What is Flow?
Flow is the state of achieving optimal performance by being completely absorbed in the present moment. Individuals who have experienced the state of flow describe it as “being in the zone” or having complete focus and a sense of control over their performance. When we experience flow, we have heightened awareness and a decrease of the self-consciousness that we may have once had about our performance ability.
Flow state is universal, meaning it can be experienced by anyone and in various areas of your life. For example, bodybuilders can hack flow state by being completely immersed in their given task. Ask any bodybuilder why they love to lift weights, and you are guaranteed that their passion stems beyond seeing the physical results. Lifting weights gives you an opportunity to push past your comfort zone and reach new depths of slight discomfort, which is a trigger for flow state and can significantly increase your performance in education, sports, and the workplace.
When we experience flow state, we turn off our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory and decision making. This allows us to experience what is called the “deep now,” and once this happens our inner-critic is silenced and we are able to experience exponential growth in our performance. Flow also produces norepinephrine, anandamide, and other endorphins that allow us to stay calm(1), increase our muscular reaction time, and relieve pain.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2), one of the greatest researchers of flow state, the eight characteristics of flow state are:
- Complete concentration on a task
- Clarity of goals and reward in the mind, and immediate feedback
- Transformation of time
- Rewarding experience
- Effortlessness and ease
- Balance between challenge and skills
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-consciousness
- Feeling control over a task
Who experiences flow state the most?
Research has uncovered that athletes who have the most successful performances have the following traits in common:
- They are able to regulate their emotions. Peak performance athletes have learned how to gain control over their thoughts and feelings. Part of this has to do with how they perceive certain physiological symptoms. For example, some people may perceive having butterflies in their stomach as feeling nervous, whereas others enjoy this feeling and take it as feeling excited about the competition. Techniques that athletes can use for self-regulation include meditation and mindfulness, intentional self-talk, imagery, and deep breathing to heighten focus.
- They have just the right amount of confidence. Top level athletes understand that setbacks are just a part of the process. These athletes do not have the luxury to not critique their mistakes but, they do not dwell on them either. Another way to increase confidence is to remember past performance experiences where you did an amazing job. Being able to focus on the positive helps provide security when the pressure to do your best is on.
- They are able to concentrate better. Some athletes intentionally use distractions during training to learn how to shift their attention appropriately. In addition, they remember that once a mistake or a bad play is made, it is now out of their control. The only thing that they can do is to learn from the experience and focus on what they can do in the moment to do their best.
- They stay committed. This may seem like common sense, but there are many feats in our everyday life that can stray us from reaching our goals. These athletes were able to stay on track by surrounding themselves with like-minded people who have similar goals, and by writing down their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals so that their dreams are always on the forefront of their minds.
- They are not self-conscious. When we are in this heightened state, we are no longer concerned about our actions or the actions of others. We are completely immersed in the moment and not distracted by our own negative thoughts that interfere with producing record-breaking results. This means that we leave our ego at the door, and do not fear failure.
So how do we hack into a flow state?
Here are the top characteristics that you need to practice to experience this state of mind:
- Be present: When we experience flow, our actions and awareness are in sync. This means that we are completely aware of ourselves and have the ability to be completely immersed in the relevant task. When we experience this, we are able to perform with comfort and ease. Being present is a skill that requires practice. We can learn this by creating a pre-performance routine to get focused, or by practicing mindfulness to learn how to have present moment awareness.
- Receptive to Feedback: Research shows that feedback can be valuable in helping us to achieve our goals. When we are able to listen and understand what we need to do to perform better, we are able to focus on how we can achieve the level of performance that we desire. For this, it is important to understand that feedback must be specific for it to be productive. For example, a “good job” is not detailed enough. Explain what went well and describe what changes can be made to make improvements.
- Total concentration: People who have experienced flow explain that they are completely focused on the relevant task. Being able to achieve this state can be difficult when there are many distractions that can get in the way. One activity that performers use to heighten their concentration is a concentration grid (3). This grid is an exercise that teaches the brain to respond better under stressful situations.
- Enjoy what you do: Most individuals who achieve higher levels of flow do so because of the internal fulfillment that they experience. This intrinsic satisfaction from simply doing the activity has been explained as “feeling exhilarated.” Even though we are not always able to enjoy every task on our list, it is important to find an activity that you are passionate about. If you no longer find joy in what you do, then perhaps it is time to find a new approach or interest that is stimulating.
A contributor of the Huffington Post (4) on flow state said, “Living a life of meaning and of depth requires us to step outside of our comfort zones, to challenge our own ideas and create innovative ways to optimize our time on this earth. The mental state of flow catapults our minds out of the mindless humdrum of everyday life and closer to a meaningful existence.” Flow has been an exciting component of research for understanding how to reach optimal performance levels. There is still much that needs to be discovered about how far we can push the limits of the human body. With this in mind, it is important to remember that motivation can come from winning or breaking a new record but, the truest gift lies within being able to experience pure joy in our favorite activity.
About Sarah Burnap:
Sarah’s career path first began when she joined the Marine Corps when she was eighteen. After her enlistment, Sarah began to explore her options and found her passion for encouraging others through fitness, coaching, and teaching. Sarah has over 10 years of experience in personal training, coaching and communications consulting with Special Operations service members, entrepreneurs, and professional and amateur athletes from many diverse backgrounds. After completing her bachelor’s in communications, Sarah found that empowering others to thrive under pressure stemmed from having the right mindset. Sarah is currently completing her masters in sports psychology and continues to fulfill her mission of encouraging others to be more resilient by teaching mental skills to help people overcome barriers and reach their full potential.