Flow? In the zone? Being in alignment? Runners high? Oneness?
No matter what you call it, it’s a physical, psychological and emotional state that leads you to feelings of joy, happiness and sometimes, ecstasy.
But how do you access this state, and why does it seem so elusive? Read on to discover how you can access flow and achieve more happiness, creativity and productivity than ever before.
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“Geez Steph! Have you learnt nothing from your research on flow?!!"
This was the question my inner terrorist asked me after a disaster of a day when, instead of mustering together my pages of research on flow — so I could write this article — I’d let a phone call lead me headlong into a black hole of distracted, unproductive turmoil.
Emails, phone calls, invoices and internet searches ensued. I lunged from one task to another until I felt as if life was running me — instead of the other way round.
By 5.30 pm my desk was a shambolic mess — and so was my headspace! A little ironic, don’t you think?
A Bruce Lee quote entered my head:
“If you love life, don’t waste time — for time is what life is made up of.”
I felt as if I'd wasted my whole day.
Have you ever had a day like that?
I am happiest when I'm productive, and — as it turns out — most people are. At the end of a day I feel satisfied, and ready to enjoy a change of pace in the evening. So today, I embodied the principles of flow that you'll discover in this article/blog post.
You might want to grab a drink and make yourself comfortable. It’s an in depth — easy to read — examination of flow and how it leads to happiness, productivity and creativity. It contains insights that you can apply immediately. And, if you're anything like me, you probably want happiness, productivity and creativity to feature regularly in your day-to-day living.
I'll be uncovering:
- What flow actually is.
- The characteristics of the flow state.
- Neurological changes associated with the flow state.
- Neuro-chemical changes.
- Improved performance.
- Conscious creation and manifestation.
- Happiness and creativity.
- The conditions that lead to flow.
- How to set up your environment to make it easier to flow.
- How to prepare yourself.
- How to achieve flow more often.
What is flow?
It's a state we've probably all experienced at different times: perhaps you’re working on an interesting project, and you’re totally immersed in what you’re doing. Or engaged in something you love and are passionate about; a sport, hobby or task.
Time has no meaning when you’re in flow. You feel challenged, yet feel no stress. Everything seems to — well — Flow!
Why call it Flow?
The Flow state was so named by Positive Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (Pronounced MeHigh ChickSentMeHigh). He studied a huge cross-section of humanity from many different countries and in diverse situations and work groups.
He called it a 'flow' because so many of the people he’d studied described the state as being immersed in an activity and swept away by what they were doing; that they were 'going with the flow' in an effortless, spontaneous way.
Other terms for flow
- Being in the zone
- Quantum field
- Runner's high
- Zero point
- Being in alignment
Flow, happiness and creativity
Csíkszentmihályi also studied creativity and happiness, but has become best known for his work on Flow. You'll be pleased to know that creativity and happiness are closely connected to flow.
What makes people happy and creative?
Contrary to what many might believe, Csíkszentmihályi found that once someone has a certain base level of income, and standard of living, extra wealth, luxuries and possessions did not make people happier. People are at their happiest when in a state of flow.
Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of flow is:
“A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it, even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Nowadays, flow is not only associated with happiness and creativity but also with enhanced performance and productivity in business, manifesting goals, learning, and sport.
So, given that you’ll probably have an interest in at least one of these areas, let’s examine how and where flow will apply to you.
The characteristics of a flow state
- You're totally wrapped up in the task at hand. You're focused and concentrated.
- You're unaware of time; time seems to either speed up — or sometimes slows right down.
- You're intrinsically motivated; in other words, the enjoyment of doing the task motivates you to continue.
- You have a sense of control over what you're doing.
- Inner dialogue is absent; Your ego has left the building! Your inner critic and your monkey mind have ridden off together into the sunset.
- You experience a feeling of harmony, euphoria and happiness. Worries and frustrations recede.
- You're entirely in the present moment; you have clarity and heightened awareness — yet you're not consciously thinking about each task or planning ahead. You're effortlessly and creatively moving from one task to another, with great focus on the details. Action and awareness merge.
- You achieve what’s known as an autotelic state. (Auto - meaning self, and telic - meaning goal.) You and your goal become one. You take each next step unconsciously. Some people have described this state as feeling as if they had a higher power working through them.
- You're unaware of any physical requirements for food, drink or rest and don't notice discomfort in your body.
