Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a task or activity that hours pass in what feels like minutes? This occurrence is known in psychology as a “flow state”. More colloquially referred to as being “in the zone”, flow is a heightened level of focus in which, through the correct conditions, self-awareness and the sense of time slip away. Flow can offer relief from the stress of everyday life, and offers an interesting perspective; the pursuit of a task solely for escapist enjoyment, rather than productivity.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the architect of flow psychology, described it as an “ecstatic state” in which “existence is temporarily suspended.” It can contribute to a person’s creativity, contentment and eudaimonia – a term generally accepted to mean an individual’s happiness, well-being and fulfilment.
Research of what happens inside the brain during flow is ongoing, but it is believed by psychologists that during flow, activity levels in the prefrontal cortex reduce. This part of the brain is responsible for “higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration, and working memory”, according to Mike Oppland from PositivePsychology.com. Therefore, when the prefrontal cortex is inactive, we become less aware of our surroundings and of ourselves, allowing us to donate all focus over to our chosen activity.
So how is it that we can enter a state of flow? The first step is recognising the process and its eight definitive characteristics, which are: a total focus on the task or activity, a clear objective and reward with immediate feedback, a change in time experience (speeding up/slowing down), intrinsic fulfilment, effortlessness, balance between challenge and ease, a reduction of self-consciousness, and finally an overall feeling of control. At first, this may sound complicated, but it is deceptively simple in practice. In fact, many people experience it without even realising. Have you ever become so immersed in an activity that hours have passed in what has seemed like minutes?
The activity in question can be almost anything that a person enjoys doing, and it varies greatly. Common examples include creative pursuits, such as drawing or pottery-making, physical activity such as rock climbing, musical pursuits such as playing an instrument, and so on. According to one SF Trinity student: “I’ve experienced the flow state with piano a lot, and sometimes with crochet too. Piano is easier I would say as you’re following a set pattern of notes, and crochet can require more thinking, which can make it more difficult to focus.” Whatever activity is chosen by a person hoping to enter a flow state, it just has to have the right balance of challenge and reward.
In a culture preoccupied with productivity and consumerism, it could offer a refreshing perspective: the pursuit of a task solely for personal fulfilment.
When done correctly, flow fosters a sense of constant achievement within the person. It is an autotelic process, meaning that its primary purpose lies within itself rather than an end goal or product. It can be said that it is as much about the action of doing something as it is about what will be produced at the end. In a culture preoccupied with productivity and consumerism, it could offer a refreshing perspective: the pursuit of a task solely for personal fulfilment.
It is worthy of note that it can be more difficult for some people than for others. Those with an autotelic personality, a term denoted by Csikszentmihalyi in 1997 as “an individual who generally does things for their own sake, rather than in order to achieve some later external goal”, may find it easier than those with a more neurotic or self-conscious personality. Which is not to say that it is impossible for a more preoccupied character to find flow, simply that more time and attention may need to be given over to the task.
The first step in finding flow is outlining a task that brings satisfaction, and offers the right balance of challenge and ease. The task must not be so simple that it is boring, and not so challenging that it invokes frustration. It is important to remove any distractions that may infringe upon the pursuit of the flow state from your surrounding environment. In particular it is recommended that electronics are put away. Finally, focus on the chosen task. Entering flow could happen instantaneously, or it could take a little persistence. It is worth noting that it is not enough to simply be motivated to do the task, or enjoy it as an activity; “the only way to build up to the state of flow is to become absorbed in the task.” (Oppland, UC Berkeley).
Nowadays, entering a state of flow has added barriers. In this virtual era of short-form media consumption, endless distraction is provided through technology. The heavy hits of dopamine resulting from social media usage are difficult to replicate in any other activity. Essentially, with constant stimulation from electronic devices, boredom is a thing of the past and the ability to focus is weakened. As a result, it may be difficult to get started on a task that does not provide immediate entertainment. It may require conscious effort to allow the brain to enter a state of mind that best fosters the emergence of flow.
Through the intense concentration that typifies flow, a person can achieve a temporary evasion of conscious thought, and subsequently may find respite from the brain’s anxieties and stresses.
The question is, is it really worth all of this effort? According to psychologists, the benefits are numerous. Through the intense concentration that typifies flow, a person can achieve a temporary evasion of conscious thought, and subsequently may find respite from the brain’s anxieties and stresses. It offers a meaningful way to pass time through pursuit of an enjoyable interest that is inherently satisfying. But is it worth it?
The output of work may be at a higher standard as a result of deep focus on and immersion in the chosen task. It is a wonderful way to hone a skill, associated with increased feelings of fulfilment that come hand in hand with the sense of achievement that fosters flow. If you are interested in finding out more, a great place to start is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 2004 Ted Talk on the topic. Why not give it a go?