Pixar’s 2020 film, Soul, depicts flow in a charming way. Although the overall storyline is more about finding purpose and living life to the fullest, there is a particular scene that depicts the state of flow and gives some examples of people experiencing it.
The lead character, Joe Gardner, is a music teacher who dreams of being able to follow his passion of playing jazz piano. When a famous jazz singer wants to book him for a gig, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But on his way to the rehearsal, he gets distracted, falls through a manhole, and is hospitalized with a coma. This begins a long adventure in the “Great Before,” where young souls are mentored and prepared for their time on Earth.
Joe is entrusted with “22” as a mentee, who shows him around the Great Before and introduces him to “The Zone.” The Zone is filled with people on Earth who are in a flow state of mind. It’s got everyone from musicians to tattoo artists to basketball players to actors — there’s even a man entranced in the twirling of a sign. This emphasizes that a state of flow is available to everyone in any discipline.
As Soul demonstrates, flow is a state of mind in which someone is enraptured in what they are doing. Oftentimes, the greatest breakthroughs happen while in a state of flow. While flow cannot always be guaranteed, the following 10 tips on how to achieve a flow state of mind will help one get there. But first, let’s take a closer look at what flow is and in what ways it’s beneficial to the individual.
So, what exactly is a flow state of mind?
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, recognized as the world’s leading researcher on positive psychology, first studied, recorded, and named flow. Mihaly describes the concept of 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."
This mental state is often associated with creative endeavors (music, drawing, dance, web design…) but chess players, athletes, video gamers, web developers, coders, and others also commonly achieve it. Many athletes will refer to their experience of flow as being “in the zone” or “in the groove.” People most commonly attain a flow state of mind while doing something that they both enjoy and excel at.
It’ is interesting to note that in many instances, a group can be in a state of flow together. It’s commonly seen with sports teams or music bands. It’s when everyone just clicks — working together feels effortless, and everyone feels they have reached their peak performance. Groups most commonly reach flow when everyone is roughly at the same level of ability with the task at hand. That way, no one is either bored or self-conscious because they're playing “out of their league.”
Bonus: If you would like to hear Mihaly speak on the topic of flow and how it aids in happiness, he gave a Ted Talk in 2004 that you can watch here.
What are the benefits of flow?
While in a state of flow, a person is reaching their peak performance and increasing their skill set. It can be immensely helpful in reaching the next level of ability in any given field. Part of the reason is that when one gets into a flow state, they are completely immersed in the task and giving that one thing their full attention. This helps them overcome challenges and learn new skills without getting distracted or discouraged.
Researchers at TED2019, asked attendees to choose from 16 words to describe their experience of flow. From more than 2,000 answers, the top three answers were “creator,” “superhero,” and “warrior.” Who doesn’t want to feel like that while working?
While in the flow state of mind, it is quite common to lose track of time as the activity you're performing has your full attention. Time becomes warped, and hours can slip by without a second thought.
10 tips for achieving a flow state of mind
Many researchers have studied the psychology of optimal experience. Overall, achieving flow gives a person a boost of confidence and helps in getting tasks accomplished. Here are ten tips for reaching a flow state of mind.
1. Create a clear goals list
Steven Kotler, a peak performance expert, has seen that writing a list of clear goals is one of the most important things a person can do to prepare themselves for a flow state of mind.
To do this, Kotler recommends you sit down with a pen and paper in the evening and write out your goals for the following day. Fill the list with everything you want to accomplish — from work projects to mindfulness breaks to a morning workout. Write the most challenging and rewarding tasks at the top of the list, and write the easier tasks lower down on the list.
A clear goals list gives you direction as soon as you wake up in the morning. This way, you won’t lose time in the morning trying to remember what needs to get done. Approach each item on the list as a single task that needs your full attention until it’s completed. Once finished, move on to the next task.
2. Find the time of day where you do your best deep work
Many people find that they get the most intense focus early in the morning. If that’s true for you, try getting to the office an hour earlier before other co-workers start shuffling in. On the other hand, if you’re someone who does their best work in the evening, schedule a little solitude time in a quiet spot in your home.
Not sure about what time of day is ideal for you? You can try playing around with your work schedule until you land in a sweet spot. Or, you can find your chronotype using this quiz here. Your chronotype tells you a little about your energy levels throughout the day and will help you find your perfect time for deep, concentrated work.
Once you have more clarity about your ideal work schedule, you can optimize your day to work for you, not against you.
3. Set an achievable, but challenging goal
A foundational component of flow is that a person needs to feel challenged by the work they are doing. At the same time, the task needs to have clear goals that are attainable within the individual's ability level.
For example, if you asked a beginner pianist to play Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 or challenged a first-time rock climber to free solo El Capitan, it would be too overwhelming. Neither of these individuals would have the tools nor the level of skill required to accomplish the given task. They wouldn’t be able to achieve flow state because of how far outside their current ability level the task is.
