Remember that time you were so absorbed by an activity that everything else seemed to fade away into a seemingly endless void? Your focus was sharp and there was nothing else on your mind. When in this mode, it feels like you enter flow of some sort.
Hit the Zone
That’s exactly what it is. Flow is a state of consciousness where we are fully immersed by whatever we’re doing. It’s an optimal experience accompanied by active engagement, increased concentration, full involvement and enjoyment.
The concept was coined by a psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who wanted to know what makes athletes, artists and musicians perform at their best. It can also be asked, what makes them enter the zone?
During that time, or while riding the waves, one feels a loss of self-consciousness. However, awareness about the task at hand gets elevated and reaches heightened levels.
It’s a condition of high performance and creativity. In fact, it transcends it because we’ll be doing better than ever before. Imagine a wormhole that completely absorbs us and gives us superpowers. With our conscious self turned off, our limiting beliefs don’t matter any more and impossible loses its substance.
In my opinion, it’s the peaking point of our existence, during which we’re truly alive. A moment of bliss where we so engaged by an activity that nothing else matters. It’s presence at its finest.
What Makes Things Flow
The conditions of flow according to Csíkszentmihályi are as follows.
- One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.
- The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback.
- One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived abilities. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.
As we can see, to enter flow we need to be challenged by whatever we’re doing and try to solve it. If the task is too difficult we will become frustrated. When it is too easy we will never be immersed by it.
Flow happens between boredom and anxiety. The zone is a narrow space. It’s difficult to find, but once we hit the right waves we’ll be carried away by a current that takes us on an Odyssey of the mind.
Once we have an optimal experience we get hooked for life, because of the positive hormones and chemicals that get released in the brain. From the perspective of evolution, flow is the result of recognizing what activities are important for survival, encouraging the organism to keep doing them and providing as much energy onto the task.
However, the function of flow isn’t to induce the organism to do what it needs to subsist. Instead, it’s a way to grow by reaching one’s potential and then going beyond those limits.
The reason why we lose our self-awareness at that time is because flow requires a lot of energy, which the brain is always trying to preserve. In situations where we need to perform at our best, everything we don’t need right away gets put on the back burner.
Actually, it’s not a loss of self-awareness, but only the construct of the “self”. We remove the intermediary between the stimulus we receive and the perceptions we create. After we enter flow our consciousness experiences the environment with no barriers or filters. With no time to actually feel it, we become utterly present and one with the world. The dichotomy between “us” and “them”, “me” and “action” dissolves, and duality becomes unity.
How to Enter Flow
Flow is an optimal experience for a reason and we should all want to enter the zone. Not only is it incredibly enjoyable but it also enables us to do our greatest work. It’s an innate part of our psyche and can happen with any activity.
The components of flow are:
- Intense concentration and focus.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- Pure involvement and intrinsic motivation.
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness and sense of time.
- Worry-less control over one’s actions and the environment.
- Clear demands for action and immediate feedback.
To enter flow we need to meet the required conditions both in our own psyche as well as the environment. We need to know what needs to be done, how to do it and whether or not we can accomplish it.
The key component to all of this is ATTENTION. It’s required to not only maintain that amount of immense concentration but to also be able to guide one’s own psychic energy accordingly.
Flow happens over a prolonged period of concentrated action. Multi-tasking doesn’t work because we’ll never be completely immersed with one thing. Thus, we need to focus our attention only at the task at hand. Completely fill our mind with it. It has to become the only thing we think about. In a sense, it’s almost like a separate realm of existence. Just you, yourself and the activity, without the “I”.
Our surroundings are equally as important. With too many distractions it’s too difficult to narrow down our focus. With enough concentration, we could potentially reside into our own head and ride the waves despite the noise around us, but that requires a lot of mastery.
Once we enter flow, we’re able to increase our performance and creativity. However, the activity still has to match our skill level. In order to grow we need to face high challenges with great rewards that require active engagement and are intrinsically motivating. We have to be at the outer layer of our comfort zone and try to expand it further. If we push too hard we’ll never make progress. If it’s not demanding enough we’ll stagnate.
