Do you feel like you’re constantly struggling to get things done? Does work feel like a constant anxiety-producing struggle?
If so, you are like most people and not utilizing flow state. Flow state is an enjoyable mental state of extreme focus and productivity where you stay calm and in control, time seems to fly, and you can work efficiently and effortlessly.
In this article, we will discuss what flow state is, how to reliably get into it, and how it can ultimately improve your quality of life.
What is Flow State?
Flow state is the immensely pleasurable and highly effective state when you are completely engaged in a task and the world ceases to exist around you. This state was most notably documented and described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “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.”
Several characteristics define flow – you’ll know when you’re in the flow state when you have:
- A feeling of control over the situation
- An altered perception of time
- Identification with the action itself
- Immediate gratification from the action itself
Flow state can be achieved with many different activities including reading, writing, sports, art, music, or really any recreational activity.
Conditions of Flow State
Flow state is not a technique that you can execute as much as it is a phenomenon that you can experience. Therefore, you need to create the requisite conditions for flow state to occur.
The 3 conditions needed for flow state to occur are:
- Clear goals and immediate feedback
- Narrow focus and intense concentration on a task
- A balance between your abilities and challenges
When you have a clear goal in mind, you’re extremely dialed in on achieving that goal alone, and you are pushing just past your current skill level, you can get into flow state.
Why You Should Aim to Get into Flow State to Get More Done
Everybody has things to do in life, right? You need to feed yourself, exercise, make a living, raise your children, and hopefully contribute something of value to the world.
In short, life requires action, productivity, and accomplishment.
While recreation, relaxation, and consumption are also parts of life, they are clearly not the focus of a fulfilling life.
So if you have to get stuff done, why not be the best you can be at it and also enjoy it in the process?
This is what flow state does for you – flow state allows you to both get more done and enjoy your life more.
When you use flow state to your advantage, you can align with the struggles of life instead of fighting against them. Your brain is like a powerful supercomputer that is working all the time. When you learn how it works, you can set it on a course to achievement rather than taking constant detours.
Aligning with the struggle and unlocking your brain’s potential will allow you to get more done and rapidly more your life toward the outcomes that you want.
How to Get Into Flow State
Flow state arises naturally when the prerequisites for it are present (clear goals, narrow focus, and reasonable challenge). Therefore, to get into flow, you must create an environment with these conditions.
From my years of working remotely and having to be self-motivated, I have experimented and found a process for creating the requisite conditions and getting into flow state.
Here is the step-by-step process:
1. Remove Distractions
Before you start working, remove anything that could take attention of focus away from the task at hand. This seems obvious, however, our modern world is full of distractions that intentionally take us away from what we should be working on. This makes it impossible to get into flow because the 2nd precondition for flow state has not been met.
Common work distractions include:
- cell phone or computer notifications – turn these off with airplane/focus mode so you aren’t constantly interrupted
- papers piled on your desk – don’t leave unattended bills and letters on your work desk. This is a common practice that is sure to steal away your attention
- people that are not working towards the same goal – people that do not have the same goals will not help you achieve them. This is why it is so important to surround yourself with like-minded people or work somewhere where you can get some peace and quiet.
- social media – social media is designed to distract and addict you. Whenever you feel stressed or anxious, social media can be a tempting outlet to get a dopamine hit. Don’t do it! resist the urge to pick up your phone and start doom scrolling and get back to the task at hand.
- your own thoughts – at the bottom of many common distractions are our own negative thoughts. Any thought that is not focused on accomplishment, performance, execution, etc. is a distraction. Focus your attention on the present moment and simply solve each small part of the problem at a time. Thinking too far ahead or about the outcome will just produce anxiety and take away your attention span.
Now that your environment is clear of distractions, its time to set a reasonable goal for yourself.
2. Set a Reasonable Goal
The first condition of flow state requires a clear and achievable goal to aim at. This is an important part of the process because without a target to aim at, your brain will not enter into a focused problem-solving mode.
Your goal should be large enough that it is challenging, but small enough that it can be achieved within a relatively short timeframe. It has to be a short timeframe because if you are not making progress towards your goal immediately, you will not get any positive feedback. Additionally, if the goal is too challenging, you won’t strike the optimal balance between your abilities and challenge.
Therefore, a goal such as “build a business and make a million dollars” will not reliably get you into flow state as much as a goal like “make 5 phone calls to sales prospects in the next hour”.
Another important aspect of setting goals is to focus on the inputs rather than the outputs. This puts the outcome within your control and gives immediate feedback on how you are progressing.
For example, if you want to make more sales, “make 5 sales calls” would be a more effective goal than “make 5 sales” as the former is within your control and the latter is not.
3. Set a Timer
Once you have a goal and a definite time frame for achieving it, set a timer for one work block. A work block is a standard amount of time that you can focus on your task without losing focus.
The idea is to work until you lose focus, and then work a little bit longer. This trains your brain to work for long enough that it can start to get into flow, but not so long that you get tired and lose momentum.
You have to take a break at some point, so might as well schedule it in.
Some estimates put the most productive work blocks at 52 minutes with 17-minute breaks. Other techniques (such as the popular Pomodoro technique) posit a 25-minute work block to be the most effective.
