When I was writing my book, The Joy Plan, I had times of intense focus when I would write fast and furiously for many hours at a time without a break. Sometimes I looked up at the clock, startled to see that eight, 10 or even 12 hours had gone by. In those times of creative outpouring, I didn’t notice much else. I didn’t go to the bathroom, I forgot to eat and I went days without washing my hair. And it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.
If you’ve ever experienced a flow state, you know what I’m talking about. This state of mind, first recognized and named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, is a state of intense concentration and focus.
It’s often experienced by athletes and described as “peak performance” or being “in the zone” — a state of mind that allows for superior function. When you’re in a flow state, you become so engrossed in what you’re doing that time and space melt away. It feels amazing — and it’s highly productive.
Want to experience a flow state for yourself? Here are seven conditions you need to create.
1. Completely Immerse Yourself in an Activity
When you’re in a flow state, you’re completely focused on the task at hand in the present moment. This penetrating concentration takes over, and while you’re in it nothing else matters. It could happen while you’re playing a sport, at work, immersed in a hobby, coding software or even having a great conversation.
What’s important about the activity is that it has the power to capture your full attention. In Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he theorizes that people are happiest and perform their best when they’re in a flow state.
2. Choose an Activity You Feel Excited About
You’re unlikely to achieve a flow state if you feel forced to do something, so it’s important for you to feel that you have control over the situation or activity. Flow states are highly creative, and to tap into that stream of creativity you must want to be there. A dull work project may not put you in a flow state, for example, if you find it boring and monotonous.
3. It Can’t Be Too Challenging
The activity needs to be rewarding and pleasurable to you. So if it’s too hard, you might not reach the optimum flow state. Flow happens when your skills are perfectly matched for the task at hand, so if you’re frustrated by not having the skills you need to succeed, you may have to switch activities or amp up your skill level to get back into the zone.
4. But It Can’t Be Underwhelming Either
If what you’re doing is too easy, it won’t capture your entire focus. You have to find that sweet spot where you’re experiencing just the right amount of challenge. The key is achieving the right balance between the perceived challenges of the activity and your own perceived skills. While on the one hand you have to push yourself to perform your best, you simultaneously need to feel confident in your ability to succeed.
5. Have a Clear Objective
Whatever you’re doing, you need to have clear goals and objectives. Flow states happen when your activity has a specific direction, with structure and measurable goals to mark achievement. To stay motivated and in the flow, you need to know why you’re pressing forward and be inspired to reach your goals.
6. You Need Immediate Feedback
In flow states, feedback propels you to keep going. You must be able to measure your progress with immediate feedback, which could be your own (intrinsic feedback), someone else’s (extrinsic feedback) or both. Immediate feedback helps you make adjustments along the way so you can maintain the flow.
While you may easily experience any of these conditions on their own, it’s in combination that they can create a flow state experience.