Do you ever feel like you’re just not getting anything done? You sit down at your computer with the best intentions, but before you know it, three hours tick by and you’ve accomplished nothing but staring at memes, watching TikTok videos, and cycling between email and social media all day.
This can be especially frustrating when you have a big project due or are trying to create something new. I moonlight as an indie author, and my current WIPs are dying a slow death from procrastination assassination.
The struggle is real, friends.
The good news is that there are ways to train your brain for laser-like focus and achieve more in less time. In this blog post, we will discuss what flow state is and how to harness its power for your professional and creative endeavors.
What is Flow State?
Flow state, also known as “the zone,” is a mental state in which you are completely focused and immersed in the task at hand. The concept of flow state was popularized by Jeanne Nakamura and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi did a TED Talk in 2004 where he described flow as a state of focus so intense, it leads to clarity and feelings of ecstasy. Put another way, you become so engrossed in what you’re doing, time seems to disappear. You might even forget your surroundings and who you are while in this state.
Normally, most writers don’t say, ‘I’m going into a mild hypnotic trance.’ Typically, they don’t know how they do it. Most people, when they have a good experience writing, they’re well placed in that state, which is also sometimes called a ‘flow state.’ If you don’t have trouble, you don’t have to think about it.Madison Smartt Bell
Flow is often associated with creativity, as it allows you to tap into your full potential and produce your best work. If you’ve ever got lost in doing something creative, like painting, writing, drawing, or even singing and dancing, congratulations. You entered “flow.”
Some of the most successful individuals, be it writers, athletes, or entrepreneurs, chase after flow state because of how infinitely valuable it is. Most people look for meaning and fulfillment in life, but often find it lacking without some kind of higher purpose to drive them.
When you’re operating from a state of flow, you may feel as though you are living your purpose. It’s a powerful phenomenon that creates feelings of peace and contentment in the work you do. Most would say it almost doesn’t even feel like work!
Although getting in the “zone” is excellent for writing, and I love when I can do it, you can use flow to enhance your life no matter what you do. Flow can be achieved doing simple things, like swimming, doing chores around the house, or watching the sun rise. It can also be accessed while doing hard things, like dancing, athletics, or even planning that next multi-million dollar deal.
I think one of the keys to increasing flow in your life is to be intentional about doing things you love to do. Recreationally and professionally, training your brain to enter a flow state on demand can change your life. It’s the not-so-secret secret of the pros.
You’re competing against people in a state of flow, people who are truly committed, people who care deeply about the outcome.Seth Godin
Benefits of Achieving Flow State
There are many benefits to achieving a flow state, with more science behind it than I care to explore here. Science Alert has a short write up about the geekier aspects of flow states, if you care to read it. Below are some of the more commonly known benefits.
Flow improves productivity
When you’re in a flow state, you’re completely focused and immersed in the task at hand. Engagement levels are high, and the rest of the world fades to the background. This laser-like focus allows you to work more efficiently and effectively. In other words, you get stuff done!
Flow Increases Creativity
So if you’re looking for ways to boost your creativity and ramp up your imaginative prowess, achieving a flow state may be a good place to start. For myself as a writer, flow state is essential to producing my best work, and I feel more productive and content when I habitually access this state.
Flow boosts happiness and satisfaction
I’m no scientist, but I think this could be due in part to the fact that you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, which means your mind ain’t wandering! Think about it. If your brain isn’t ruminating about things you aren’t satisfied or happy with, you can’t really wallow in feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, now can you?
Flow improves Performance
One study examines athletes and musicians1, and concludes with:
Flow Increases Internal Motivation
This is something I personally struggle with. I am largely externally motivated, so deadlines are my jam. But only if they’re someone else’s deadlines! Giving myself a deadline never works for me, so developing my internal motivation is something I am working on. Flow increases your positive vibes and helps make your work feel rewarding. We tend to chase the things that feel good to us.
So if you’re looking for ways to improve your mental and emotional well-being, ramp up your creativity and productivity, and discover deep satisfaction in doing deep work, learning how to access flow state is a valuable skill that will serve you well in every aspect of your life.
How Do You get into Flow?
If you’re now sold on the advantages of getting into a flow state, there are a few things you can do to help train your brain and increase your chances of entering that coveted “creative zone.” Everyone is different though, so these are just a few starting points that I have found work for me. You may discover other ways to help you get there that are more effective for you.
- First, it’s important to have a clear goal in mind. This will help you focus and stay on track. Once you accomplish that goal, set another one. Flow state is all about making progress and seeing results. Also, there’s hella satisfaction for a nerd like me in crossing a goal off my list. I also like to use colorful highlighters to differentiate things. Your mileage may vary.
- You may find it helpful to break up your goal into smaller chunks. Especially for bigger goals, you can break them down into smaller goals, and start breaking it down more by individual tasks. Then you can tackle your goal chunk by chunk, focusing on one thing at a time, and avoiding overwhelm. Remember that old saying, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time? Same concept!
- Make sure you’re well rested and have had a healthy meal before starting your deep work. While I have no hard science to back this up, my reasoning is it’s challenging to get into flow when distracted by a rumbly tummy or yawning every five seconds. Unless you’re like me, a person that typically fasts throughout the day and only eats one meal. In that case, a large cup of Joe before starting will do nicely.
- Remove any distractions from your environment. This means turning off your phone, closing the door, and putting on noise-cancelling headphones if necessary. No, really. Turn off your phone! It’s a huge distraction, and anyone who tries to say otherwise is a fibber. They also probably have a hard time achieving flow state.
- Get into a rhythm by repetition. We are the product of our habits, and our habits require cues. This could mean listening to music or reading something out loud before starting your task. This works because your brain loves mental cues2, alerting it to what it will be doing next. Repetition helps develop effective cues and habits that tell your brain, “Hey, buddy! It’s time to flow!”
- Most importantly, relax and don’t try too hard. Flow state happens when you’re in the zone, enjoying yourself, and everything else fades away. Your only job is to let it happen.
What if You Can’t Get into Flow?
If after trying some of these tips, you still struggle to settle into a flow state, remember it’s not a skill that develops overnight. It takes practice and patience to train your brain to achieve a state of hyper focus. We live in a culture of distraction obsession, which has reduced our attention spans to something akin to gnats.
Yes, that’s my professional diagnosis. 🙃
However, if you’re willing to put in the work to enter flow state more often and cultivate other habits of success, it can be a powerful tool for creativity, productivity, and focus. Ultimately, this should lead to higher levels of contentment and satisfaction in your daily life, because when you’re living your purpose and doing it well, you can’t help but feel good!
Why not give these tips a try next time you’re ready to tackle a big goal? You might be surprised at the results.
- Antonini Philippe R, Singer SM, Jaeger JEE, Biasutti M, Sinnett S. Achieving Flow: An Exploratory Investigation of Elite College Athletes and Musicians. Front Psychol. 2022;13:831508. Published 2022 Mar 30. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.831508 [↩]
- Phillippa Lally, Jane Wardle & Benjamin Gardner (2011) Experiences of habit formation: A qualitative study, Psychology, Health & Medicine, 16:4, 484-489, DOI: 10.1080/13548506.2011.555774 [↩]