Find Your Flow—With Little Effort
Proof you don't have to do Huge Things to hit your peak state—and reap the confidence, performance and feel-good rewards—more often.
It might seem like magic to get so immersed in an activity (devouring a memoir! riding a wave!) that you legit forget about your never-ending to-do list, everyday worries or even your phone. But the reality is that you're experiencing a very real psychological state: flow.
Flow is when you're totally at one with whatever you're doing. "It can be defined as complete absorption in the present moment", explains Morgan Levy, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida, who specialises in stress, anxiety and burnout. "It's almost as if the individual experiences a merging of their action and their self-awareness". That's the opposite of how most of us function the majority of the time, she notes, with a million different things running through your mind that are maybe (and by maybe, we mean definitely) stressing you out.
Think of your mind as a laptop or phone. Most of the time you've got loads of windows and apps open at once, which can slow down your device, explains Randy Paterson, PhD, a psychologist in Vancouver and the author of How to Be Miserable In Your Twenties. But in flow, the device is devoting much more of its capacity to running a single, high-powered app, so it can work at its prime.
With a little effort, reaching a state of flow can be a deliberate—and frequent—experience, experts believe.
"It's almost as if the individual experiences a merging of their action and their self-awareness".
PhD, Licensed Psychologist
The Good Feels of Flow
The psychologist who coined the concept of flow back in 1990 (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in case you do trivia) considered it an optimal life experience. When you're flowing, you're sort of stretched to your limits doing something that's challenging and super rewarding and fun, all at the same time. You typically feel, he noted, "strong, alert, in effortless control, un-self-conscious, at the peak of ability". Problems seem to disappear.
Other big-time psychologists, like Martin Seligman, believe flow states are key to achieving deep, authentic happiness. You don't just feel good while you're doing the flow act, you're also set up to feel calmer, more content and more accomplished afterwards. (That post-flow bliss is worth savouring, says Paterson, as it can help you focus on what you've just done instead of darting off to the next thing.)
There's a biological reason behind this. "When you're in a flow state, your brain releases neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that make you feel good", explains Levy. That's why experiencing it regularly can translate into big benefits for your mental health as well as improved productivity. Research has uncovered a direct link between athletes' flow experiences and peak performance too. "From a sport-psychology perspective, flow is when the mind and body are totally in sync", says Joel Fish, PhD, the director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia.
Regular flow experiences are also tied to higher confidence and self-esteem, studies show. That's because flow-inducing activities tend to be gratifying, and performing them helps you become even better at said activity. "Individuals who regularly achieve this state improve their skills and are likely to feel more confident because of that", says Levy.
When all of that good stuff is combined, you're primed to seriously and excitedly go for your goal.
How to Find Flow
There've likely been plenty of times where you've "wandered" into a flow state without meaning to get there or even realising you were. (If you've ever powered through a puzzle in a matter of hours, congrats—you flow hard, friend.)
Often this happens spontaneously. But to enter a flow state intentionally, take these steps.
- Find a flow-friendly activity.
The sweet spot for flow vibes to flourish is when you're doing something you really love that's a little tough but not so hard that you end up getting frustrated (which will snap you out of the zone really quickly.) The activity needs to give you some kind of clear, immediate feedback to make you want to keep at it. Usually that's just feeling good about what you're doing, says Levy.
Sports can be pretty amazing at teeing you up for flow. Especially activities that demand your attention, like rock climbing, yoga, surfing or skiing, because "you're in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future", says Fish.
But TBH, flow can come from anything that engulfs you to the point that you temporarily forget about everything else and lose track of time. "Washing dishes, organising clothes, playing chess, dancing, cleaning a car and writing are all examples", says Levy. The key for mundane things like chores is maintaining awareness instead of going on autopilot and letting your thoughts run marathons. "When you're washing dishes, you can focus on what the dishes look like, how they feel in your hands or the sound of the running water", she explains. (This last tip is a twofer, as it'll also improve your mindfulness.)
- Block off time.
Making concrete plans to do your flow-friendly activity ups the odds that you actually end up in the zone. "Start small", says Levy. "You can set a reminder on your phone to spend a certain amount of time, even just five minutes, in the activity each day". There's no right or wrong time to do it, but sticking with the same daily timeframe can help you be more consistent so flow happens more naturally, she notes.
- Lose the distractions.
Flow calls for the ability to focus (no surprise), so find a quiet space, turn off your phone (or put it in Do Not Disturb) and gather up whatever you need to get started. This step is super important for helping you concentrate, but there's more to it. Setting up your tools—and, to some extent, making a ritual out of it—can help prime your brain to get into flow, says Paterson. Maybe you always listen to the same song while you put on your workout gear, or lay out all your paints and brushes on the same work surface before touching your canvas.
- Clear your head.
If getting rid of the external distractions isn't enough to help you really get into what you're doing, try a transitional activity to quiet your internal chatter. A good place to start: a short meditative walk, where you focus on the sights, sounds, smells and sensations around you, suggests Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Chicago. It sets an intention before you start the activity and can help heighten awareness of your immediate surroundings, she says, so you're focused on the here and now.
- Don't force it.
You can set the stage for flow, but you can't always make it happen (sorry!). So think of flow as more of a friend you casually invited to a party than a guest of honour—it's welcome and wanted, but not required. "One cannot constantly be checking, 'Am I there yet? Is this flow?' because the nature of flow is that you are not thinking about your reaction", explains Paterson. If you're worrying too much, you're diverting brain space away from flowing.
In other words? Just head out for the run, get digging in the garden or open your notebook. The rest will often take care of itself. But if you're just not reaching that flow state, don't beat yourself up. You're better off moving on to something else, says Kitley. You might find flow happens when you're busy making other plans.
Words: Marygrace Taylor
Illustration: Mojo Wang