Have you ever lost yourself completely in an enjoyable activity, to the point where you lost track of time? It can feel almost like meditation, and all of your ideas and actions come together naturally and without effort.
If the answer is “yes”, then you’ve experienced “flow states”, known in every day speak as “getting in the zone”.
The coolest thing about flow states is that with a little bit of practice, you can learn how to get in the zone at will.
What is flow and flow theory?
The definition of flow
Psychologists has given the following definition of flow:
Flow is a mental state of intense concentration and complete immersion in an engaging activity, where the person loses track of time and space, while also experiencing great enjoyment and inner peace.
The most common flow inducing experience everybody will go through is that of playing games. Other flow experiences can be gardening, knitting, painting, listening to an Audible audiobook or watching a documentary on CuriosityStream.
However, the psychological processes that make games fun can also be applied to make even chores more enjoyable (although they’ll never be quite as fun as games).
Flow theory is branch of psychology that aims to discover the mechanisms behind flow states, and then develop methods every person can use in order to enter a flow state and get in the zone whenever they want.
On top of that, the same principles that apply to entering flow states during normal activities can also be used to integrate an entire life into a single flow experience.
In other words, a person can be in a permanent, day-to-day flow state.
The effect won’t be as intense, but it can make even boring daily activities (cleaning dishes; throwing the trash) to be enjoyable and fun.
What does a state of flow feel like?
Most people have an intuitive understanding of what it feels to be in the zone. That being said, if you’re unsure whether you are experiencing flow or not, there are some clear symptoms to help you figure it out:
- Intense concentration and absorption in the present moment.
- Being fully aware of your every action and its impact.
- You stop being self-conscious of your actions and behave like you’re alone.
- A strong sense of control over the situation; you control the situation and not the other way around.
- Your perception of time changes, things seem to pass much more quickly.
- The activity is rewarding intrinsically, without outside rewards such as money.
How to enter a creative flow state and get in the zone
Below are the triggers that have to be met in order to enter flow states. They are fairly simple and straightforward, however all of them must be met in order to get in the zone.
1. You need clear goals
Goals are important because they structure your activity so that it accomplishes certain objectives.
According to flow theory and other psychological research, simply doing an activity over and over again will not actually make you better at it. At the same time, mindless repetition of an activity is as boring as watching paint dry.
By now, you’re probably familiar with the 10,000 hour rule. This is the central idea in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers and claims that simply doing something for 10,000 hours will make you an expert in it.
Science has thoroughly debunked this idea. Instead of 10,000 hours of braindead repetition, what you should do is something called deliberate practice.
This means that every practice session must have a clear goal (you can even consider them as micro goals).
Below are some examples of deliberate practice:
- During a drawing practice session, you will only focus on how to draw better faces.
- During an Excel practice session, you will focus on mastering one function or operation.
- During a baseball training round, you will focus only on better swinging the bat.
The cool part about deliberate practice, is that it’s much, much faster than just entering zombie mode and repeating something for 10,000 hours. It’s also much more fun and engaging.
This article here is a relevant and actionable resource on how to setup actionable goals you can stick to.
2. You have to know how to do the activity
The second condition to getting in the zone, is knowing how to actually do the activity and achieve your objectives.
Trying to bake a cake when you’ve never even touched the oven before, isn’t fun or engaging. At most, it can only be stressful or incredibly frustrating.
Entering flow states requires a mental roadmap of each step, where you know all the checkpoints and move from one point to the next.
Without this mental roadmap, the whole activity will be very fragmented since you will constantly check and double check if everything is ok, look for pointers and generally doubt yourself whether what you did is good or not.
On the other hand, if you have some experience in the kitchen and have baked a few simple cakes before, trying to make a more complex cake can be very rewarding and flow inducing.
So what do you do if you don’t know how to do the activity?
The best way around this problem is to apply a “learning-by-doing” method and just do the activity and figure things out as you go.
3. Flow states requires feedback and mini-goals
The third, and probably most important aspect of getting in the zone and experiencing flow is the feedback you get from the activity on a moment to moment basis.
A good example of this is rock climbing. What makes the activity challenging and interesting is how high the mountain is, and how difficult the slope is.
However, what really makes it fun and flow inducing is the feedback you get from climbing:
- Grabbing a rock and feeling if it can hold your weight.
- Placing your foot in a tiny opening.
- Taking a short break to see where you can make your next move.
- Feeling the sun and temperature.
- The effort and strain in your muscles as you push your body upwards.
This moment-to-moment feedback tells you in real time how well or poorly you are doing the activity. This in turn allows you to adjust your actions accordingly in order to achieve your objectives.
On a psychological level, feedback has a similar effect to mindfulness. Basically, it pushes aside any other thoughts you might have in your brain in order to focus on the activity itself.
This is why flow states are strongly associated with losing track of time, space or other unimportant external stimuli. Your brain is simply far too concentrated on the delicate balance of action followed by feedback that it doesn’t pay attention to anything else.
As mentioned before, feedback is the most difficult aspect of flow you must master. Some activities, such as games, are naturally better at generating action – feedback loops.
Unfortunately, most day to day activities (cleaning dishes, grocery shopping) do not have an obvious action – feedback loop to help you enter flow states.
As a result, the only way to turn these activities into flow inducing ones is to create your own action – feedback loop to make these activities enjoyable.
