Why You Should Spend Time in a Flow State

Flow is a state of consciousness in which many very creative individuals claim to most readily produce their work. Plus it feels good (to be there, to have been there), so once you recognize it, you may seek it out regularly.

Flow, most simply, is when time stops for you, or at least changes quality dramatically. You and what you’re doing merge. Sounds mystical, and it can feel that way, but it’s very real.

Athletes rave about “the zone.”  Hobbyists and lovers and readers and writers all find their sense of time expanding into timelessness when they enter a state of flow.  They’re so engaged in whatever they’re doing that they’d just as soon go on doing it forever.

Flow is the opposite of those rushed, overly busy feelings we all struggle with in our fractured role-juggling lives.  Those who manage to spend a higher proportion of their time in flow activities are more motivated, more resilient, and happier, say flow researchers.

I’ve studied flow, also known popularly as “being in the zone,” for more than 20 years now. My intense interest in this intense state of focus began because I have such a hard time getting there myself. Easily distracted, I have nonetheless learned that it’s possible to re-enter flow again and again. That’s almost as good as being able to stick with something for a long period.

It wasn’t my idea to study flow empirically. That we owe to Mihalyi Csikzentmihalyi (who extremely generously agreed to help with my dissertation on how writers and poets enter a flow state, and the book that followed, Writing in Flow).

My interest isn’t in what goes on in the brain during particular states of consciousness. Not that I’m not curious, but I’ve no training in brain science, and I figure it will be a while before we and our MRIs can catch more than tantalizing glimpses of what happens inside the brain when someone is intently focused on a task not related to the sounds of the MRI machine.

I’ll be writing more about flow in this blog, but for now, let’s start with the following:


1.  Get familiar with your personal zone.  I determined that I enter flow most readily in conversation with old friends. The hours stretch to midnight and beyond before it even occurs to me that I have a long ride home and have to get up early. It has to do with the fact that  I trust my buddies not to judge me, I feel reasonably competent in the realm of friendly banter, and my pals stimulate me to new heights of hilarity.

  • When do YOU enter such a state? Take this self-knowledge into another realm that’s a tougher challenge, an area in which you want to spend more time productively.

2.  Multi-task less .. or maybe more.  It’s fine to combine the junk tasks and get more done in less time, but when it comes to the crucial stuff, like playing with your kids, or writing a poem, making a decision, give it your full attention.

3.  Do what you’re avoiding.  This removes a huge weight and frees up amazing energy.  How?  One way is to “trivialize the task,” which means to get rid of the perfectionism and put the avoided task in its proper place in the larger scheme of things. Flow happens during a good balance of challenge and ease. What you’re doing must feel do-able, but not so easy as to bore you. So figure out what you don’t know about the avoided task, and tackle that.

  • When do you find yourself in a flow state? Is it easy for you or hard to keep distractions out? What works for you?

Copyright (2012) by Susan K. Perry

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2 Responses to Why You Should Spend Time in a Flow State

  1. kleinem says:

    “When do you find yourself in a flow state? Is it easy for you or hard to keep distractions out? What works for you?”
    As a “Sunday painter” I have experienced the “flow state”. With a painting started the day before I would feel a sense of urgency to get back to working on it upon my morning awakening the next day.
    A quick breakfast & to oral hygiene & I would be dipping a brush into my painting medium.
    I would then next become aware that it was afternoon and that I had painted continuously throughout the day, not even being aware that I had not stopped to eat lunch.
    My concentration would be so intense while painting that if I was interrupted I would momentarily experience an intense sense of irritation.

    • Avatar photo A Rational Woman says:

      That’s a perfect example of flow! Isn’t it amazing how that urgency to get back to an activity is totally opposite the feeling you get when trying to avoid an activity?

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