At the end of the day, you have to figure out what works best for you – experiment with the times and set up your work blocks for maximum efficiency.
4. Start Working
Once you have your timer set and ready to go, it’s time to get to work.
Starting work is always the hardest part. But forcing yourself to take action now will allow you to build momentum toward the flow state where things become easier.
Here are a few tips for starting work:
Follow a starting ritual
A ritual is a prescribed routine associated with a certain activity. When you perform rituals, it helps instill habits into your work. Habits engage your subconscious mind to do the heavy mental lifting. This takes decision-making strain away from your conscious mind and “primes” your body to perform the task at hand.
A few rituals that I use are, sitting up straight in my chair, taking a deep breath, putting my hands over my head in a victory pose, saying a mantra like “I got this”, and pressing start on my timer. It seems corny, but performing ritualistic actions like this can remove friction from starting work and propel you toward the flow state.
Negotiate with yourself
Getting yourself to start work is often a mental game as much as it is physical. While the conscious part of your brain wants to start working, your subconscious might need a little more convincing. You can convince your subconscious to go along with your conscious mind by treating it like a person you care about.
Imagine you are negotiating with a close family member and trying to convince them about something. You likely wouldn’t scream and shout and demand compliance. You would probably listen to their concerns and try to come to an agreement that works for both of you.
If you negotiate with yourself like this, you will have a much easier time starting work in exchange for a concession late on (perhaps a long break or doing something fun).
Detach yourself from the outcome
Another mental trick that you can use to start working is to detach yourself from the outcome. If you set your timer for 25 min, you can tell yourself “I will work for this full work block, and whatever happens, happens.”
This takes the pressure off of everything needing to be perfect and allows you to be in the moment and perform.
5. Work on the Task Past the Point of Discomfort
Once you’ve started working, its time to let the flow state engage. In order to really hit flow state, you have to work until you push just past the point at which you are comfortable. This helps put you into the optimal zone between abilities and challenges.
If you only worked until you got tired and frustrated, you would never challenge yourself enough to “push through” to the other side. Conversely, if you worked past the point of exhaustion, your work effectiveness would drop off dramatically and you would need more recovery time.
The sweet spot is right in the middle.
Work until you start to get tired and lose focus, then keep working for another 10 – 15 minutes. Once you know your window for hitting the “sweet spot” you can plan your work blocks around this timeframe.
Over time, try to push your work blocks a little longer so you can maximize the effective work time that you have in flow.
6. Take a Short Break
Unfortunately, you cannot work forever like a machine. You have to take breaks. When your timer goes off, get up, move around, and let your mind rest.
The length of your break time should correspond with the length of your work block time. But overall, effective breaks should be between 5 and 20 minutes.
It can be tempting to distract yourself with social media, checking emails, or other engaging activities during your breaks. However, your break will be much more effective if you remove distractions.
Your brain needs a chance to sort itself out. Introducing more stimulus into the system will only shorten your attention span and stress you out more.
Instead, go for a short walk, lay down on the couch, stretch, or meditate. These activities let your body and mind relax into the moment and escape from the stress of work for just a moment.
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7. Return Back to Work on the Task
Once you’ve taken a short break, you should be refreshed and ready to get back to work. The “return to work” phase is when you can really sink into flow state. This is because you have already gotten over the hump of starting, your brain is already primed to work on the problem at hand, and now you are refreshed and ready to work for another work block.
This time, when you get back to work, you should hit flow state faster. This is because you have a clear goal, you are hyper-focused on the task, and you’re quickly entering the optimal zone between challenge and ability.
At this point, you should start to experience the completely immersed state that’s characteristic of flow state – time will fly by, you won’t think about anything except the task at hand, and you will be an unstoppable productivity machine.
8. Repeat Until the Task is Completed
One good work block of flow state might not be enough to get the job done. You may have to repeat this process to push your task through to completion.
The good news is that if you’ve achieved flow state once, you can do it again. Follow the process, set your timer, do a starting work ritual, and dive back in.
Summary and My Experience With Flow State
One of the hardest parts of work for me is to enjoy the process. I don’t intrinsically enjoy work most of the time, that’s why its called work. If someone is paying you to do it, they likely don’t want to do it themselves because it’s not enjoyable.
However, I have also realized that lots of work is unenjoyable because of the perception that we tend to give it. In essence, it’s the worry and doubt that we experience from thinking about work that sucks – the actual work is not as bad as we often imagine.
Many people want to experience positive emotions like “happiness” and “comfort” all the time. I have learned that constantly living this way is not only impossible, it is not the highest state of being that you can achieve.
What’s on the other side of struggle and discomfort – accomplishment, winning, productivity and greatness are much much better than “happiness.”
Flow state is indicative of the pursuit of these things. I experience flow as an acknowledgment by my brain that I am in the right place, doing exactly the right thing. This feeling of certainty has a comforting quality even in very uncomfortable situations. The meaning derived from flow state gives purpose and meaning to the discomfort which makes it bearable and even enjoyable.
Hopefully, this article has given you a framework for reliably getting into flow state. I have certainly used flow state to be more productive with many tasks such as writing blog posts faster. My wish for you is that you become so skilled at sinking into the challenge of the moment that your life becomes one big journey of flow.