- Performance and learning sky-rockets (people in flow typically achieve 200% - 250% above their average output, with productivity increases of up to 500% being common.)
Neurological changes associated with the flow state
When you reach a flow state, a neurological change called transient hypofrontality occurs. (Transient = temporary or short-lived. Hypo = slow or deactivated. Frontality = Prefrontal cortex)
So, transient hypofrontality means that, when flow occurs, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is temporarily shut down.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain houses our higher cognitive functions; our sense of self, morality and complex decision-making.
Time is also processed in this part of the brain and explains why we process time differently when in a flow state. We are no longer aware of past, present or future — all time is now.
Other changes are occurring
While our higher cognitive abilities have seemingly gone into recess, motivation, creativity and learning are all enhanced.
Studies done on athletes showed that their brainwaves, when in flow, closely correlated with Buddhist monks who were deep in meditation. Other research has revealed that the flow state occurs between Alpha and Theta brainwaves.
Brainwaves are electrical currents that occur in the brain — they show we’re alive! According to Annette Gudde, when we’re in flow, all our brainwaves are activated.
As you can see from the infographic below, each brain wave pattern is important in it’s own right, if we are to live a creative, productive life.
Beta waves are required for daily functioning; using words etc. Alpha state resides in the range of 8 - 13 Hz. In Alpha state we're relaxed. Theta Waves are in the 4 - 8 Hz range and are evident when we're deeply relaxed; in the state between wakefulness and sleep or when in deep meditation or hypnosis. Theta is the bridge between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Occasionally — when in flow — we may slip into Gamma brainwaves
Steven Kotler from the Flow Genome Project describes this as a Gamma 'spike’, where we have 'aha' moments of profound insight. Most of us can only access these fleeting Gamma insights during Theta brain wave activity.
However, a study of more than twenty Buddhist Monks, tested using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) reached Gamma brainwaves for periods of up to a minute when they engaged in compassion meditation. (fMRI provides a 3D video of brain activity which means scientists can see where and when brain changes occur.)
In the flow state, your brain releases a cluster of performance-enhancing 'feel good' neuro-chemicals that enhance your attention to detail, promote relaxation and aid problem-solving.
- Norepinephrine — prepares you for action.
- Dopamine — drives focus — and focus drives flow.
- Anandamide — a natural anti-depressant.
- Endorphins — reduces your perception of pain.
- Serotonin — reduces depression and anxiety, and lifts your mood.
Collectively these chemicals give you a massive boost that leads to feelings of ecstasy, joy and euphoria.
Flow can become addictive
Once experienced — many seek out ways to regain this natural high.
Fortunately it can be achieved without the dreadful side effects of drugs designed to create the same impact; speed, cocaine, cannabis, opiates and MDMA.
Also, your natural neuro-chemicals strengthen your immune system and reset your nervous system. In other words, experiencing flow has enormous benefits for your health.
Scientists believe that the state of flow underpins most gold medal-winning athletic performances. But, you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from flow states.
You can use flow to improve learning, thereby cutting back on the time it takes to achieve mastery. You can increase productivity at work. And in flow, you can more easily achieve alignment with your goals and dreams, because you’re aware of both the overall goal, and the actionable steps that will get you there.
Steven Kotler, Director of Research at the Flow Genome Project author of ‘The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance’, says
“Flow is an optimal state of consciousness, when you feel and perform your best … Mental and physical ability go through roof, and the brain takes in more information per second, processing it more deeply.”
Conscious Creation and Manifestation
Flow is a wonderfully expansive state from which to visualise your dreams and desires, because there's no resistance. In flow there's no negative, nagging voice in your head and no interference from your 'logical' brain. It's your natural state of being, beyond your ego and sense of 'I'. Just watch children playing — they’re totally in flow.
We’re very attractive when we’re in flow
We attract what we desire, as well as synchronicities or ‘happy coincidences’. It’s a time when our intuition is at it’s peak — we experience ‘aha’ moments and profound insights.
Your logical mind is shut down
Remember transient hypofrontality? When your logical mind has taken a hike, you’re left with an underlying trust in yourself.
When you’re in flow, you’re also in alignment — with your soul and with the universe. As the collective consciousness known as Abraham would say, “you’re tapped in, tuned in and turned on” to the law of attraction. So it makes sense to cultivate the habits that make it easier to access flow.
