Otherwise known as the sweet spot, mojo, and the zone of proximal development, flow is a worry-free state of mind that synchronizes folks in their given activity.
Athletes do it. Musicians do it. Artists, writers, children, and older adults do it. Potentially, you can do it, too. The “it” here refers to flow, a state of mind in which thought and action perfectly align.
When your skills seamlessly align with the task at hand, time, worry, ego, and self-doubt drop away. You’ve achieved flow.
His research and writings on flow over the years reflect his interest in positive psychology, or how people pursue and find happiness.
Achieving flow is never a given. If you’re learning something new and it’s over your head, you’re not likely to feel it. If you’re bored and in a rut, your state of mind will be more burning out than flowing.
Still, if you know people who have found jobs, hobbies, sports, or even tasks they’re passionate about, you probably know people who’ve experienced flow. Some call it their sweet spot, others say they’re in their zone.
Educators and coaches do their best to facilitate flow in students. Once experienced, the memory of flow calls folks back to the gym, desk, or studio — wherever it was first found.
There are no guarantees that you will be able to enter into a flow state frequently or in all of your activities. But once you understand its benefit — and a big one is pleasure — you might want to try to maximize your chances of achieving it in everyday life.
A pair of studies, co-authored by Csikszentmihalyi and published in 2022, reviews the main principles of flow. Features of this positive mind state include:
- no gap between awareness and action
- total absorption
- feeling of mastery
- freedom from self-consciousness
- release from ordinary perceptions of time
- feeling of pleasure
- sense of intrinsic motivation
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) definition, flow involves a feeling of effortlessness. When you’re in a flow state, your skills are fully engaged yet you’re not overwhelmed — rather, you’re up to the challenge.
In his 2008 Ted Talk, Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as an intensely pleasurable mindset that is out of the ordinary. When you enter flow, you enter an alternative reality that manifests in what you are creating, or sometimes just in the way you feel.
When flow occurs
Flow can occur at work, during play, in school, or while creating, engaging in sports, or managing a business. If washing the dishes feels purposeful and you are invested in how you’re doing it or for whom, even a mundane task can induce flow.
The likelihood of you as a unique individual entering flow depends on how you engage with a task or activity. Flow occurs when you feel a balance between the level of challenge and your skill.
Too high of a challenge may cause you to feel insecure, while too low of a challenge may leave you sluggish or uncaring. In general, flow requires clear goals throughout a process, not only a focus on the outcome.
Boxing is a good example of how flow might happen.
Cody Dominguez, general manager, and trainer at TITLE Boxing Club in Falls Church, Virginia, says that if your skill level is too low for your match, class, or workout, you’re likely to get overwhelmed. But if your skill level is too high, you’ll likely get bored or stop paying attention.
When you’re ready and practiced, though, a challenging class, match, or workout can energize you and encourage you to perform at the top of your game — and return for more.
Laura Tracey, a reading interventionist at Winthrop Elementary School in Massachusetts, says the educational terms for activities that elicit flow are “zone of proximal development” and “instructional level.” Flow activities are “just right,” she says, “not too hard and not too easy.”
Coaches, teachers, managers, and individuals seeking to build engagement often work to design activities that could lead to flow.
Flow across cultures
Daoists refer to Yu, or walking without touching the water. In Yu, the world’s constraints and cares drop away, just as they do in the flow state.
Koreans have noted a feeling of transcendence that sounds like flow in response to reading religious texts.
But if flow is universal, the authors suggest, it’s also limited by culture. In cultures where poverty is the norm or where there are few choices of how time is spent, fewer people are likely to experience flow.
In Western cultures where autonomy and achievement are typically valued, folks tend to experience flow through activities that provide:
- incremental challenges
- definitive goals
- instant feedback
However, those who engage in yoga, meditation, and other practices associated with Eastern cultures may have a different orientation. Having developed their inner resources, they may find flow through:
- inner focus
- daily tasks, even mundane ones, as well as artistic or athletic activities
In the United States — reflecting an individualistic standard — creative artists and athletes enjoy flow through:
- work for and by one’s self
- freedom from self-consciousness and self-criticism
- goals understood in relation to artistic, sports, educational, or business achievement
In Japan, however, self-criticism is a valued method of transforming inner defects to promote group harmony. So flow is likely to be appreciated in a process of:
- change in the self for the greater good
The process for reaching flow might differ depending on your cultural values. However, it can be beneficial for all people trying to achieve flow to believe that their activity is meaningful and that doing their best intrinsically matters.
