One of the best feelings at work is being in the zone—work feels effortless, everything else falls away, and we even lose track of time.
Being in the zone has another name: flow state. When you’re in flow state, productivity and creativity skyrocket, and getting great work done can feel almost effortless. Luckily, flow state isn’t as hard to get into as it might seem. In this article, we’ll demystify flow state and help you get into the flow in your day to day. Here’s how.
Flow state is that hard-to-describe feeling of being so in the zone that everything else falls away. When you’re in the flow, you’re totally immersed in whatever you’re doing to the point that you often lose track of time or ignore outside distractions. During flow state, you unlock a sense of effortless attention to the task at hand—as a result, being in the flow can be an energizing experience.
The term “flow” was first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of positive psychology, which is the scientific study of what makes life worth living. Csikszentmihalyi isn’t the first person to identify flow state—but he recorded this phenomenon as part of a larger psychological study. Csikszentmihalyi named this experience “flow” because, while interviewing people about this feeling, many people described the sensation of flowing along with a river.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, there are eight key factors that contribute to flow state:
Clarity of goals and immediate feedback
Intense, focused concentration on a specific task
Balance between skills and challenge
Sense of personal control and agency over the task
Loss of reflective self-consciousness
Time distortion or altered sense of time
Consolidation of action and awareness
Autotelic experience (i.e. flow state is intrinsically rewarding)
In addition to simply feeling good, getting in the flow has a variety of benefits, including:
Feeling in tune with (and in control of) your emotions
Increased satisfaction because what you produce during flow state tends to be its own reward
Increased engagement in your work
Feelings of increased creativity because you’re less self-conscious during flow state
Increased focus in what you’re doing
Confidence that what you’re working on is achievable
You may have heard the terms flow state and deep work used interchangeably. In practice, these terms refer to similar experiences, but there is a difference between flow state and deep work—and how you can use both to your advantage.
While flow state can be experienced in various aspects of life—including sports, meditation, and art—deep work is typically associated with the workplace. Additionally, while flow state is achieved by the balance between skill and challenge, deep work focuses on helping you achieve something complicated. In fact, when Cal Newport first developed his deep work hypothesis, he defined deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”Read: How “deep work” changes the way we work
You can achieve flow state in many areas of life—not just at work. Essentially, you can be in the flow during any activity that takes a lot of focus. When that focus transforms into flow state, it can feel like you’re so involved in your activity that time melts away. Here are a few examples of flow state in different areas of life:
One of the most rewarding things to do at work is to achieve flow state. Flow at work is when you’re so immersed in a task or project that you lose track of time. You might not even realize how much time has passed as you complete an assignment. That’s flow.
A lot of athletes describe experiencing flow state during sports events, even if they don’t always use this terminology. In sports, flow state can feel like a totally clear head. When athletes are able to focus on athletic performance without being self-conscious or worried about anything else, they are achieving athletic flow.
Whether you’re creating or experiencing art, you can experience flow state during various types of art—like music, movies, writing, or painting. If you’re creating art, flow state is when you’re so involved in the creation process that it’s the only thing you’re focused on. But you can also get into the flow while experiencing art. For example, have you ever been so immersed in the music you’re listening to that time passes without you realizing? These experiences make up creative flow.
Flow in education is the feeling of being totally immersed in the subject you’re studying. For example, flow in education might be the feeling of attending such an engrossing lecture that you don’t realize how much time has passed, and you’re surprised when the lecturer finishes their presentation. Or you could experience flow in education while studying a subject and getting in the groove—so much so that hours later, you realized you skipped dinner. That’s educational flow.
One of the most common ways people achieve flow is through meditation. When Csikszentmihalyi was first interviewing subjects about flow state, many of them described flow as a river—where you were simply floating along and letting the current drive you. This sense of effortlessness or mental weightlessness is a key part of many meditation practices.
