Ever had a moment—perhaps while writing, designing, or working through a complex problem—where you're so focused on a task that the world around you disappears and you're perfectly focused? It feels like you're on autopilot. Nothing can go wrong. Work comes naturally with no friction. No effort.
Athletes call it "being in the zone." Artists call it "the muse." Psychologists today have given it an official name: Flow.
First proposed by positive psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in the 70s, flow is the mental state where we are "so immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity that we lose sense of space and time." Or as Steven Kotler describes it in Rise of the Superman, flow is where "every action, each decision, leads effortlessly, fluidly, seamlessly to the next. It’s high-speed problem solving; it’s being swept away by the river of ultimate performance."
Sounds like a dream. But like any reverie, the moment you recognize being in flow, its blissful sensation begins to dissolve and the world, complete with its distractions, comes rushing back into our heads.
We all could do with a little more flow. So what if we could dissect just what pushes us into this state and then just jump into flow easily?
What’s Really Happening When we Enter Flow?
You're working, and then you're in flow—as if you just just accidentally fall into it. But as Csíkszentmihályi explains in a 2014 paper, there are actually specific criteria that must be met for you to enter flow:
You must have clear goals and progress
Your task must provide clear and immediate feedback
You must be at the balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills
In other words, you must know what you’re doing, be able to see whether or not you’re doing it well, and be pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. This last point is especially important for finding flow—it's mastery combined with challenge that brings flow.
Csíkszentmihályi first developed the idea of flow from speaking with professionals across a variety of fields, from artists and athletes to scientists and academics. Each described entering a state of flow at a moment where their skills were being put to the test, but not enough so to feel overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Too much challenge and we get overcome with anxiety. Not enough, and our brain loses focus and looks for other stimuli.
Csíkszentmihályi best describes flow as the moves of a professional skier taking on a difficult run:
"Imagine that you are skiing down a slope and your full attention is focused on the movements of your body, the position of the skis, the air whistling past your face, and the snow-shrouded trees running by. There is no room in your awareness for conflicts or contradictions; you know that a distracting thought or emotion might get you buried face down in the snow. The run is so perfect that you want it to last forever."
The 5 Elements of Flow—And How to Bring Them Into Your Work
You might not be a professional skier, but the idea of being so perfectly focused and in control of a task that you complete it without effort is appealing to all of us (and that's another term for flow—entrepreneur Tim Ferriss calls flow "Effortless output"). Yet while clear goals, feedback, and challenge are the building blocks of flow, there’s more to it than just those three factors.
To help us find flow in more of our lives, we need to bring all five pieces of the flow puzzle together: Self control. Environment. Skills. Task. Reward.
Self Control: Focus on Willpower to Trigger a State of Flow
In the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces.
We all love shortcuts—and the idea of getting into a flow state sounds especially appealing as it means you’re almost working without working. But it still takes willpower, discipline, and self-control to get there.
In fact, self control is a key element of Flow.
"In the flow-like state, we exercise control over the contents of our consciousness rather than allowing ourselves to be passively determined by external forces," explained Csíkszentmihályi in his original book Flow.
To help us get into a state of flow more often, we need to be able to master this level of control of our consciousness. Which isn’t an easy task in today’s distracted world.
Psychology professor Nathan DeWall, who leveraged the science of self-control to go from sedentary academic to 100+ mile marathon runner, explains that we can all develop our willpower and self-control by focusing on 3 steps.
Find your standards. Your standards are the reference points you’ll use to determine whether any action you’re going to take is desireable towards getting into a state of flow—so, whether you’re going to check your email (again) or hit your 1000 word count for the day.
Set up means for monitoring. Flow depends on immediate feedback and so does self control. Whatever your task, find ways to constantly monitor your performance and adjust as you continue.
Be wary of your energy. Our mental strength waxes and wanes throughout the day (which is why it’s so important to define your own work schedule around your energy). Understanding when you have more energy will help you stay in control and give you a better chance of entering a state of flow.
Environment: Find a Novel and Exciting Space
Routine is the cornerstone of productivity. But you’ll rarely enter a state of flow just by doing the same thing you did yesterday.
Instead, find an environment that challenges you on a daily basis and pushes you outside of your comfort zone (a bit). Think of the surfer who’s forced to adapt to every individual wave they catch. According to Kotler in Rise of the Superman, it’s this novelty, unpredictability, and complexity that will set off your state of flow.
Unfortunately, few of us take our work with us to the beach. Instead, Kotler says there are a few environmental qualities we can look for to help trigger flow:
High consequences: Find environments and activities where your actions have real consequences to you. While an athlete might pick a harder course or opponent, for you, this could be as simple as speaking up during a meeting if you’re shy or publishing a post you’ve written on Medium if you’re afraid of comments and public feedback.
