Have you ever watched someone perform and been in awe of how effortless they made it look? Whether in sports, arts, business – there are countless contexts in which people make really challenging tasks seem incredibly easy. Maybe you’ve had direct experience of this yourself – moments where you’re so completely absorbed in an activity that all sense of time melts away, focus and energy soar, senses heighten, and the output is far greater than you could have anticipated?
This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘flow state’, and in recent decades it has been in the spotlight, particularly in the realm of peak performance research, and for good reason! There are many unusual qualities to the experience of flow that have positive associations with performance and productivity, but also general health, wellbeing, creativity and innovation. Flow extends beyond ‘practice makes perfect’, as it has a transcendental quality that facilitates genius and inspired action which almost appears to be channelled through – as though the experiencer becomes a conduit, rather than a strategically planned generator of the action.
That said, practice can serve as a significant primer for flow and can be one avenue that lays a solid foundation for the experience. However, flow is certainly not reliant on practice alone as a precursor, as it can also arise spontaneously in totally unfamiliar contexts and reveal new skills and capabilities. From slam poets to free style rappers, musicians that write world famous songs in minutes, adventure athletes that perform feats that were once only dreamed possible – evidence of spontaneous unbridled flow is everywhere! And so, while repetitive practice tends to railroad conditioned and mechanical modes of functioning, flow often tends to have an inherently more organic, fresh and unpredictable dimension to it.
Flow theory was first brought to the public stage by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 70s. As alluded to above, the state is typically characterised by a loss of self-consciousness and a feeling of deep absorption in an activity, yielding significant increases in performance capability and outputs. Neuroscience has tracked decreases in pre-frontal cortex activity among individuals experiencing flow (the part of the brain responsible for self-monitoring and judgement), which facilitates the inner-critic going offline (which I think most of us happily welcome!) and this in turn creates more mental space for task-oriented focus.
A flow state scale was developed by two researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Susan Jackson and Herbert Marsh which identified nine fundamental dimensions of flow.
1. Balance between challenge and skills:
Flow requires a balance between the perception of task difficulty and individual capacities –this means our beliefs/confidence regarding what we are able to do in a situation, is more important than our objective skill level.
2. Merging of action and awareness:
It is common for individuals to describe flow as feeling ‘at one’ with the activity being performed and experiencing total absorption in the action.
3. Clear goals:
Flow tends to align with clear goals and strong intention.
4. Direct and immediate feedback:
When executing the task, internal or external feedback loops are clear and unambiguous – the performer does not need to stop and reflect on how they are progressing.
5. Concentration on the task:
Attention is completely focused in the present moment.
6. Sense of control:
Flow typically exists in conjunction with a high sense of control—or, more precisely, lacks any degree of worry or concern about losing control.
7. Loss of self-consciousness:
The absence of the self from consciousness does not mean that a person in flow is unaware of what happens in their body or mind, but moreso, they have the ability to focus on the activity without worrying about the opinions of others or how they are being perceived.
8. Distortion of the sense of time:
Sense of time is typically altered: hours and minutes can seem accelerated or slowed down.
9. Autotelic experience:
There is typically intrinsic pleasure, regardless of external reinforcements -often arising as a result of the other eight dimensions.
So how can you start to feel more flow in your life?
Regular physical activity, aerobic exercise in particular – helps to physiologically prime the body for flow state and is also partly accounts for the reason flow is so common in athletic contexts. Alterations to neuroanatomy with regular exercise, such as increased size of the hippocampus – as well as changes to brain wave patterns and neurochemistry, are all some of the ways movement can increase accessibility to flow state. However, there are also many other routes!
Given the transcendental quality of the experience, and the dissolution of a sense of separation characteristic of the state – it is not surprising that flow is often associated with mindfulness and esoteric practices such as holotropic breathwork, ecstatic dance, holistic therapies and different forms of dynamic meditation. It is no coincidence that in yoga for example, the sequence of poses are often referred to as Flow! The combination of breathwork, slow controlled movement, somatic awareness and music, all make this form of dynamic meditation a powerful flow state primer. Any activities that cultivate stronger experiences of presence in the moment and awareness of the body tend to facilitate individuals remaining focused and more fully engaged in the task at hand, without being distracted by thinking about the past/future, and thus, support the likelihood of entering flow.
As mentioned above, flow state is also commonly experienced when individuals engage in activities that are both challenging and meaningful. This means that deliberately finding tasks that feel just beyond your current skill level stretch you beyond your comfort zone may be helpful – and aligning these endeavours with personal values and interests is paramount. When our behaviour is motivated by a sense of enjoyment and fulfilment, rather than external rewards or incentives, it tends to take a more sustainable foothold, which again, is conducive to experiencing flow more frequently. Breaking big goals into smaller, more manageable steps, and setting specific deadlines and milestones may help to get started and then keep you on track!
Really the key takeaway here is to appreciate that there is so much we can proactively do to prime ourselves for more frequent and deliberate access to flow state and given the far-reaching benefits of accessing this state more regularly, it’s certainly worth considering intentionally setting time aside for flow state practices. Whether you are an athlete, artist, musician, or entrepreneur, flow state can help you achieve much more of your infinite potential and greatly enrich the quality of your life. So, if this is something you haven’t consciously explored this yet, you might like to give it a try and see what happens?!
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