Flow is a concept that has fascinated me for a long time. By definition, flow is an ‘energized mental state that occurs when a person is totally focused and immersed in an activity, stretching body and mind to the limit in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’.
The concept of flow was first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say Chick-SENT-me-high a few times to untangle you tongue!), a Hungarian positive psychologist, in his book called Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. He actually made the exploration of flow the centerpiece of his career and not without good reason – it has now been proven by neuroscientists that achieving a flow state on a regular basis can contribute to increased productivity, performance and happiness in all areas of life.
Athletes often describe this as being ‘in the zone’. As a runner and gym junkie, I have experienced this myself a couple of times. It is the feeling when I am so fully immersed in running that everything seems crystal clear and in harmony; my muscles and my breath are perfectly coordinated, and as a result, running at a high pace feels effortless; in fact, it is like I am floating an inch above the ground; it is a state in which I feel happy, at my strongest, and perfectly in control. I also experienced this during very high intensity workouts, such as spinning-, body combat-, and Insanity classes. The experience is quite similar to running – there comes a certain point when I know ‘I am in’, it is when some kind of hidden inner power within me wipes out the tiredness and heaviness, and I transform into a powerful machine. I sometimes call this switching point my ‘sweet spot’, the gateway to the flow experience.
Alexander Yakovlev’s beautiful photo of a ballerina losing herself into the dance
If you are not into sports and exercising, the good news is that you don’t have to sweat too hard to get into a flow state, as it is not exclusively reserved for athletes or elite level performers. Perhaps you have experienced flow a few times in your life, for example by completely losing yourself in a creative piece of work such as drawing or painting (or in my case, blog writing and colouring art), completely losing track of time.
Christopher Bergland, author of the book ‘The Athlete’s Way’ takes the concept of flow even further. He introduced the concept of ‘Superfluidity’ to describe an elevated, second-tier of the flow experience. In his words, ‘flow is the launching pad for superfluidity’.
The yellow parachute is ‘Superfluidity’
But how does being in a superfluid state feel like in comparison to flow? When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile, he described this experience as
“No longer conscious of my movement, I discovered a new unity with nature. I had found a new source of power and beauty, a source I never dreamt existed.”
Just WOW. I think we can safely say that flow and superfluidity are very pleasant and rather desirable states to be in. So I guess we could all do with a bit more flow (or even superfluidity) in our lives to improve our health, wellbeing and capabilities – whether you are into sports, creative arts like painting and music, or into your day job.
So how can we generate more flow in our lives?
Firstly, like everything else, it requires a bit of preparation and practice, but nothing too mysterious!
- To start with, you can only achieve flow state with activities and tasks that you love doing and which energise you – let’s face it, if you dread it or are uninterested, you will have a hard time dedicating yourself to it and losing yourself in it! Assess and find those activities or tasks that are most likely to take you into this state. It could be work-related (lucky you!), or things you do for pleasure. (For me it’s running, writing and colouring.)
- The task or activity needs to be challenging, but not beyond your capabilities and skills. If a task is too easy, you will be able to complete it without much thought or effort (leading to apathy/boredom – see diagram). If it is too hard, you will find it difficult to lose yourself in it, as you will spend most of your concentration just trying to figure out how to do it (potentially causing worry/anxiety – see diagram). You may need a bit of practice first to master the basic skills.
- You are more likely to achieve flow if you are currently in a good shape – e.g. you are well rested, not starving, not suffering from illness, not under extreme stress/trauma, you are not going through a major change such as moving jobs/relocating/just had a baby etc.
The key thing is that even though we can create environments conducive for work, training, creative stuff etc., we must also remember that flow comes from within, so inner preparation is also important.
1. Aim for quality instead of quantity – you can do this by devoting your full attention to a single, meaningful task you want to achieve. Direct your resources to doing that one thing so you are not sidelined by other things.
2. Identify your peak time when your energy levels are the highest – for me that is first thing in the mornings when it comes to running or going to the gym, before things get too busy around me and I get bogged down with stuff to do. Others may prefer evenings once their kids have gone to bed.
3. Clear away distractions to maximise your focus – This could be removing physical clutter around yourself, or switching off notifications on your PC, putting the phone on ‘do not disturb’; but it can also be something non-physical such as clearing your mind from stressful and distracting thoughts by meditating, or doing some simple breathing exercises.
4. Be present in the activity – try to focus on the task or activity as much as you can, without letting your attention wander. When I go to the gym, I do not go there to chit-chat and watch the TV on the monitor screen, I have a workout plan to complete in the first place. Once my mission is complete, I can be very nice to other people J
5. Visualise what you want to achieve, have clear goals – before you set out to accomplish the task or activity. This is a successful sports performance coaching tool to help top athletes’ mental preparation before key sporting events. This technique played a big role in helping me achieve a personal best time in the Budapest Half Marathon.
6. Enjoy yourself – take time to appreciate the feeling of being able to really pour yourself into something worthwhile e.g. as you are make great progress on an important task, a work of art, smashing that training plan. And don’t forget to track and celebrate your accomplishments to see how far you have come. I have found logging my running data using Garmin extremely helpful and rewarding.
7. Practice makes perfect – so you can get better at that particular task or activity and get into a flow state easier. For example, I find writing easier as I have been putting in more effort into blogging more regularly; my creative juices have started flowing and the words and topics to write about come easier. As part of practicing, seek out role models who are exceptionally good at what they do, and learn from them to take your level of performance higher. I have found this to be true with intricate adult colouring book techniques – I have watched countless tutorials and videos online to master some tricks and techniques, and researched the best colouring materials to achieve the best effects. My colouring has gone from simplistic, child-like attempts to fairly decent works of art as a result.
8. Find new flow generating experiences – Challenge yourself to go a little beyond your comfort zone, look for creative ways to engage your strengths, think about what new skills you want to learn, what goals you want to pursue. It could be as simple as adding another hill to your usual running route.
So, the takeaway message is quite simple: more flow means a better quality life, more happiness and improved physical and mental performance, by engaging our key strengths and skills. So focus on finding and embracing your flow, making it part of your life to achieve your personal best. I certainly hope this article has inspired you to do this and helps you take your life to a higher ground – whether you are into running, painting or website designs!
What activities are most likely to give you the flow experience? What is holding you back from having more flow experience in your life right now? What can you do about it? What other activities could you turn into flow-generating experiences?