Happiness and Creativity
Csíkszentmihályi’s research, showed that people who were happy and creative didn’t depend on external sources, material possessions, money or outside events for the source of their happiness.
The key to flow is how we interact with those objects and commodities.
Events, possessions and wealth don’t have any meaning except those meanings we ascribe them.
Of course, many of us have been taught the opposite — that obtaining material possessions and money are the main reason to work.
It’s important to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of your external circumstances, because when you achieve a flow state any worries or frustrations recede into the background.
If you can orchestrate flow as often as possible, the quality of your life, your happiness and creativity will sky rocket.
Conditions that lead to flow
- Having a clear, meaningful goal or outcome with specific actionable steps to get there.
- The ability to monitor your progress.
- Instant feedback (you can often obtain feedback from the task itself, or from others if you’re in a team).
- Passion that comes from doing something you enjoy.
- Intensely focused concentration.
- A level of challenge. The task should be outside your comfort zone but within your range of skill and ability.
Athletes, for instance, very rarely create world records while training.
It’s when they’re in a competition that they excel — when they have a higher level of challenge.
So your outcome should stretch you — but not stress you! Feeling stressed will bring you out of flow.
- An element of risk is important. People involved in high risk sports have inherent risk — even danger — built into the activity. They have to pay attention to every tiny aspect of their sport — in the present moment — or they’re unlikely to survive for very long! Athletes have the extra risk of competition — and possibly failing to do as well and they'd like.
Danger is not compulsory!
You’ll be relieved to know that this level of danger is not required to achieve flow in a work or personal environment! You could create a social, emotional, creative or intellectual risk.
All types are risk are processed in the same part of the brain. So the social implications of not doing what you said you'd do (social risk), might be the only threat you need to get the job done. Having someone to hold you to account could also do the trick.
Setting up your environment to support flow
Athletes are constantly aware of their surroundings and of adapting to the environment.
A surfer, for example, will be paying attention to the waves and currents, and not to the people on the beach playing volleyball. Such distraction might cost her her life! And likewise, in a work situation it’s important to pay attention to what you’re doing and not to whatever else is happening.
Here’s how to make that easier:
Declutter. Clear your desk or work environment. Put away anything that takes your attention away from what you intend to accomplish; papers, files etc.
Get whatever equipment you need to complete the task you’ve set.
Remove distractions; turn off your mobile phone — or at least have it on airplane mode — and put it out of sight. There’s nothing like a phone call or messaging tones to pull you out of flow. If you’re working on a computer, mute notifications and clear your desktop, close all apps not essential to the task.
Turn off distracting music, or if you enjoy working with background music, find something relaxing. Marcy Hamm’s Inward Harmony is my go-to, because it helps me feel calm — and I can’t sing along or dance to it!
Shut your door if possible and let others know not to disturb you. Try noise cancelling headphones if you don’t have control over noise.
Give yourself at timeframe of at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted, quiet time.
Know what you want. Have a clear intention for the timeframe — what do you want to achieve? It could be part of a larger goal or project, a task or a mini-goal. Be as clear and concise as possible. Make what you want your sole focus.
- Make your own physical and emotional state top priority. Everything else will emerge from your state. Being relaxed — yet alert — is a great place to start. There are a few ways you can do this. I’ve made this compilation of techniques showing you how to be your best more often.
- Make sure you’ve eaten — but not so much you need a nap! Eat food that will sustain you over a long period.
- Embody the task at hand, bringing all your senses to bear on the venture your engaged in. Stay in the present moment. Getting distracted, thinking about the future or worrying will take you out of flow.
- Act rapidly upon any inspiration — within five seconds. Otherwise, according to Mel Robbins, you brain will talk you out of it.
- Make sure your objective is challenging and outside your current comfort zone — a stretch goal — and that you have the skills and abilities to accomplish it. But, don’t make it so challenging that you become discouraged and want to give up.
- Find your most productive time-slots and lock them into your schedule. Some people are very productive first thing in the morning, while others are at their best in the afternoon or evening.
- Tell someone what you intend to achieve, if possible (social risk).
- Ensure the task is something you enjoy and are motivated to achieve.
- If possible, the night before you’re going to do the task, visualise doing it, being completely engaged and enjoying yourself.
- Imagine stepping into your body and visualise being in that flow state and notice how you feel emotionally, what you’re seeing and hearing.
