Flow State Part 1: What is ‘Flow State’?

What is Flow State and Why Does It Matter? 

If you’ve ever worked on a project or pretty much done anything in your life, you’ve had to learn to concentrate, or focus, on getting the work done. For most people, myself including, this can be a difficult task. In today’s world, there are simply too many distractions all around us to allow you to focus properly. Screens, social networks, music, communications, tv, etc. It can get frustrating to keep focus and actually get what needs to be done….done! Let alone to get it done to an excellent standard. 

However, there is a special state one can achieve, that when it comes to getting things done can make it seem like you are a Buddhist Zen monk that has been fused with the Terminator (obviously the one from T2: Judgement Day). A small exaggeration, but bear with me;

It’s called Flow state. Let me tell you more about this little known secret productivity weapon. 

So to set the stage so I can give you a clear understanding, let’s first discuss what concentration is, what kinds there are and what that special state, Flow State is and how to access it.

What we colloquially call concentration is actually called attentional control in psychology. It’s a surprisingly complex topic, and for the purpose of this article, I will only brush upon it. Attentional control refers to an individual’s capacity to choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. It is also known as endogenous attention or executive attention. In lay terms, attentional control can be described as an individual’s ability to concentrate. Primarily mediated by the frontal areas of the brain including the anterior cingulate cortex (like other higher functions), attentional control is thought to be closely related to other executive functions such as working memory. I discuss the difference between the different types of memory function in this article about nootropics.

Its usually considered that our concentration has three components: alertness (maintaining awareness of some input), orientation (the information from sensory input itself), and executive control (controlling, channeling and resolving the conflict of the input). It develops over a persons entire lifetime, with peak functionality happening in late adulthood, slowly falling towards old age.

The degree to which a person can concentrate varies greatly, and can depend on too many factors to count. Genetics, culture, upbringing, training… all these things can influence concentration as well as many short-term changes, like mood, mental health, physical condition and so on. There are many ways one can train and boost their concentration, though exercises, tricks or supplements. Some of these I already talked about in previous articles, other I will talk about in future ones. 

For now, lets “focus our attention” on the main topic, or flow state.

So, Flow State, in a very simple view, is the golden apple of concentration. It is the ideal state in which one can focus without effort and deliver almost perfect results. Think of a Zen master making a sand mandala. To explain in more detail, lets look at it through multiple angles.

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, the concept has been widely referred to across a variety of fields, though the concept has existed for thousands of years under other names, notably in some Eastern religions, like Buddhism.

One important thing to note! Flow state should not be confused with overly concentrating on something, which is called hyper-focus! The flow state shares many characteristics with hyper-focus. However, hyper-focus is not always described in a positive light. Some examples include spending “too much” time playing video games or watching television and getting side-tracked and pleasurably absorbed by one aspect of an assignment or task to the detriment of the overall assignment. In some cases, hyper-focus can “capture” a person, perhaps causing them to appear unfocused or to start several projects, but complete few.

Flow State can also be summed up as “living in the moment” and being 100% completely immersed in what you are doing and forgetting everything else, sometimes even yourself.

Since flow state is more of a feeling (state, as it were) rather than a defined process, it can be a bit difficult to explain it fully. Researchers identify the following factors as an experience of flow:

· Intense and focused concentration on the present moment

· Merging of action and awareness

· A loss of reflective self-consciousness

· A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity

· A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered

· Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

Some additional factors ascribed to flow state, but that can also be In some ways prerequisite to achieving it:

· “Immediate feedback”

· Feeling that you have the potential to succeed

· Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

So, what are the exact mechanisms of flow state? 

Well, for a large part, they are not yet fully known, but there are some theories. In any given moment, there is a great deal of information made available to each individual. Psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. Some researchers quite that number at about “110 bits of information per second”. That may seem like a lot of information, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just hearing and understanding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second. That is why when having a conversation, one cannot focus as much attention on other things! (and why its not a good idea to talk on the phone while driving!)

For the most part (except for basic bodily feelings like hunger and pain, which are innate), people are able to decide what they want to focus their attention on. However, when one is in the flow state, they are completely engrossed with the one task at hand and, without making the conscious decision to do so, lose awareness of all other things: time, people, distractions, and even basic bodily needs. This occurs because all of the attention of the person in the flow state is on the task at hand; there is no more attention to be allocated. This might be where the stereotype of overly focused mad scientists comes from!

The flow state has been described by researchers as the “optimal experience” because one gets to a level of high gratification from the experience. Achieving this experience is considered to be personal and “depends on the ability” of the individual. As said by one researcher: “One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall”. Sounds almost spiritual, and it is. As I already said, it is an important part in eastern traditions, and I would also argue western as well (prayer beads, praying mantras etc. exist in every religion!).

Now, as said, it varies a lot from person to person whether, for what time and how intensely you can enter Flow State. 
 Research has produced some proposed conditions for entering the state (although this is still largely hypothetical). They state what is required to be able to easily enter a flow state:

To enter a flow state, you have to hit the following criteria:

· Knowing what to do.

· Knowing how to do it.

· Knowing how well you are doing.

· Knowing where to go (if navigation is involved).

· High perceived challenges.

· High perceived skills.

· Freedom from distractions.

So, sadly, it is almost impossible to enter flow state doing something you dislike or something that bores you. However, there might be some hacks and shortcuts that can allow you to reach flow state and peak concentration. We will discuss them in the next post (next week).




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