Imagine being totally immersed in an optimal state of consciousness, giving your fullest attention to an activity or task through improved focus and concentration, and heightening all aspects of your performance in the process. Your mind declutters and the noise of your environment fades away, placing you in a non-distracted zone known as the “flow state,” which creates a sense of uninterrupted fluidity between mind and body.
For those who struggle to concentrate or stay focused, this sounds like heaven.
The flow state is also known simply as “flow,” or colloquially in sports as “in the zone” or “on a roll.” Surprisingly, you don’t necessarily have to be LeBron James, a super yogi, or a psychology guru to achieve it.
Whether you’re an athlete, an artist, or just a regular person engaged in a simple day-to-day task, with the right know-how, the flow state can be achieved, making it easy to lose track of time and be fully engaged. It may not quite be heaven, but it’s close enough for the easily distracted.
For many of us, focus and concentration have fallen prey to an onslaught of distractions and stimulation, some of which are deliberately engineered to capture our attention. This leaves us with little to no uninterrupted time to focus and concentrate, causing us to feel overwhelmed and helpless.
However, learning how to improve our focus and concentration by getting into the flow could be a silver bullet for the unrelenting distractions.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Flow State?
- The Benefits of Flow Immersion
- How Long Does a Flow State Last?
- How to Get Into a Flow State
- 1. Have Clear Goals, Outcomes, and Expectations
- 2. Set Aside Time to “Go Deep”
- 3. Warm Up
- 4. Work on One Very Specific Task
- 5. Autonomy in How to Bandle the Task
- 6. Eliminate All Distractions and Avoid Interruptions
- 7. Access to Feedback
- 8. Identify Your Peak Productive and Creative Times
- 9. Create a Ritual
- 10. Focus on the Process, Not the End Goal
- How to Stay in a Flow State
- Final Thoughts
What Is a Flow State?
Put simply, a flow state is a mental state in which you perform an activity while being fully immersed. You’ll know when you’re in a flow state as you’ll feel focused, energized and involved. And most importantly — you’ll enjoy what you’re doing!
Try now to think of something you really don’t like doing…
Perhaps creating reports at work or preparing your tax returns.
When you attempt to do something you don’t enjoy you’ll struggle to get started and struggle to get finished. In most cases, you’ll probably find countless reasons to procrastinate.
Now think of something you really enjoy doing…
Perhaps walking your dog or playing a musical instrument such as a guitar or a piano.
When you do something you love, you’ll find it almost effortless. You’ll also have no problem getting started and no problem continuing.
The difference is like night and day. Without a flow state, you’ll be like someone trying to walk through a muddy field — they’ll be slow and get constantly bogged down. With a flow state, you’ll be like an elite sportsperson who excels at their game but makes it look easy.
Characteristics of a Flow State
According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who recognized and named “flow,” the concept has 8 main characteristics:
- Complete concentration on the task
- A feeling of control over the task
- Effortlessness and ease
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
- A balance between challenges and skills
- The experience is intrinsically motivating and rewarding
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
As a result of its positive characteristics, flow psychology has several benefits.
Research conducted by Harvard professor Teresa Amabile revealed that people who have the experience of flow report higher levels of productivity and creativity for up to three days. However, these are just two of the many benefits.
The Benefits of Flow Immersion
The benefits of flow states don’t just stop at productivity; you can also expect to reduce your stress and boost your happiness. Here is a sampling of how it can benefit you:
The ability to focus deeply minus distractions leads to higher output and quality work. When in a flow state, concentration becomes so laser-focused that everything else seems to fall away.
When in flow, your body and mind are in unison and know what to do without having to consciously think about it.
While in flow, the distracting emotions that usually cloud our minds, such as stress, worry, self-doubt, and lack of confidence, take a back seat.
Improve the Ability to Cope
Emotion regulation, a crucial skill when coping with negative emotions and memories, is directly connected to focus, one of the prerequisites of flow.
Flow directs our focus outward on the task at hand, instead of inward on our worries, fears, and frustrations.
