What Is Flow?

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi finds that we spend about a third of our day doing things we have to do, a third doing things we want to do, and a third doing things because we have nothing better to do. In his view, we can make more of our precious time on earth.

Csikszentmihalyi has spent many years investigating life’s best moments – moments when we feel alive, engaged, and empowered. Example of personal growth often include times when hours whirl by in what seem like minutes, when that annoying voice in our head shuts off and we become totally immersed in what we’re doing – whether it’s working, playing sports, or having a conversation. Think of those times when hours whirl by in what seem like minutes, when that annoying voice in our head shuts off and we become totally immersed in what we’re doing – whether it’s working, playing sports, or having a conversation

He calls this state of full engagement with life “flow.” Flow promises to turn things we have to do into less of a chore, and to increase the time we spend doing things we want to do. 

Want a peek at what is flow and what it feels like? Watch this video by the Flow Genome Project, an organization dedicated to understanding flow and sharing that knowledge with the world. The slow motion, first-person perspectives, and music – along with breathtaking scenes of surfers and snowboarders in the zone – are designed to encourage a flow state.

The basics of flow

If you’ve ever been in flow, you’ll recognize the idea immediately: it’s when you get so wrapped up in an activity that distractions fade away, time (usually) speeds up, and it’s almost as if you’re running on autopilot. A flow experience leaves us feeling exhilaration and enjoyment – afterward. During, we’re usually too focused to notice much of anything about our feelings. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the subjective experience of full involvement with life.” Steven Kotler, the Flow Genome Project’s director of research, says it’s when we feel our best and perform our best.

We might find flow at work, deciphering a particularly complex problem or letting our ideas spill out on paper. (We achieve flow four times as often at work as watching TV.) We might find flow while walking, dancing, having sex, or doing yoga or martial arts. We can find flow by seeing art, hearing music, or tasting food. We can also achieve flow while reading, daydreaming, remembering, or thinking – that’s one of the ways we can learn to enjoy solitude.

But flow is also available in social situations. Flow is particularly strong in early parts of a romantic relationship, when we’re constantly learning and being challenged. We can also find flow in engaging, forget-the-rest-of-the-world-exists conversations.

Based on interviews with around 10,000 people, Csikszentmihalyi identified common elements that characterize the flow experience:

  1. Altered sense of time. The classic flow experience speeds up time – it’s the creative genius who comes up for air and realizes the sun has set and he hasn’t eaten his lunch. But sometimes, time can slow down to give us a sense of precise control over quick activities. Professionals like surgeons and runners even report having an enhanced sense of time during flow, so they can estimate how long they’ve spent in the operating room or on the track down to the minute. This happens because prefrontal areas of the brain actually go quiet in flow, and some of those areas are involved in computing the passing of time.
  2. Loss of ego: Many of our daily activities are accompanied by a constant stream of self-focused chatter: How am I doing? Am I doing this right? Is it good enough? This chatter is happily silenced during flow, and our sense of self recedes into the background (although, if the activity is physical, we may still be acutely aware of our bodies). We may even start to feel one with other people or the nature around us. Some of the other prefrontal areas that are quieted in flow are the ones that house our sense of self and distinguish the boundaries of the self.
  3. For its own sake. In flow, whatever we’re doing becomes valuable for its own sake. It’s an inherently positive state: whether or not we get money or praise for what we’re doing in the future, it’s still worth doing. In short, it makes life worth living now.

“Flow might be the most desirable state on earth; it’s also the most elusive,” says Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. Part of the reason is that flow doesn’t suddenly appear; we typically go through two stages before entering flow – and one stage after it – and navigating them isn’t easy, he explains.

