What Is Being in the Flow?

Man with glasses and a beard with his hand on his chin and a thoughtful look on his face.

Being 'in the flow' has many benefits, so the question of how to achieve this state is an important one to ponder. (Image: Stevanovicigor via Dreamstime)

This is an important question, as being in the flow has the potential to impact many aspects of your life. We all know that when we are “in the zone,” everything just seems to flow. Everything clicks and falls into place. We perform effortlessly and our productivity is through the roof. But what is brain flow and how do you get it?

Being in the flow

Being in the flow is defined as a cognitive state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. This mental state is often characterized by decreased awareness of your surroundings, transformed perception of time, effortlessness within the skill being performed, loss of self-consciousness, feelings of personal control or agency over the task being undertaken, distorted experience of one’s own body or physical being (e.g., an altered experience that “the body is vibrating” or that “one’s limbs seem to have endless energy”), and euphoria (“flow high”).

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Why is this state important?

Flow is important because it has the potential to positively impact many aspects of your life. When you are “in the zone” and experiencing flow, you tend to feel happier and more productive. You often perform better on complex tasks and may experience a general increase in motivation. What’s even more exciting about being in the flow is that research suggests that people who frequently enter this state also tend to be healthier, happier, and more creative than those who do not!

Factors that influence being in the flow

There are many factors that influence whether or not you are in the flow, including attention focus, motivation, environmental factors, and the activity itself. Here are some of the most important:

Focus

It is often easier to enter into flow when you have an overall goal or outcome in mind. If there is no clear goal or outcome then you may find it more difficult to enter this state.

Motivation

Oftentimes people can get their best work done while they’re working toward something larger than themselves (e.g., a promotion at work). You might find it difficult to get your best work done if you don’t care about the task at hand or don’t believe in what you’re doing.

An illustration of a person on top of a ladder reaching for a star in the night sky.
Oftentimes people can get their best work done while they’re working toward something larger than themselves. (Image: Milkos via Dreamstime)

Environment

It’s hard to be creative when you’re sitting in a boring, crowded, and noisy room. If you want to get into the flow, it’s important that the space around you is conducive to this goal. You’ll need plenty of space, time, and privacy for your best ideas and insights to emerge!

Activity

Different activities lend themselves better than others to flow states. For example, workouts can be especially helpful because they often prime your mind for deep mental work (due to increased blood flow).

Other activities that lead people into flow include cooking or baking, dancing, playing music, meditation, and sex, among many others.

How can I achieve being in the flow?

The good news is there are many different things you can do to achieve more flow states in your daily life. Here are some of the most important strategies you can use to get in the flow:

Practice mindful focus

Getting better at entering into a state of mindful focus means paying more attention to your current mental state and environment to understand what makes it easier or harder for you to get into the flow. The more you meditate, the easier it will be for you to enter into being in the flow when faced with challenging tasks. Meditation is especially helpful because research has shown that it increases blood flow in areas involved in complex cognition (like the prefrontal cortex). If meditation doesn’t work well for you, try focusing on something else that slows down your breathing or otherwise distracts your mind from overthinking.

The more you meditate, the easier it will be for you to enter into being in the flow when faced with challenging tasks.
The more you meditate, the easier it will be for you to enter into being in the flow when faced with challenging tasks. (Image: Arne9001 via Dreamstime)

Set goals

Setting goals helps direct your attention to the outcome you want to achieve. Setting goals will bring to mind what you need to do now in order to move closer to achieving that end result. Keep your big picture in mind and remember that all of the small decisions along the way are helping you get there!

Identify your focus triggers

Some people like having a list of daily tasks laid out clearly before them, while others like taking time every morning or evening (when they’re calm) to turn their thoughts toward their day’s activities or week’s work. Try experimenting with different approaches until you find one that suits your needs best.

Schedule breaks

Breaks are an important part of achieving flow because taking a break allows you to get out of your mental state for a little bit, which allows you to come back to the task at hand with a fresh perspective. You also need breaks because, as research has shown, deep work can be draining and it’s important that you give your mind time to rest and recover from taxing mental tasks. That being said, research shows that getting into a flow state is best when you often have something pulling your attention away from whatever task you’re working on!

The benefits

There are many benefits of entering into the flow more in your daily life. These include:

Increased productivity

When you get into flow states, you’re able to produce greater amounts of high-level work done in less time than before.

Improved creativity

A study by Steven J. Spencer showed that those in flow states were able to generate more and come up with more novel ideas compared with those who weren’t.

Better focus

Getting into a state of flow means that you’re directing the majority of your mental resources toward whatever task you happen to be doing. As such, it’s much easier for you to stay focused on any given task at hand and work through it without distraction.

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