How to Get & Stay “In The Zone”

A masterclass from research on the flow state.

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via GIPHY

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The flow state isn’t a magical, unobtainable superpower. All of us can, and do, enter flow when consumed by something we are passionate about.

Where can we find flow?

We reach flow during an activity we find both challenging and doable.

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via Wikipedia
  • loss of self-consciousness
  • sense of serenity & control
  • single-minded focus
  • “tuning out” of non-task-related surroundings
  • forgetting to eat & drink & sleep
  • joy from the task itself
  • uninterrupted focus and desire to complete
  • distorted passage of time — don’t notice time passing

How do I get there?

  • Choose a task. To start easy, pick something you’re interested in, right now. What do you want to accomplish, right now? It could be learning a new song; coding a small project; writing another chapter.
  • Check it meets the criteria. Is it going to need you to concentrate? Is it doable? What is your feedback?
  • Fulfil your needs first. You can’t concentrate properly if you’re desperate for the toilet, or starving. That’s just masochism. Give yourself five minutes to sort yourself out: go to the bathroom, have a snack, get a glass of water. Gather the materials you’ll need in front of you.
  • Switch off all distractions. Hide your phone in another room. Block all social media using extensions such as BlockSite. Get a DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door if you must! Remember, being snapped out of this early is the enemy. It takes ~25 minutes to refocus properly.
  • Take the plunge. Be prepared for adjustment pains starting off. Push through them. Starting a new task is the most mentally taxing part for our brains. Flow needs breaking into, like ice.
  • Flow is experienced in the middle of things. With the right conditions now set — clear goal, clear feedback , no distractions — there comes a point when you forget yourself. You’re moving with the music, your hands know what they’re doing before you do; you’re leaning forward eagerly, typing and deleting and thinking and testing another solution.
  • Keeping up flow. You’ll stay here until distracted by an internal/external need, or the task is complete. Remember: in flow, you’re absorbed, and determined to keep at it. If your mind is wandering after a few hours, it’s time for a quick break to reset yourself. Movement breaks — where you get up and walk around — are good for your creativity and productivity. It’s okay to have one period of flow, a break, and then another.
  • Exiting flow is a little like exiting a trance. You’ll suddenly blink back into things: remember who you are, remember your surroundings, stretch. Wait, two hours have passed? A really lovely and rare example of this on camera is Jodie Comer, Emmy-winning actress, visibly blinking and “snapping” back out of it at 2:32, here. You just witnessed an actor be in, and come out of, flow.
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The goal, ladies and gentlemen. via GIPHY

Additional tricks

  • The easiest states to push into flow from are arousal and control. Remember that diagram? Flow is neighboured by arousal (high challenge — medium skill) and control (medium challenge — high skill). Arousal is when we’re stretched just past our capacity; “out of our comfort zone”. It’s where the task is hard, and most of our improvement happens. Improve enough, and you can break through into flow. Likewise, for a task that feels too easy, ramp up the difficulty. Increase the tempo of that piece, or set yourself half an hour to finish the task. Gradually ramping up our skill level and our task difficulty is where the magic happens.
  • Flow is more enjoyable than rest. You heard that right — you’re more likely to enjoy working at what you love than watching TV. There is a noted disconnect between what we think will make us happy, and what actually does.
  • It’s about the process, not the result. When flow is achieved, the work is autotelic: done for its own sake. For the Olympic sprinter in flow, they’re loving each footfall — not the idea of the finishing line. Apply this in your work by cutting out arbitrary targets beyond your control: no “I hope this piece gets X likes on YouTube”, no “I hope this app gets downloaded by X people”. Focus on doing the very best you can on a minute-by-minute, tangible basis. Focus on the content, not the response.

Summary & Further reading

  • High challenge + high skill level + feedback = flow.
  • Cut out distractions like they’re tumours. Multitasking isn’t a thing.
  • Jot down the environment, time, and task of times when flow worked for you (and when it didn’t).
  • Actively focus on learning from mistakes when stretched.
  • Adjust tasks to be more challenging when they’re too easy.
  • Find your sweet spot.

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued. It must ensue as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” -Viktor Frankl

If you have personal flow experiences to share, or questions, just drop a few lines below. I’m excited to hear them.

Written by

Accredited psychologist, England. Smuggling useful truths out of academia. Gen Z.

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