Many times in my life I had to deal with one pattern: the more I tried to influence the course of certain events in order to improve the situation, the worse it got. But one had only to let go of the situation and everything immediately fell into place. I was questioning why this is happening. But I couldn’t think of any answer.
I have read many books with a psychological context, but have never come across the concept of “flow state”. Just a few years ago, I stumbled upon an interview with Steven Kotler in which he discussed this particular state and shared the story of how he first experienced this magical state of flow.
I was so impressed with his personal story and decided to dive deeper into this area. And here’s what I’ve learned so far. By the way, he is also the author of several books on peak human performance. Have a look here.
The term a ‘flow state’ was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist of Hungarian descent Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, who studied the reasons why people would agree to sacrifice material goods in exchange for the elusive pleasure of some activity.
He found out that there is such a state of consciousness when you have absolute clarity of what needs to be done at each subsequent moment. In moments like this, something special happens. The scientist called this an altered state of total immersion, effortless concentration, or a flow state.
What does it mean to be in a flow state?
Probably everyone had moments when we got into this state. We plunged headlong into what we were doing – whether it was sports, playing a musical instrument, or working on a project. Then, suddenly, having come to our senses, we look at the clock and realise that we were so focused that we didn’t even notice that it was already night outside the window.
When we are in a flow state our mind and body are totally submerged in the present moment. Nothing can distract us from what we are doing, not even hunger or fatigue. At the same time, we experience tremendous lucidity at any given moment.
How can we get into a flow state?
Steven Kotler, whom I mentioned before, admits that no matter how much we study the physiological and psychological conditions of the flow, in most cases, this state comes suddenly. However, we can increase the likelihood of it occurring.
In that interview, Kotler said that in order to get into a flow state, it is necessary and sufficient to make a morning run for 20-30 minutes and then drink a cup of black coffee. That’s all. I tried several times the exact approach and can say it worked for me at the beginning. However, the more I practised, the less I was able to actually get into the flow state.
I can assume that it could be my “peculiarity” because I am the kind of person who longs for change and needs to update approaches every day/month/year. But with a great deal of confidence, I can say that morning jogging is a bomb. I still do this because it gives me a lot of energy. But anyway…
I’ve learned from Kotler’s books that if you’re having trouble getting into the flow, set a goal for yourself to achieve a state of awareness that is inherently very close to that. In other words, mindfulness is the first step to flow.
Thus, I started practising meditation. 15–20-minute meditation is usually enough to get my body and mind on the same page and root me in the present moment. But to be honest, sometimes it ended up entering the flow state, sometimes it didn’t. So, I decided to keep looking.
What are some other practices that could be recommended for connecting mind and body?
Somehow, quite by accident, I discovered that after one “ceremony” I feel so focused and at the same time at ease. It happened when I was studying at Uni, getting my MBA. One day, before classes, I went to a café and ordered a cup of coffee with ‘Chocolate lava cake’. This combination did something to me. I rocked my tutorials that day. Since then, this is my magic recipe for entering the flow state.
Meanwhile, mindfulness experts say the best way to achieve a mind-body connection other than meditation is through yoga. The good news is that there are many different yoga styles to choose from. This means that if you have tried yoga once and you don’t like it, don’t give up, try again.
If neither yoga nor meditation suits you, you can try something else. Something like the “chocolate lava ceremony” I mentioned earlier. Here are the top three ideas that came to my mind.
- 15 minutes of watercolour painting may be enough to focus on the present moment. I love to practise this, especially when I need to wake up my creativity.
- Walking. 15-20 minutes walking alone can refresh your thoughts and ground you into the present.
- Listening to music. It not necessarily has to be classic music or some slow tracks. For instance, when I was getting my first university degree, I drew all my course projects listening to Depeche Mode. Somehow their electro-techno-industrial style of music helped me get into the “drawing flow.”
Whatever technique will help you focus on the present moment, regular practice is key. As a result of this “routine“, you will begin to understand what it is like for your body and mind to be in continuous dialogue, acting together at every moment.
What are some examples of a flow state?
Basically, there is no limit to what a state of flow can be for you. The only matter is key ingredients such as space, a clear goal, deep concentration, hard but manageable task (in other words, balance between skills and challenge), passion and zero interruptions.
Here’s one of my examples when I experienced a full flow state a couple of years ago. This was my second semester, the most difficult for me for some reason.
I remember that this was one subject that I struggled with the most because it required some serious writing. All exam questions were essay-based. This meant that I did not have time to think, but only to write long, detailed answers in a limited period of time. Moreover, in a language that is not even my native language. It freaked me out.
So, before the exam, I went to my favourite café on the Uni campus and took a coffee with ‘Chocolate lava cake’.
The rest of the ingredients were waiting for me in the exam auditorium: space, challenging but manageable task and no distractions. When I started writing, I was really captured by the flow, I even felt it physically. My hand was moving effortlessly, writing the answer. I literally didn’t think, but somehow, I knew what had to be written.
This was the first time I asked for additional answer sheets because the original answer brochure was not enough for me. I didn’t control time but I finished exactly 2 minutes before the end of the exam.
Remarkably, when people asked me what questions I had on my exam paper, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t really remember a single exam question. But I still remember my result, and it makes me beam.
Is a flow state good for us? What are the benefits?
The benefits of this state go beyond instant ecstasy. This experience is enjoyable and brings a sense of life and happiness. It gives us clarity and allows us to focus on what we care about. This means that we not only do our job with high quality but also do it with pleasure.
From a professional perspective, the flow state is associated with performance, motivation, and dedication. And this is important because most of us devote at least 60-80% of our time and attention to our job. How we feel in the process of work directly affects the quality of our life.
Here are some more benefits of flow state:
- Being in a state of flow promotes self-development. Because it always appears at the intersection of the complexity of the task and the level of our competencies. As we raise the bar, we develop new skills.
- In a state of flow, our activity becomes valuable in itself, fills life with meaning and brings great satisfaction.
- Flow state is characterised by a sense of tremendous inner clarity of what we are doing and why. It helps us understand our goals, values, and intrinsic motivation.
What else you should know about a flow state?
It is worth pointing out that reading is the most streaming activity, and we already know why. This is because the very state of flow occurs when our attention is directed only to what we are doing. And in this regard, reading is truly one of the best flow simulators out there. We focus on what is happening in the book, and while our entire body is slowing down, the brain is actively processing information.
So, whereas fiction is much more suited to better immersion, here is a list of the best books on the subject. Enjoy reading and see you in the next articles.