We all want to be a little bit more productive and we’ve all experienced the extreme focus of flow state, but most of us don’t know how to utilise it.

Productivity can fluctuate for a number of different reasons. Maybe you’re tired, hungry, or stressed. It might just be that you struggle to find your focus. Finding your state of flow is the best way to counteract this lapse of productivity. It will help you banish the temptation to procrastinate so that you can start making positive progress.

What is the flow state?

First, we need to understand what the state of flow actually is. It is a term from positive psychology, which is essentially the study of what makes life good, worth living, and how we can flourish.

This state of mind is commonly known as being ‘in the zone’. It is the state where we feel completely immersed in the task at hand, with complete concentration and even enjoyment in the task. When you’re experiencing it, it is common to lose track of your surroundings, even the time.

Flow state and hyperfocus

Flow state can sometimes be confused with hyperfocus, however, the two are entirely different. Hyperfocus is an intense mental concentration or imagination, which often distracts individuals away from tasks.

Although the two are similar in terms of concentration, hyperfocus is concentration on the wrong things, such as videogames and focussing only on a small part of a task. For these reasons, hyperfocus is a common symptom of ADHD and has been proposed to be linked to other conditions.

How to know if you are in the state of flow?

While this state of mind is a somewhat abstract concept, some psychologists have proposed some indicators of experiencing it:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment

When you are experiencing the flow, you are entirely focused on what is going on right there and then. You lose sight of future commitments and past events.

  1. Merging of action and awareness

Again, somewhat of an abstract concept, the merging of action and awareness essentially means that your actions feel like an extension of your mind.

  1. Loss of reflective self-consciousness

A key indicator of flow state is that we lose the awareness of ourselves in some way. Simply put, it means that we feel less self-critical and self-aware.

  1. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity

We may not be in control of the result of a project, but when we are experiencing this state while performing a task, we often feel in complete control.

  1. A loss of sense of time

The most common indicator of flow state is a complete loss of time. We’ve all looked up from the clock and wondered where the time went.

  1. Experience of intrinsic reward

We don’t even need to know the outcome of a particular task and project. When we are in the state of flow, we receive an intrinsic reward from simply performing the task in the first place. We typically feel as though we have more potential to succeed in the task at hand.

  1. Other needs become less important

When experiencing the flow, it is common that we forget about other needs. We may forget we are hungry, thirsty, or tired. We might even come out of flow realising we desperately need the bathroom!

How can the flow state benefit you?

flow state focus

The most obvious benefit you will get is boosted productivity. We all want to get a little bit extra done, improve our focus and make progress on our goals. Finding your flow state is an incredibly useful tool in getting things done, but it also has some unexpected benefits.

A surprising, but not entirely unexpected, result of reaching this state is greater happiness. This is because of two reasons. First, when you are experiencing the flow, you are not necessarily happy or unhappy, you are simply neutral. Then, once the project is finished, you receive the personal reward of finishing a project.

Secondly, the state of flow also tends to give you better performance because your brain is more relaxed, similar to post-meditation. This allows you to achieve greater insight with a project. Moreover, the flow state allows for the release of dopamine, which enhances your ability to notice patterns by heightening our attention and decreasing distractions.

This aspect of being in the flow allows us to also the external rewards from bosses, or project completion. All in all, this gives you a greater proportion of positive emotions and studies have found that those in flow also tended to improve in levels of self-esteem and self-image.

5 elements of reaching the flow

productivity and happiness

There are five aspects which fit together to create a state of flow:

  • self-control
  • environment
  • skills
  • purpose
  • reward

Self-control is a key element of being in the flow.

To be able to utilise flow more often, we need to be able to gain control of our willpower. Nathan DeWall, a psychology professor who utilised the science of self-control to become a marathon runner, suggests three ways to develop our self-control:

  1. Find your standards and set some goals.

These may be big or small, but are usually things such as hitting a word count, running a certain distance, or drinking a certain amount of water. They are the small goals on the way to the ultimate goal.

  1. Set up how you will monitor your goals.

Self-control works best with immediate feedback, and this comes in the form of tracking your goals. Find ways to constantly track your goals, but be flexible enough to alter them if you need to.

  1. Be aware of your energy levels.

Our energy fluctuates throughout the day and, with it, so does our willpower. Typically, we will have more self-control and willpower when we have more energy, and these are the times we should practice getting into the flow state.

Environment is an interesting feature when finding your flow.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, the best way to practice flow is to push yourself slightly out of your comfort zone. This allows your body and mind to adapt to more challenging environments. As a consequence, when you do reach the state of flow, you will be less distracted by more challenging environments.

Skills allow us to begin the task in the first place but should be well matched with a good level of challenge.

To experience the flow, we need enough knowledge to complete a task and feel as though we are deliberately using them. That is to say that we must be present when applying our knowledge and do it on purpose, rather than just going through the motions.

Purposeful work is much more likely to get you into the flow state.

When we feel connected and passionate about something, we pay much more attention to it. Consider what you are creating, who you are creating it for, and what is the expected outcome. The more something stimulates us, the more motivated we become, and this is an essential element of finding your flow.

If a task doesn’t feel so important to you, find ways of making it important. Maybe it will help your job performance, improve your physical capability, or just make you feel good about yourself when you finish.

Reward is the last element of finding the state of flow.

In its essence, reward simply a by-product of flow state but links all of the rest together. Understanding the reward of your work will almost always help you find your purpose. It will also motivate you to apply your skills, develop self-control and put yourself out of your comfort zone. The reward is the motivation to see a task from start to finish.

Finding and practising these elements will help you successfully enter flow more often and reap the incredible benefits. Not only will it boost your productivity, but it will also holistically improve your life.

References:

  1. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  2. Find Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5855042/
  4. Scientific Secrets for Self-Control – C. Nathan Dewall
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