari Levari for their valuable review comments, ongoing conversations, and encouragement.