Flow state can help you to produce higher quality work in less time. It also heightens creativity. Getting into flow more often could do wonders for your career.
What is flow state?
You’ve probably worked in flow state before, whether or not you called it by name. This optimal state of consciousness allows concentration to become super acute, focused and sustained.
When you’re in flow, you practically lose all sense of self. You become totally immersed in your work. Your self-consciousness, and even your awareness of time, disappear for the most part. This state of mind heightens performance and richly increases creativity.
“Flow is also caused by ‘transient hypofrontality’— the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex,” writes Steven Kotler at Psychology Today. “The PFC is the part of our brain that houses most of our higher cognitive function. Why does our sense of self disappear in flow? Because self is generated by large portions of the prefrontal cortex and with large swatches of this area no longer open for business, that sense vanishes completely.”
Additionally, pleasure-inducing chemicals, like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin flood the system during flow state. These also helps folks to feel more creative, as well as increasingly content and focused.
Flow state is commonly described as being “in the zone” which isn’t a bad way to think of it at all. It’s easy to see why learning more about the advantages of this state of consciousness, and developing methods and tools for achieving it, could serve you well in your career.
Finding ways to get into flow state more regularly and reliably is a fantastic time-management hack. But, there are more advantages than just that. Here are just a few:
- You’ll focus on what’s most important – Flow state helps you to concentrate and it also limits self-consciousness. So, when you’re in this state, negative self-doubt decreases and your mind wanders less in general. You’ll be better able to focus on what’s most important this way. And, you’ll think more positively too.
- Increased happiness and job satisfaction – It’s a wonderful feeling to be so totally absorbed and consumed by what you do that you lose track of time. It can be very satisfying to experience an increase in engagement and productivity. Therefore, you’ll likely feel happier and more satisfied with your job if you are able to get into flow more often.
- Heightened performance, creativity, and problem solving abilities – Research supports the idea that achieving flows state has a profound impact on performance. In one study, subjects were presented with a challenging brain teaser. None of the 40 subjects were able to solve the problem before time ran out. But, when subjects in flow state were tested, 23 found the right answer in the time provided. Other studies have found that people are five to seven times more creative when they’re in this state than at other times.
- You’ll learn more, and more quickly – The advantages of flow state increase almost exponentially when you factor in the benefits derived from the learning that takes place when in this state. You’ll learn more when you’re in flow. And, you’ll move faster through the new material, too. Being in flow will allow you to hone skills and perfect techniques in ways that simply aren’t possible when you’re distracted or even just less engaged.
How to achieve flow state
“Now, when we do studies — we have, with other colleagues around the world, done over 8000 interviews of people — from Dominican monks, to blind nuns, to Himalayan climbers, to Navajo shepherds — who enjoy their work. And, regardless of the culture, regardless of education or whatever, there are these seven conditions that seem to be there when a person is in flow. There’s this focus that, once in becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback. You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though it’s difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger. And once the conditions are present, what you are doing becomes worth doing for its own sake.”
– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who recognized and named the psychological concept of flow state.
1. Set goals
You don’t have to be in flow state during your entire workday in order for it to be worth your while. In fact, that’s essentially impossible. Flow state is something you can achieve some of the time. Only some tasks and time periods are the right fit for this kind of deep and focused work. That’s okay anyway, because you don’t have to be in “an optimal state of concentration” to perform some tasks. It’s only appropriate some of the time.
So, start by setting some flow state related goals. What aspects of your job would benefit from a mental boost and a renewed energy and focus? How often are you achieving flow state now when you work on those tasks? Which factors are stopping you from being in flow? (For example, are you interrupted by coworkers a lot? Do you check your phone and lose your focus?) Once you’ve identified the current reality of your relationship to flow state, you can work toward improving the balance.
If it’s something you’re usually able to achieve for an hour once a week, aim to make it two hours. If you never experience flow state in your busy office, work to find a quiet space where you can work with focus every once in a while.
Setting goals is always a great first step whenever you’re trying to make a change. Achieving flow state requires intentionality. It won’t happen on it’s own. So, start by assessing the current picture. Then, set measurable and achievable goals for the future.
2. Be challenged, but not too challenged
It’s nearly impossible to reach the supreme state of concentration that is flow state when you’re bored with what you’re working on. The task at hand simply isn’t enough to hold your attention in these cases. However, being too challenged doesn’t work either. If what you’re trying to achieve is too difficult for you, than you also won’t be able to concentrate very well. Your mind will pop around between potential solutions, or you’ll need to reach out to someone else for assistance, and this will disrupt your ability to be in flow state.
For best results, aim for flow state when you’re working on something that presents the right Goldilocks-level of challenge. The task should be stimulating and interesting. It shouldn’t be too easy. But, it also shouldn’t be so hard that you can’t work on your goals, and achieve the associated objectives, independently.
Csikzsentmihalyi identified three components of a task that are necessary in order to enter into flow state. The level of challenge is mentioned, specifically, as the third item on the list. But, all three criteria are important to consider when thinking about which tasks are best suited for flow.
- “The activity must have a clear set of goals and progress, which adds direction and structure to the task.”
- “The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback, which enables the person to adjust to the evolving nature of the task and know how well they are doing.”
- “There must be a good balance between the perceived challenge of the task and the individual’s own perceived skills.”
3. Enjoy what you do
There are a lot of reasons why enjoying what you do helps you to get into flow state. Exciting work, or work that is inherently creative in some way, helps to induce flow because it’s so captivating. It’s important to keep in mind though that your mentality has everything to do with the way you regard your work. Someone who washes dishes might be able to find ways to be creative and engaged in their job. Meanwhile a graphic artist could be complaining that their daily tasks are mundane and repetitive.
Having a job that you love is great. Of course. And, enjoying what you do can help you get into flow state more often. Just remember that how much you enjoy your job isn’t wholly outside of your control. Try using tools like self-awareness, authenticity and optimism to give your attitude a boost.
4. Limit distractions
Do you get interrupted a lot when you’re at work? Well, you aren’t alone. Researchers have found that workers, on average, spend just 11 minutes on a project before being interrupted. The larger problem is that, even if the interruption is brief, it’s enough to disrupt flow state.
Think about ways in which you can limit distractions at work. You probably won’t be able to wall yourself off from your coworkers, clients and managers for the entire day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make progress. Limiting how often you check your phone or email during natural pauses in your thinking process is often a great place to start, for example. You also might consider taking a look at your schedule for opportunities for deep work. Can you close your office door or find a quiet space somewhere else in the building to work once in awhile? Some folks even find that going to work in a coffee shop is more conducive to flow than staying at the office.
Limiting distractions is critical if you want to up your flow state game. Even a small change, like finding an extra 30 minutes a week to work quietly, can be more helpful than you might think.
5. always Remember the value of flow
Remind yourself of the importance and value of achieving flow state frequently. Think about all the ways it can help you to enjoy your work more and how it allows you to get more done. Remind yourself that it helps you to be more creative and productive. In flow state, you get more done, faster, without sacrificing quality.
Remembering the value of flow will get easier to do as you begin to expand your experiences of working while in this state. Even spending just a little time in flow will likely leave you craving more, and sincerely appreciating the value of the time.
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