What the Flow State feels like, and how to Enter it

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Psychology has given the world a valuable assurance – humans can be in a state of unreal satisfying focus called the ‘flow.’ That moment where you are one with everything you are doing – you are in the zone – that perfect moment.

What is flow?

Flow is an experience where a person is deeply engaged with an activity they enjoy. It occurs when there is an optimal skill-challenge balance, where we are happily focused on a task just above our current skill level but doing it feels effortless. People describe it as being in the “zone.” A person in flow could be one with the activity but disconnected from everything else. Hyper-focused and blind to unnecessary background information. Fully engaged and satisfied.

Flow is not an emotion; it is an experience. It occurs as an interaction between the mind and a task. It is a task-human relationship.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneering positive psychologist, popularized the idea through his book “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.”

What happens in the brain

Brain imaging studies suggest brain regions that govern attention, executive functions, and reward processing are highly engaged during flow. Attention enters a state which is partly removed from excessive self-reflection; the task fully captures it. There is a loss of awareness about where and why you are paying attention, so it feels automatic. Although we don’t monitor our attention, it is actually a hyper-focused state. A fine detail about the flow experience is awareness and attention are detached from each other. The attention schema theory says we can have high attention without direct awareness of what that attention is doing. Since awareness and attention separate out, you feel as though you are no longer exerting control over a task which creates the feeling of being one with the task.

Executive functions guide decision-making, memory, and continuous feedback. During flow, there is enough skill to engage with a task automatically, but there is enough challenge in the task to require executive functioning.

Most tasks that create flow are rewarding, and the brain is processing the rewards in real-time, which sustains the motivation to do that task.

Why flow is desirable

A high number of flow experiences throughout life improve productivity and life satisfaction directly. During flow, people are engaged and hyperfocused. Those who enter the flow state tend to get a lot of work done, typically more than they would’ve in a non-flow state. And since these experiences are deeply rewarding, they improve well-being.

Getting distracted by your phone at work is a major source of productivity loss. The flow state is engaging and reduces distractibility. So entering the zone reduces the chances of productivity loss due to phone distractions. And it might even help to manage phone addiction. Every time you go in flow, you are less likely to check your phone, just because flow is that deep a connection with your task.

Criteria to enter flow

There are 3 necessary criteria a task-human relationship needs to meet before there is even a possibility of flow. Across studies, they are loosely described as skill-challenge balance, continuous feedback, and intrinsically rewarding.

  1. Skill-challenge balance: The task’s difficulty is within reach but mildly challenging as per your current skill level.
  2. Continuous feedback: Your performance and work generate immediate, continuous feedback about your progress.
  3. Intrinsic reward: The task is done for the love of doing it. This is sometimes called the autotelic experience.

Owen Shaffer (2013) describes 7 cognitive processes that enable flow.

  1. Knowing exactly what to do
  2. Knowing and having the skills to do it
  3. Knowing how well you are doing your activity
  4. Knowing where to go or knowing your next moves
  5. High perceived challenges
  6. High perceived skills
  7. Distractions and noise are inconsequential

How does it feel?

Subjectively, flow feels like intense focus and oneness with an activity, with a lost sense of time and little to no awareness of irrelevant things.

You can understand flow by looking at how it alters our subjective experiences.

  1. Focus: Intense focus in the ‘now’ of doing an activity.
  2. Awareness-action merger: Action, thoughts, and awareness merge into one experience.
  3. Activity: The activity feels like a healthy challenge.
  4. Self-reflection: Self-consciousness and reflection is lost or lowered.
  5. Control: A person feels like they are in control of the situation and activity while being challenged at the skill level.
  6. Time: There is little experience of time while doing the activity.
  7. Motivation: The activity is a reward in itself. The person is intrinsically motivated.
  8. Feedback: There is a constant exchange of information and changes a person makes based on that information.
  9. Confidence: The person feels genuinely capable of succeeding.
  10. Needs and Distractions: The person is deeply engaged in the activity, and other needs and distractors become insignificant.

When it comes to research in this area, flow is described with 4 qualities and 5 outcomes.

Qualities

  1. Challenge-skill balance: You are good enough at your skill to meet the activity’s challenges.
  2. Clear goals: Your brain processes the entire activity as a chain of clear objectives.
  3. Unambiguous feedback: You can monitor your progress and see the consequences of your actions well enough to change them when needed.
  4. The autotelic experience: The activity is rewarding, and you are interested in doing it because you love to do it. Future rewards are irrelevant.

