WHAT: How To Enter a Flow State
There are many terms to describe being in a flow state: in the zone, in the moment, in a groove, on a roll, on fire, in the now. Naming it is easy. However, describing it, and figuring out how to create a flow state is more complex.
Ask yourself this: When was the last time you became so hyperfocused on an activity you lost track of the clock? Or, any awareness that the clock even existed? When you finished, you realized what you’d lost in time, you had gained in the perfect execution of the task at hand. Congratulations. You were in a state of flow.
What is a Flow State?
Japanese martial artists refer to the state of flow as ‘mushin.’ Yogis, call it ‘Samyama.’ Sports psychologists refer to it as the zone: An elusive operating condition where fear and other negative thoughts are denied entry. Instead, subjects experience a mental state marked by a fluidity of thought and precise physical movement. It is a state in which extreme mindfulness has given way to ‘flow.’
Steven Kotler, co-founder of the Flow Genome Project says, “in flow, we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.”
During flow, the lag time between thought and action is so quick that the intention doesn’t even register. Instead of deliberating on an action, we act on immediate, lightning-quick primal instinct. It’s almost like the activity just does itself.
During flow, a reduced reflex time may allow the martial artist to see the punch seconds before it is thrown. Likewise, flow allows the surfer to read the wave far in advance, and respond with a cutback of previously unmanageable precision. Like a drummer who finds the groove, or “gets in the pocket,” the solo violinist may find their most beautiful melodies emerge not from concentration, but from the effortless attention of being in a flow state. As Yoda famously said “there is no try. There is only do.”
Psychologists Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi identify the following chief components of a flow state experience.
- Intense focus on the present moment.
- A merging of awareness and action.
- A lack of self-consciousness.
- An innate, assumed sense of personal authority over the given activity or situation.
- A distortion of one’s sense of time.
- An experience of the activity or situation as intrinsically rewarding.
These components may arise independently of each other. However, researchers say that only when they appear together do they trigger a true flow state.
Triggering a Flow State
While feeling it is simple, identifying what it is, where it comes from, and most importantly – how to trigger a flow state still leaves scientists and psychologists scratching their heads. Nevertheless, among veterans, there are some uniformly agreed-upon characteristics known to help induce a flow state. These include:
- Eliminate the risk of distractions both internal and external.
- Remain focused on one very specific, challenging but not impossible task, bearing in mind your goals and intended outcomes.
- Listen to music that moves and inspires you.
- Keep at it.
- Do all of this at your BPT, (biological peak time) when your mind and body are rested and ready to fire on all cylinders.
The Power of Now
“How to be present” is a question ancient traditions have discussed for millennia. Taoism and Buddhism place great value on the ability to create and sustain a flow state. Particularly, Taoism and Buddhism, who describe flow as “becoming one with things,” or “doing without doing.” According to these traditions, the best way of getting in the zone is through meditation. If getting in the zone sounds difficult, that’s because it is. Learning to slip in and out of flow state is a delicate process that requires practice and more practice.
Creating a flow state is often something we do subconsciously. Whether it be swerving to avoid a dog, nailing the perfect ping pong shot, or catching something hurtling towards your head, we’ve all experienced a flow state. However, deliberate and repetitive induction of flow may require an environment that supports your capacity to concentrate.
Flow doesn’t discriminate in terms of when or where it strikes. Neither does it choose who to reward. It’s just as likely to increase the hyper-focused performance of a pro tennis player as it will the Playstation junkie rooted to the sofa consumed by Call of Duty. Guess which is healthier? Similarly, artists who enter flow, particularly painters and writers, have been known to become so immersed in their work that they forget to eat, drink, and even sleep.
In the past, the flow state was the domain of sports stars and artists. Nowadays, that list includes tech executives, hackers, coders, poker players, fortune 500 CEOs, Wall Street traders, military pilots, and more. Nowadays, more people are discovering that the flow state zone is a portal to the highest levels of human functioning. And, that the physical, emotional, cognitive, and even material benefits are very real.