Flowstate science for improved performance and increased productivity

The Science of Flowstate - Maximize Your Performance and Accomplish More!

In this article, you'll learn what is a flow state and how will it benefit your LIFE. So get ready and buckle up for an educational ride!

What is a Flow State?

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time. 

Flow state is the optimal state of human consciousness. It describes total absorption, when you become so focused on the task at hand that everything else withers away.

It can also be called: being in the zone, peak experiences, being unconscious, hyper focus and runner's high.

"The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." -Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why is it called Flow?

The "godfather" of flow is a psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced: chick-sent-me-high) who conducted one of the largest psychological surveys on flow state. His findings were publish in his 1975 book, "Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play."

The term "flow" came from Csikszentmihalyi's survey subjects describing what their peak activities felt like. They all described similar "flowy" experiences where every action flowed seamlessly, effortlessly, from one thing to the next. 

Flow science isn't new. It actually has a very rich and exciting history that dates back to old eastern philosophies.

What does Flow State feel like?

You know those times when you feel your best and perform your best?

Do you get so focused on a task that everything else disappears?

Your action and awareness merge. Your sense of self vanishes. Time distorts and it can appear to speed up or slow down. And, during this total absorption and rapt attention, your mental and physical performance go through the roof.

Flow state is associated with a healthy sense of well-being and increased happiness. At work, it's been shown to increase productivity, motivation, and company loyalty.

If you've ever experienced anything like that, you've been in a flow state.

Triggers used to achieve Flow State.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research, along with other scientists, uncovered ten characteristics of flow state.

1. Eliminate All External Distractions

It’s been proven by research that in order to reach flow state, you must eliminate all external distractions. Every time you get pulled out of your focus, you’ll be taken further away from flow state. Only when you can focus with undivided attention for at least 10–15 minutes you can get into flow state.

It is critical that you put your phone away and disable all alerts and notifications, close all social media & email tabs, remove all unnecessary files and objects from your workspace and preferably go to a quiet environment. This will protect you from being disrupted and allows you to enter a state of hyper focus, which is the most important element of reaching flow state.

In fact, whenever you get distracted it takes on average 25 minutes to gain back your full attention on the task at hand. This is because of something called ‘attention residue’, which implies that some of your attention is still left behind at the previous task or distraction that you were dealing with.

2. Eliminate Internal Distractions

Besides eliminating external distractions, you also need to eliminate internal distractions if you want to reach flow state. Whenever you experience stress or have too much on your mind, it’ll be incredibly hard to keep your mind focused on your task at hand — and therefore it’ll be impossible to reach flow state.

If this happens regularly to you, it is recommended you try these two things. Daily Journaling and Daily Meditation. Write down everything you need to do for the day and even the next few days. Journal everything to help you keep on track on what needs to be done without losing focus. It will help you clear your mind, limit mind wandering and control your thoughts a lot better.

3. Work At Your BPT (Biological Peak Time)

Getting into flow state is hard if you are low on energy. You need to have the willpower to focus on just one thing and not get distracted along the way. Tapping into your willpower and attention is energy draining, so you absolutely need to do it when your mind is sharp and energized.

If you try to get into flow state when you are tired and energy drained, it’ll feel like an uphill battle where you get distracted much easier and have less willpower to stay with your tasks for long enough to get into a state of flow.

Therefore, it is recommended that you use your mornings to get into flow state. Another option would be to enter flow state right after you took a real break (so not one in which you fill your attention to the brim by checking social media or email) of about 15–30 minutes.

4. Listen To (The Right Kind Of) Music

Music can actually help you become highly focused and, therefore, highly productive. Especially when you listen to music on repeat (or repetitive type music such as techno, classical music or trance) it’ll be easier to reach a state of flow.

Listening to music with your earbuds in helps you to block external distractions such as chatter from co-workers. Furthermore, it helps to keep internal distractions at a minimum.

However, it’s important that the song you put on is familiar to you (aka, no new songs) and that you put it on repeat. When new songs come up, or when you listen to a variety of different songs that include vocals, the music starts to compete for attentional space in your brain. As your brain now needs to spend energy to fight off these distractions, you’ll be less likely to reach flow state.

5. Work On One Very Specific Task At A Time

When it isn’t fully clear about what exactly you’re going to work on, it’ll be highly unlikely that you reach flow state. When it’s not exactly clear what you’re supposed to work on, you’ll either switch between multiple different tasks too quickly or get distracted much easier. Both will prevent you from getting into flow state.

Therefore, pick one specific task that you’re going to work on. Maybe it’s writing a blogpost, recording or editing a video, recording a podcast episode, writing copy or designing an awesome logo. Be very clear about what exactly you’re going to work on.

6. The Task Must Be Challenging Enough, But Not Too Challenging

If you want to reach flow state, the task that you’re working on must be challenging enough for your brain to be fully engaged, but not too challenging as this will lead to frustration and stress (which will prevent you from getting into flow state).

If a task is too easy, you’ll be bored quickly and your mind is likely to wander, so you won’t reach flow state. However, if a task is too hard you’ll likely get overwhelmed and you won’t be able to achieve that subconscious level that is necessary for the flow state.

Flow state can only be achieved when an activity is challenging enough to keep your brain interested, while at the same time you’re skilled enough to tackle the challenge without it being too difficult.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Model of Flow as related to Challenge and Ability

7. Have A Clear Outcome or Goal

Whenever you lack clarity about what you want to accomplish, your brain will struggle to get into optimum concentration. Therefore, clearly set out what you’d like to accomplish to avoid this mental hurdle.