If you know how to tune out negative distractions and focus on solving problems, you’ll get better at handling and moving on from major setbacks.
Flow is said to be one of the most productive and happiest states that humans can be in.
Being fully immersed in a challenging task and feeling at one with it brings a general sense of well-being and a lasting sense of happiness and fulfillment.
Engage in a Positive Experience
The pleasure that comes with being deeply engrossed in something of significant interest or passion is said to result in an intrinsically positive experience.
Because it releases dopamine, flow enhances learning. Dopamine goes beyond providing a temporary high. It also heightens attention and decreases distractions, helping to raise our awareness.
One study found that top executives who practice getting into the flow report being five times more productive.
Another study done by Harvard Business school reveals that creative teams are more creative and productive even a day after being in the flow.
According to scientists, the flow of our brain waves shifts from the beta waves of concentration to the alpha waves of rest and relaxation and the theta waves that occur during meditation. Theta waves are said to be prerequisites for moments of insight and the gateway to creative genius.
Improve Productivity in the Workplace
Due to its powerful influence, flow can be a major source of inspiration for employees to perform at their peak.
According to scientific research, the average employee switches tasks every three minutes. Due to the resulting “attention residue,” whenever an employee gets distracted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain full attention on the task at hand.
Consistently entering a flow state can facilitate employees to increase focus, which will lead to higher productivity and better work. This is music to the ears of not only employers but employees as well as it can ultimately lead to significant advancement in a career.
However, knowing how to improve focus and concentration using flow takes some effort. It is a delicate process that you won’t master by simply reading about it.
Now, here is a breakdown on how to improve focus and concentration by getting into a flow state of mind.
How Long Does a Flow State Last?
While there is no hard and fast rule for how long it takes to get into a flow state, most people report a time of around 30 minutes. Some people will reach a flow state quicker than this — others will take longer. It really depends on the person and on the task at hand.
However, one essential of getting into a flow state is to make a start!
If you’re prone to procrastination you’ll be prone to being slow to get into a flow state.
The good news is — without distractions or interruptions — most people can stay in a flow state for several hours. Of course, you shouldn’t try to work constantly during this time. Instead, aim for a 10-minute break every 90 minutes. This will give your eyes and brain a much-needed rest without destroying your flow state.
How to Get Into a Flow State
Getting into a state of flow sounds great in theory, but mastering the skill of repeated immersion in flow is not easy.
You won’t achieve a state of flow in every attempt, but you can prime your environment and yourself for flow so that you experience it more often.
1. Have Clear Goals, Outcomes, and Expectations
Your mind will struggle to achieve optimum concentration and focus if you lack clarity about what you want to accomplish.
If there’s no clear outcome, you won’t know exactly when you’re finished with your task. This will breed mind-wandering and procrastination and encourage quitting and switching to easier tasks.
American philanthropist Tom Steyer said it well:
“Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives.”
I’m sure you’ve noticed in your life that when you know exactly what you want — you’ll tend to find a way to get it. And conversely, if you lack clear goals and dreams, I’m sure you’ve found yourself drifting aimlessly in life.
Of course, goals don’t always have to be big ones.
For example, a daily work goal might be something as simple as ensuring that you always check your inbox once every couple of hours.
From my experience of coaching people in success techniques, once you start to build a habit of using goals, you won’t want to go back. That’s because goals are an incredibly powerful way of giving you an abundance of focus and motivation. Just think of when you’ve wanted that dream house or car. You did research; you sacrificed your time and money; and you kept yourself in a flow state until you achieved your goal.
Learn how to set clear goals in this guide: A Complete Guide to Goal Setting for Personal Success
2. Set Aside Time to “Go Deep”
Flow requires intense, uninterrupted focus. That itself requires an investment on your part to minimize distractions––especially from tasks that are not important but potentially urgent (category 3 of that Eisenhower Matrix).
3. Warm Up
Create a habit of warming up both physically and mentally before you get started on a task or project. This might involve meditation, yoga or a strenuous run in the park. The trick here is to make your chosen activity a ritual. Something that you always do before tackling your tasks.
