Somedays it all clicks. You’re getting work done, and some how it all just seems to a bit easier and slightly more fun that usual. Whether you know it or not, it’s highly likely you’re in a flow state. This term was coined by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and is defined as at its simplest as an “optimal state where we feel our best and perform our best.”
In 2004 he did an exceptional Ted talk about Flow, its ESSENTIAL viewing. Csíkszentmihályi explains the origins of the flow channel (state) and talks about how it can be become a readily available version of an alternate reality, even bordering on a temporary suspension of the feeling of ones own existence. He also identifies a critical point that flow comes from an optimal combination of challenge and skill. Flow is achieved when you’re challenged and utilising the skills you have.
Seems pretty awesome right? Whilst Csíkszentmihályi identifies the 7 conditions of flow in the video above what we want to share are practical tips to lead you to the flow state.
1. Remove Distractions
Life is inherently distracting, especially in the workplace. Distractions are the number 1 enemy of flow, as its a need to find a way to channel your focus in a singular direction. If you find it too hard to focus whilst working on your laptop of at your desk, go analogue, get a piece of paper and a pencil and extract yourself from the environment. Flow can be achieved within groups but as a practice is going to be essential that you can find a path alone. Go as far away from everything as you need to.
2. Learn To Identify The Flow State
This is likely the easiest point on this list. At some point you will have felt it. When you feel it however momentary. Identify it.
3. Remember What Triggered It Last Time
As you start to be more mindful of identifying when you are in the flow state, if you can catch yourself, identify the conditions or anything that feels to encourage/trigger the flow state and note them down. If there isn’t, don’t panic, don’t interrupt the flow.
4. Find Your Trigger
We find that flow (once identified) can be stimulated/encouraged/triggered by certain conditions. We talked about the need to be free from distraction. By immersing yourself in things clearly created in the flow state it can help stimulate your own flow state. If you watched the Ted Talk you would have noticed how flow is right alongside arousal. Flow is about doing the things you love really really well.
Our most reliable flow trigger is a piece of music. “For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More” by Nils Frahm. Seriously, watch this video. Frahm is the the embodiment of flow in this performance, he is performing something incredibly complex with an immense level of skill. It’s clear something very special is going on. Yes, those are actual toilet brushes. There is no distinction between composer, performer and instrument. True flow state writ large, also watch to end and listen to the crowd reaction to what they just witnessed.
Whilst it might not be music that acts as your trigger, identify a location, scent or mood that you can use as an anchor. Think of it like the spinning top in Inception, a way to identify one mind-state from the other.
5. Do Something Challenging, Ideally Something You Love
The clearest thing from Csíkszentmihályi’s work is that in order to get that feeling of work being effortless and spontaneous that the work has to be something that is both challenging and something you are highly skilled at. In the explanation used in the TED video you can see the importance of these factors. States exist around flow and are related to if the task is either: not enough of a challenge, or you don’t have the skill to complete it.
6. If It’s Not Happening, Don’t Panic
It would be naive to believe that all focussed people are constantly in the flow state. That’s simply not the case. If we refer to the diagram above we can see that anxiety, worry, apathy and boredom dominate the left hand side of the image. We’ve all experienced these feelings and these ebb and flow through the working day. Whilst working to identify when you’re in the flow state, it also make sense to identify when work is just that, work.
We cant stress this enough but skill plays a huge part in the flow state. Not only is there a need to become accomplished at the task you’re working on but you need to find something you love. In “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell identifies the 10,000–Hour Rule. He states that to successful in any field these a need to do that task for 10,000 hours: 20 hours of work a week for 10 years. In 2018 Gladwell did identify that simply doing a task for 10,000 hours is not a substitute for additional innate talent, and that to become truly skilled is likely to take much longer than you think. He described the 10,000 hours figure as “a metaphor for the extent of commitment that is necessary in cognitively complex fields”.
Long story short, if you want to be highly skilled work at it.