However, two equally matched chess players may experience flow as they are playing against one another. Beating the other player is a consistent, challenging goal that is attainable. This forces both opponents to stay in a state of intense concentration. If not disrupted, the chess players may stay in this state of mind for the duration of the match.
4. Enjoy creativity
Flow state is often linked to creativity. If you are having a hard time accomplishing a challenging task, try to think about it from a different perspective. Creative problem solving can often help unlock answers that you previously couldn’t see.
The flow state of mind and creativity work both ways, though. Creativity can help you get into flow state, and flow state can lead to increased creativity.
The intense concentration you take on when you experience flow helps you think about problems with more clarity. This can help you look at them from an angle you hadn’t previously considered. This type of creative problem solving can result in amazing breakthroughs.
5. Get rid of distractions
You won’t be able to experience the benefits of flow if your phone is popping off with notifications. Reaching your peak performance in the present moment requires intense concentration and deep work.
On a regular basis, put your phone on “do not disturb” to block notifications. If you’re nervous about a certain person (such as a family member or boss) not being able to reach you for urgent matters, you can always add them to your “favorites” and then adjust your “do not disturb” settings to allow notifications from favorites to come through.
Depending on your workplace culture, it might be helpful to let your supervisor know that you’re working on the most important task on your to-do list and will be turning off notifications for a set amount of time in order to achieve intense concentration. That way, if you don’t respond to a message for a few hours, they will be in-the-loop.
When you use Clockwise, the app will automatically schedule your various tasks, meetings, and other commitments in a way that maximizes the time in your day. You can also adjust the settings to block notifications while you are focused on other tasks.
6. Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a way of achieving intense concentration. Decide on a length of time (typically 20-25 minutes) and set a timer. Until the timer buzzes, focus only on the task at hand. Turn off all distracting notifications and close any social media apps you have running in the background of your computer to make sure that nothing can distract you.
When the timer rings, take a 5-10 minute break before jumping back into deep work. Breaking up your work like this will help you stay focused on the most important tasks at hand while not over exerting yourself on a challenging task.
While some find it helpful, for others, the Pomodoro technique disrupts flow as the time is broken up into smaller chunks. Try it out, and if it doesn’t work for you, then move on to other ways of achieving a flow state of mind.
7. Stop multitasking
Do you ever sit down to work on a project, you have a podcast running in the background, you’re keeping an eye on social media, and you’re frustrated that you’re not getting as much accomplished as you know you could? Multitasking won’t help you reach the most optimal flow state.
For your own sake, turn off the noise, set your phone aside, and focus on a single task. Accomplishing it will boost your confidence and help you tackle the next to-do item!
Sometimes people start multitasking as a form of procrastination. This can happen when you are overwhelmed by the task at hand. Break the larger project down into smaller, clear goals. Then, gradually chip away at them.
Working to minimize procrastination can contribute to your overall well-being by helping you realize you’re in total control of your time.
8. Do something you enjoy
Intrinsic motivation is another aspect of achieving flow. When you do something that you enjoy, reaching the flow state is almost effortless.
In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes people who are internally driven, and who will often have a sense of purpose or show curiosity, as “autotelic.”
Autotelic people do what they do simply for the joy of the thing itself, and they are typically able to reach a flow state of mind much easier than their counterparts who are motivated by external factors such as power, money, prestige, or accolades.
Make time in your life for the things you love doing. Whether that’s playing a musical instrument, running, writing, or spending time with people — prioritize doing that on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, not everyone loves their day job, but building a familiarity with flow state in everyday life will help you achieve it more during the workday as well. Reaching flow state more often improves mood and boosts confidence, which overall helps one navigate the outside world without self-consciousness.
9. Do something that is important to you
While this can be similar to something you enjoy, there is a definite difference. You may enjoy playing video games, but they may or may not be all that important to you in the grand scheme of life.
Build a habit of achieving deep focus while doing things that are meaningful and important to you. While you may be able to get to a flow state doing something less important, for your own sake, focus your energy and time on reaching your peak performance while doing things that will help you reach your goals.
10. Work on improving a flow state of mind
Like most things, you can get better at achieving a flow state of mind. Some activities are naturally easier to zone in on and achieve deep focus than others are. Find ways to achieve flow, and then work on extending the length of time that you can stay in a state of flow as well as the activities you are able to do it with.
Practice blocking out the outside world and increasing your level of skill through peak performance.
If you are a team leader, give your team members immediate feedback when possible. This will help them get in the flow state as they won’t have to wonder if they’ve done what was asked of them. It will help build their confidence and make the workplace culture overall healthier.
Good luck, and enjoy being in a flow state of mind!
Like all good things, achieving flow requires discipline, intentionality, and practice. Achieving flow will help you see the many benefits that it can bring to your life.
Try using Clockwise to help you get started with achieving a flow state of mind. Clockwise automatically time blocks your calendar so that your day isn’t filled with distractions and switching focus between tasks.