Try it for yourself, and you’ll see just how much this helps you to get into a state of flow.
4. Work on One Very Specific Task
Just like the goal, if you lack clarity on exactly what you are going to work on, it will be very difficult to enter a state of flow. You will either switch between multiple tasks too quickly or get distracted much more easily – both are serious detriments to achieving flow.
Multitasking might sound like the ideal way to get things done, but science shows otherwise.
For instance, a recent academic study found that just 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. For the other 97.5%, it was far more productive for them to focus on completing one task at a time. In other words, flow psychology strongly suggests you should say goodbye to multitasking and hello to focusing on one task at a time.
5. Autonomy in How to Bandle the Task
Integral to flow is freedom of choice. This is important when delegating important tasks to teammates, as well. If the project is something that the person will need to enter into flow to complete, you’ll need to make sure they themselves are invested in it and actively choosing how to complete it.
The task should not be over-challenging or over-simplistic. As I mentioned, it’s difficult to get into flow when the project at hand bores you or, on the other hand, confuses you. It needs to be challenging enough to be interesting––there’s a sweet spot. This is particularly important to remember, again, when delegating.
6. Eliminate All Distractions and Avoid Interruptions
Research says external distractions must be eliminated to reach a flow state.
Each time you get pulled away from your focus, you’ll be taken further away from flow.
It’s vital that you devote all of your concentration and undivided attention to the task at hand. You can only get into flow when you’re able to keep your focus and concentration for at least 10-15 minutes.
Although it might sound obvious, external distractions can prevent you from getting into a flow state or interrupt your flow state once you get into one.
Because of the risks of losing your flow state, if you’re working on a high-priority task or a creative one, then try to ensure that you’re not distracted by external circumstances.
Turn off your phone, television, and other devices in your work environment that might distract you from the task at hand.
Try to set aside a time and move to a quiet environment that is conducive to “deep work,” where you won’t be interrupted or distracted.
Say for example you’re working in an open-plan office and you need to focus on creating a PowerPoint presentation. For the first 30 minutes, you have zero distractions and you find that you quickly get into a hyper-focused state where ideas come to you instantly. However, and unfortunately for you, a colleague interrupts you to ask you an unimportant question. Immediately your flow state is broken. Even though the interruption was only for a few seconds, it could take you minutes to get back into the flow.
What are internal distractions?
Essentially, they are our thoughts and doubts that creep into our minds and stop us focusing on our tasks. These internal distractions can ultimately prevent us from achieving our goals.
To give you an example of this, let me tell you about a time when I was struggling to focus.
It was when I first set up Lifehack, and I had so many ideas of how to progress the company that I found it hard to concentrate on the essential tasks such as writing content and promoting the website. My mind was literally so full of ideas that I found my thoughts drifting endlessly from one idea to another.
Now, while it’s certainly important to have ideas; it’s also important to be able to focus on the work in front of you.
I was able to break out of this mind trap by allocating 10 minutes each morning to thinking about my ideas and jotting them down. I then put them aside until the next day. This allowed me to be laser-focused on my writing and marketing.
By making this change, I was able to eliminate this particular internal distraction and massively boost my productivity.
You’ll also need to eliminate internal distractions. Stress and an overwhelmed mind will make it very hard or even impossible to get into a flow state.
Eliminating all or most distractions will protect you from being disrupted and allows you to enter a state of deep focus and concentration, which is one of the most important elements of flow.
7. Access to Feedback
The faster you can get feedback, whether that’s from your management, co-workers, or customers, the better. In fact, immediate feedback is the reasons that video games are so immersive and flow-inducing. In a game, almost every action you take has clear positive or negative feedback.
8. Identify Your Peak Productive and Creative Times
If early is your thing, then aim to do your priority tasks in the morning when you’ll have your most energy and drive.
If you’re a late sleeper, then you’ll likely find that your energy levels are at their highest in the afternoon or evening. Choose these times to tackle your important tasks.
