What is "the flow", and how do I achieve it?

Image by karindalziel - CC-BY

Image by karindalziel - CC-BY

The “flow” is a state of consciousness experienced from time to time by creative people—musicians, writers, performers, painters, programmers or sportspeople. When someone is in the flow:

  • they lose awareness of time,
  • they become unaware of distractions,
  • they are fully motivated and energized,
  • all worries and doubts dissipate, and
  • they focus totally on one task, as if their mind and body are coupled directly to it

It's a remarkable state to be in: totally immersed and highly productive. One might achieve more in an hour of flow than in a regular day of hard slog. Flow is profoundly enjoyable and satisfying, yet not directly pleasurable—indeed, a strong emotion such as pleasure would break the flow.

The seminal research on flow comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”) of the Psychology department at the University of Chicago, who describes his field of his studies as the psychology of optimal experience. Subsequently, flow has become a well-regarded mainstream field of study.

So how does one achieve flow, get into the groove, become totally absorbed in one's task? That's not so easy. Not everyone considers themselves to have experienced the mental state called flow. And of those who have, few can move into that state “on demand”.

Achieving a state of flow requires one to shed one's self-awareness. Someone who is in a state of flow won't notice things like the passing of day into night, or the missing of a mealtime. The state of flow is epitomised by a writer who works through the night without realising that everyone else has gone to bed, and that he has missed dinner without being aware of hunger.

There are some pre-requisites for achieving flow. You need to minimise distractions, both external and internal. For some people, putting on headphones and playing the right kind of music is enough to eliminate the external distractions. Others prefer to close doors, take the phone off the hook, etc. There are also distractions coming from one's mind: all those thoughts going around and around, and sometimes bubbling up to surface in one's consciousness.

No doubt there are monks who can deliberately turn off those internal distractions, but for most people the opposite approach must be taken: willpower must be used to start the activity, launching oneself into it with as much conscious concentration as possible. This can sometimes “set the ball in motion” towards flow. If it happens that the task is enjoyable, AND if the task comprises small steps, AND if success at each of those sub-tasks is immediately obvious and rewarding, then a feedback loop can develop. As each sub-task is achieved, it generates a small reward which motivates us to focus our attention more closely on the next sub-task.

Soon we are in the flow, and can tackle larger and more complex tasks. An hour previously we might have had “writer's block”, yet now the creative juices are flowing and we are writing page after page after page…

Of course we will eventually snap out of the flow. We might notice a clock chiming, or someone else may disturb us, or we may complete our task, or our hunger or thirst might become too great, and we lose our total immersion. Or perhaps we just get to a task that we don't manage to complete successfully, and fail to get that reward stimulus that keeps us on track towards our goal. Stumped, we snap out of the flow and back to our normal awareness.

Jazz musicians perform their best improvisations while they are in the flow, totally focused on just “letting the music flow out”, and hardly aware of their audience. Rock-climbers perform at their best when the only thing in their awareness is the rock and their bodies. I have experienced flow when programming or writing, but only occasionally. I've also achieved it in orienteering and other sports, although not recently.

Flow can be achieved by a group of people, but naturally it's more difficult for a group to enter the state because there are more distractions, and everyone in the group needs to be “in the zone” for it to work. Having everyone in the flow can happen with activities where everyone must work together, synchronising yet also interacting, for example drummers sharing a beat, or the crew of a yacht sailing in challenging conditions.

At the world's first Wiki (set up by Ward Cunningham, who invented the concept of Wikis), there is an interesting page where software developers discuss the mental state called flow: what it is, and how to get into it. The context of the discussion includes sport and music as well as programming. It's informal and quite readable:

See also Flow at Wikipedia.


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