What Is Flow State? Everything You Need To Know

what is flow state? everything you need to know

Why some of the best ideas pop in our minds when taking a shower?

Why sometimes we can work fast like a machine, without any distractions and a razor-sharp focus?

In this post, you’ll learn what is flow state, and how it can increase creativity, productivity and overall wellbeing.

If you’d like to find out what is flow state, then you’ve come to the right place! First of all, head to our last blog post to understand how creativity leads to productivity and, ultimately, experiencing flow.

Once you’ve read that, take a mindful moment to sit in silence. Get comfortable and recall the last time you felt the unstoppable creative energy run through your veins. 

Experiencing Flow State

Is there a particular memory that comes up of you being so deeply engaged in an activity at hand that time quite literally seemed to stop?

Do you remember a specific experience of having an immense sense of undivided attention and simply being “in the zone”?

The scientific name for that highly enjoyable feeling is the flow state.

When experiencing it, we gain these almost superhuman skills alongside tremendous amounts of energy, motivation and razor-sharp focus. Time becomes totally subjective, and it seems like nothing could distract us from our single goal – the activity that we pursue. Our thoughts quiet down, inner critic completely shuts down and gives place to a refreshing sense of mental clarity, self-confidence and… joy

rock climbing is a perfect example of an activity which is highly likely to put us in the flow state

You might have experienced this state of mind while running, swimming, meditating, writing, making art, rock climbing, listening to music, or simply thinking. What I find most fascinating about flow is that it applies to almost every activity in the world under specific circumstances. 

So yeah, you might have been cleaning your house, and before you realised it, you were done with that dreaded chore. Or maybe you were tackling a complicated task at your workplace, and suddenly unique, out of the box ideas came flowing like water through you, and you became merged entirely with your challenge until it was completed. 

Harnessing the potential of flow state and using it as a tool to breed creativity and productivity holds an unimaginable power to bring your entire career to a whole new level. Even Abraham Maslow in the 1940s knew that flow experiences are shared among the most successful people, athletes, world-class performers etc. 

How did this global interest with flow state even begin?

Psychology of Flow State

There’s no talking about flow without introducing you to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian-American psychologist who recognised and named this phenomenon. Throughout his years of imprisonment during WWII, Csikszentmihalyi became very interested in studying the nature of contentment and happiness, which he dedicated his life to. 

Csikszentmihalyi noticed how often we, humans, fall into the trap of waiting for the right time, right place, right moment to be happy. We tell ourselves stories of how we would really enjoy life if only we had a better car, a bigger house, a longer holiday, more money in the bank account etc. You get the idea. 

Now, I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t make any money. While financial stability can satisfy the most basic needs, such as providing food, shelter, or medicine, it simply cannot buy us happiness in the long term. The Easterlin Paradox, discovered in the 70s, clearly shows a breaking point where having a higher income over time does not foster happiness:

the easterlin paradox shows how money cannot buy you happiness; happiness can be found in simple activities like flow state

“A person can make himself happy, or miserable

regardless of what is actually happening ‘outside’, 

just by changing the contents of consciousness.

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

So, while a safe environment is essential to our wellbeing, each individual has still some control over the level of their own happiness. Csikszentmihalyi understood that we could even go one step further and generate moments of happiness when entering flow, “an optimal state of consciousness where we perform our best and feel our best“.

However, it takes quite a lot of effort, just like anything in life. If you want to be happy, creative, productive, you have to work for it.

There’s no way around it. BUT, this post is a great start, so let’s get into it, shall we?

7 Characteristics of Flow State

1. Autotelic Experience:

‘Autos’ in Greek means ‘self’, and ‘telos’ stands for ‘the outcome’. Therefore, autotelic is a characteristic of something or someone whose purpose is personal, located internally.

Flow state occurs when our goal is motivated internally, not externally. In other words, engaging in activities only to avoid punishment or seek external validation will only push us away from experiencing flow. However, when we do things for ourselves, something we truly love, there’s a much higher probability of entering flow state. 

2. Challenge-Skill Balance:

That, hands down, is one of the most important things to grasp when understanding how to enter flow state:

A graphic model showing what is flow state
  • The task of choice, our activity at hand has to be challenging for us in order for flow to appear.

  • Now, if the task is too challenging, it can only cause stress or anxiety, and nobody wants that to happen.

