Describing the flow state can sound like something out of a Marvel movie.
Time itself seems to slow down.
Chattering thoughts vanish, replaced by pure focus. Mind and body come together in perfect sync as you find peak performance for a given task.
Despite the extraordinary qualities of the experience, there’s nothing superhuman about it. The flow state is a totally natural phenomenon that everyone can access—given the right conditions.
Maybe you’ve heard athletes talk about being “in the zone,” where they’re able to act and react instinctively and with perfect clarity. Neuroscientists refer to such a state as “optimal experience.” Taoists call it “wu wei.” And… Jim from Finance might call it “a super-productive afternoon.”
The flow state isn’t just limited to world-class athletes or people who practice meditation—it holds incredible potential for the workplace too. In this blog, we’ll dive into a bit more into what flow really is, how it can benefit you at work, and how you can more easily create the conditions for your own flow state.
What is flow?
Flow is the state of being fully in the moment and completely immersed in an activity to the point of effectively disappearing into it. In it, there’s no conscious division between the doer and what’s being done—there’s only the doing.
The activity can be almost anything—a leisure pursuit, a creative project or a work task. The key is that it’s moderately challenging, but well within your capabilities.
If the task is too easy, repetitive, or mechanistic—chances are your mind will wander, rather than engage. And if it’s too difficult or unfamiliar, feelings of anxiety can make it harder to get into flow.
At its core, a flow state is characterized by a feeling of all-encompassing focus. As positive psychologist and flow pioneer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes: “Thought and action are unified: you get immediate feedback and act on it at the same time.”
When you emerge out of flow, there’s usually a deep feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment—a sense of having done the task to the best of your ability and having enjoyed it.
What are the benefits of flow at work?
Accessing a flow state at work can be extraordinarily beneficial. After all, work is where most of us are challenged in creative, technical, or physical ways.
When we’re utterly engaged in work, it tends to stop feeling like work, like something we’ve been tasked to do. We’re immersed in the total joy of the task at hand. What better way to spend the day?
And if sheer work happiness isn’t enough, here are a few more benefits of workplace flow:
- Getting more done in less time.
- Being less susceptible to distraction.
- More creativity and clarity of thought.
- Being more present for colleagues—because you’ve nailed the big, challenging tasks.
- Getting better end results.
- Ending the workday with greater satisfaction.
How can you get into flow at work?
Here’s the tricky thing about the flow state: it doesn’t come when called.
In fact, the more you chase it, the more it recedes from you.
After all, if you’re preoccupied with achieving a flow state—you aren’t really focused on the task at hand.
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable.”
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
While there’s no insta-hack or trick to induce flow, there are ways you can help create the conditions that lead to it.
Let’s look at five ways you can build up your own flow ability:
Build towards working the way you love
Some tasks are more conducive to flow than others.
If you’re in a role that lets you choose what you work on, you can naturally gravitate towards tasks that engage and inspire you.
But what if you don’t have much say in what tasks you’re assigned?
Even if you appear to be limited in your range of responsibilities, take the time to ask yourself:
“What does my ideal version of work look like?”
“What kind of tasks light me up?”
“What kind of setting inspires my most dialed-in work?”
Simply knowing these things can help you communicate with your team and managers to be at your most effective. A few tweaks can make all the difference when it comes to being engaged in your work.
Re-connect with the greater “why"
It’s way easier to become engaged in work that means something to you.
Flow comes when you care about the task in itself—not when it’s something you’re doing for the sake of something else, like praise or a promotion.
Taking the time to dive into how your work affects people’s lives in a positive way can help foster new meaning. Think about why you went into this work in the first place? What makes it meaningful for you? Who does your work help? Why is it important?
Keeping in touch with these deeper motives can make a big difference to your openness to flow.
Make it easy for yourself by minimizing the workday distractions that clamor for your attention.
That can start with tidying up your workspace and removing things that aren’t relevant to the task. After all, your work environment can seriously affect your focus.
Also, a nearby phone can be the arch-enemy of focused attention. Turn your phone off, or move it out of reach, and mute notifications while you sit down to a given task.
If you’re sharing your workspace, set some do-not-disturb hours and shut out ambient noise with earplugs or idle headphones. Of course, many find background music helpful (one of the reasons we offer a range of focus-enhancing music in the Calm app).
Know your best hours
It’s good to remember: flow is not downtime—it takes energy. So when you want to become enveloped in a task, pick a time when your energy is high.
When have you experienced flow before? When do you do your best work?
Peak focus times vary from person to person—some are at their best first thing in the morning, others only come alive once the sun does down. What’s more, not everyone’s schedules are flexible. It may not be realistic to work your ideal schedule—but yet again— communicating with your manager or department head can go a long way. Remember, they want you to succeed!
Flow and mindfulness are heavily overlapping concepts. Whereas flow tends to revolve around a specific task or challenge, mindfulness isn’t necessarily goal-oriented. But both experiences stem from the same source: an overwhelming sense of presence.
Fostering a habit of mindfulness throughout your day can make the gap between your “normal” state and a flow state much narrower.
Pay attention to the sights, sounds, and feelings you’re experiencing, right now.
How does your breath feel as it expands your chest? What’s your mood and energy level?
Next time you’re working on a task, see if you can get into the same state of mind that’s aware of these things. Mindfulness is a great precursor to flow.
It’s worth it
The flow state is elusive, but well worth building towards.
It can transform your experience of work, as well as your productivity, satisfaction, and happiness. And who doesn’t want more joyful workdays?
Interested in more content to help you work happier and healthier?
Sign up for Breathing Space, our Calm for Business newsletter to get monthly content delivered to your inbox.