How do you gain more flow in your life?

What is flow, why does it matter and how can you find it

Kyoto Garden in Holand Park, London, picture courtesy Mike Lewis


Flow is defined as an optimal state of consciousness, a state where you feel your best and perform your best. Think about when you felt in rapt attention and total absorption, and when you got so focused on the task at hand that everything else seemed to disappear. Action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Your sense of time distorts (either, typically, speeds up; or, occasionally, slows down). And throughout, all aspects of performance, both mental and physical, escalate dramatically.

Flow has been described as: peak experiences, being in the zone, runner’s high, bliss, superfluidity, etc. The term flow emerged from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research into the state, where subjects consistently described the experience of flow as one where every decision, every action, flows seamlessly, perfectly, effortlessly, from the last—like a choir blending in harmony.”

Dan Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLAspeaks about the importance of integration and relates how John O'Donohue, poet and philosopher, captured the essence of emergent flow when he said that he'd love to live like a river, carried by the surprise of his own unfolding.

“When you’re in that moment, there’s no beginning and no end. . . . It’s just pure. You are, and it is, and that’s why we continually seek it out, and always search for it, and need it. We need to feel alive and to feel complete.” Surfer Laird Hamilton, Hawaii

The original modern science of flow dates back to the 1870s to a man named Albert Von St Gallen Heim who experience the feeling time of pausing when he had a near-death experience. William James, Harvard physician-philosopher and the godfather of American psychology picked up on the idea at the turn of the century before psychologist Abraham Maslow worked on it in the 1940s. When William James was looking at it, he thought they were looking at a mystical experience. They thought these were spiritual experience confined to religious people. The search for the “ultimate” — in perception or performance — is hardly a new idea. Philosopher William James more than a century ago talked about “mystical experiences.” Psychologist Abraham Maslow secularized the concept as “peak experiences.” They seem to show up in all successful people many of whom don't believe in god, there's no spirituality whatsoever so these are obviously not mystical experiences. Csikszentmihalyi got involved in the 1960s and he found the experience of flow is universal and occurs across all classes, genders, ages, and cultures, and it can be experienced during many types of activities. We are wired for it.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why does it matter?

The benefits can be enormous. McKinsey, for example, did a ten-year study and they found that executives experiencing flow are five times as productive as out of flow. 500% more productive means you can go to work on Monday, spend Monday in flow, take Tuesday through Friday off, and get as much done as your steady-state peers. It's a massive amplification. Study results vary, but is generally taken to be a 700% improvement in creativity. In studies run by DARPA, the US military out of advanced brain monitoring in Carlsbad, California, they found that learning improved 200 to 500%.

Flow is rooted in the brain. But not the prefrontal cortex where thinking happens. Thinking, especially over-thinking, produces complexity and confusion. Flow is the opposite of thinking. So to reach a flow state the cortex has to be “temporarily deactivated.” Flow is also caused by the release of five powerful neurochemicals: norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, anandamide, and endorphins, at the same time, during a flow state. All five of these are performance-enhancing substances and make you faster, stronger, and quicker – both physically and mentally – and make you feel really good while doing it.

Characteristics of flow are:

1. Action and Awareness Merge. The doer and the doing become one. From the perspective of consciousness, we become the action. In other words, actions feel automatic and self-consciousness disappears.

2. Selflessness. Our sense of self disappears. Our sense of self-consciousness as well. The inner critic is silenced.

3. Timelessness. We experience an altered perception of time. Past and future disappear and we are plunged into an eternal present, a deep now.

4. Effortlessness. Our sense of struggle and strife vanishes. The experience becomes intrinsically-rewarding or—in technical parlance—“autotelic.”

5. Paradox of Control. We have a powerful sense of control over the situation. We are captain of our own ship; master of this small slice of destiny.

6. Intrinsic Rewarding. The experience is intrinsically motivating. We do it for love not money. We do it because the activity itself is so incredibly enthralling that it’s its own reward.

How can you find it?

Flow is not an all-or-nothing experience; rather it’s a spectrum, like an emotion, say anger. Fredrik Ullen stated that the “degree of flow is a continuous variable that can be used to characterize the experiential quality of everyday activity.” If only a couple of the necessary pre-conditions for flow are present you can experience a small amount of flow. Essentially, flow can only arise when all of our attention is focused in the present moment, so that’s what these pre-conditions or triggers do—they drive attention into the here and now. Put differently, these triggers are the very things that evolution shaped our brain to pay the most attention to, so, in using these triggers to hack flow, we’re really just using evolutionary biology to our advantage. The first of these triggers is the challenge/skills ratio. Ideally, you would be engaged with an activity or challenge slightly above your skills-set (4% is one figure that is bandied about). If what you are doing is too simple you find it arduous and boring. If too hard your anxiety rise as you begin to doubt your ability to accomplish the task without failure - or killing yourself if you're a downhill skier.

Other triggers include a complete concentration in the present moment, immediate feedback, and clear goals.

Research by Steven Kotler, expert on flow, co-founder and director of research at The Flow Research Collective with both artists and action and adventure sports athletes (who face a constant choice, “flow or die"), has identified four more triggers.

1. High consequences (that is, some kind of risk: physical, mental, social, emotional, etc.)

2. Deep Embodiment (the engagement of multiple sensory streams at once, learning through doing)

3. Rich Environment (lots of novelty, complexity, and unpredictability in the environment)

4. Creativity (specifically, pattern recognition, or the linking together of new ideas)

For more information on how to get into flow, check this video by Steven Kotler.

This is the real secret of life– to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Alan Watts

The experience of flow in everyday life is an important component of creativity and well-being. Indeed, it can be described as a key aspect of eudaimonia, or self-actualization, in an individual. Since it is intrinsically rewarding, the more you practice it, the more you seek to replicate these experiences, which help lead to a fully engaged and happy life.