  • Yet, when it’s too easy, that’s just a one way street to apathy, boredom and being distracted with anything. 

So, correctly adjusting the size of a challenge to our skill or ability to face it will lead successfully to an experience of flow. What we want is a sense of balance that will give us the edge. 

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

3. Action & Awareness become one:

That’s the experience of your mind switching off, your thoughts merging with the action, as they become inseparable. When in the state of flow, one engages in the activity or task at hand to the point that it becomes second nature, pretty seamless, automatic.

Think of the athletes or outstanding performers. They don’t overthink their actions. Their mind and body become one.

4. Complete Focus on The Task:

Flow puts us in an altered state of consciousness, where we place 100% of our focus on the current activity. Our attention is undivided. We become fully immersed in the experience of completing our task. The only things we notice are those relevant to our mission.

We do not flinch away; we do not get distracted. Anything unrelated to our task, we simply dismiss and ignore. 

5. Sense of Control:

Now, there’s a difference between trying to be in complete control versus having a sense of control.

While the former puts expectations and is result-oriented, the latter is at the very core of flow experience. It’s this liberating and extremely thrilling feeling of being absolutely capable of fulfilling the current task, being unstoppable, confident in our skills and really at the top of the world.

That’s where the peak performance happens.

6. Distortion of Time:

the clocks on the photo symbolise the distortion of time that happens when experiencing flow state

Flow state works in this magical way that seems to bend laws of physics once in a while, namely transforming time in the most peculiar way.

Maybe you had a fascinating discussion with your friends, and you did not even notice that 3 hours had passed by. Or, there’s a possibility that when you engage in your passion project or a hobby, time seems to slow down or speed up.

7. The disappearance of self-consciousness:

One reason the state of flow feels so good is that all of our worries temporarily disappear.

There are no concerns, no issues, no negative self-talk. There’s just us, fully involved in the present moment, free of distractions and skyrocketing productivity.

Because we are so focused on our current activity, there’s no attention left to direct to ourselves. While usually, we use up most of our mental energy on protecting our ego, in the flow state, it’s the other way around.

Our self-consciousness disappears. We are the action AND the challenge. Nothing else matters. 

Human Brain When Experiencing Flow State

How come all of those qualities come together in the experience of flow? How is it all possible?

Well, it takes one look at the human brain activity during flow state to explain it all. 

  • Turning Off The Inner Critic

What happens on a neurological level is a phenomenon called transient hypofrontality, known commonly as “runner’s high”

Basically, the activity in the prefrontal cortex significantly decreases. That’s the part of the human brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as decision making, working memory, integration, self-reflection and consciousness of the self

Now, what mainly shuts down is an area called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, aka the kingdom of our inner critic. That’s where all of our self-judgments, negative opinions and other nasty thoughts of the self come from. When we enter the state of flow, however, it all vanishes. 

That is precisely why we feel so liberated and free to generate new ideas and channel our creativity with confidence. There’s nothing internally criticising us, discouraging our concepts, making us second-guess or overthink every little step.

Our subconscious thinking comes to the surface, and, well, we let loose – in the best way possible.

  • The Ultimate Drug

Another thing worth mentioning is the neurochemicals released during flow state. I mean, it’s truly crazy. When we are in this sweet spot of flow, our brains release a cocktail of dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, anandamide and norepinephrine. This is the reason why flow is an altered state of consciousness. 

photo of a woman with closed eyes among a wisp of smoke and light symbolises what is flow state

It is also the reason why flow has addictive potential. After all, there’s a myriad of different hard and soft drugs used for the sole purpose of enjoying the effects of these neurochemicals. Flow state keeps us calm, fosters social bonding, releases pain, induces the feeling of belonging and even facilitates experiences of being one with the world.

Yet, as opposed to other drugs that are highly detrimental to our health, achieving the state of flow, chasing after that rush requires us to meet new challenges and master our skills, which can only lead to self-development and remarkable personal growth

Takeaway

“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”

― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

If you’ve read this far – I can only congratulate you.

You’ve officially made the very first step towards becoming your better, more creative, productive and happy self. I truly believe that learning what flow state is, understanding the intricacies of this phenomenon and recognising its potential is the key to transforming and revolutionising your life. 

What will your second step be?