Cultivate Effortless Focus with the Art of Flow States
Wondering what a flow state is? Read on to learn about the art of accessing a flow state, and how it can support increased focus and innovation.
Do you know that feeling where you’re fully engaged in working towards a goal and the rest of the world seems to melt away? When you’re exclusively focused on the task at hand and you feel an almost effortless sense of momentum? If so, then you’ve likely experienced flow states.
What is a Flow State?
A flow state is a state of mind that can lead to heightened perception and increased focus. Many have described it as a feeling of “being in the zone,” or as a state of “peak human performance.”
Flow states generally involve six factors:
- Streamlined and intense focus on a given task
- The seamless merging of awareness and action (where “being and doing become one”)
- Our sense of time becomes distorted
- Disinhibition of self-monitoring and self-consciousness that can slow decision-making
- A feeling of personal control or agency over the situation
- The experience is autotelic, meaning the process is itself intrinsically rewarding and your satisfaction does not rely on the outcome
In a flow state, you’re completely synchronized with the present moment, paying attention only to the challenge before you. Your mind becomes impervious to distractions and it may feel like time is passing slowly as you lose yourself in the activity.
A Brief History of Flow
The idea of “peak performance” has been noted and explored since the 1800s. However, the concept of “flow states” was formalized in the 1970s by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi had embarked on one of the largest psychological surveys to date, interviewing people around the world. He started with experts, from dancers to surgeons to chess players. He then turned to people from all walks of life, including Navajo sheepherders, older Korean women, and Japanese motorcycle gang members, to name a few .
Csiksentmihalyi’s main focus: he wanted to know about the times in their life when they felt and performed their best.
Time and time again, he was met with answers that indicated a common state of flow, where every decision and action fluidly and effortlessly led to the next. Many described the experience as similar to being guided down a river, inspiring Csiksentmihalyi with the term “flow.” 
The Research Behind Flow States
Since Csiksentmihalyi’s initial observations, advancements in brain imaging technology have provided us with greater insight and understanding into flow states.
Research suggests there is a radical shift in processing that happens in our brains when we access flow states. Usually, during everyday life, we operate from a place of conscious processing, which involves a rather slow and energy-expensive system. When in flow, our brains begin working from the much speedier and more efficient intrinsic processing of our subconscious minds.
Flow States in the Brain
In 2008 a neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins, Charles Limb, employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore flow state of improv jazz musicians. He found that the area of the brain known for self-monitoring (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) was almost entirely deactivated . Self-monitoring is associated with our inner doubts, so it makes sense that this region would shut down to facilitate the split-second, no-hesitation decisions in flow.
The Neurochemistry Behind Flow
Research has found that norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and anandamide – all neurochemicals known to increase pleasure and boost performance – are also linked to flow . These neurochemicals and endorphins help with everything from pattern recognition and creative problem solving to focus and muscle reaction time.
Flow State and Brain Waves
During the course of the day, our brains typically display faster-moving beta waves, which are associated with waking consciousness. When we induce flow states, our brain waves shift to slower rhythms on the border between alpha and theta waves . Alpha waves occur as we daydream, while theta waves appear in the moments just before falling asleep and REM sleep. Both alpha and theta waves are associated with increased creativity and decreased self-monitoring.
What Causes Flow States?
Researchers have credited scientific breakthroughs, global athletic feats and gold medals, and prolific performances and creativity in the arts to flow states. So if you find yourself curious about how you can cultivate a flow state in your life, you’re not alone.
In the course of his work, Csikszentmihalyi found that flow states often only occur under the right set of circumstances.
- Have extremely high levels of focus.
- Stay in an open and creative state.
- Work on a task that is the right match for our abilities—something that challenges us but is still within reach given our abilities at that moment.
This means that an activity must be intrinsically rewarding or something you enjoy doing for the sake of it. Additionally, the task must be challenging enough that it requires your full attention and stretches you to the limit of your skills.
Csikszentmhihalyi suggests that the human mind can process no more than 120 bits of information each second . When our minds achieve this level of processing while engaged in an activity we love and are skilled at, a flow state often follows. All of this to say, flow states not only enhance our work, but can fill us with motivation, fulfillment, and purpose.
How You Can Start Cultivating Flow
If you want to induce your very own state of flow, there are a few essentials to consider.
- The activity should be one you care about, and the process should be enjoyable to you.
- The activity should challenge you, but not be so difficult that it discourages you.
- The task is within your skill level but stretches you to the extent of your capabilities.
Beyond those circumstances, there are many ways you can train your ability to access flow and produce peak performance states.
#1 Explore Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a state of being, where our focus is concentrated exclusively on the present moment. In this state, we may experience increased awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and physical state. Mindful exercises often include meditation, but can also include other mindful practices such as deep breathing, body relaxation exercises, gratitude practices, mindful eating, and more.
#2 Practice Meditation
Meditation is a practice that can help increase mindfulness and train our brains to remain in a state of flow. The benefits of meditation include increased awareness and attention – two key factors in flow states. Meditation involves paying attention to when your mind wanders and guiding your attention back without judgment. This sort of mental training can grant us greater freedom and choice in maintaining our focus and staying in flow.
#3 Design a Flow State Ritual
It can be difficult to access flow when we’re stressed or care more about the outcome than the process, as is often the case with work. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done though! Instead of focusing on the task, create a ritual that allows you to access a state of flow. Your “flow-state” ritual can help reduce stress and make it easier for you to enjoy the journey, instead of striving toward the destination.
This ritual should involve doing something you love, where you can challenge yourself and use the full extent of your skills. You want it to be something where you can stop thinking and just dive into the work. Activities that may trigger a flow state can include: singing, dancing, gaming, playing a sport, math, writing, playing an instrument, creating art, and cooking. Choose what engages and challenges you and practice it each time you want to induce flow.
#4 Choose One Task at a Time
Part of the key to flow is devoting all your mental energy to one task at a time. That means no multitasking. You can help facilitate your own flow state by prioritizing your single biggest task, and giving it your full attention. Multitasking can spread our mental resources too thin, making it impossible to cultivate a flow state.
#5 Create a Distraction-Free Zone
Distractions will pull you out of flow states, so do your best to minimize them beforehand. Leave your phone in another room, or if you need it, place your phone in “do not disturb” mode. Turn off text and email notifications that might pop up on your computer – you can check them once you’re done. If you know you’re inclined to be distracted by social media or your favorite websites, download website blockers or apps so you can’t access them till after.
Accessing Flow with Muse
If you’re excited by the idea of accessing flow states and want to get started, we’re here to help! Meditation and mindfulness facilitate focused attention and awareness that keeps us engaged in the present moment. Our Muse Mind Biofeedback Experience can help you notice your thoughts, bring your wandering mind back to the present, and help cultivate focus and flow.
- Read about The Science of Peak Performance with the New York Times HERE >>
- Explore Flow Theory and Optimal Experience with Science Direct HERE >>
- Read John Hopkins Neuroscientist Charles Limb’s study on Jazz improvisation HERE >>
- Discover Why It’s So Hard to Pay Attention, According to Science HERE >>