  • Struggle. In this stage, we don’t feel like we’re anywhere near flow. We feel tense and frustrated, and problems seem unsolvable. We might be gathering facts, doing physical training, or studying. This stage is dominated by the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine – a jittery cocktail.
  • Release. At some point, the pressure is too much and we have to take a break – go for a walk, eat, relax, or do something easier. Nitric oxide is released, which reduces stress hormones and increases dopamine and endorphins.
  • Flow.
  • Recovery. In this stage, our brain and body have to rest and regain energy for the next flow cycle. For surfers, it’s the days between big waves; for a writer, it might be the evening respite after a marathon writing session. The skills and patterns we’ve learned during the flow experience are transferred from short-term to long-term memory, so we can be better next time.

Watch Csikszentmihalyi explain flow, and how it gives us a sense of freedom and potential:

Flow vs. other states

Flow chart

One of the key triggers for flow – as we’ll see next week – is the match of skills and challenges. When a task is just pushing our limits, it pulls us in and demands our attention. But skills and challenges can align in other, less-than-ideal ways as well. The flow state chart above illustrates different combinations of low, medium, and high skills and challenges:

  • Apathy: low skill, low challenge, like when we’re lonely or watching TV.
  • Boredom: medium skill, low challenge, like when we’re working or doing chores.
  • Relaxation: high skill, low challenge, like when we’re eating, reading, or talking to others.
  • Worry: low skill, medium challenge, like when we’re contemplating family problems or work struggles.
  • Anxiety: low skill, high challenge, like when we’re under stress at work or a sudden threat arises. Anxiety is uncomfortable, obviously, so we often try to reduce the challenges in front of us by giving up responsibility, setting our sights lower, or going into denial.
  • Arousal: medium skill, high challenge, like when we’re performing a new task or learning something. Csikszentmihalyi considers arousal a positive state, even though the challenge is eclipsing our skills. It’s a neighbor to flow, and it can turn into flow if we boost our skills a bit.
  • Control: high skill, medium challenge, like driving or working. Another positive state, control can lead us to flow if we increase the challenge.
  • Flow: high skill, high challenge, like doing our favorite hobby or interesting work.

Percussion performer John Boone managed to achieve flow on stage when he finally gave up control and improvised, reading the audience at each performance and trusting that things would turn out well. Watch him explain the process of going from anxiety to flow:

Flow and focus

Flow is a particular kind of focus, when attention is directed at a goal and the successful steps we’re taking to get there. That kind of focus is rare, because we’re constantly bombarded with different things we might focus on: a siren, a rumbling stomach, a financial worry, a Facebook update. Distractions, which can be sensory or emotional, pull us away from what we’re doing so often that we barely notice them anymore.

But flow is different. Flow is focused, concentrated attention. Goleman separates focus into three types, depending on the object we’re focusing on. There’s inner focus, like pondering what career is best for us; other focus, like having a conversation; and outer focus, like going on a safari. Physical flow activities like yoga or dancing demand inner focus, while leisure activities like knitting or sculpting demand outer focus. Playing a game of squash probably demands all three: inner focus on your body position, other focus on the opponent’s, and outer focus on the ball.

Attention is a resource that we have, and it can be invested in different places. Investing it into flow activities requires effort, but it builds our skills, (sometimes) our relationships, and our sense of self (as we’ll see in Week 3). We could also invest our attention in relaxation, but – Csikszentmihalyi says – we won’t reap as many psychological rewards.

Flow sounds a lot like mindfulness, and some experiences may fall under both categories. But as Flow Genome Project executive director Jamie Wheal explains, flow is more about what’s next rather than what’s now. Flow propels us forward to the next step, the next move, the next challenge, while mindfulness grounds us in the present.

I also suspect that flow is harder to cultivate than mindfulness. You could imagine someone who is mindful all the time, consciously eating and walking, giving you full attention when you speak. But a life of constant flow is unthinkable – we need to relax, after all. And while you can mindfully wait in a DMV line, I challenge you to enter a flow state there (without playing chess in your head). Flow is more fleeting, like a muse that visits us when she wishes, and often the best we can do is create a propitious environment and invite her in. And when she comes, we won’t have to worry about taming a wandering mind – for the next half hour or four, we will be hers.