Research has credited “flow” with everything from major scientific breakthroughs and creative expression, to landmark athletic achievement. But its productive benefits are by no means exclusive to academics and Olympiads alone; anyone can access it to enhance their performance, and further learning and skill development. So what exactly is flow, and how does it help us access our peak productive performance?
The concept of Flow was first coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the optimal mental state where a person becomes completely immersed in an activity. In this state, the person begins to act effortlessly, with every action and decision moving fluidly to the next.
Given the right conditions, you can experience flow in almost any activity – like playing in a band, practising a sport, writing a book, scripting a program, researching a topic, reading or just enjoying a deep conversation.
A huge part of flow is presence: your mind becomes so absorbed in the present moment that time and the outside world melts away. According to Csikszentmihalyi’s, during flow “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”.
This experience of immersion works to create a profound sense of satisfaction. It produces an intense, full-body kind of concentration to which nothing else quite compares – people feel “strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious and at the peak of their abilities.” So while you may completely lose your sense of self in a flow state, you can feel an expanded sense of self upon leaving it.
Research has broken down the curious brain function behind flow states to reveal that nearly all the brain’s inputs become focused towards a single activity. Interestingly, the brain mutes interference from our thinking analytical mind – which requires a lot of energy – and instead uses a quicker, more efficient subconscious form of processing. Effectively, we reroute energy used for intensive conscious processing to fuel heightened attention and awareness.
The result of cutting out this self-monitoring, critical processing? We achieve an automatic, seamless state of quick decision making. To borrow the words of respected productivity author Steven Kotler: “The result is liberation. We act without hesitation. Creativity becomes more free-flowing, risk taking becomes less frightening, and the combination lets us flow at a far faster clip.”
The body itself responds positively during flow. Studies show that your breathing deepens, your heart rate slows, and pleasure neurochemicals norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide and serotonin are released. These responses can all be linked to improvements in attention, lateral thinking, pattern recognition and quick problem solving – all of which support our productive performance.
These conditions combine to produce a cognitive state that allows people to quickly learn new skills, solve difficult problems and produce at an elite level. As Csikszentmihalyi explains, “your whole being is involved and you're using your skills to the utmost". Studies have continued to validate this, showing that executives are up to 500% more productive when working in flow states, and that flow can halve the time required to train target skills to an expert level.
Aside from helping us access an immersive state of concentration that pushes our cognitive capabilities to their limit, flow directly nourishes two important forms of intrinsic motivation: mastery and autonomy. Flow states feel good because we are completely in control – actively contributing towards something concrete, instead of being passively being led towards something undefined. Since flow can only happen when we have that creative space, and a challenging but surmountable goal to meet, the very conditions of flow are set up to produce our best, most rewarding work.
Unfortunately, the focus, clarity of purpose and challenge required to achieve flow are often lacking in the modern workplace. Our hyper-connected workspaces are saturated with distractions which fracture our focus and remove our space for deep thinking. Instead of focusing on meaningful, challenging tasks, much of our days are spent responding to low-value shallow work like email and chat app pings.
Curiously, these tasks can create a sense of “fake flow”, where we perform a cycle of automatic actions without creating any clear value. Endlessly scrolling newsfeeds and social media creates a similar effect – we may lose our sense of self, but it is passive, directionless and unchallenging, and we emerge from it feeling depleted instead of reinforced.
As our digital interactions become more reactive and unstructured, it becomes harder to stay present and actively prioritize our important work. To reclaim our productive focus and unlock our true potential, we simply need to protect space for deep concentration and practice flow on a regular basis.