Flow State and Flow Cycle
A flow state is the optimal state of consciousness and, as such, can be quite beneficial. It is similar to the meditative state, with the exception that it uses up all of our stamina.
The term “flow state” is not novel, having been used for over 50 years. However, in the past, it was chiefly used in the sports terminology in the context of high performance. The term as we know it today was first defined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, in his seminal work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.”
Csíkszentmihályi’s work in the field of “positive psychology” (dealing with creativity and happiness) has influenced generations. He’s been quoted as saying that “repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason.”
Following on his views, Csíkszentmihályi says that people are happiest in the flow state, a state of “complete absorption and concentration” in his words. Flow state is, hence, an ideal state of intrinsic motivation.
Flow state is sometimes called being “in the groove” or “in the zone.”
Simply put, there are phases of flow state, which is to say that we can train ourselves to reach it.
These phases – better known as the flow cycle – are, as follows:
- Struggle. This feeling is similar to the sensation of trying something out for the first time and being aware of the fact that something is missing. In this phase, you obtain the information necessary for performing the task.
- Release. This is the second phase of the flow cycle when you are letting go of all the struggles. To be able to reach a flow state, you actually need to interrupt the struggle. More often than not, this phase equals taking a deserved break. It happens quite often that a revelation will hit you during this phase. That’s because, even if you’re consciously taking a break, the issue you were working on just previously is still present in the subconscious. That’s why it often happens that we see a clear solution to a problem when, e.g., taking a shower.
- Flow. Following the release, you go back to the task and immediately get the a-ha moment. This is the actual flow state.
- Recovery. As mentioned above, the flow state depletes your mental resources because you’ll be absorbed in the task and nothing else. Simply put, you’re boosting your performance by depleting your regular work mode. To avoid burnout, it is necessary to take a PROPER break afterward.
How to Enter Flow State
There are a number of flow state triggers, which we will discuss later on, but first let’s see how to intentionally enter this state. Unlike meditation, a flow state can actually be invoked.
The easiest way to discover your own “triggers” is by paying attention to your performance.
The state of flow is often described as being “in the groove,” as mentioned. So, the question is: when were you last in the groove? What did you do to reach that state? What did you do when reaching flow? Where were you?
Answers to these questions will help you discover your own triggers and enable you to consciously turn them on to enter flow.
The psychologist who defined flow state in the 70s, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, wrote that there are 10 triggers, the most important of which we are including below:
- Intense concentration
- Keeping clear goals in mind
- A balance of skills triggered by the challenge
- Triggered sense of curiosity, passion and purpose
- Enhanced pattern recognition and creative problem-solving
Flow State Characteristics
All that is nice and all, but how do we know if we’ve entered the groove?
Well, for one thing, there are a couple of unique characteristics that will give you the proper answer to this question. Notable flow state characteristics include:
Selflessness. When your sense of self disappears and your actions feel natural, you’ll know you’ve entered a flow state.
Timelessness. Is it possible for time to stop running? If you know some of the basics of physics, you are already aware of the answer to this question. Time flow can be a rather individual experience, depending on the situation. For example, it may appear that the last three days have flown by without you properly registering it (e.g., if you’ve been tremendously busy), but for a person living in a war zone, these three days have lasted way too long. In a flow state, the past and future will simply be forgotten. The only thing you’ll be aware of is the “now.”
Effortlessness. In a similar fashion, you will forget all of your frustrations – and you won’t have to put in any conscious effort at all!
Awareness and actions consolidate. Now that the time has stopped and there’s nothing worrying you, you will naturally be able to dedicate your full attention to the task, and nothing will be able to interrupt you.
Complete control. One of the defining characteristics of a flow state is that you are quite certain you have complete control over the situation. Arguably, this may be called high self-esteem, because no matter what happens, the situation won’t change.
Intrinsic motivation boost. Lastly, this state of mind grants you a sense of revelation, in that the activity you are performing has a purpose in itself.
Flow state is the state of mind that makes us immensely happy. It can be triggered by a number of occurrences. More importantly, we can learn what our own triggers are and use them to enter this state of mind.
However, the flow state uses up all of our mental resources – hence, we need to recover properly.
Overall, the flow leads to enhanced creativity and high performance, which makes it quite useful in our everyday lives.