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What is Flow and How To Experience It

As an entrepreneur, you may remember a time where you felt highly distracted, where you just could not focus on the task at hand. As a writer I personally struggle at times to sit down and focus on writing for prolonged periods of time, or experience writer’s block all together as soon as I sit down at the computer. This lead me to look in to focus and the factors that complement intense focus.

What I came across in my research, is a state that psychologists claim not only heightens focus, but also increases overall happiness in everyday life. The state I’m referring to has been given many names, the most prominent, and descriptive in my opinion, is “flow”.

Flow Defined

So what exactly is flow and what is going on when our brains have reached a state of flow?

Based on research conducted by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a prominent Psychologist and former head of the Psychology department at The University of Chicago, flow is a trance like state that takes full advantage of all cognitive resources in the brain at once. Csikszentmihalyi describes flow more specifically as a state in which the reward is the result of taking part in the action or task at hand, meaning it is self-sustaining because the end product motivates the original actions.

Dr. Susan Perry, Social Psychologist and highly active writer on the topic of flow, describes the feeling of flow as being intense attention to the action at hand rather than the many details related to the task or external stimuli occurring around us. She goes further in saying that she believes once we have reached a state of flow, the left and right brain are working in harmony and actively filtering out the peripheral distractions. This leads to a feeling of timelessness and intense focus, which ultimately adds to a sense of happiness or well-being related to our work.

More specifically Dr. Perry breaks down the process of flow and what is going on in our brains as we enter it. She describes this as a two step process with the following two steps taking place as we fall in to a state of flow.

  1. Visually we consume information and slowly fall in to focus, as if focusing in on a blurry image through a camera lens.
  2. Secondly as flow begins to form, we focus in on one single aspect of the task at hand. Allowing ourselves to fall so deeply in to the action that we have figuratively zoomed in on the now focused image, regarding the picture example in step 1.

Flow and Happiness

Csikszentmihalyi, mentioned earlier, gives a fantastic talk on flow titled: Flow, the secret to happiness. In contrast to Dr. Perry’s approach to flow in productivity, Csikszentmihalyi describes happiness as being a result of flow, and the key to our overall happiness.

To solidify this idea, Csikszentmihalyi first looks at what is common place for motivation today, wealth. He describes that though money does lead us to happiness when we are at or below the poverty level, he argues that it does not necessarily lift our happiness beyond a certain point regardless of our income levels.

“In fact, you find that the lack of basic resources, 
material resources, contributes to unhappiness. 
But the increase in material resources does not increase happiness.”

The question Csikszentmihalyi aimed to answer then was not how to find focus per se. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi wanted to answer a question much different but with equal importance: What makes us happy? Csikszentmihalyi goes on to describe the difference in economic growth over the years and how this has affected happiness. Citing a study that questioned people how happy they were, the numbers seem to reflect that money, to a certain extent will not raise the happiness of an individual, though it does negatively affect the mood of individuals hovering around the poverty line.

As Csikszentmihalyi describes flow, his model appears very similar to that of Dr. Perry’s. He describes how our brain reacts to information which seems to support Perry’s ideas with the following:

“Our nervous system is actually incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information 
per second. And in order to hear me and understand what I’m saying you need to process about 
60 bits per second. That’s why you can’t hear more than two people. You can’t understand more 
than two people talking to you.” 

I also found this excerpt incredibly interesting in Csikszentmihalyi’s talk, because it explains from a business point of view, what is important for achieving flow in an activity that’s inherently numbers or data driven, rather than intrinsically creative like art. He cites the following from Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin:

“I’ve always wanted to be successful. My definition of being successful is contributing 
something to the world…and being happy while doing it…You have to enjoy what you 
are doing. You won’t be very good if you don’t. And secondly, you have to feel that you
are contributing something worthwhile…If either of those ingredients are absent, there’s 
probably some lack of meaning in your work.”