Oftentimes, people begin meditating by clearing their mind or imagining their thoughts as a blue sky—where thoughts can come and go like clouds in a sky. Achieving this level of relaxation during meditative practices is mindful flow.
Everyone experiences flow state in different ways. However, most people tend to describe being in the flow with similar vocabulary. If you say “I was in the zone” to a coworker, they automatically know what you mean—even if they would never be able to get into flow state the same way.
But if there are so many ways to get into flow state, how can you get into the flow? Even though everyone gets into the flow in different ways, there are a few common factors in achieving flow state. Implement these practices in your daily life in order to achieve flow state at work.
You can achieve flow state when you’re balanced between challenge and skill. If something is too challenging, it’s hard to get into the flow, because you’re probably stressed about being able to get it done. If something isn’t challenging enough, then you’re probably bored, which isn’t conducive to flow state. In flow state, this is called the “challenge-skill balance.”
Another key element of flow state is having clear goals. When you know what you need to accomplish, it’s easier to get into the flow. That’s because having clear goals helps you understand if you’re successfully completing the task at hand.
If you struggle to establish clear goals, start by connecting your regular work to larger team and company objectives. When you understand how the task at hand contributes to larger company initiatives, you’re more able to clearly prioritize key work and get high-impact work done. To do this, use a work management tool to connect work across your entire organization.
Once you’re in flow state, your brain will naturally filter out distractions as you continue to focus on the work you’re doing. But while you’re getting into the flow, distractions can, well, distract you from achieving the mental clarity you need for flow state.Read: 7 tips for finding focus and reducing digital distractions
A lot of us deal with distractions on a near-constant basis. In fact, 80% of knowledge workers report working with their inbox or other communication apps open. But these distractions are keeping you from achieving flow state. Instead, try these tips to reduce distractions:
Turn on Do not Disturb mode
Schedule a time block
We all think we can multitask to get work done—but the truth is, multitasking is a myth. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you multitask, you’re not doing two things at once—you’re just forcing your brain to switch between two or more things at a rapid pace, which puts a large cognitive load on your brain. Yet we’ve all been there. According to our research, 72% of knowledge workers feel pressure to multitask during the day.
More likely than not, multitasking will immediately interrupt your flow state. Because your brain is forced to focus on something other than your flow state task when you multitask, it requires precious time and energy to get back into the flow. Just like distractions, put your multitasking away and focus on the task at hand.Read: Overcoming burnout in a distributed world
Tell us if you’ve been here: you’ve been in the flow before, you know what it feels like, you want to get in the flow again to be productive today, but no matter what you do you can’t feel it. Trust us, we’ve been there. This is called the paradox of control—the more you try to control something, the harder it is to control.
If you’re not feeling in the flow today, that’s ok. You can still get great work done without being in the flow. The same practices of reducing distractions and cutting multitasking can help you focus on work—even if you don’t quite get into flow state.
Similar to not forcing it, you won’t be able to hit flow state if you’re not enjoying yourself. If you aren’t sure where to get started, do something you like.
Flow state works based off of intrinsic—not extrinsic—motivation. Intrinsic motivation means you want to do something good because it’s satisfying, not necessarily because you will get a reward. That’s the same with flow state. The reason we like flow state so much is because it feels good to get work done.
Not only can you hit individual flow, you can also create team flow. When your entire team achieves flow state, it can feel like you and your team are working in perfect synchronization.
To get into team flow, use the six steps you used to get into individual flow and expand it to the rest of your team. Create working blocks or group sessions where you can all focus on a project, together. Not only will you experience the benefits of being in the flow, but you can share those benefits with your entire team for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.Read: Team flow: how to make productivity contagious
Flow state is one of many individual productivity strategies to help you get your highest-impact work done. Like many other productivity strategies, flow state can help you hone in on the most important work and focus on that for a prolonged period of time.
But, like all productivity and time management strategies, flow state isn’t for everyone. If flow isn’t working for you, read our article on 18 time management tips to try.