Often defined as an "optimal state of consciousness" and "being in the zone," flow state makes you feel great and perform at your best. You are so focused on the task at hand that everything else disappears from your consciousness. You are not worried about anything; all that fades away as 100% of your conscious awareness is devoted to what you are doing right now.
Your sense of time, self, and everything else vanishes. This type of focus is excellent for productivity, performance, and mental health. This is because the prefrontal cortex, the "thinking" and "chatting" part of the brain, is temporarily turned off - a phenomena know as "transient hypofrontality." Although the prefrontal cortex is crucial, especially for thinking and planning, it can also cause many introspective thoughts, worries, and anxieties.
According to author Steven Kotler, people who achieve a state of flow most frequently in their lives are also the people who score highest in quantitative measures of wellbeing, life satisfaction, meaning, and happiness.
One of the critical elements to entering the blissful state of flow is to engage in an activity that provides immediate feedback.
This feedback does not have to be verbal from an observer; it can be proprioceptive feedback. For example, if you are on a skateboard, your body will constantly receive feedback regarding your balance and where to move your body weight to keep it stable.
Consequences & Danger
The higher the perceived risk, the easier it is to focus. If you are riding a motorcycle, it is crucial that you concentrate on the road. If you are writing an essay for a school project, on the other hand, the consequences are not as severe, and as such, it can be more challenging to focus.
A Challenging Task
It is much easier to acquire a flow state if the task that you are working on is challenging but not impossible. If a task is too easy, then you do not have to devote 100% of your attention to it. If it is too difficult, then you might become frustrated and anxious.
It is easier to enter flow when participating in physical tasks such as skiing or surfing. This is because the level of sensory input is high, and your mind has to focus on making sense of it all. For example, when you are surfing, you have wind, waves, the sensation of the surfboard touching the soles of your feet - these are all relevant to the task at hand. When you are typing at work, the relevant sensory input is not as 'overwhelming.' Hence, it is easy to get distracted by irrelevant sensory information such as noises or pain in your lower back or neck.
A high level of sensory input leads to a state called "deep embodiment."
Another important factor for flow can be the environment and the amount of novelty. When you are skiing, the environment is constantly changing; when you are in an office, the environment is relatively constant day today. In addition, when you are skiing, the environment is very relevant to the task at hand; you have to look out for hazards.
Flow State at Work
Participating in physical activities such as table tennis or surfing is one thing, but what about when you have to do a tedious task at work?
Being well-rested and getting plenty of sleep is one way to minimize the tendency for our brain and thoughts to wander.
Changing your environment can also help you to enter a flow state. If you work remotely, going to a new place every week or month can help create a novel environment that will help you enter a flow state. Novelty produces dopamine, which in turn helps us to focus.
Pattern recognition can also be conducive to flow state. If you need to write an article or an essay, for example, you can start your day by editing an old article rather than trying to write a new one straight away. By editing a pre-existing article, your brain will begin to notice patterns, and in turn, this will produce dopamine. When you turn your attention to writing a new article, the creative process should prove much more effortless.
Distractions also make it difficult to enter flow state. If you are a business owner for example, the constant emails and phone calls make it difficult to focus at all. If this is the case, consider using a virtual assistant or an out of hours phone answering service that allows you to leave your phone in another room and focus on the work at hand.
If you want to achieve a flow state, then you need to focus. Focus is like a muscle in that the more you use your ability to focus, the stronger or better you become at focusing.
Mindfulness meditation can help us to enter a flow state when other factors are not present. If you train your mind consistently with mindfulness meditation, you will acquire the ability to focus entirely on a task, whether or not it meets the usual criteria for entering into a flow state.
For example, if you are doing a monotonous data entry task at work, this would not usually evoke a flow state. However, if you have gained the ability to focus entirely through hours of meditation, you will be able to direct your attention to the task and quieten the mind so that nothing else exists and there is no internal chatter from the prefrontal cortex.
There are several ways to practice mindfulness meditation. A straightforward way is to sit or lie down, relax and focus on the sensation of breathing and air coming in through your nose and into your lungs and out again. Try and focus on this sensation for 10 minutes. Each time that your mind wanders brings your focus back to the breath. This is extremely difficult, to begin with, especially during the first minute or so. If you don't have ten minutes to spare, try doing it for 20 breaths every time you have a break at work.
Entering flow state at some point each week, whether it be during a recreational activity or at work, can result in substantial mental wellbeing benefits. When we participate in physical activities, this is much easier to achieve, as our instincts will kick in and direct our focus. If you work in an office, it can be more difficult. Still, by practicing mindfulness meditation and using a Pomodoro timer to split your working day into 25-minute segments, it can be done, and it's worth the effort as the rewards in terms of productivity, learning and creativity are significant.