Short on time? For the key points on flow, stick to the bold text and the conclusion.
What is flow?
What is all this fuss about flow? Why is it as revered as the holy grail?
Well, it might not give you eternal life, but the benefits of flow make your life worth living.
The flow is a state of optimal performance, total immersion and the most satisfying freedom. It allows you to find the best version of yourself, the doorway to the completeness we’re seeking. Some say it is thinking without thinking, being interconnected and disconnected at the same time.
It is the perfect balance between being fully absorbed in an activity and letting go of everything that doesn’t matter. Once you find it, you’ll never get enough of it. It’s so addictive.
What is flow in three steps:
Definition and background
Even if you don’t know the word “flow”, you definitely know the experience. Athletes often say they are “in the zone”. Other’s call it a peak state. Musicians who seem to be magically connected, refer to it as being “in the pocket”. Runner’s high, finally, is another synonym.
The definition of flow is ‘a smooth uninterrupted movement or progress.’ Of course, in psychology, flow’s meaning is a bit more nuanced: ‘An altered state of consciousness in which the mind functions at its peak, time may seem distorted, and a sense of happiness prevails. In such a state the individual feels truly alive and fully attentive to what is being done. This state is distinguished from strained attention, in which the person forces himself to perform a task in which he has little interest.’
The relation between the word and its original meaning comes from the feeling like you’re being carried by a river. As the current gently carries you along the river, you don’t need to make choices. Everything just flows naturally.
How does flow feel?
There’s no perfect way to describe how flow feels. It’s beyond words. Besides, it’s a different experience for everyone but it does have a few common characteristics.
Flow is selfless, effortless and timeless. Once you’ve tapped into it, you will no longer hear your inner critic. It feels liberating and free of fear. Sometimes, you do not realise you’re in the flow because your attention is so deeply focused on the task at hand. There is no time to observe yourself.
Time dilates. You are focused and performing at such high levels that what seemed like an hour, was only a few minutes. Flow enables you to get more done in little time. On the other end, what you perceived like 15 minutes, might have been a couple of hours. When you get lost in deep conversation, for instance.
How to recognise flow?
After an experience, it’s easy to realise you were in a state of flow. And if you’re still in doubt about what to look for, here are a few ways to recognise it:
- Your attention was focused on one thing.
- You were not multitasking at all.
- You were not talking to yourself — no inner dialogue.
- Your actions and awareness merged completely.
- You were free from worry and failure.
- You had little or no sense of self-consciousness.
- You had little or no notion of time.
- You weren’t focused on the goal.
- You felt rewarded by the process.
- You felt in control of yourself and the situation.
Curious to hear how others perceive flow?
- It feels like being highly connected. It’s like something is happening through you.
- It is an ecstatic state. It’s the opposite of boredom and longing for the weekend as soon as your alarm goes off on Monday mornings.
- You are fully alive. You are in harmony with what you do and with what surrounds you. You are fully in control.
- Concentration is like breathing. It comes naturally.
- It is so rewarding that the goal is nothing but an excuse for the process.
- I get so into the drawing that sometimes I forget to eat. 6 hours of drawing feels like 1 or 2 hours.
Flow is a peak state of performance which feels effortless, liberating and satisfying. Everything simply flows. To truly understand it, you must experience it.
What is flow good for?
The flow has many performance benefits. Your brain undergoes anatomical, chemical and electrical changes, resulting in a peak state of awareness and concentration.
Thanks to these magnificent changes in the brain, people can reach performance levels beyond comparison. What can be performed or learned in flow is incomparable to any other human performance.
So what are these changes?
Firstly, there is no sense of self. The ego disappears, and there’s no room for self-criticism or fear of judgement.
Secondly, flow is able to put you on a fast track to mastery. Thanks to heightened awareness, faster processing and improved information retention, learning is easier and more effective when you’re in a state of flow.
Thirdly, your creativity levels receive a boost as a result of increased pattern recognition and wider lateral thinking. It’s easier to link together old and new ideas to come up with brilliant solutions.
Finally, full awareness, total immersion and highly-responsive senses lead to superhuman performances that cannot be matched by someone who’s not in the flow.
Whether you’re looking for top performances, wishing to learn faster or in desperate need of creativity, flow is the solution.
How does flow work?
In this final part, we’ll discuss the changes happening in the brain when you’re in a flow state.
On a neuroanatomical level, the most important change is called transient hypofrontality. This means that the prefrontal cortex, the frontal area of the brain, temporally shuts off. As a lot of higher-order processing and conscious thinking goes on here, you’ll be free of self-criticism, fear of risk and emotions.
Neurochemically, flow is characterised by the release of six performance-enhancing and mood-improving hormones:
The combination of these chemicals makes you highly alert, stable and utterly happy. Flow is the only state in which all these hormones come together. Therefore, it’s one of the most addictive, if not the most addictive, experience life has to offer.
The neuroelectrical changes are related to brainwaves. Through brain scans, scientists have discovered five types of brainwaves: gamma, beta, alpha, theta and delta.
Beta is the default frequency for brainwaves. When you’re awake, most of your conscious thinking happens through these waves. When you’re approaching the subconscious or flow, lower-frequency alpha waves slowly replace beta waves. Then, when you’re crossing the bridge to the subconscious, it means theta has become dominant. Flow lives on this bridge.
As you’re on that bridge, there’s a secret passage to gamma waves, which only opens during flow. These are very high-frequency waves that enable superfast thinking.
Delta waves, finally, are very low-frequency brainwaves. They only exist during deep sleep and are related to brain recovery after an exhausting flow experience, for example.
During flow, one part of the brain completely goes offline and six powerful hormones take over, allowing your mind to surf the alpha and theta brainwaves on the edge of the conscious and subconscious.
Of course, you’d like to know how this all works now, don’t you? If you can hack flow? Unfortunately, it’s not something you simply switch on and off.
However, with the right environment and mindset, you can induce flow more easily. Under the correct conditions, anyone can tap into it. Have a look at the triggers of flow and try out which ones work best for you.
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What is flow? Sources and further reading/watching:
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Living in Flow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzPky5Xe1-s
- Jamie Wheal – Hacking the genome of flow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqAtG77JjdM
- Steven Kotler. https://www.stevenkotler.com/rabbit-hole/frequently-asked-questions-on-flow
- Jeanne Nakamura & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – The Concept of Flow. https://nuovoeutile.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/2002-Flow.pdf