Outcomes

  1. Action-awareness merging: You feel one with the task.
  2. Concentration on the task at hand: There is sustained focus.
  3. Sense of control: You feel capable of managing the activity.
  4. Loss of self-consciousness: There is no awareness and reflection.
  5. Transformation of time: There is little awareness of how much time passes.

How do you achieve flow?

In the simplest sense – a task induces flow when it is optimally challenging, offers continuous feedback, and is inherently rewarding.

Optimal challenges are tasks that are just slightly above your skill level. It is a sweet spot where the challenge and skill are not equal. But both are high, but the task’s difficulty level is marginally higher than your skill.

experience fluctuation model for skill vs. difficulty, and resulting flow state
Csíkszentmihályi’s experience fluctuation model. It describes how an activity’s challenge level (difficulty) and your skill level create 8 different experiences. These can be applied to tasks and all forms of interactions.

Flow improves when there is continuous specific feedback related to your performance on a task. Suppose you are playing a game like Wordle where you have to guess a target word, and you get immediate feedback on whether the letters are in the right spot or not. In a few steps, you use that feedback to arrive at the correct word. That feedback on progress induces flow. A typical wordle game is short, but you may experience flow if you are sequentially doing Wordle, Word Hurdle, Nerdle, Quordle, etc.

The task that induces flow is inherently rewarding. It may give psychological rewards like positive emotions such as joy and satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. It may also give physical rewards like money and upvotes. But the core reward of a task is the action of doing the task.

Social and team flow

Similar to how a single person can be in a flow state with a task, a group of people can be in flow with each other in the context of a task. Peak collaboration occurs when a team is in flow. In such a state, 2 or more people are in sync with each other, and their collective work progresses one sub-task after another in harmony. Outside a work context, a team playing a game together or musicians jamming together can enter flow with each other and their activity. Even fans listening to music can enter the flow state.

Social flow is uniquely satisfying. One study suggests people enjoy social flow more than flow in isolation. However, this may depend on how inclined a person is to engage in any form of collaboration. Some people prefer working solo, and others prefer groups.

A team in flow during work is more productive and tends to perform better than a team not in flow. The exact ingredients of individual flow induce team flow. They are a skill-challenge balance, continuous feedback, and intrinsic rewards. So essentially, a team will enter flow when they are given a slightly difficult task that interests them, and there are mechanisms in place that offer continuous feedback. This feedback can be in the form of monitoring progress and real-time consequences of each action the team takes.

Any random team is not likely to experience flow. One important factor for teamwork is everyone’s beliefs about how well the team can work. Team members need to feel confident in working as a single unit and believe they are capable of succeeding. Research shows that a team of 4-5 people that believes in itself is more likely to experience flow.

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Autotelic personality

Researchers have found a personality type that is more conducive to experiencing flow. Csíkszentmihályi calls this personality the Autotelic personality. It describes people who are generally intrinsically motivated and driven to do a task regardless of what extrinsic rewards they get. Intrinsic motivation is a self-determined motivation, where you do an activity because you want to feel like it. Passion and curiosity, for example. Extrinsic motivation is an extrinsic reward-based motivation, where you do an activity because there is a reward you get from outside the task. Money and Instagram hearts, for example.

What does an autotelic personality have? You probably know someone who is autotelic.

Autotelic means having a purpose in and not apart from itself. There is no separate reward for the action. The action itself is rewarding. The purpose of doing something is itself.

Csíkszentmihályi describes autotelic people as:

  1. Their actions are a reward for them
  2. They rarely look for power, comfort, money, fame, or entertainment resulting from their actions
  3. They are very intrinsically motivated
  4. They are seen as curious, open to experience, and confident in their skills
  5. They can’t be easily manipulated with threats and incentives
  6. They are independent and autonomous
  7. They often exhibit routines in day-to-day living

These characteristics portray a typical autotelic person. They are more likely to experience flow – in sports, while eating, day-to-day life, music, writing, speaking, coding, etc. Autotelic people tend to have skills that they work on and strive to achieve mastery. They also fare well when they perceive the challenge as higher than the skill they have to overcome it. This takes us back to the characteristics of flow. I should note that flow often occurs when a person is engaged in an activity that requires personal agency, even if it is just thinking.

You won’t be in the flow state if you are passing out looking at the ceiling fan and ready to snore after too many beers.

5 practical ways to increase the chances of you experiencing flow

Recap: Flow is a state of cognitive efficiency, profound task absorption, and enjoyment associated with doing an activity.