Flow across the life span
Tracey says teachers are always looking for ways to improve engagement. Little kids she has observed while teaching seem to signal their flow by smiling and wiggling while their eyes stay focused on the task.
She says older kids tend to make uninterrupted eye contact with each other or their book, paper, or computer, and they sometimes find it tough to transition to the next task.
Tracey also finds:
- Kids frequently achieve flow through creative activities without right or wrong answers.
- Coloring and creative writing tend to encourage flow.
- It’s harder for kids to achieve flow states while doing math, but math can also yield flow when the instructional level is just right.
Folks tend to associate flow with the young, but 2022 research of flow across the life span, involving surveys of 20-year-olds to 80-year-olds, found that the search for and experience of flow had little to do with age.
Even if some skills decline, older adults typically increase their practice or take up new activities to optimize their flow experience.
How long can you stay in a flow state?
A flow state can be as short as 30 minutes, but it can also last for hours on end for someone truly engaged in a project.
Flow may sound and feel mystical, but it’s also grounded in science.
The following brain activity corresponded to the flow experience:
- Theta activities in the frontal brain areas increased as cognitive control and immersion intensified.
- Alpha activity in the frontal and central brain areas decreased, suggesting that working memory was not overtaxed.
- This observed EEG activity suggests how flow differs from either boredom or overwhelm.
Researchers concluded that future studies might investigate the strength of flow (not just its presence) related to brain activity.
Whether from a workplace, educational, creative, or sports psychology perspective, achieving flow in everyday life seems to be highly desirable for several reasons:
- Flow can allow for responding, not reacting. Dominguez describes how time seems to slow down when he gets in the flow during a boxing match. He can almost see what his opponent is going to do next. His counter-punch or kick is smart, well-aimed, and responsive, rather than uncoordinated or reactive.
- Flow might sideline anxiety. The time slowdown phenomenon makes sense. When you’re anxious, you overreact and may get rushed or careless. When you’re in a flow state, you’re more relaxed.
- Flow could help you achieve your best. A 2019 data analysis based on the reports of 328 Brazilian triathletes found the tendency to experience aspects of flow, including balance between skill and challenge and feeling in control, corresponded to better race times.
- Flow can allow you to live in the present. For Ben Hulan, a musician and music teacher in Austin, Texas, “It’s about connecting to each musical moment as it passes without anticipating what’s coming next. Just the feeling, the tension, and the resolution of each interval.“
No matter what your field, once you experience flow, you tend to be highly motivated to experience it again. This means working harder, practicing more, and being more productive.
Erin Burley, a Massachusetts-based artist, describes it this way: “Usually I wake up because some aspect of my painting needs to be ‘fixed.’ I become so absorbed in the process.” The feeling of flow is so strong, Burley works to get it right on her own terms and is tremendously prolific.
“There is no end goal in sight,” Burley says.
For toning brain function
A 2020 research review suggests that workplaces may consider safely inducing flow for greater employee satisfaction, skill improvement, and output.
For example, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a noninvasive method of stimulating the brain, may help induce flow states, allowing employees to increase skill levels and working memory.
The advice Dominguez gives his boxing students might apply across fields. If you want to achieve flow, he says, you might first diagnose yourself and your situation, then recalibrate to better match your skills to your situation.
How do you feel while you’re performing?
Is your body relaxed, or are you jittery, shoulders tensed, off-balance? Self-awareness helps you get into flow.
If you feel anxious
It may be time to decrease your challenge or increase your practice. Is a big class too stressful? Try one-on-one coaching. A novel too much to write? You might start with an essay.
Are you feeling bored or unstimulated?
You can up your challenge. Have you been taking the same boxing class for years? Try a competition.
Create small, measurable goals
This way, you can strive to be successful in each stage of a project or goal, not just when it’s finished.
You don’t have to be an artist or an athlete to achieve flow. And you don’t have to be the best. When you’re flowing, you’re at your own personal best.
Flow encourages folks to practice more, work harder, and keep setting goals and meeting them. At any age, you can work on your skills and set just-right goals to maximize your chance of experiencing this freeing headspace.