Last week we discussed flow, a state in which we are completely immersed in the task at hand. We become so engrossed in the activity we’re doing that the world seems to fade away. Athletes often refer to this state as being “in the zone”, however anyone can enter into this state — whether it be at work, while pursuing a passion, or having an engaging conversation with someone.
In order to enter into a flow state, you need to find that sweet spot on the activation/performance curve. You need to be somewhere between boredom and stress — when you are excited, engaged, happy, and able to perform at your best. Everyone is different (some people need more activation, while other people need to calm themselves down to enter into flow). Knowing what you need — and how to ignite your body and mind to prepare for that demand — can help you build your own peak performance zone. You can learn how to access your most productive mode in every area of your life.
This week we’re going to break down the flow state even more to help you learn how to enter into flow more easily.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the discoverer of flow, there are nine dimensions, or characteristics, of flow: concentration on the task at hand, clarity of goals, transformation of time, intrinsically rewarding, unambiguous feedback, challenge-skills balance, merging of actions and awareness, sense of control, and loss of self-consciousness.
While each of these nine dimensions can be present during flow, the relative contributions of each dimension is debatable. In a systematic review, Swann and colleagues studied how elite athletes experience flow states and the factors that contribute to flow. The authors discovered that, of the nine dimensions, over 80% of athletes reported concentration on the task at hand during their flow state. While there are limited studies on the neurophysiology of flow, brain imaging studies have backed up this idea — suggesting that during flow, there is an increase in external focus and a decrease in internal focus, or self-awareness. There is also evidence to suggest that selective attention, or the ability to direct attention to the task at hand while ignoring outside stimuli, is an important prerequisite for flow.
Given these studies, it is reasonable to conclude that learning to focus and control one’s attention is one of the ways to enter into flow more easily.
So how can we do this?
1. Control your external environment. The first step is to set yourself up for success by creating an optimal environment for flow. This means putting away your phone and other distractions to be able to focus on the task at hand. If you’re sitting down to do some creative work, maybe you need to put on noise cancelling headphones or listen to some calming music. If you’re going for a run, maybe you need to find a park or somewhere in nature in order to enter into flow. Learning what type of environment you need to enter into flow is the first step to re-creating your flow state. The three steps to re-creating your flow state from last week can help you with this!
2. Control your internal environment. This means learning how to train your brain to enter into flow more often. Mindfulness/meditation training is a powerful step on the path to increased focus. Mindfulness is the act of being aware and immersed in the present moment in a non-judgemental way. In other words, it is the act of directed attention to the “here” and the “now”. As mindfulness involves living in the moment and controlling your attention, it is a mini-flow state itself! Whether you do a formal meditation practice or sprinkle in mindfulness throughout the day, the more you do it, the better you’ll be able to focus and enter into flow more easily.
Whether applied to an athletic activity or when sitting at your desk, you can learn to optimize your external and internal environment to get into a flow state more often. It’s just a matter of developing systems, routines, and skills that make your flow state available to you whenever you need it.