Have you ever had the experience of being so absorbed in a task, so hyperfocused that you lose track of time and your actions become almost effortless? If so, you may have experienced what is known as “flow.”
Flow theory was developed in 1975 by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. More familiarly known as being “in the zone,” flow is a state of heightened awareness, concentration and proficiency while completing a task. Whether you’re in the grueling sixth hour of a Wimbledon match or tackling the colossal project of cleaning the garage, you may at some point enter a state of intense concentration.
A necessary condition to reach a flow state is that the task be difficult enough relative to the skill of the person engaged in it. Tiger Woods will probably not reach flow in a putt-putt game. In fact, when the difficulty of the task is not commensurate with the performer’s ability, anxiety or boredom are likely to set in.
Flow is distinguished from other forms of concentrated effort by the emphasis on motivation. The task should be intrinsically rewarding. For example, the act of gardening itself should be a source of joy, rather than only harvesting the vegetables.
Flow cannot be reached where there is fear about social evaluation. We might think that a concert pianist is all-too mindful of the audience’s evaluation of him or her but, once the state of flow is reached during the performance, self-awareness simply melts away.
Flow occurs in the absence of self-consciousness. Reaching this optimal state depends on a sense of self-confidence to accomplish the task at hand. Otherwise, you might be in your head, ruminating on all the ways you could fail—a mindset hardly conducive for inspiration and sustained focus. Also, recognizing that you are “in the zone” will likely only jar you from that experience. Perhaps this is the reason it is considered bad luck in baseball to talk about a no-hitter while it is happening. It sounds like silly superstition, but it may have scientific merit: bringing up a flawless performance to a pitcher makes them self-conscious, interrupting their state of flow.
The Benefits of Flow
According to a group of researchers who studied flow’s role in the workplace: “While in flow, people experience high levels of confidence, competence, and engagement, and they have little awareness of their self as an object of evaluation.” It’s as if the inner critic is momentarily silenced, freeing the flow of creativity, enthusiasm, and productivity.
So how do you know when you’re in flow? Oftentimes you wouldn’t until after the fact. Maybe you glance at the clock after a period of absorbed activity, only to find that several hours have escaped you. When you are diligently committed to the task at hand, you are operating outside your awareness of time.
In a study of 21 classical pianists, flow was found to correspond with physiological indicators such as blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory depth. When flow was reached, these levels decreased, but performance improved. In an interesting turn, the higher the level of performance, the more relaxed the performer while in flow. It’s as if there’s a zen-like calm that comes over us when we push ourselves beyond our comfort zones.
Accessing flow states through various activities is associated with long-term well-being. There is even evidence that reaching flow improves mental health outcomes down the road. One study found that the self-clarity and present-moment awareness activated during a flow state is associated with improved psychological health later on.
Flow in the Workplace
Flow has been rigorously studied in the workplace, with certain conditions identified to help facilitate the experience. Among them is task complexity. A task should be sufficiently challenging in order to draw the performer’s attention into completing it. If the task is too difficult for one’s skill set, like me trying to solve a Rubik’s cube, frustration is the likely outcome. If the task is too easy, like Einstein trying to solve a Rubik’s cube, boredom will result. The middle ground between impossible and easy is where flow is most likely to occur.
Some may experience a state of flow during a work presentation. If the challenge is difficult, like convincing a prospective buyer to choose your product or services, and you are well-prepared, you might reach a flow state during the presentation, feeling like you’re in the zone and ready for anything that comes your way.
Flow is more common the better you get at a task. As you improve in a specific skill, confidence increases, self-consciousness decreases, and, so long as you continue to push yourself incrementally, highly focused zones of performance are accessed.
How Can We Reach Flow?
Some activities are more conducive to flow than others. Any activity requiring a skill and a challenge, such as musical performance, improvisation, exercising, dancing, writing, cooking, cleaning, sports, reading, gardening, and teaching can all help elicit a flow state. The important thing is that the action is challenging but doable.
Tasks that enlist both physical and psychological abilities are the best candidates to facilitate flow. Dancing, for example, requires the coordination of mental and physical effort. A novice dancer will feel stilted as he struggles with memorizing basic footwork. Only when the movements become internalized does the dancer have the confidence to freestyle, using the principles of flow to feel his way through a dance.
Flow might also be seen in a skilled teacher who captivates her students with a rousing lecture without the use of a prepared script. Compare this with an instructor who relies too heavily on their PowerPoint presentation, never fully engaging with the class or the material.
Whether it’s Luke Skywalker disabling his targeting computer and trusting “the force,” or Chevy Chase in Caddyshack saying, “Stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball,” we could all benefit from flow theory. By challenging ourselves with a difficult but possible feat, and trying our best to silence the inner critic, we free ourselves to do our best work.