5 Ways to Achieve Flow

Man experiencing flow while painting.
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Flow is often described as a mental state in which people experience complete immersion and involvement in an activity. Things seem to happen almost effortlessly and time seems to disappear while in this state. Athletes often refer to this state of mind as being "in the zone."

"Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void," said the artist Paul Klee. "Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will."

What Klee described in this quote is a perfect example of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. Total immersion in a task, a feeling of complete concentration and losing track of the outside world are all common characteristics of this state of mind.

Obviously reaching this state of flow is something many of us would like to accomplish on a regular basis. Fortunately, flow is not something restricted to just elite athletes, artists, and performers. You can achieve this state during a number of activities such as while working, while engaging in exercise, or while engaging in a hobby. So what exactly does it take to achieve a state of flow?

1. Your Skills Need to Be Well-Matched to the Task

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is most likely to occur when your skill level is perfectly aligned to the challenge that the activity presents. So a runner might experience flow during a marathon that he or she is well-prepared for, or a chess-player might reach this state during a game that presents the perfect challenge. In other words, gaining practice, experience and expertise in an activity will make it more likely that you will achieve flow in the future.

2. Stretching Your Skills Can Lead to a State of Flow

A slight stretching of your skills, or attempting something that is a little more advanced than your current abilities, can also foster a flow state. For a dancer, this might involve attempting a move that presents a bit of a challenge. For a graphic designer, it might involve taking on a project that requires utilizing a new type of software. Focus on adding new challenges on a regular basis. Not only will you become more skilled, you may find that the state of flow becomes much easier to achieve.

3. Have Clear Goals

You need to have a specific purpose for focusing on the task, such as winning an athletic contest, playing a particular piece of music or finishing a work project. That is not to say you should only engage in an activity in order to achieve a goal. People who achieve flow frequently are often intrinsically motivated to perform certain actions. In other words, they may have specific goals in mind, but they engage in these actions for their own sake as well.

4. Avoid Interruptions

It is important to devote all of your concentration to the task at hand. Multitasking and other distractions will disrupt the flow state. Set aside a time and space that will allow you to work on a project without being interrupted or distracted. Turn off your phone, television or other devices that might pull you away from the task at hand.

5. It is Essential to Focus on the Process and Not the End State

While having a goal is important, flow requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the end product. Allow yourself to simply live in the present moment without worrying too much about the ultimate outcome of your efforts.

Achieving flow can be a pleasurable experience, but it may also have other benefits as well. Research suggests that the benefits of flow include increased skill development and improved performance. Becoming more skilled and capable at a task can help improve your self-esteem in that area and give you a boost of self-confidence related to those skills. 

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  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), Flow, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698.
  • Howell, R.T. (2012). Finding "flow" this week. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cant-buy-happiness/201202/finding-flow-week.