What is a Flow State?
Flow state is the optimal state of human consciousness.
It describes moments of total absorption, when you become so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away.
Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Mental and physical performance go through the roof.
The state was first named “flow” by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. Research on flow states began to increase in the 1980s and 90s.
You’ve probably heard the term “flow state” used in extreme sports, military and business examples. In recent years, the study of flow has moved out of just positive psychology circles and into the mainstream.
It can also be called: being in the zone, peak experiences, being unconscious, hyperfocus and runner’s high.
This article will explain what flow states feel like, where the term came from, how you can trigger flow, what the characteristics of flow are, how flow is part of a cycle, and the types of flow that you can achieve.
What Does Flow State Feel Like?
You know those times when you feel your best and perform your best?
You get so focused on a task that everything else disappears.
Your action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes.
Time distorts (it can appear to speed up or slow down).
And, during this total absorbtion and rapt attention, your mental and physical performance go through the roof.
Flow state is associated with a healthy sense of well-being and increased happiness. At work, it’s been shown to increase productivity, motivation, and company loyalty.
If you’ve ever experienced anything like that, you’ve been in a flow state.
Now, let’s break flow states down to see what they actually are.
Why is it Called Flow?
The “godfather” of flow is the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: chick-sent-me-high) conducted one of the largest psychological surveys on flow state.
He asked a simple question: “What activities produce your deepest enjoyment and greatest satisfaction?”
His findings were published in his 1975 book, “Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play.”
The term “flow” came from Csikszentmihalyi’s survey subjects describing what their peak activities felt like. They all described similar “flowy” experiences where every action flowed seamlessly, effortlessly, from one thing to the next.
In 1990, Csikszentmihalyi put his decades of research on flow states into his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Triggers Used to Achieve Flow State
Csikszentmihalyi’s research, along with other scientists, uncovered ten characteristics of flow state.
We include four of them among our “flow triggers.” Our research has found that these precede flow.
These aren’t the only flow triggers, but we have found these things help drive you into a flow state.
- Intense Concentration—not dividing your mind between tasks, but being totally absorbed by one action in the present moment.
- Challenge/Skills Balance—the challenge of the task slightly exceeds your skill set. You are pushed out of our comfort zone. The magic ratio is about 4% harder than you are comfortable with. You want to stretch yourself—not snap.
- Clear Goals—not big life goals (like winning a gold medal or making a million dollars). Small, immediately achievable goals. Knowing where you are right now, and where you want to go next.
- Immediate Feedback—closing the gap between cause and effect. In a moment, you can course correct mid-flight.
These characteristics help propel you into flow. Check out this article for more flow triggers.
The Characteristics of a Flow State
If you want to know if an experience qualifies as being in flow state, this list of flow characteristics is a great place to start.
- Action and Awareness Merge—You and what you’re doing become one. Your actions feel automatic and require little or no additional resources.
- Selflessness—Your sense of self disappears. As self-consciousness goes away, the inner critic is silenced.
- Timelessness—You experience an altered perception of time. Past and future disappear as you enter “a deep now.”
- Effortlessness—Your sense of struggle and frustration vanishes.
- Intrinsic Motivation—The experience is “autotelic.” This means the activity has a purpose in itself. The activity or work becomes its own reward.
- Paradox of Control—You have a powerful sense of control over the situation. In flow, you are the master of your own destiny.
These characteristics feel so good, that flow is probably the most addictive substance on the planet!
That’s why you should pay attention to the flow cycle below. It’s important to realize that we are not meant to be in flow all the time.
If you chase flow too much and become a “bliss junkie” you’ll experience the dark side of flow.
Degrees and Types of Flow
The two types of flow are individual and group.
To create more flow in your life, take this quiz to find out what’s blocking your flow.
The shared, collective experience of a group performing at their peak is called “group flow.”
If you’re looking for some tips on creating more group flow, start with our recent post on creativity in the workplace.
Then, check out Keith Sawyer’s book, Group Genius.
You also need to understand that flow has degrees of experience.
When you’re angry, you can feel anything from mildly ticked off to enraged.
You can also experience different levels of flow in your life.
Here are both ends of the flow spectrum:
- Micro-flow. Getting sucked into a great brainstorming conversation with someone.
- Macro-flow. All of the above characteristics show up and you’re suddenly one with the universe.
The Flow Cycle
While there is no neurobiological definition of flow, Herb Benson’s research at Harvard led to the understanding of four stages of flow.
- Struggle—this is the loading phase, when you are overloading the brain with information. This would be a baseball pitcher learning a new pitch, or a writer researching and diagramming structure for a new book. It’s important to remember that flow starts with this unpleasant state.
- Release—take your mind off the problem. To get into flow state, you’re trading conscious processing for subconscious processing. Slow thinking with limited RAM, for efficient endless RAM. To do that, you have to stop thinking. Go for a long walk, garden, take a very hot or cold shower, stare at the clouds.
- Flow state—stress hormones leave your system. They are replaced by feel-good neurochemicals. Flow demands laser-focused attention in the present. The brain trades energy normally used for other purposes and reallocates it for flow.
- Recovery—at the end of the flow state is a critical recovery phase. After the amazing high of flow, you’re going to crash. You need certain vitamins, minerals, and sunlight to get back. Steven Kotler says, “If you really want to hack flow, you’re going to need to learn how to struggle better, and how to recover better.”
You’re going to need to develop some grit to take all the stages of the flow cycle seriously.
If you get stressed out by the struggle or recovery phase, you’re going to produce too much cortisol. This will block the deep learning that’s meant to happen during flow. You may still get a short term benefit, but the long-term benefits of a high flow lifestyle will be lost.
Also, you might think that vegging out in front of the television counts as recovery. It doesn’t. Screen time produces waves in the brain which actually block flow.
Get More Flow in Your Life
To understand the role flow plays in ultimate human performance, see Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.
Want to join a community of flow hackers and get personalized training on how to perform better than ever, under any conditions?