- Within this visualisation, pay attention to how you feel physically in your body, including how you’re sitting or standing.
- Check if there are any tastes or smells associated with doing the task.
- What positive phrases are you saying to yourself as you begin?
- Think about how you’ll feel when you’ve accomplished what you intend. Really explore and experience this state. Wouldn’t this be the best state for you to be in when you begin the task? You can make a gesture (such as pressing you thumb and middle finger together) to help anchor this state into your body. (Find out more about anchoring here and here)
- Now repeat the exercise but imagine watching yourself doing the task; easily, comfortably, being fully engaged and happy.
Why visualising is important
Your mind can’t tell the difference between something you vividly imagine, and something that’s real — it reacts exactly the same way.
So visualising is a great way to pre-experience what you intend. Then when ready to get into the task — and into that flow state — there’s less resistance. Your mind believes you’ve already done it once — this time will be easier!
Adjust the volume!
In fact, volume is only one of the adjustments you can make to make a goal or task feel even more compelling than your initial visualisation. You can turn the volume up or down, hear it in stereo or have sound come from many different directions.
Seriously, you can adjust any aspect of the visualisation of your goal. You can turn static images into a movie. Experiment by making your images brighter or more colourful. In fact, if you bring the picture of your goal closer, it will activate the left side of the prefrontal cortex of your brain, and you'll feel irresistibly drawn to it.
Not too close, though!
You don’t want it to feel overwhelming! You can expand feelings to encompass your whole body, or make them feel stronger in a particular part of your body. Try using an excited internal voice — it’s a lot more persuasive than the nagging version!
Any or all of these adjustments can make your goal seem more enthralling. You have a marvellous brain; play around with adjusting the representation of your goal using all your senses, and see what variations work best for you.
Intend to do it — don’t ‘try’
You can’t force yourself into a state of flow. Trying implies struggle and struggle takes you out of flow. Just stay focused and get on with the job at hand.
Get yourself into a positive state
There are various quick and simple ways you can get in a physical and emotional state that's conducive to achieving flow. See 'How To Create A Breakthrough State: 5 Easy Techniques' for guidance.
Go for it!
Stay with the task and become totally involved, paying attention to every step. Focus on and complete one thing at a time — no multi-tasking. Forget about the outcome once you’ve started, simply be in each moment.
Stick with it until it’s complete
If your mind wanders, bring it back to the present (it may well wander when you first start out).
If thoughts spring to mind that you believe are important, make a note of them somewhere and return to what you were doing. If you don’t make a note of them, they’ll continue to distract you — or you may forget them altogether.
When you’ve completed the intended task or activity
Reflect; what helped or hindered your flow? What will you do differently next time? If you did achieve flow, appreciate that and notice how you feel.
How to achieve flow more often
Like most things that are worth doing, achieving a flow state takes practice — lots of practice. Daily meditation or regularly practising breakthrough state techniques, will help you achieve a state from where you can get into flow more quickly.
It’s important to develop the ability to find purpose, enjoyment and creativity in life, regardless of your external circumstances. For example if you have a boring or mundane task to accomplish, could you challenge yourself to find ways to enjoy it, by — say — turning it into a game, challenging yourself to complete it within a short time frame, or competing against someone else?
Control your thoughts
It’s vital to tame your ‘monkey mind’ or your inner critic (mine’s an internal terrorist!) if you’re to stay present in the moment.
Once you’ve completed something that was outside your comfort zone, your comfort zone will have expanded.
Adding new challenges will enable further expansion — and more flow opportunities. Not only do we get stuff done, we build our confidence and self-esteem in the process.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
“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.”
Practice concentrating — on one thing at a time
Many of us are distracted by various devices; phones, tablets, TV, radio. People and work place such demands on our attention that concentrating on one thing at a time can be challenging. Multi tasking is a myth. It serves to ensure we’re even less able to concentrate — and thus we achieve less.
Happy, creative and productive
Remember, the main purpose of achieving a flow state is because it’s where we feel our happiest and are most creative and productive. It’s where we get the most enjoyment and satisfaction from life.
In my mind, those are reasons enough to practice and become a skilled ‘Flow-er’.
Have you benefitted from this post?
If so, I'm sure you know others who would their life to flow with creativity, happiness and productivity. Please share the love!
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