Have you ever been so focused on something that you felt like you were in the zone? Think back to the last time you were so engaged in a task that you got into a groove, lost track of time, and the rest of the world just faded away.
Chances are good that you were in what psychologists call “flow state.” Flow state is a state of pure focus and concentration that enables you to do what you’re doing at the top of your game. Einstein got himself into a flow state by playing the violin. And when he did, he was able to tap into the part of his brain that enabled him to discover the secrets of the universe!
To understand flow state, you have to get familiar with a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me high? Cheeks send me high!”). Csikszentmihalyi has done a lot of work in the areas of happiness, creativity and positive psychology, but he’s best known as the architect of the concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity.
Csikszentmihalyi interviewed athletes, musicians, and artists because he wanted to know when they experienced optimal performance and how they felt during these experiences.
The common thread among these self-actualized high-achievers was that they chose on career paths that were both challenging and rewarding. That balance of challenge and enjoyment enable them to achieve heightened focus so intense that it led to a sense of clarity as well as a sense of ecstasy.
Csikszentmihalyi developed the term “flow state” because many of the people he interviewed described their optimal states of performance as instances when their work simply flowed out of them without much effort. In his popular 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he maintains that happiness can be increased by introducing flow.
Csikszentmihalyi identifies eight characteristics of flow:
1. Heightened concentration and focus
2. Clarity of goals and reward
3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
4. Intrinsically rewarding
5. Effortlessness and ease
6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
7. Actions and awareness are merged
8. A feeling of control over the task.
The state of flow is in its infancy from a neuroscience perspective, but we know that flow often decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, and sensory integration. It is responsible for our conscious and explicit brain system. The explicit brain system is slow and deliberate, and it is activated when we try to consciously control our movements. For example, imagine you are learning how to play a new song on the piano. Your explicit brain would be engaged and focused on playing the right notes at the right tempo.
However, in a state of flow, the prefrontal cortex is temporarily paused in a process called transient hypofrontality. Scientists believe that this temporary inactivation may explain losing track time, loss of self-consciousness, and a quieter inner critic. By pausing the prefrontal lobe, the implicit mind is able to take over and enable deeper brain areas to communicate freely. The implicit mind deals with thoughts at the unconscious level, and it is active when we perform tasks automatically, without concentrating on what we’re doing.
Studies show that flow state can also occur in more mundane and relaxed situations when we give the brain a chance to reboot like stepping away from the daily work routine, spending time in nature, and being mindful. By definition, mindfulness is the quality of being present and fully engaged in the mental task at hand — free from distractions or judgment, and aware of thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. Meditation is one way to become more present, actively recognizing when we get distracted and then return to the object of focus. Giving ourselves that mental break is a great way to create the conditions for flow state.
Flow state doesn’t happen by accident. Here are five simple ways to tell your brain it’s time to flow:
Love what you do and do what you love. This is perhaps the easiest way to get into flow mode. The human brain craves challenge, but make sure it’s within your grasp and something that you’re good at.
Identify your peak creative and productive times. Be strategic about when you do certain tasks. Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink shows that timing is really a science. Drawing on research from psychology, biology, and economics, Pink reveals how find the most productive times for you.
Create a flow mode ritual. Condition your brain to know when it is time for flow state by creating an action or series of actions you do right before you begin the task. Maybe you meditate or do a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Perhaps you spend 5 or 10 minutes in the sunshine clearing your mind, or you watch a few minutes of ocean waves rolling in. The ritual doesn’t matter as much as the way you’re signaling to your brain to get ready.
Eliminate distractions. Turn off your notifications, clear your desk of other work, stash your cell phone in a drawer, and hang the figurative “do not disturb” sign on the door knob. Think of that time as a “closed door meeting with yourself.”
Fire up your favorite playlist. Music is useful for helping you enter the flow state because the things you hear can distract you from a task. When you close your eyes and still your body, your sense of hearing is heightened to scan for danger. The best way to completely focus on a task is to tune out as many distractions as possible. One way of doing that is to listen to music. Hey… it worked for Einstein. What do you have to lose?