As an example of creating your own action-feedback loops:
- Turning off the microwave at the very last second before it has to stop.
- When moving boxes from one place to another, you reimagine the whole activity as a game of Tetris.
- When you have to do long walks, trying to synchronize your steps with people around you.
The psychologist who coined the term “flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi had a highly relevant quote for this kind of situations:
“Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
In order to find your own action – feedback loops, you need to be present on a moment to moment basis. This can be a profound lifestyle change. This article on Psychology Today is a good starting point.
4. A balance between skills and challenges; the flow state chart
Entering a state of flow is a delicate balance between your skill level, and how difficult a challenge is.
If your skill level is high, but the activity has a low difficulty this leads to boredom. On the flip side, if your skill level is low and the activity has a high difficulty, then you will suffer from anxiety.
Getting in the zone and experiencing flow states requires you to enter a very narrow band where your skill level is just a little bit below the difficulty level of the activity.
This narrow band is enjoyable because it forces you to learn new information and skills. At the same time however, you still have a strong sense of control and aren’t overwhelmed by the difficulty of the challenge.
On a biological level, this is extremely satisfying. Whenever we learn something new, our bodies reward us with a hit of dopamine, the pleasure chemical.
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this makes total sense. Knowledge helps you survive and thrive in unknown and potentially dangerous situations. As a result, our brains have evolved to reward us whenever we learn something new.
But now comes a very important question: what do you do if your skill level is too low for the task?
This is indeed a hard situation to navigate around. It is nearly impossible to get in the zone when the task is simply too difficult. It’s like trying to play chess against the world’s chess champion; it can be a novel experience at first, but losing 10 matches in a row in less than five minutes isn’t fun.
Fortunately, there is a neat solution around this: break down the task into smaller, manageable sub-tasks and focus on those, one at a time.
For instance, if you would like to learn how to ski, a good way to start is by learning to focus on one aspect of skiing at a time: how to distribute your weight, upper and lower body independence, range of movement etc.
Even if you find skiing itself to be difficult and very challenging, learning the subcomponents can be much easier and even flow inducing. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can then move on to skiing proper and experience the complete state.
5. A distraction free environment
This last step is the most straightforward of all. Even if all of the above elements are in place, you can’t truly enter a flow state if the environment has too many external stimuli such as noise, people moving around, loud music, emotionally needy dogs or tempting food.
A deeper look at flow states with the flow model
The most common psychological states when there’s a mismatch between skills and challenge levels are either boredom (challenge too low compared to skill) or anxiety (challenge too high relative to skill).
That being said, there is a bigger variety of emotional states you can go through depending on the ratio between skill level and challenge difficulty.
What breaks flow states
Even if all of the 5 conditions mentioned above are met, it is still possible you cannot enter a flow state and not get in the zone.
There can be many reasons for this, and below are the two most common causes.
Activities such as driving a car, or tying your shoelaces are only possible by paying attention to them. But our attention has limits, and this makes it difficult to concentrate on too many activities at once.
When your mind is overwhelmed by too many problems, it becomes chaotic. Your thoughts swirl and prevent you from thinking clearly and focusing on the most important goals you have.
This phenomenon is called psychic entropy. Sometimes, your mind wants to go in one direction, but your body in another. Other times, you can be frustrated because you have too many tasks to complete, and don’t know where to start.
It generates a conflict within us where our mind chases multiple desires at the same time. This leads to a broken consciousness, that cannot enter flow states.
For example, one part of you wants to immediately go to the dentist and treat a severe tooth ache, but another part wants to just get on with your work and finish an important project. Whichever you decide to do, it will be impossible to find a balanced state of mind.
This conflict of purposes and desires reduces our ability to concentrate and focus on the things we want to achieve.
Organizing your mind and clearing it from intrusive thoughts is a separate skill by itself. A good place to start is by following the Eisenhower matrix, which divides tasks by urgency and importance.
Doing things for external rewards, and not for their own sake
External rewards, such as the desire for money, fame or job promotions can break a person’s flow state if they are not properly managed.
By its very nature, flow provides a sense of enjoyment and pleasure that comes from within and does not depend on any external rewards. For instance, someone who enjoys painting as a hobby in their free time can easily enter flow states when painting portraits for friends.
However, if they wanted to earn money out of painting then the whole psychology starts to change. Instead of focusing on the brush strokes and the craftsmanship, their mind wanders on the money. The flow state evaporates and the act of painting now becomes mechanical.
This of course raises a question: can you enter flow states if you’re getting paid to do what you love?
The answer is yes. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you can enter flow states and get in the zone even if there’s money involved. The real trick is to create a sort of mental separation between the activity itself, and the payment attached to it.
How would this separation work in practice? To go back to the painter example, the artist would just imagine they are getting paid to stand in front of the canvas and be all artsy. The fact that they happen to use the brush to touch the canvas is purely their own fun and has nothing to do with the money.
A similar way of thinking can be applied to other, regular jobs: you’re just getting paid to be at the office / workplace. However you do the work not because you’re paid, but because you actually enjoy doing it.
Experiencing creative flow states and getting in the zone is easier than it seems. On a biological level we’re hardwired to live such an experience. The basic mechanisms are simple enough, and easy to replicate.
As with all things in life however, practice makes perfect and it can take a while to learn what works and what doesn’t for you.