There isn’t a single way to enter flow. Instead, there’s a 4 stage cycle that we need to go through every time in order to have an optimal experience. All of them are equally important and contribute to the end results and our performance. It can be seen as a shamanistic ritual of some sorts. We’re trying to influence our own psyche and actions through a mysterious and meticulous process.
- Know the purpose of the activity. You need to know what needs to be done and how to do it. Have an understanding about the level of difficulty and your skill set. Make the challenge just hard enough. However, we shouldn’t expect to get the same results in the end as we planned in the beginning. That’s the best part about it. Once we enter flow, we never know what will happen in the wormhole.
- Prepare your mind. To attain heightened awareness and focus we need to be prepared for it. Concentration requires immense psychic energy and to not get sidetracked we can sharpen our mental saw in advance. This means calming our mind and becoming centered. Being overly aroused will lead to lack of control over our actions. By consciously bringing our attention to our breathing we can directly influence our own physiology and psychology. This sense of tranquillity creates certain brain wave activity that promote flow. It’s a feeling of relaxed alertness, where you’re completely still but poised for immediate action. Most importantly, have the desire to improve upon your performance but be intrinsically motivated to do it.
- Control the environment. Eliminate all type of distractions. Similar principles apply to both creative and physical tasks. You need to feel like you’re completely in control of your surroundings. Having some possibility for surprises might actually benefit the outcome. Instead of preventing them from happening completely, we should expect them and be prepared. If the unexpected occurs we won’t lose our ground because of having rehearsed the scenario in our head beforehand. Still, you should minimize the amount of distractions to a point where you can handle the situation effortlessly. Switch your phone to airplane mode. Plug yourself off the Internet. Lock the door so that you won’t be interrupted by other people. Close the curtains so that you won’t have the opportunity to look outside. Go to the bathroom beforehand. Play some sort of an audio file that promotes concentration and gets you in the zone. Clear your workspace. Remove things you tend to play with (pencils, pictures, food, toys, electronics) whatever your weakness might be – you know it. Remove the presence of a clock. To enter flow during physical activities follow the same principles. No distractions.
The Summoning of FLOW
- Begin to work at the task. Once your body and mind are ready to go on an adventure, simply take the first step and start the journey. The beginning is the most difficult part of any work because it’s hard to instigate motion. However, it’s necessary and the only way to get the pendulum swinging in the right direction is to keep moving. Eventually, momentum will carry over to our side.
- Don’t lose focus or get sidetracked. Every time we look at the clock or get distracted by something else we’re stopping ourselves from being fully immersed. Notice when you begin to drift and guide your attention back. Instead of forcing ourselves to enter flow, we need to simply let it happen. That’s why it’s important to detach ourselves completely from the outcome and do the activity just for the enjoyment it provides. Desire presupposes not having something and anxiously wanting it, which is derived from extrinsic motivation. Like Lord Krishna said to Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita: “Let the motive be in the deed not the event.” Want the process, not the result.
- Become actively engaged with it. Once we’ve warmed up and made some initial progress we enter open waters. At first, we’re limited within the framework of our motivations and desires but after a while we get liberated from our limiting beliefs and doubts. To enter flow, we need to have an optimal experience. We need to become immersed by the task at hand and actively engage with it. This freedom allows us to experiment with our skills and play around.
- Attain an insider’s perspective. Self-reflection cancels flow immediately. Questions like “What am I doing? Am I doing well? Should I?” are contradictory and make one notice oneself in the midst of it all. The feedback we receive emerges from the activity itself and it happens automatically. We don’t stop to evaluate our results but simply interpret them unconsciously and move along.
- Just space out. You can see it in a person’s eyes when they enter flow. Determination, focus, concentration – as if something has taken over. Borderline obsession, but in reality, pure presence. They know what has to be done and that they can do it. They simply need to narrow down their attention to the task at hand and put in the effort. Space out in your mind and think of nothing else. There’s just you and flow.
