If you have ever been around elite athletes, artists or creatives, you have probably heard them talk about getting “into the zone.” If you’re lucky, you’ve probably felt that state yourself while pursuing any number of activities, whether it’s doing deeply focused work, doing a sport or activity you genuinely love, or even meditating. The state is known as the flow state, and there’s a way we can tap into it more regularly and simply make our lives better. Here’s how to go with the flow.
What is Going with the “Flow?”
First, let’s talk about what it means to “go with the flow,” and how it relates to what scientists refer to as “flow state” amongst elite athletes, artists, and performers. When we use the phrase in common parlance, it means being flexible and malleable to whatever is going on around us. It connotes being “chill” or relaxed about the events as they are unfolding in the current state.
Similarly, from a scientific perspective, the flow state is a state of mind where you are entirely immersed in the activity at hand and totally present in the moment. In this state, everything else falls away, and you are utterly focused on what is happening moment-to-moment.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor and researcher who is credited with the first discovery of the flow state, and as he writes, in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, “The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Csikszentmihalyi’s studies led him to conclude that happiness and the state of flow is actually achieved as a result of internal factors, not external ones. As he writes, flow is “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
Flow, as we know it, is also something we probably experienced a lot as children, too. Remember the days when you’d lose time, tooling around with a dump truck in a sandbox? Or those times you completely lost track of where the day went while playing in the waves at the beach? That’s flow. It is a relaxed, yet focused state of mind where you are both acutely aware of the sensation in your body but also totally “outside of time.”
Flow transcends sex, gender, race, and culture, and even intelligence, yet, researchers have found that it doesn’t transcend the “Big Five” personality traits. Those traits include openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Researchers have found that certain personalities are more capable of dipping into a flow state more regularly than others. According to this 2012 study, the more conscientious you are, the more likely you are to be able to go with the flow. However, it found that the more neurotic you are, the less likely you are to find flow. The study concluded that flow is more strongly associated with personality than it is with intelligence.
Csikszentmihalyi writes that there are two main strategies we can use to improve the quality of our life: “The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.” Here’s how you can change your experience to make your life better.
How To Access Flow
As Csikszentmihalyi writes in Flow, “optimal experience, and the psychological conditions that make it possible, seem to be the same the world over.” While it may seem unattainable in today’s stressed-out, maxed-out, COVID-laced, work-from-home-while-the-kids-yell world, there are specific things we can do in our everyday lives to rediscover the joy of going with the flow and become more adaptable.
Focus your attention and engage in play
The first thing to do when trying to tap into going with the flow is to focus your attention. You can do this through meditation, by choosing a task that is challenging but attainable, or by simply tuning in to the present moment as it unfolds around you. This kind of focus can come up whether you’re watching a beautiful sunset or swimming laps in a pool, but the activity has to be enough to engage your awareness and hold it for a period of time. To focus your attention in the modern era, you should turn off your smartphone, and minimize distractions as best you can.
Similarly, from a scientific perspective, the flow state is a state of mind where you are entirely immersed in the activity at hand and totally present in the moment.
The other element that can help us go with the flow is to engage in an activity that mimics (or even involves) play. It should be something that really interests you intrinsically and something that you can easily apply your skills to, without getting too discouraged. You should feel some amount of enjoyment when you engage in the activity, and it should engage some of the key elements of play, learning, and exploring.
Set goals for something challenging but attainable
Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that those who were able to find flow often found it through challenging activities with a set goal in mind. He notes that neither the challenge nor the skill needs to be physical in order to access flow and gives the example of reading. “Reading is an activity because it requires the concentration of attention and has a goal, and to do it, one must know the rules of written language.”
Csikszentmihalyi also notes that the specific, challenging activities don’t necessarily have to be leisure-oriented, either. He writes, “in a healthy culture, productive work and the necessary routines of everyday life are also satisfying.” He notes that we all have small routines we do to improve the quality of our everyday experiences, whether we smooth our hair, or doodle, or smoke. All these things bring what Csikszentmihalyi calls “an order in consciousness through the performance of patterned action.” He refers to these as “microflow” activities to help us get through the boring parts of the day, yet stay engaged.
One thing of note about goals is that the purpose of a flow-inducing activity generally stems from what Csikszentmihalyi calls the autotelic perspective. Autotelic “refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.” The experience is essentially the goal.
Find the feedback
One of the critical elements of going with the flow is the feedback loop that happens when we focus our attention and work on something challenging. Feedback works really well if it is immediate and clearly moves us closer to our goals. As an example, Csikszentmihalyi cites the idea of a tennis player who hits the ball within the lines with each return. Each time the ball lands in the spot the player wants, they have achieved a tiny goal.
There are, of course, some goals that require a far longer commitment, and Csikszentmihalyi notes that these also have small feedback “wins” as they progress. “Each of us is temperamentally sensitive to a certain range of information that we learn to value more than most other people do, and it is likely that we will consider feedback involving that information to be more relevant than others might,” Csikszentmihalyi writes. That means that the goals we set are just as individual as the feedback we seek, so it’s important to understand and know what those tiny wins are for us.
Ignore the critical voices
We’re all prone to negative thoughts about ourselves, and that tends to derail going with the flow. If you’re engaged in something that you enjoy, you’re getting good feedback from it, and you’re engaged in some measure of play, then that negative voice can take a hike. Feel what you feel in that moment of engagement and let it carry you through the activity. As that 2012 study noted, being self-critical is counterproductive to going with the flow, so stop negging yourself and enjoy the moment.
Going with the flow is about far more than just being relaxed and rolling with whatever happens; it’s about engaging your brain and your body in something that you intrinsically find enjoyable moment to moment. As we all struggle through the pandemic, it’s important to continue to develop ways to access states of mind that can bring us joy. Think of the Toaist quote from the ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it,” and find your flow.