Rich environment: Find environments that require more of your attention and for you to react quickly to changes. Kotler gives the example of the Pixar offices, which feature a central hub for places frequented by all different employees regardless of their department.
"Steve Jobs artificially created the environmental conditions that massively upped the amount of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in the environment because people across departments and disciplines started running into each other and having conversations," said Kotler. "As a result, flow, innovation, and creativity went up."
Skills: Practice Deliberately to Bring on More Flow
In an interview with Wired Magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described 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."
Because flow is dependent on finding that sweet spot between your skills and the challenge at hand, it's no surprise that we need to have a certain level of mastery before we reach flow state. This doesn’t mean you won’t hit flow until you’re an absolute master at your skill—but it does mean you need to know how much skill you have and how to use it to the utmost.
One way to achieve this is to engage in what psychology professor Anders Ericsson calls Deliberate practice. Rather than just going through the motions of an activity, deliberate practice is where every session has a specific goal that can be measured, analyzed, and optimized for to increase your overall performance. As Ericsson explains "living in a cave does not make you a geologist."
In this way, deliberate practice includes many of the same criteria as flow.
Clear goals and outcomes
Pushing your skills to their limit
One way to look at deliberate practice is as pieces of a puzzle. Take a larger task and break it down into smaller, individual pieces, focusing intently on each one until you master it. As you progress through practice sessions, you’re effectively layering your mastery until the task is finished or the skill is mastered.
Not only that, but by breaking down your focus in this way, you are placing yourself squarely in a zone where your skills match the challenge at hand—the same mental spot where flow occurs.
Task: Connect To a Clear Purpose
If a subject excites us, if it stirs our deepest curiosity, or if we have to learn because the stakes are high, we pay much more attention.
While so far we’ve looked at ways that can help push you into a state of flow, one absolute requirement is a clear sense of purpose behind what you’re doing.
You need to feel an authentic and real connection to your work to devote yourself to fulfilling it in the moment. Which makes sense: No one’s going to put in hours and hours of deliberate practice, straining themselves physically and mentally, if they don’t actually care about what they’re doing.
One way to make sure that your task is tied to your purpose is to create a personal mission statement. Purpose comes from tying your values and skills to how you can make a real change in the world. Author William Arruda suggests starting by asking a few simple questions.
What am I passionate about?
What are my values?
What makes me great?
Once you feel good about your answers, you can put them into this template: The value you create + who you’re creating it for + the expected outcome.
For example, a writer might say I use my skill in crafting stories to help entrepreneurs and creatives create authentic and meaningful connections with their audience. If they’re not telling stories or being authentic in their work, they know they’re missing the passion mark.
Not only will having a personal mission statement help insure that you’re on the right path towards flow, but it will help push you beyond your comfort zone, as author Robert Greene explains when talking about mastery:
"We all know how much more deeply we learn when we are motivated. If a subject excites us, if it stirs our deepest curiosity, or if we have to learn because the stakes are high, we pay much more attention."
Reward: Don’t Look for Extrinsic Motivation
Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding.
Just like flow comes more often when we follow our passions, we also need to be doing work we are intrinsically motivated to complete. This means work and tasks that we feel real meaning behind and enjoy doing for the sake of doing.
Money. Awards. Praise. These can be byproducts of the flow work you do, but they cannot be the core motivation behind what you’re doing.
In fact, one of the 6 core factors a Csíkszentmihályi-style flow experience is to "experience... the activity as intrinsically rewarding." He even goes further, saying the feeling should be "such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process."
Just like in meditation or mindfulness training, there’s no winning at flow. So before you start getting upset at yourself for not entering a flow state during your work, ask why you’re really doing it. Is it because you feel good about the work itself? Or because you feel good about what completing the work will do for you?
Not only will you find yourself slipping into flow more often, but you’ll naturally shift towards doing work that is truly meaningful to you. Effortless output and feeling good about the work you do? That’s what I call a win-win.
Find Your Own Flow
"Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments of our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times," Csíkszentmihályi wrote in Flow.
"The best moments occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile … in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery — or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life — that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine."
The irony of the effortlessness of flow is that it comes when we are working our hardest. We slip past the anxiety and stress and get to a place of serene ability. Flow is the stuff not only of great work, but of a meaningful life.
Continue Your Pursuit of Flow:
Learn more from the experts about how to make your workflow flow and get more done with less stress with these resources:
Read Zen master Takuan Soho's book The Unfettered Mind on the practice of the mind without mind.
Flow takes focused work with just a bit of spark that makes you creative—something you can learn about more in our look at two other books: Deep Work vs. Messy: How to Balance Productivity and Creativity.