Flow is a state, where we are at our most productive. Nothing seems to hold us back, as we’re only focusing on whatever is in front of us each second. Thing seem to happen naturally, and we are relaxed and engaged and our mind is clear of all possible clutter. Doesn’t sound like a usual day at the office, does it? Not for me, at least. The quest to find and define flow is one that’s been around for at least a couple thousand years, as something very similar to it can be found in Epictetus’ The Enchiridion, which was written c. 125 AD.
Some very distinctive characteristics of the flow state, apart from always lasting too little time, are the following:
It is most often a combination of skills and challenge – this can be seen for example in athletic endeavours, where athletes who can enter the flow state during competitions place the highest. Their extraordinary skills collide with the challenge of facing equally good competitors, and so they have the perfect environment to get to the path of flow.
Flow is a state of optimal experience – Whoever is experiencing flow will be so involved in an activity, that nothing else seems to matter. There aren’t any other obstacles that can get in the way in that moment. The concentration is intense, and their state of mind is egoless. Flow means absolutely losing yourself to a task.
You usually won’t realize that you’re in a flow state until it ends – At least for me, just the simple sound of a text message could be enough to snap me out of this state. If my mind wanders anywhere else than the task at hand, it’s usually over. This is at the very least frustrating, and I’m often left wondering how I could reach this state again. Luckily there are some directions that can get me close.
“A person can make himself happy or miserable, regardless of what’s actually happening outside just by changing the contents of consciousness” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The best and most consistent way to attain flow – given that you already know what you’re working on and that it is a thing where the skills and challenge are optimal for you – is to convince your body and your mind that you’re already experiencing it. The power of suggestion can go a very long way, as can be seen with the placebo effect and in various other psychological phenomena. To achieve flow, one should also make room in their psyche. “Clearing the mind” is very much easier said than done, but it never hurts to try. Eliminate your thoughts one by one and get your mind at rest. Meditation has myriads of proven health effects, and it also helps a lot with flow.
An optional step to finding flow is to write down your thoughts. Unless you make an effort to externalize the goings-on in your mind, they will stay there and distract you from the thing you’re trying to focus on. So make notes, use a calendar and create a sense of security and trust where your mind can be at ease, as it will not lose other information when only concentrating on one thing. On top of this, turn off your phone. Most messages and calls can wait for the duration of your work.
A thing we must also understand that we will never find flow in passive tasks. Binging series, browsing social media or doing something that doesn’t offer a challenge or require skills makes us fall into a state of apathy, which is, as seen below, the opposite of the flow state. Flow can be reached from each direction, by adding skill or challenge.
For me, there are usually very clear reasons why I can’t attain flow. Usually it has to do with having too much to do at once. Whether it’s wallowing in boredom or worrying about not having the required skills to do something, it’s true that my state of mind can often be the only thing that’s holding me back. A thing that also helps me is to get the non-creative stuff out of the way first with good old-fashioned work. When I’ve done some chores, prepared my food and maybe done some not-so-pleasant schoolwork, I’ll be ready to clear my mind for the things that excite me the most. Flow isn’t the only way to work, but it is a great one!
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi – Finding Flow (1997)