We hear about it all the time nowadays. Some describe it as a portal into a higher state of consciousness, where everything comes naturally and we perform at our very best. We meet challenges as they arise and overcome them to complete a task, losing all awareness of space, time, and even self in the process.
What I am talking about, of course, is the flow state. First recognized and named by Positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990, the state is often described as being “in the zone”. Csikszentmihalyi himself developed the theory by noting that the act of creating and performing was more significant than the results of that action. He figured this out by measuring the enjoyment levels of teenagers at various times throughout the day, in what is now known as the beeper study. (3)
75 teens were given beepers that went off at random times throughout the day. Each time the beeper went off, the teens were asked to record their activities, thoughts and emotions in a journal. At the conclusion of the study, Czikszentmihalyi had stumbled upon something fascinating: the teens were most happy when engaged in some kind of difficult and meaningful task. (3)
What does this all mean? It means that things like dancing, drawing, and playing chess are more rewarding than eating or watching TV. Pretty obvious, right?
But the science behind this idea holds some clues as to how each of us can access the flow state more easily and naturally.
During a normal waking state, our brains are producing fast-moving beta waves, which are conducive to our stress response and parasympathetic “fight-or-flight” mode. These waves are seen in any number of mundane activities we do during the day, from brushing our teeth to binge watching The Good Place on Netflix. One step below that are alpha waves, which are associated with daydreaming. Then there are theta waves, which are most often observed during REM sleep. But, as author Steven Kotler explains: “Flow takes place on the border between alpha and theta waves, so it’s a radical change in normal brain function”(5).
During this time, the brain’s logical and planning functions are essentially shut down to divert more energy into awareness of the task at hand (4). This is one of the reasons why flow works best in an environment where guidelines and metrics for success are clear. It’s also why time, a perception originating in the prefrontal cortex, can completely slip away.
Kotler also explains that because we’re experiencing theta waves while still awake in the flow state, we can sometimes get what’s known as a gamma spike. Gamma waves move even faster than beta waves, and positive psychologists believe that these spikes are the key to those “Eureka!” moments we sometimes experience (5).
What actually causes these gamma spikes is still a mystery. However, one clue lies at the crossroads of psychology and spirituality.
Carl Jung, in one of his theories about the collective unconscious, describes the process of individuation, in which one’s ego is merged with his/her personal unconscious as well as the collective unconscious of all human beings. What this actually means, I still can’t say for sure, but it seems that the loss of self during the flow state has something to do with it. When we’re able to step outside ourselves and become completely merged with an activity, our awareness elevates to a level beyond what we can consciously intellectualize. Some people would call that intuition. Others call it divine insight. The name is less important, but I’m certain that most of us have experienced a time when we knew something without knowing how we knew it.
But, I digress. The most valuable way of understanding flow, like anything else, is through direct experience. Which begs the question: How do I achieve flow?
1. Uninterrupted concentration.
This is the prerequisite for all of the other flow requirements. If the environment in which you’re working is prone to constant interruption, you’ll never get into a state of flow. Take the time to organize your workspace in a way that makes sense and will lead you to want to be productive. Put your phone on airplane mode or in another room if you have to. And if worst comes to worst, put a sign on your door that says “fuck off, I’m in the zone”
2. Silence your inner critic
How often do you find yourself critiquing your work before you’ve even finished it? While there’s something to be said for craftsmanship and taking pride in a job well done, you can’t obsess over it. Focus on producing something before you look back on it and reflect. The part of the brain used to create something requires uninhibited and non-judgmental freedom, while the part of the brain used to edit and critique that creation requires careful analysis and thoughtful decision-making. Flow can’t be achieved during critical analysis because, as mentioned earlier, the logical reasoning and planning functions of the brain are inhibited during flow.
This is something I struggle with, especially with writing. But one rule of thumb I have is to save grammatical changes and the re-organization of ideas for when the first draft is completed. This allows me to produce my most authentic and meaningful writing.
3. Find autonomy in your work
“Google allows its employees to dedicate 20% of their time to work on whatever they want”. And according to Entrepreneur: “86% of Googlers say they’re extremely or fairly satisfied with their jobs”. (5)
There’s something to be said for doing the work that not only interests you, but gives you the freedom to take creative risks that could lead to big breakthroughs. The alternative is the classic pencil pushing desk job that’s been outdated for quite some time now. Even if you think you can cope with that sort of oppression, a robot will likely replace you soon anyways.
4. Deep embodiment.
This is a fancy way of saying that to achieve flow, you have to immerse yourself fully in whatever you’re doing. This means learning through action, and it’s similar to uninterrupted concentration. But to me, it’s much deeper than concentration.
I recently took a workshop on Ayurvedic nutrition, during which I learned the importance of engaging all 5 senses when cooking. I’ve found that becoming deeply involved in the process of cooking, from the preparation to the cleanup, is no different than meditation. And somehow the food is more satisfying and nourishing when I’m completely immersed in that process.
5. Novelty and unpredictability
How would you like to do the same, repetitive, soul-sucking task, day in and day out, for years on end without any variation whatsoever?
… Big surprise.
Variety is the spice of life, and while are certainly advantages to establishing a routine, sometimes you have to switch things up to gain a new perspective on what you do. For me, I try to write about a variety of different topics, even ones I’m not especially knowledgeable on. I do this because it provides a new challenge that keeps me engaged in my work.
6. Get enough sleep
Way too often people make the mistake of going to bed at 10pm, thinking they can wake up at 4am and be productive. Unless you have some strange biochemistry where you can thrive on 6 hours of sleep or less, sleep more. You’re not cool because you work so hard that you can’t find the time to sleep. You’re a jackass. You’d get more done sacrificing those one or two hours and waking up feeling well rested.
The important thing to remember is that if you can summon the discipline to live your life in a manner conducive to concentration and peace of mind, flow will naturally follow.
(1) Akorede, Shakir. “Three Things To Learn From Google's Workplace Culture.” Entrepreneur, 30 July 2018, www.entrepreneur.com/article/317582.
(2) Boniwell, I. (2017, April 8). Living in Flow: What is it and How to Enter the Flow State? Retrieved November 24, 2019.
(3) Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, & Csikzsentmihalyi, Isabella Selega (Eds.). (2006). A Life Worth Living: Contributions to Positive Psychology (Series in Positive Psychology). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
(4) How To Get Into The Flow State | Steven Kotler. (2019). Retrieved November 25, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XG_hNZ5T4nY.
(5) The Neuroelectricity of Flow States, with Steven Kotler. (2015, March 14). Retrieved November 25, 2019, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=q5OsIRaaFgs.