- Take risks and explore. Flow is an optimal experience because of the joy we get. At the same time there are other benefits to it. While in this mode of high performance and creativity, we’re able to do things we normally thought we couldn’t. It removes the limiting beliefs of our mind and enables our consciousness to express itself with no limits. Flow demands all of our psychic energy and directs it into our actions. Our ability to perform increases because in the past it was a matter of life and death. Once we open up the floodgates, we can discover new things about our psyche and being. This is the moment where all world records in sports, great pieces of art and scientific breakthroughs are made. After we enter flow, we’re not only solving the task we set out to accomplish, but also finding new avenues for it. We become problem finders and see what others don’t. It’s a state of pure genius and creativity.
- Ride the waves. Once you enter flow, you have no time or enough psychic energy to experience all of this. It happens, to a certain degree, like the ups and downs of a river. Water is the best way to describe flow. It’s pure substance and simply is. Instead of being forceful, it attains the form of anything you put it in. In a cup it’s still. In a riverbed it’s ferocious. Flow is also about just being there and moving through space and time with no expectations. It’s the nature of all things living to expand and grow. There is no real purpose to this other than being in motion and enjoying the process.
- Get kicked out. Eventually we’ll lose our concentration and exit the wormhole. It happens because of our psychic energy running out or simply getting distracted for a moment. Despite the duration, we still had an optimal experience. Until now, we haven’t paid a lot of conscious attention to what we’ve been doing but simply have been doing it. You don’t really recognize entering flow until the very last seconds of channeling. When you, by accident, see yourself in the midst of it you get immediately kicked out. After this, you understand that, for the time being, you’ve been in another realm of existence and don’t recall much of it. It’s a mysterious yet magical feeling.
- Assess the results and evaluate. Once you’ve got back your bearings again, you look at what you’ve accomplished. The results are quite amazing. In fact, it’s your best work so far. Take the time to go through all of the details and try to recognize any recurring patterns. This way you can see whether or not there are any specific motives or ideas that emerge more often than others. These “triggers” are what you tend to use most and can be used to enter flow during the summoning stage. Give an honest opinion about your performance and try to come up with ways of improving upon it.
- Recover and prepare for the next ride. Despite the enthusiasm to get immediately back to it, we ought to distance ourselves from flow for a while. Actual growth doesn’t happen during exertion but while we’re resting. Our psychic energy gets completely drained during the ritual and the mind needs time to replenish its resources. Moreover, it needs to let all of that channeling to sink in. Going for another wormhole pre-emptively will not enable us to get the most of it. Instead, we should use it as an opportunity to think about the experience and prepare ourselves for the next ride.
Becoming a Flow-Hacker and Living in Flow
Bringing in more flow into our lives has several benefits. Not only is it enjoyable but can also be used to improve the quality of our experience. When we enter flow, we’re on the edge of life itself. It’s a place where nothing else has existence.
There is a difference between the actual state of flow and living in flow. The former is the specific moment in time and the latter our overall mode of being. It’s distinctive because we’re not always absorbed by our activities or lose self-awareness. Instead, it still feels like everything flows and we’re actively engaged with our surroundings. Our daily tasks are challenging, intrinsically motivating and fulfilling. They induce one optimal experience after another, creating a sense of flowing through life.
An autotelic person is someone who is able to enjoy what they’re doing regardless of whether or not they will get any external rewards. They are able to experience flow more often because of being intrinsically motivated to do an activity. To do the same we can try to hack flow and incorporate more of it into our lives.
By deconstructing all of the components, we’re able to learn how to deliberately create and enter flow. Recognizing specific patterns of behaviour and conditions of the environment will allow us to shape them accordingly. By applying the same principles, we can learn to have an optimal experience while doing anything.