Identify the times where your mind most naturally functions at peak performance. For many people, the morning after a good night’s sleep is the most productive. Focusing on the day’s main task during these times will make flow easier and more effective.
9. Create a Ritual
Try to create a series of actions that you do every single time you’re about to begin a task that requires you to enter a state of concentration.
This could be anything that helps, such as meditation or stretching. Whatever the activity, it will trigger your brain to get ready for what’s about to begin.
10. Focus on the Process, Not the End Goal
While having goals and a specific task are crucial, getting into the flow also requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the outcome.
Try to allow yourself to simply live in the present moment without worrying too much about the end product of your efforts. This will allow the experience to be pleasurable, which will encourage you to do it more often.
How to Stay in a Flow State
Let’s turn now to some easy but seldomly used techniques that will enable you to become a master at entering and staying in a flow state.
Listen To Music While You Work
Another simple but super-effective technique for getting and staying in a flow state is to listen to music while you work.
Not just any music though.
The secret here is to find music that motivates you but does not distract you.
Typically, this would be instrumental music such as classical or ambient. The reason for this is because instrumental music is free from words, which means that your brain doesn’t have to spend anytime trying to interpret and understand them. It also means that you won’t interrupt your thoughts by trying to sing along with songs!
The other thing to consider with music for productivity, is to match the tempo to your work requirements. For example, if I need to power through some projects then I’ll choose some upbeat music that can perk me up and keep me going. However, if I want to be more creative and reflective, then I’ll pick music that is more relaxing. I may even just choose to listen to nature sounds if I want the minimum of distractions.
My recommendation is that you test out various music styles and tempos to see what works for you best. You’ll also want to play with the volume, as again, this can make a huge difference to your motivation and focus. You’ll probably find loud music more motivating than quieter music, but you need to find the right balance, as loud music can also be more distracting.
My final suggestion to help you become a flow state master is to make sure you’re always hydrated.
Even mild dehydration can lead to a depressed mood, headaches and an inability to concentrate. This is on top of physical effects such as fatigue, dry mouth, dizziness, weakness and heart palpitations.
Fortunately, keeping yourself hydrated is simple to do. Just ensure you’re drinking at least 2 liters of water throughout your day. Personally, I have a glass of water upon rising and a glass of water just before I go to bed. I also take a water bottle into work and when I exercise so I can keep myself hydrated at all times.
Of course, drinking water is just one part of staying hydrated. You can also boost your hydration by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. You could make yourself a nutritious and hydrating green smoothie, for example.
Staying hydrated is such an important topic that I urge you to click through to read our article: Get Hydrated, Get Productive: How Water Helps Your Performance at Work
When you get into the habit of engaging and concentrating on your tasks, you’ll also get into the habit of working in a flow state.
This will supercharge your productivity as well as making your work and life easier and more enjoyable. In fact, you can expect to have more time on your hands for hobbies and spending time with family and friends.
As a flow state master, you’ll no longer be concerned about meeting deadlines, as you’ll be able to get your work done in time — and in most cases — ahead of time.
It may take a little adjustment to the way you normally work, but it’ll definitely be worth it.
Getting into the flow is a powerful practice that can pave a pathway to achievement and personal improvement. Mastering it is also a great way to learn how to improve focus and concentration, which is essential to achieving goals in life.
However, like every skill, it’s going to take intent and practice to master. We hope these tips will help you to go with the flow and develop the laser-like focus that will improve your performance on the job or in your daily life.
Featured photo credit: ConvertKit via unsplash.com
|||^||Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience|
|||^||Harvard University: Affect and Creativity at Work|
|||^||McKinsey & Company: Increasing the ‘meaning quotient’ of work|
|||^||Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks|
|||^||Psychology Today: How Do Work Breaks Help Your Brain? 5 Surprising Answers|
|||^||Psychonomic Bulletin & Review: Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability|
|||^||Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology: “Add Flow to the Fire”: Flow and Hope as a Shield against Burnout of Fire Service Workers|
|||^||WebMD: Even Mild Dehydration May Cause Emotional, Physical Problems|