Finding FLOW

Riding the ongoing waves of anxiety associated with Covid-19 is challenging. It was the state of play even before we entered into our most recent lockdown. To my mind, the term "covid normal" is an oxymoron. What's normal about a global pandemic? While we cannot control the external nature of the ongoing threat this virus brings to our everyday life, health, and connectivity, we can strive to manage the things we can get into focus with the intention of finding flow.

What is a flow state, and what are its benefits?

You may have experienced a flow state at some point — that sense of fluidity between your body and mind, where you are totally absorbed by and intensely focused on something beyond the point of distraction. Time feels like it has slowed down. Your senses are heightened. You are at one with the task at hand, as action and awareness sync to create an effortless momentum. Some people describe this feeling as being "in the zone." This is the flow state, and it's accessible to everyone, whether you're engaged in physical activity, a creative pursuit, or even a simple day-to-day task.

What it means to be in a flow state

Popularised by positive psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura, flow state describes a feeling where, under the right conditions, you become fully immersed in whatever you are doing.

"There's this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other;" Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk

Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura reached this conclusion by interviewing a variety of self-actualized, high-performing people: including mountain climbers, chess players, surgeons, and ballet dancers. 

When you're giving your fullest attention to an activity or task that you are incredibly passionate about, singularly focused on, and immersed in, you may find yourself creating the conditions necessary to experience a flow state of mind. The mind's usual chatter begins to fade away, placing us in a non-distracted zone. The feelings that would consume you under normal circumstances (inhibition, hunger, fatigue, or aches and pains) melt away, and all that matters is your dedication to your task. 

The flow mental state is generally less common during periods of relaxation and makes itself present during challenging and engaging activities. According to Csikszentmihalyi, 

"The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… the best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." 

How meditation and mindfulness relate to flow state

Achieving a state of flow and gaining even a bit of focus is essential to achieving goals on a smaller scale, but being able to maintain that focus and maintain that stability of mind can be challenging. That's where meditation and mindfulness come in because a mind that is trained to be more present and at ease with itself — calmer, more precise, and content — is more likely to experience the flow state because we are training in non-distraction and focus.

By definition, mindfulness is the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever you're doing at the moment — free from distractions or judgment and aware of thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. By engaging in meditation, we encourage our minds to become more present, actively creating conditions that help us observe when we get distracted, what gets us distracted, and then return to the object of focus. A flow state of mind combines the two concepts. In essence, flow state is a very active, moving meditation.

How to get into a flow state

To achieve flow state, some common conditions need to be met:

1. You need to care about the task at hand 

2. The activity, job, or task cannot be too easy or too difficult 

3. Optimally, the activity should be something that you are good at. 

4. Your mindset surrounding the task should be focused on the journey, not the destination. 

Whatever your passion, think about the intrinsic factors motivating you as you tackle your task. Couple this with no interruptions and a flow state should follow as a natural consequence of these conditions aligning. 

Here are some other things you can do to encourage your body and mind to get in the zone:

  • Do something you love. It's the easiest way to get into a flow state. Doing something you love can satisfy your mind's craving for something challenging but doable and something that you're good at. 
  • Create a ritual. As you gear up for activities that will require you to enter a state of concentration, create a series of actions that you do every single time you're about to begin your task. It could be a meditation, a short walk, or a pot of tea. No matter your activity, it will let your brain know what's about to begin and that you are coaxing it to be ready. 
  • Choose your most important task. Achieving a flow state is best accomplished while focusing on one major undertaking that requires a significant portion of brainpower. Multitasking would create a web of distractions that make it impossible to achieve a flow state. 
  • Identify your peak creative and productive times. Identify the times where your mind most naturally functions at full speed. For many people, the morning after a good night's sleep is the most productive. Focusing on the day's main task during these times will make flow state a more achievable goal. 
  • Eliminate distractions. Focus on creating a peaceful environment with minimal distractions around you. Store your phone away and put it on "do not disturb." If you are working on a laptop, maybe try a website blocker. You know best the types of things that disturb you most often. Try minimizing as many of them as possible. 

The experience of flow in everyday life is an essential component of creativity and positive well-being for ourselves and our children. It is universal and has been reported to occur across all classes, genders, ages, and cultures, and it can be experienced during many types of activities. 

There will always be life circumstances outside our control that will challenge and disrupt our resolve to find flow. However, the good news is that finding flow is intrinsically rewarding, and the more we practice it, the more we can seek to replicate these experiences. Finding flow is possible. 

Acknowledgements & further reading

Director of Counselling