Have you ever noticed the way your mindset changes on your most productive days? Instead of struggling to focus and fend off distractions, you’re locked in, accomplishing the task at hand with ease. Hours slip by barely noticed—and before you know it, your big task is complete.
There’s actually a name for that seemingly-magical phenomenon: the flow state. The flow state happens when you’re totally immersed in a task, to the point where distractions have no effect. Your work feels easy, as you “flow” seamlessly from one step to the next.
However, the flow state is elusive. There’s no pill or mantra that will magically put you in this ultra-productive frame of mind. So how can you put flow to work for you? Here’s what you need to know to tap your flow state more often.
While the flow state has probably been around for as long as human brains have, it was officially “discovered” and named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist, focused his career on positive psychology, or the study of how people can discover purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in life. He’s best known for his findings on the flow state, which stemmed from a shocking discovery: People are often happier at work than they are during time off.
This discovery came from Csikszentmihalyi’s study in which participants self-reported their emotional states at random parts of the day. The study participants carried pagers (this was in the late ’80s, mind you) that went off periodically. Each time the pager went off, they’d record both what they were doing and how they felt at that moment.
What Csikszentmihalyi found was that while people thought they were happier during time off, their self-reporting showed something different. His participants were actually happier at work—even though they didn’t realize it.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
The authoritative and best-selling treatise on the flow-state by none other than Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi himself.
Csikszentmihalyi explained this phenomenon with the concept of “flow state.” When we’re in flow, we’re engaged and challenged in just the right amounts. The flow state feels amazing—which is why we’re actually happier while doing work that interests and challenges us than while at rest.
He documented his finding through various research papers and various books, the most famous of which was the best-selling and appropriately named Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Of course, we don’t hit the flow state every time we work. Mundane, boring tasks and tasks that are too hard or too easy won’t give us flow. However, the more time we can spend in the flow state, the happier and more productive we’ll be—so it’s worthwhile to seek it out.
The flow state also doesn’t just apply to work in the traditional sense. If you work in certain fields, such as in data entry or at a call center, the nature of your job might not be very conducive to flow. But you can also tap into your flow state during a side hustle, passion project, or engaging hobby. By finding exciting projects to tackle during your off time, you can actually increase your happiness.
The key to the flow state is feeling challenged but not overwhelmed. You need to be interested in what you’re doing, and it needs to be just hard enough to engage you. If you’re frustrated, disinterested, or discouraged, you won’t be able to find your flow.
The flow state is also never guaranteed. Some days, you might not be able to flow, while other days it will come naturally. But the more familiar you become with this state, the more often you’ll be able to tap into it. And as an added bonus, seeking your flow state can help you better understand your passions, which will lead you to more fulfilling jobs and hobbies.
So, how can you tap into your flow state to accomplish more and feel happier while you do it? Although research has yet to uncover a magic “key” to the flow state that can be distilled down into something as easy to use an an energy drink or supplement there are a lot of ways you can proactively prime your brain for the experience.
A lot of trial and error is the best way to better understand which factors trigger it for you and to assisst you with that we’ve detailed seven simple strategies for you to try below.
The flow state is usually attached to tasks that have a clear goal, and that can be broken down into manageable steps.
If you can’t figure out the next step, or aren’t clear on what the end of your task looks like, it’s hard to flow through it.
You can help reach your flow state by working from checklists that break down a bigger task into simple, necessary steps. The framework of the checklist gives your mind something to focus on when it drifts, anchoring you back to the present and the task at hand.
You also can’t reach the flow state unless the task at hand requires you to concentrate. So take on tasks that aren’t super-easy (but aren’t too hard, either).
If you’re at work, see if you can try more challenging projects from time to time. If you’re at home, challenge yourself to learn and practice a new skill, or face a difficult project you’ve been putting off. Leave your comfort zone. Try to do your best, rather than just getting the job done.
If you’re having trouble pinning down exactly what that looks like, think about how video games work. A game isn’t fun if it’s so easy it feels pointless and it isn’t fun if it’s so hard there’s no way to advance forward. A game that keeps you right in that middle state where it’s challenging you without crushing you is the game that will hold your interest the longest. Seek out challenges in the real world that give you that hard-but-not-crushing feeling.
The flow state works best when you’re using your natural talents. Try to pinpoint the nexus of what you’re good at and what you’re interested in, and you’ll be able to flow more often.
That might look like picking a hobby that aligns with those natural talents. Maybe you’re a detail-oriented person and a hobby that allows you to geek out over the particular details of something would be a good fit for capturing that flow state.
And at work you could leverage the same natural inclinations. If you’re a detail-oriented person look for aspects of your job that would benefit from that and focus on them. Or maybe you’re happiest when problem-solving, so your flow state might come easiest when evaluating workflows and coming up with more efficient ways to get things done.
The more passionate you feel about something, the more likely you are to flow through it. The key to flow is enjoying the process, not just passing the finish line. So try new things until you find something that excites you.
That doesn’t have to involve trying totally different jobs or skipping from hobby to hobby either, by the way. While making a major career change in pursuit of optimal mental health and focus is something that might be in reach for some folks, sometimes it’s enough to just look for ways to adjust your current workflow or hobbies to better fit those natural talents and inclinations we were talking about.
Before making a major change or selling off recently purchased hobby gear, ask yourself how you can tweak the way you do things to fit better.
If you only have a certain amount of time to complete a task, you’re more likely to set aside distractions and focus completely—which will help you flow. Use timers and deadlines to your advantage, such as with the Pomodoro Technique.
Part of good time management isn’t just setting aside the time, however, but setting goals for what you’re doing with the time. It’s really easy to get lost in setting and resetting a timer, so keep our first tip—setting clear goals—in mind. Whether you set a timer or just block off some time during your day, knowing what you’re going to do with that time will help you slip into a flow state more easily.
A single interruption can snap you out of the flow state—and getting back to it isn’t always easy. Try to find a time and place where you can work free from interruptions and distractions as much as possible. Put your phone away or turn off the notifications if you need to.
If the task at hand allows for it, some simple earplugs or a pair of noise-isolating earbuds if you like listening to music work great to minimize distractions.
Speaking of music and flow state, not only can good music help but—to return to our talk about gaming and flow—video game music, in particular, is really amazing for focusing. Video game soundtracks, after all, are designed to accompany and facilitate players getting into a hyper-focused flow state while they are playing the game after all.
Finally, keep in mind that flowing doesn’t mean overworking. While research might show that work makes us happy, we also need relaxation to be healthy. Instead of working more or harder, the flow state is about working smarter—getting more out of your time at work.
When you seek out flow, don’t forget to give yourself plenty of time off, too. If anything, taking good care of your mind and body makes it easier to focus and flow when you need it.
The flow state isn’t a myth: It’s a real, research-supported phenomenon that anyone can experience. With practice, you’ll get better at reaching that state and enjoying your work (and your life) more.
Want to try tapping into the flow state during your downtime? You can start by learning a refreshing new hobby—such as with this starter guide to yoga.