I find it interesting that there is such an emphasis on importance of work. I couldn’t agree more with this idea, as I think others would agree, I find it easy to understand that with projects that I find important or useful for others require far less concentration from me than those projects that I feel have little meaning. Finally, Csikszentmihalyi concludes with the results of a survey of over 8,000 people including monks, nuns, himalayan climbers and Navajo Shepherds, Csikszentmihalyi was able to compile a simple set of 7 ideas he felt could illustrate the feeling of experiencing flow. These seven characteristics are as follows:

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing - focused, concentrated.
  2. A sense of ecstasy - of being outside of everyday reality.
  3. Greater inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing it.
  4. Knowing that the activity is doable - that our skills are adequate to the task.
  5. A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego.
  6. Timelessness - thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes
  7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces flow becomes it’s own reward.

How To Submit Ourselves To Flow

With the promise of intense focus and productivity, in addition to overall happiness, naturally the next question that comes to mind is:

How do I enter a state of flow?

It’s first important to know that Csikszentmihalyi heavily argues these states of flow are a result of feeling both skilled and challenged in the task at hand. So when trying to enter a state of flow, attempt to reach flow through a trade you find yourself exceptional or at least above average in.

Through my research I think it’s essential that we do the following when attempting to enter a state of flow:

  1. Create a ritual for the task in which you would like to enter flow
  2. Remove yourself from auditory distractions
  3. Remove yourself from visual distractions and external stimuli
  4. Pay attention to paying attention

To enter in to flow it’s incredibly important to tune out the distractions around us. Because flow requires that we have focused in on a task, and subsequently zoomed in on the essence or nature of that task, we have to try to eliminate distractions and program our brains to know when we are attempting to enter flow.

By removing ourselves from audio/visual distractions we can secure a feeling of concentration. Try to put headphones on with white noise, or just use earplugs. Additionally remove all tabs, projects, or otherwise distracting material from your screen or wherever it is that you are working.

In addition to removing ourselves from external stimuli, it helps exponentially to be able to create a ritual when setting up for the activity you would like to reach flow in. For example, as a writer, I tend to do the same thing every morning when sitting down at the computer. After making sure I have eaten and brewing some coffee I sit down and catch up some news for a few short minutes before removing myself from the outside world.

By creating a morning ritual I essentially have been able to create a process that communicates to my brain that I am ready to enter in a state of productivity, and hopefully flow.

The last suggestion I found as a result of LIfehacker’s - Train Your Brain For Monk Like Focus where they cite Author David Rock in saying:

To inhibit distractions, you need to be aware of your internal mental process 
and catch the wrong impulses before they take hold. It turns out that, like the 
old saying goes, timing is everything. Once you take an action, an energetic 
loop commences that makes it harder to stop that action. Many activities have 
built-in rewards, in the form of increased arousal that holds your attention. 
Once you open your email program and see the messages from people you 
know, it's so much harder to stop yourself from reading them. Most motor or 
mental acts also generate their own momentum. Decide to get out of your chair 
and the relevant brain regions, as well as dozens of muscles, are all activated. 
Blood starts pumping and energy moves around. To stop getting out of your 
chair once you start will take more focus and effort than to decide not to get up 
when you first have the urge. To avoid distractions it's helpful to get into the 
habit of stopping the wrong behaviors early, quickly, and often, well 
before they take over.

For me, this tells me that finding flow is a result of being able to control consciousness effectively. In trying to train my brain for effective focus I find that meditation is the best tool. By taking time out of your day to simply sit, clear your mind, and concentrate on your breathing, you can effectively increase you concentration skills.

Final Thoughs

Finding flow is no simple task, but if you have a trade or skill that you are trying to enter flow with it’s important to keep those tips mentioned earlier in mind. To summarize:

  • Flow is a state of concentration where the brain is completely in tune with the task at hand, leading to a euphoric state free of distraction
  • Flow can be entered in to through eliminating distractions and concentrating on your attention to the activity at hand.
  • Flow naturally creates positive reinforcement for more flow.
  • Overall happiness levels are thought to increase in relation to one’s ability to enter in to flow throughout the day.

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