1. Gain competence in a skill: Try to work on a skill in a pleasurable way. Code for fun; write a script for yourself, and in the process, learn more. Write music for fun, not to impress others. While writing, keep building your skill. If you are into sports, improve your skills and soak in the rewards of progress. In any activity you do, remember to enjoy your own work. You need some proficiency in your skill so you can immerse yourself in a work, performance, or practice routine. You need enough skill to know what you are doing and take on small new challenges.

2. Focus on feedback and progress: One of the characteristics of being in flow is that the person is engaged in a feedback loop. Be it sports or speaking. When you do it, you feel yourself doing the activity. If you are practicing an instrument or playing a game, pay attention to changes and progress. It is unlikely to experience flow in an activity that gives no feedback. To experience it, follow a WYSIWYG approach – what you see is what you get. If you are writing or coding, use a good editor. If you are doing a large project, create sub-goals so you can see your progress. If you are designing, plan colors and shapes while designing, not before. Specifically, fetch unambiguous feedback – information from the senses, thought process, emotions, etc. Try to be mindful of this feedback – deliberately acknowledge it. Let that feedback guide you to make progress in your activity. Once you create a habit of being aware of all the aspects of an activity, challenge yourself to improve. React to, respond to, and control the information. Dance with it.

3. Follow the intrinsic reward: Focus and identify what makes you happy while doing an activity that is not an external incentive, like money, Facebook likes, claps, flattery, etc. Find out what makes you tick and do an activity for that reason. If you are a writer, focus on the research instead of the views. If you are a gamer, play for the gameplay instead of the leaderboard ranking. If you are into dance, dance for how it makes you feel, not how it looks to others. Eventually, when you continue an intrinsically motivated activity long enough and progress far enough, you’ll enter flow. Your intrinsic motivation to do any activity shouldn’t get undermined by external rewards. It’ll be hard to enter flow if you don’t even feel motivated to do an activity.

4. Be open to a variety: A large variety of experiences and skills give you a statistically increased chance of experiencing flow. You’ll have more opportunities to experience challenges and develop to be in the zone. The additional advantage of variety is that you improve mental flexibility in approaching an activity. The additional experiences from new activities and new learnings can give new insight into older activities. This mental adaptability will help with being in control, and it’ll help you engage in an activity long enough in a meaningful way.

5. Take on challenges with confidence: Once you have a moderate level of skill, take on bigger challenges when you believe in your skill and gain confidence from it. Don’t fake confidence. Build it with the belief that you can always do better but always keep in mind that you may be better than you think you are. A key component of achieving flow is the flow motive which researchers describe as the motivation to master your skill and performance. It is a commitment and determination to excel and reach new heights.

With these 5 strategies, you can develop a way of life that meets the criteria for being in the flow. You will probably resemble the autotelic personality as a by-product.

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11 thoughts on “What the Flow State feels like, and how to Enter it”

  1. Wow! There are some practical ways to increase the chance to experience in a flow. This article is really helpful and also there are some tips that can be found here in C Wilson Meloncelli website (https://www.cwilsonmeloncelli.com/) where tackles deeper about flow and how to activate it anytime.

  2. I was not sure convinced that the joy was internal until I reviewed the film and felt nothing. I believed the joy was to be shared by simply witnessing the creamy mixing of colors on canvas. Alas it is not so. The video is interesting, but not wondrous. Like watching a carpenter frame a roof. Looking back it seems silly that I ever imagined others would feel the same, yet at the time the delusion was convincing.

    If some day, Elon Musk ever invents a neural link so that others can feel what I feel while in flow state, immersed in the purity of creation, I believe the public’s opinion of the artist will shift.

  3. I experience flow while oil painting. It is such a joyous experience that I have tried to capture it by filming it, under the assumption that it is a visually induced joy, but the video does not come close to the mental experience. It’s like life is a fire works show, then slipping into flow state is like the grande finale.

    Painting is only a hobby done for fun. I troubleshoot complex industrial HVAC systems for a living, and only now realized that the “gift” I’ve always seemed to have for this work is really a result of entering a kind of flow state while troubleshooting that often brings quick insight and allows me to zero in on the problem with ease.

    I’m fairly sure this is also a kind of flow state, because if a chatty customer is there with me, it will short circuit the process and pull me out, by putting me in my head.

    What a strange and wonderful life being an Autotelic.

    • Thanks for sharing your story David! It’s a cool experiment you did – videotaping the experience. It makes sense that the video won’t capture the essence because it’s quite an intimate mental experience. Kudos to being autotelic!

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