- Train your concentration. Disciplined investment of psychic energy sharpens our mental saw and will allow us to attain laser-like focus. Doing one task at a time and giving our fullest attention to it will not only improve our cognition but also makes the activity more meaningful. Multi-tasking teaches the mind to habitually drift and is actually not as effective as we think.
- Always try to improve. The biggest reason why flow is so appealing is that it’s challenging. While having to expand ourselves we feel most alive and engaged with the world. In order to grow we need to be always trying to push beyond our comfort zone. Our skill level is the result of habitual conditioning. While trying to improve we’re putting in more effort that would make our experience that much richer.
- Have high challenges daily. In order to accomplish constant development we need to face tasks that require us to exert effort. It’s about providing ourselves with some stimulus and adapting to it. Balance between homeostasis and change never happens in of itself and there needs to be a reason for it to happen. To enter flow more often, we can either shape our environment accordingly or deliberately go through strenuous tasks.
- Become intrinsically motivated. Don’t do it for the sake of receiving some sort of a reward or benefit. Have no desire to receive, but do the act just for its own sake. Follow the things you’re most passionate about and already enjoy doing. This way you’re not forcing anything and are following your nature. If an activity is a part of our being then we don’t need an excuse to do it. The pleasure we receive from simply doing it is enough.
- Receive feedback and track your progress. It’s important to have an understanding about the demands of the activity and one’s current skills. Our performance is a great indicator of how well we’re doing and we should always track our progress. What gets measured gets managed. Instead of shooting from the hip and simply guessing, we can use this data to see whether or not we’re growing and if change is necessary. A detailed and objective account will tell us what works and what doesn’t.
- Learn to enjoy learning. Flow requires us to be challenged by the activity. It’s an act of expanding our comfort zone and improving upon our skill set. That’s why, in its core, it’s mostly about learning to develop ourselves and our craft. The biggest reason why people lack the commitment to learn is that they find it too hard and difficult. They can’t find motivation to do it, because there isn’t much enjoyment for them. This is a mistake, as constantly improving as a person is actually the biggest component of intrinsic happiness. In order to enter flow more easily, we need to learn to enjoy learning and being challenged. This can be done by focusing not on how we feel at that very moment but instead understanding that it’s a process with delayed return. Giving in to immediate gratification will make us want to go for stimulation right away. Watching TV, social media, eating junk food etc. are all simply ways of escaping from reality. We think we want to simply enjoy ourselves, but our true conscious self yearns for freedom. In the long run we will never regret spending our time learning over doing mindless things. It’s in the nature of all things living to grow and expand. Instead of preventing us from tapping into our infinite potential we ought to give ourselves the opportunity to manifest our greatness nonetheless.
- Have the right mindset. Before trying to deliberately create and enter flow you should always come to terms with the most important principles. Not only do you need to know the ins and outs of the task but also your own motivations and skills. Your mind needs to be focused already before you begin. The way you talk to yourself on a habitual basis has a lot to do with this. If you see yourself as inferior or not good enough then you’ll inevitably become too anxious while doing anything. Expect to succeed and don’t be frustrated if things don’t turn out the way you want them to. Celebrate your wins nonetheless and eventually you’ll gain confidence in your abilities to improve.
- Take time for rehabilitation. Flow requires an immense amount of concentration, which drains our psychic energy. Our mental faculties have resources, like any other muscle or function within the body. While problem finding or trying to solve a task, we’re providing our cognition with stimulus that tests our skills. To recover from that, and actually improve upon our abilities, we need to rest. Being in flow is great but we can’t expect to be in it all of the time. The flames of exertion will eventually melt down even titanium. After exerting ourselves mentally, we should always take time for rehabilitation, which means not straining our mind with too much thinking and working. If we want to enter flow again we need to honor recovery. Sleep and meditation are the best for that. Also, being constantly in flow is not ideal because of not experiencing other things in life. It’s the peaking point of our existence but at the same time doesn’t enable us to be anywhere else but in the moment. Instead of losing ourselves in the wormhole we have to get out of it so that we could actually recognize what we’re doing.