When you have a clear outcome or goal, you make sure you prevent mind wandering and internal distractions. If you don’t have a clear outcome, you don’t know exactly when you’re finished with your task. Procrastination loves it when this lack of clarity exists, as it’ll try to push you towards quitting earlier or switch to easier tasks instead.

8. Strategically Consume Caffeine

According to Chris Bailey, author of Hyper focus, consuming caffeine strategically can provide a serious productivity and focus boost. If you consume up to 200 milligrams of caffeine (about 2 cups of coffee), it has been proven that you can focus more intensely, work for longer without giving up and have a better short-term memory. All of this will help you in reaching flow state.

However (and this is a very strong however), after consuming more than 200 milligrams of caffeine the effects start to diminish. Amounts of more than 400 milligrams should be avoided as this leads to increased anxiety and decreased focus.

Therefore, aim to consume caffeine strategically. Drink a cup of coffee right before you want to enter flow state. Preferably, don’t drink more than 2 cups per day and don’t consume after 17:00, as this will impact the quality of your sleep!

9. Stay Hydrated

One of the simplest but most overlooked ways to improve the performance of your brain (and thereby reach flow state with more ease) is to drink enough water. As it turns out, drinking enough water is incredibly important to your ability to concentrate and focus.

The brain consists of 75% of water, so it’s no wonder that we start to experience immediate effects when we don’t drink enough water. I always ask people who feel sluggish, unfocused and low on energy if they drank enough water and the answer is almost always no.

In short, drinking enough water makes sure the energy production of the brain is functioning well, while not drinking enough leads to lower energy production, leaving you to feel foggy, fatigued and not sharp. All of which leads to heavily decreased productivity levels and make it harder to reach flow state.

In fact, when you’re fueling your body with the adequate amount of water, you’ll be able to think faster by 14%, stay focused for much longer, experience less brain fog and fatigue — and feel a lot more energized. That’s one easy way to boost your productivity!

10. Create A Mental Cue

The last ‘flow state trigger’ is to create a mental cue for yourself to enter flow state. In other words, do something special each time before you sit down to go into flow state. Whether it’s repeating a special sentence or affirmation, taking a few deep breaths or anything else — do that same exact thing each time you want to get into flow state.

Over time, this will help you create a mental cue for your brain. In other words, each time you follow your cue, you tell your brain that it’s time to get into flow state — and your brain acts accordingly. Maybe it sounds a bit strange, but it truly works.

Our behavior is largely based on neuro-associations, and by creating a mental cue for getting into flow state you are essentially creating a new neuro-association. All in all, over time you’re making it easier for yourself to get into a state of flow.

The Characteristics of a Flow State

If you want to know if an experience qualifies as being in flow state, this list of flow characteristics is a great place to start. 

  • Action and Awareness Merge—You and what you’re doing become one. Your actions feel automatic and require little or no additional resources.
  • Selflessness—Your sense of self disappears. As self-consciousness goes away, the inner critic is silenced.
  • Timelessness—You experience an altered perception of time. Past and future disappear as you enter “a deep now.”
  • Effortlessness—Your sense of struggle and frustration vanishes. 
  • Intrinsic Motivation—The experience is “autotelic.” This means the activity has a purpose in itself.  The activity or work becomes its own reward. 
  • Paradox of Control—You have a powerful sense of control over the situation. In flow, you are the master of your own destiny. 

These characteristics feel so good, that flow is probably the most addictive substance on the planet! 

That’s why you should pay attention to the flow cycle below. It’s important to realize that we are not meant to be in flow all the time

If you chase flow too much and become a “bliss junkie” you’ll experience the dark side of flow

The Flow Cycle

While there is no neurobiological definition of flow, Herb Benson’s research at Harvard led to the understanding of four stages of flow. 

  1. Struggle—this is the loading phase, when you are overloading the brain with information. This would be a baseball pitcher learning a new pitch, or a writer researching and diagramming structure for a new book. It’s important to remember that flow starts with this unpleasant state. 
  1. Release—take your mind off the problem. To get into flow state, you’re trading conscious processing for subconscious processing. Slow thinking with limited RAM, for efficient endless RAM. To do that, you have to stop thinking. Go for a long walk, garden, take a very hot or cold shower, stare at the clouds. 
  1. Flow state—stress hormones leave your system. They are replaced by feel-good neurochemicals. Flow demands laser-focused attention in the present. The brain trades energy normally used for other purposes and reallocates it for flow. 
  1. Recovery—at the end of the flow state is a critical recovery phase. After the amazing high of flow, you’re going to crash. You need certain vitamins, minerals, and sunlight to get back. Steven Kotler says, “If you really want to hack flow, you’re going to need to learn how to struggle better, and how to recover better.” 

You’re going to need to develop some grit to take all the stages of the flow cycle seriously. 

If you get stressed out by the struggle or recovery phase, you’re going to produce too much cortisol. This will block the deep learning that’s meant to happen during flow. You may still get a short term benefit, but the long-term benefits of a high flow lifestyle will be lost. 

Also, you might think that vegging out in front of the television counts as recovery. It doesn’t. Screen time produces waves in the brain which actually block flow. 

Final Thoughts

As flow state is one of the most productive and happiest states that we can be in, I encourage you to seek it as often as you can. However, getting into flow state is a delicate process and you won’t just master it by simply reading about it. It requires practice to easily enter it time and time again.

But always remember, even though flow is an optimal state of body/mind functioning, it does not always lead to positive consequences in ones life.

Csikszentmihalyi warned early on in 1990 that “while flow is a powerful motivator, it does not guarantee virtue in those who experience it... like other forms of energy, from fire to nuclear fission, flow can be used for both positive and destructive ends.


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