Getting Into a Flow State

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Having just come back from a vacation, I thought about the idea of being in a kind of blissful flow state. What is this state of flow? The term comes from positive psychology. A colloquial term for this state is being “in the zone,” when you feel completely immersed in a task, with complete concentration but also enjoyment in the task. It may seem wonderful or frightening that it also means you lose track of your surroundings, and even time. “Where did the time go?” up may wonder after being in this state – and that is a good loss of time, not a wasted two hours of your life. On my vacation, there were several time when not having looked at a clock (or even had one available) I realized that hours had pleasantly passed as I was snorkeling or walking the beach looking for shells. But while losing track of time may be part of the flow state, the flow state is not present whenever we lose our sense of time. There was no flow state in my snorkeling or walk; I was just distracted and focused on other things.

Experiments that I have read about make the process seem rather cold and analytical, but there is a good possibility that you have been in a flow state quite naturally. If so, then the goal would be to be able to achieve it again by choice.

The term “hyperfocus” seems related to flow but actually can be seen as the opposite state. Hyperfocus is an intense mental concentration but in a way that can distract from other tasks, such as when someone is hyperfocused while playing videogames. Some things I have read consider this to be a symptom of ADHD.

You can also find articles that relate flow to form of meditation because of the intense and focused concentration on the present moment and future commitments and past events fall away.

But this doesn’t have to be sitting-on-cushion kind of focus and action and awareness can merge in a way that actions feel like an extension of mind.

You often hear about losing your self-consciousness or awareness of ourselves which is useful for feeling less self-critical.

People who study this flow or experience it for themselves will recognize hat this letting go of personal control over the situation or activity can also be viewed as frightening to some people.

Part of reward of being in the flow state is not some result of our actions. There was no result or product from my snorkeling or walking, but the intrinsic reward came from performing the task.

It may also seem frightening that we might forget about other needs. You may forget to drink, eat, or about others around us.

But again, this is not a monk-on-a rock focus. It often happens to athletes, or an artist working on their piece. It can benefit performance. The flow state allows for the release of dopamine, which not only makes us “feel good” but enhances things like pattern recognition, attention and the ability to dismiss distractions.

Being in a flow state “accidentally” is good, but better is to able to create that state when needed or desired. I had listened a few years ago to an audiobook by Nathan DeWall who is a psychology professor who studied self-control as a way to achieve flow. He had suggestion on how to develop that self-control.

Setting goals, especially a series of smaller ones, helps. If you want to write that novel, setting a daily word count goal is one way to start. You also need to have a way to monitor your goals.

He notes that because our energy fluctuates throughout the day, so does our willpower, so we will have more self-control and willpower when we have more energy. You need to find when your energy level peaks and use that.

A perhaps counterintuitive suggestion is to push yourself a bit out of your comfort zone so that both body and mind are better about adapting to more challenging environments.

Whether it is playing tennis, painting or writing poetry, to experience the flow, you need the knowledge and skills to complete a task. You’re not going to be a better tennis player just because you focus on being better.

Unfortunately, flow states are easier to achieve when we feel the task is purposeful. If we feel connected and passionate about something, attention comes easier. It will be harder (maybe impossible) to make reading a dozen financial reports and summarizing them in the office today turn into a flow state. Still, you may be able to find ways of making it important – it will help your job performance or it will free up your weekend.

Reward is the last part of the state of flow, but it is also a starting place because it will motivate you. You need to see some reward for your efforts. It certainly does not need to be a “real” reward (for example, money) but it needs to be something that is personally worthwhile.

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

2 thoughts on “Getting Into a Flow State”

  1. I would summarize this “flow” as letting go process. Goals, small or large ones are fine, but if one can’t let go or be present to what is actually happening then those goals can become a prison. Meditation is simply practice in seeing what is, the narratives we weave, and staying still long enough to observe them and watch them dissolve. And, learning over time, to simply let go of them and let go if all the judgments and criticisms we build around them. Thus, opening a space for peace to take root. I don’t think we can choose to simply turn on a flow state the way flipping a switch turns on the lights. I don’t think that the lack of awareness of the passage of time is a key characteristic of flow or letting go. One can be in a state of fury or obsession, and have no sense of time, but not be in flow like that of water in a brook or a passing cloud on a sunny day, more like the aftermath suspended time of tsunami or tornado. I can’t say in the positive what it is you experienced snorkeling. All I can say is that I don’t think the suspension of a sense of time is at the heart of it. Also, I would not associate reward with it. That would imply a wanting to attain and hold on. My experience is that wanting to re-experience a moment leads to more suffering, less letting go, more of that sense of time passing–that it is passing too quickly or that it is dragging, a sense of time rather than no time. I love reading your blog. Beautiful, surprising things to think about from the Ronkoverse

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    1. I agree and disagree. You can’t turn on the flow state, but you can develop ways to make it more likely to occur. “But while losing track of time may be part of the flow state, the flow state is not present whenever we lose our sense of time. There was no flow state in my snorkeling or walk; I was just distracted and focused on other things.” I don’t equate meditation with the flow state, though there is some crossover. That is part of why I think there is intrinsic reward (though I could argue that a meditative state has a goal and reward too)

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