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The Ultimate Guide To Finding Flow

Have you ever been so engaged in a task that the sense of time seems to disappear? You enjoy working on it so much, your body’s needs for food and drink are nowhere to be found. Every action you take melts into the next one, and you would have updated your status to, “I’m on fire today…” except for the fact that Facebook is the last thing on your mind at the moment.

If your answer is yes, then congratulations you’ve experienced flow; that mystical thing that older generations might have related to being possessed but that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his team have introduced as a mental state of hyper focus and concentration; a state you could simply call as being obsessed rather than being possessed.

There’s a part of me that wishes everyone would be introduced to the concept of flow in school. Not only would our performance as individuals reach new heights, but we would also be collectively happier and who doesn’t want a world with more happiness? What’s even more interesting about flow is that it’s self-propagating. The more you experience it, the more you want to experience it. It’s a sort of addiction – the good type of addiction. So all you have to do is allow people to have free samples of flow before they get hooked.

I recently read the book The Rise of Superman, and the first line was,

“This is a book about the impossible, but it starts with the invisible.”

My natural response was, “Tell me more.”

The book focuses a lot on extreme sports as an example, and as much as I enjoyed reading the stories (and searching on youtube for some of the stunts), I couldn’t relate with the experience because my definition of extreme sports is driving the opposite way in a one-way road…inside a parking.

Even though some examples were given about how to apply the information in the creative field, it wasn’t extensive, so for that purpose I decided to read it again and write this guide.

What Happens During Flow?

Though someone might identify flow by their total engagement with work and the energizing feeling of joy associated with performing the task, a few other things happen when you’re in flow;

– The sense of time disappears

– The prefrontal cortex deactivates thus giving no room for the self-critical voice in their mind to exist and they also experience a loss of reflective self-consciousness

So How Do You Find Flow?

There are several ways to find flow that were listed in the book;

1- Work in an environment that has zero distractions. This means working in a quiet room. Two common trends among workplaces are the cubicle farms akin to fish markets and the open-door policy. However, both are counter-productive when it comes to flow. Even Cal Newport’s book Deep Work emphasizes the importance of working in a quiet room. He gave an example of psychiatrist Carl Jung who added a private room to his complex, and said about it, “In my retiring room I am by myself. I keep the key with me all of the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.” If you are forced to work in a cubicle farm, then wearing headphones might signal to others that you are not to be distracted.

It comes without saying that you need to keep your notifications off while working. I’ve written about that previously in 5 Ways to Improve Your Focus.

2- Have clear goals that narrow your focus. This means breaking down overwhelmingly large projects into smaller, manageable tasks and working on them without multi-tasking. For example, you could define a goal like writing a 750-word scene per flow session, or taking one photograph per day.

One thing that would help reinforce the goal is visualization. However, as I mentioned in this post,

Most people visualize the outcome; receiving that award…No. Instead visualize yourself sitting in front of a laptop and tapping away. I’ve personally learnt that visualizing yourself in the process of performing the taskis more effective than visualizing the result as the former is more realistic, and the minimum activation energy — the concept that chemistry introduced to us but Shawn Achor made popular in The Happiness Advantage — is lower. In other words, the difference between your current state — wasting time on Medium — and the future state in your vision — writing — is much lower than if you were to imagine yourself on a stage winning an award.

3- Select a task at the right balance point of the challenge/skill ratio. If the task is too easy, boredom sets in and you stop paying attention. If it’s too hard, then you become too overwhelmed and you’re more likely to give up.

According to the book, the challenge needs to be 4 % greater than your skill level but that raises the following question; how do you measure that 4 % percent? A starting point would be having self-awareness and self-knowledge about your skills. You have to know yourself and your limits in order to push past it. If you’re unable to measure your own skills, then a mentor or coach can help you with your deliberate practice – the concept that Anders Ericsson writes about in his book, Peak. I’ve explored the idea of deliberate practice and the attitude required to build one here.

4- Set a system to measure immediate feedback. Public speakers and Spoken word poets experience this more than other artists as they get to see the reactions of their audiences while they speak. The feedback for writers isn’t that immediate, so we have to rely on comments and reviews.

Another type of feedback writers can seek is internal. This is done by measuring how good our work is relative to other work we’ve produced, or how we feel while producing the work. The main idea with having immediate feedback is this; you can distinguish between success and failure, and the smaller input-output cycle usually means you’re more aware how you’re doing and how to do it better so you can give yourself the chance to course correct while working.

5- Take more risks. Whether they’re creative or emotional risks, an increase in risk is positively correlated to an increase in the feel-good chemicals that boosts focus and magnifies performance. An artist can hack this trigger by being willing to take the risk of having their work shredded to pieces by critics, and experience a loss of respect, resources and time.

In this interview, James Altucher says, “One friend of mine told me he was so nervous about publishing his book because he was afraid what his colleagues would think of him. I never hit publish unless I’m afraid of what people will think of me. You have to bleed so much in every post that your superficial “you” is scared. The intuitive, internal “you” that’s in touch with this creative source knows what the right thing to write is and what the right thing to bleed is. And of course, you have to educate with every post. So bleed and educate are the two most important things.

6- Be in a rich environment. This flow trigger makes more sense in the extreme sports’ scene and is defined as the combination of novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. Finding yourself in such an environment heightened one’s senses and pulled them further into the zone because they needed the hyper focus to take in all the novel sensory inputs. As artists, we could train our minds through an all-senses awareness meditation practice and then seek similarly rich environments by putting ourselves into new situations like exploring a new area without using GPS or going for a hike.

As a writer, I’m more prone to increasing my observation skills by scanning a room “as though I’m going to write about it in a novel.”

7- Social triggers. You don’t have to be in Silicon Valley to recognize the importance of your work environment when it comes to flow. The basic ideas mentioned were that the people you work closely with should have a common language and a shared knowledge base. There’s usually no room for egos and instead, everybody is focused more on achieving the team’s goals. Interactions are additive and not argumentative. Ideas bounce off the walls, and everybody moves forward together like a single organism.

While listed above are some things to trigger flow, some might assume that flow is supposed to feel good all the time. However, that’s not always the case because flow might begin with struggle; concentrated problem analysis or fact gathering [a practical example I went through was rereading the book to extract the main ideas for this post]. For the athlete, it might be physical training. Struggle is uncomfortable, and induces tension and frustration, but it’s part of the flow process.

So when’s the last time you experienced flow? How did it feel? Do let me know on twitter @ahechoes.

Published inBooksPersonal Development
  • Hanan

    I just experienced flow a couple of days ago while painting. I think I do experience the general process of flow as you defined it in the post, including concentration, deliberate practice, etc. (especially struggle) but I’m talking about the feel-good kind of flow where you lose sense of time and self and there is nothing but pure joy. That is really rare and I don’t remember the last time I experienced it while painting until recently. I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, but somehow it all flowed, my muscles and my mind were in perfect sync, and it was like nothing else existed until it was done. I was completely satisfied with the result. Mind you, the next day I thought the painting wasn’t actually great. My critical mind was up and running.

    • ahechoes

      That’s what critical minds are for…It would be interesting to log the number of times you experience flow and see what (if anything specific) triggers it. I’m personally looking to maximize flow in my life because I just hate getting bored….