According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
If you can get to that state, you are at your most productive and produce higher-quality output.
It’s in this state of flow that peak performers often produce their best work. Although they do not necessarily know when they are in this flow state, there are certain key similarities that high performers mention. Flow state is a state of “no thought,” where the mind quiets down. Flow can even extend to groups of people working together.
Tasks that might take days to do can be done in hours if done with the requisite mental focus and clarity.
This is completely at odds with the “hustle culture” and always-on mentality. You cannot achieve flow while in a state of pressure. Just because you are always on and always busy does not mean you are productive.
Product design and UX company, Design Partners, released a report based on the insights of 11 experts and high-achievers. Observing the behaviors of the best in the world at work allows us to understand how we can start to create flow states for ourselves.
The brain and flow
An added benefit to the flow state is happiness. The feeling of performing a task optimally and producing superior output leads to a release of dopamine in the brain. So, performing at your peak is where the greatest work satisfaction lies. Stress and anxiety counteract flow, so learning to manage that is key.
The flow state also reduces the pre-frontal cortex temporarily (the part of the brain that deals with long-term planning), so we are able to stay fully in the present moment.
By focusing on the process, rather than the end state or desired result, you have full liberty to immerse yourself in the present and produce your best work. It may seem counterintuitive, but the more we can let go of the outcome, the better our mental focus on the task at hand.
What circumstances need to be present for flow to occur?
You need to be an expert in your field, but that by itself is not enough. Achieving a state of flow relies on a state of constant improvement. For flow to occur there needs to be challenge, but not a challenge so great that it induces a feeling of stress. The challenge should be just outside your expert comfort zone. This means that challenge works best when it is incrementally increased and built upon. For example, when you train at the gym, you build up to lifting greater and greater weights, otherwise you might injure yourself if you try and do too much too soon.
As world-renowned sculptor and designer Joseph Walsh, whose pieces have been commissioned for the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Art in New York, puts it, “The secret is not seeing the expert as a milestone to achieve, but an attitude to have. An expert is someone who constantly seeks to improve.”
That experience of flow is intense and can also occur in group scenarios, where the team works as one, each individual in their particular zone of genius. In certain circumstances, such as an operating theater, for example, this can mean reframing the reaction to stress (once the mind gets stressed, it can knock you out of flow). So, it’s important to be able to channel pressure to remain in flow state. Interestingly, something as simple as making a joke can keep stress and anxiety in check.
Flow is not limited to creative fields. It can be applied by anyone looking to innovate, creatively problem-solve or produce their best work.
How can we get into flow?
In the Design Partners report, the panel of experts reveals personal rituals devised to get into the flow state.
The rituals tend to center around quieting the mind through applying relaxation techniques and setting the stage for success by creating an environment that supports a flow state. That could be, for example, switching off your phone or internet to avoid distraction.
While controlling your environment may not always be possible, it also seems like certain tools or equipment can create that feeling of flow. So, if you’re an athlete using a certain type of shoe or a photographer using a particular camera, those objects can become an extension of your identity, allowing you to stay in the flow state, almost like a “lucky charm.”
Once in that flow state, action becomes automated, and a state of “no thought” presides.
When we are trying to work out what our personal flow tools might be, it can be helpful to reflect back and understand what was happening for us, what we were doing and how we were doing it, during times when we felt the most in flow. Even if it was just for a few minutes at a time, it can help us uncover important clues about our process — making us more likely to achieve maximum productivity and quality output.