Ever felt like you were ‘in the zone’ while doing something? You’re fully immersed in the activity, the work seems to be flowing through you, and everything’s coming together.
Whether it’s an office project, building a birdhouse, or a great workout where the sit thrus just suddenly glide, you’ve tapped into a vein of pure clarity, concentration, and pleasure.
You have unlocked your flow state – and it’s a pretty magnificent state to be in.
But once you’ve achieved a flow state, how do you get back there? It might seem random like it just happens when the stars align. But you can actually set yourself up to unlock that state of pure, productive bliss.
First, what is the flow state?
The idea of a flow state was popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who found that many people described this state of optimum creativity and productivity as a “spontaneous flow”.
“There’s this focus that leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity,” Csikszentmihalyi said in his Ted Talk. “You know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other. You know that what you need to do is possible, even though difficult, and a sense of time disappears – you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And… what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
Or, as an Olympic figure skater put it: “You don’t think… you merge yourself with the music.”
The word “flow” is now used by scientists to describe the state or moment of peak human performance. And research by neuroscientists has found that being in flow actually changes the way our brains function. As you enter the flow state, the parts of your brain that are responsible for consciously processing tasks get shut off, and your subconscious takes over.
Your brain is liberated – there’s no second-guessing or hesitation. Everything just… flows.
You know you’ve entered the flow when the sit thrus start gliding like a knife through butter.
Not a pro? Here’s when you can use flow
Since it involves your subconscious taking over, it makes sense that you are most likely to enter a flow state when you’re doing something you’re already competent in (or at least know the basics of).
Generally, the flow state is achieved AFTER the initial learning period. You have all the necessary knowledge, and the flow state allows you to use it all in harmony, without limits.
Research also shows the flow state should only be attempted on tasks that you don’t need to wait for external feedback on. So if you need your boss’s sign-off on every stage of a project, it’s pointless to try and get your flow on.
On the other hand, the task can’t be TOO easy: not something you can do on autopilot, but something that will require you to be fully engaged.
You can get into the flow with smaller tasks like arranging your staff roster, or more creative projects like painting a canvas for your living room wall or cutting an epic video of your cat’s hilarious workout interruptions.
The key is picking a task that is challenging enough to be interesting, but also within your grasp.
How do I unlock my flow state?
1. Give a damn
You need to care about what you’re doing and respect what you’re trying to achieve. Don’t expect to enter a flow state when you’re working on something you don’t give a damn about, or secretly think isn’t worthwhile. Whether it’s a hobby, a work task, or an athletic pursuit – be sure to pick something that actually that matters to you.
2. Time it right
Work with your body, and your moods. Morning person? Set aside time to try to enter your flow state in the (duh) morning. Seriously hungry, expecting visitors, or on a strict deadline? Save it until you’ve got those things out of the way. Take into account how well you’ve slept, your energy levels and mealtimes, and pick your moment.
3. Eliminate distraction
Once you’ve picked the optimal block of time to enter your flow state, you’ll need to get rid of distraction. Turn off notifications on your phone, close the windows if it’s noisy outside – and if the kids are at home, maybe save it until they’re back at school.
4. Set a clear goal
Where do you want or need to be at the end of this flow state? Having a clear goal is essential to getting in the zone, and it needs to be something that is achievable for you. Smooth transitions between functional training moves. Writing a song or your wedding vows. Baking the perfect chocolate cake. Whatever your goal is, lock it in.
5. Get your brain in the zone
As the Olympic figure skater pointed out, this is no time for thinking! To get into the zone, you need to tap into the instinctive parts of your brain while switching off the part that overthinks everything. Try going for a walk outside, doing a meditation , or a yoga flow to get yourself in the optimal pre-flow state.
6. Trust your gut
This is the final, crucial step. To achieve true flow, you have to trust your instincts and follow them. If something about an idea or direction doesn’t feel right, dismiss it and change tack. You need to have trust in yourself and your abilities in order to let go of overthinking and get into a flow state.