A Beginner’s Guide to Going with the “Flow”

Sep 30, 2013

You know that feeling of being so fully engaged in an activity that meta observations about what you’re doing cease and your sense of time goes out the window? Your mind quiets. You feel energized, focused and productive. Maybe you’re using Photoshop or practicing your golf swing or cooking your favorite meal. Whatever the activity, the feeling – of being totally absorbed and in the moment – is the same. And it’s a good one.

This feeling is actually a mental state, and it has a name: flow. It’s similar to mindfulness, but more specific and scientific. Renowned positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “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.” Umm…yes, please!

It may sound abstract, but it’s also measurable. Our brain waves change when we’re in this state (they become “alpha,” the same type achieved through meditation), and that change shows up on an EEG.

Not surprisingly, people who experience flow states frequently tend to be happier. They have a greater capacity to tune out negative thoughts and tune into the aspects of life that give them joy.

The good news is that you can flex your flow muscle on a daily basis, putting your brain into a more zen state and reaping emotional benefits.

Here’s how:

  1. Engage in activities with clear goals that are challenging but within reach.
  2. The activity should require you to focus.
  3. Whatever you’re doing needs to be intrinsically rewarding.
  4. Strike a balance between the challenge presented and the skill level required to complete the task – again, challenging but attainable goals are the key.
  5. There needs to be immediate feedback – the golf ball is going where you want it to go, the taste of the soup is changing as you add ingredients, etc.
  6. You should feel a certain degree of personal control over the situation and outcome. You are creating something. You own it.

People in the habit of cultivating flow states become passionate about their work. They develop hobbies they LOVE. They put themselves in position to master skills and seek out new challenges. Perhaps most importantly, they feel good more often…in the aggregate, they are happier!

So go ahead and single-task! It’s the alpha thing to do.