Microflow and Macroflow
There are also different types of flow. So far, we’ve discussed macroflow, which happens during bigger tasks that require a lot of concentration for extended periods of time. These activities are the ones that truly challenge our abilities and make us put in immense amounts of effort.
Macroflow activities are the ones we enjoy doing the most in life. They involve passion, intrinsic motivation and the desire to do them just for their own sake.
They’re more like grand orchestrations of our inner psyche and manifestations of what we’re truly capable of. During macroflow we feel most alive and engaged with the world around us. Such tasks can be anything that produce the necessary stimulus and have the required components. Athletic performance, creativity, learning, competition, exploring etc.
Microflow, on the other hand, happens during our everyday tasks and activities. Rather than being long and strenuous, it’s very short and happens unconsciously.
Microflow activities are the small stuff we occasionally do. For instance, daydreaming, curling or hair, pencil tossing, finger tapping – simply doodling around.
Because flow is somewhat addictive to the mind, it wants to take advantage of as much opportunities as it can. They’re gaps in between that provide the body with at least some stimulus for an optimal experience. The function of it is to keep a person alert, relaxed, positive and creative.
If we were to take away our habitual microflow activities then we would suffer. Because they’re already such a deep part of our psyche they contribute to both riding the waves and rehabilitation from it.
Microflows are very beneficial for macroflows. Rather than it being always linear, the process has its peaks and valleys. Creativity and breakthroughs don’t happen during extreme exertion, but in between those ups and downs, and can never be predicted. Microflow activities are means of still giving the mind something to think about, while not causing too much stress. We can use both of them to enter flow.
Flow and the Act of Non-Doing
The reason why people describe their optimal experiences as flow is because that’s exactly how it feels like. It symbolizes the essence of water.
To an extent, you can shape its form by putting it into a cup or a river. Water becomes whatever it’s surrounded by. By the same token, you’re not controlling it. It doesn’t become anything – it just is. The nature of the substance is to attain this formless mode of being.
Flow is the same, we can’t force it – it just happens. Rather than trying to deliberately seek it we have to BE it. To have an optimal experience we need to change who we are. An autotelic person is someone who is able to enjoy what they’re doing regardless of the results.
Flow unlocks our inner greatness and manifests it into being. Only by having more optimal experiences that are intrinsically motivating and fulfilling can we transcend ourselves to the next level.
This coincides with the Taoist concept of “Wu-Wei”, which means “not-doing” or “no-action.” Instead of trying too hard, it’s about simply being. With no desire to receive, the person will inevitably enter flow and make great progress because of having detached themselves from the outcome.
The greatest masters of any craft have perfected their skill to a level, where their actions seem effortless. While in flow, we’re exerting a lot of energy, but at the same time we’re completely relaxed and calm. It represents our ability to achieve what we want, without becoming obsessed by it or too motivated by extrinsic rewards.
Flow is an optimal experience of active engagement with an activity that challenges us and requires us to exert our psychic energy. It provides us with intrinsic motivation and is enjoyable just for its own sake.
While in flow, we’re so immersed that we lose self-consciousness and will perform at our best. It’s difficult and we’re using our skills at the edge of their abilities. Flow happens between boredom and anxiety, where things aren’t too hard nor easy – just enough for us to be present.
Flow absorbs us and makes us one with the task. The construction of the dualistic ego dissolves and we get connected with our higher self.
Flow can never be forced. However, by following some principles we can create more ways of experiencing it during our activities and in our daily lives.
The reason why we should want to enter flow and have more optimal experiences is to bring more intrinsically motivating activities into our lives and, as a result, create better work and perform at our best.
Instead of wanting extrinsic rewards and reinforce an outcome, we should be like water and ride the waves just for their own sake.
Once this happens everything will begin to flow.
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Great books about flow
“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
“Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play” by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
“The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance” by Steven Kotler
“Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi