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Flow State: 5 Ways to Get into the Zone

Updated: May 7

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!




Friedrich Nietzsche considered the flow state in depth, but social theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Me high? Cheeks send me high!”) is the true giant in the field. . Csikszentmihalyi has worked extensively to understand the state of mind of high achievers and has become known as the "Godfather of Flow psychology."



Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.




Csikszentmihalyi interviewed elite athletes, musicians, dancers, and artists to explore how they felt when they experienced optimal performance. 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.


Csiksgentmihalyi's model of flow


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.


Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now recognize a distinct pattern in the brain induced via interactions between 5 specific neurotransmitters: 

 

Dopamine – When you first enter into flow, your brain releases dopamine which increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It is essentially a skill booster.

 

Norepinephrine – This is actually a stress hormone that speeds up heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. In flow mode, it triggers a glucose response, so we have more energy, increasing arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control.

 

Endorphins – Endorphins relieve pain and induce pleasure. Endorphins are natural pain killers but the feelings of pleasure we get from an endorphin rush can be 100 times more powerful than morphine. 

 

Anandamide – Stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss,” Anandamide is a cannabinoid and produces the same psychoactive effect as marijuana. Anandamide is released during physical activity. It elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration.

 

Serotonin – At the end of a flow state, serotonin leaves you with a post-exercise feeling of bliss and is only felt once the flow state has already come and gone.


We also know that flow often decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as self-reflective consciousness, memory, and sensory integration in the explicit brain system. By pausing the prefrontal lobe in a process called transient hypofrontality, the implicit mind is able to take over and enable deeper brain areas to communicate freely and accesss thoughts at the unconscious level. Scientists believe that this temporary inactivation may explain losing track time, loss of self-consciousness, and a quieter inner critic.


Flow state doesn’t happen by accident. 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.


Here are five simple ways to tell your brain it’s time to flow:


  1. 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.

  2. 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. (Learn more about Pink's productivity theory here.)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.” Meditation is a great way to become more present, and giving ourselves a mental break from all the distractions is a great way to create the conditions for flow state.

  5. 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 soothing unfamiliar music with no melodic pattern.



 

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“There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other; you get immediate feedback,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk.







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