In The Zone: 10 Characteristics of the Flow State

Picture of singerHave you ever been in a flow state? You are engrossed in some activity; maybe it is something physical like rock climbing or skiing; maybe it is something artistic or creative, like playing the piano or painting, or maybe it is an everyday activity, like working on a powerpoint presentation or teaching a class… whatever the activity you become totally engrossed, totally in the moment. Everything else falls away, your sense of time changes, and you almost forget who you are and where you are. You are in the flow state.

The man who wrote the book on Flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s been studying the flow state around the world for many years.  Here are some facts about the flow state, the conditions that make it occur and what it feels like:

You have very focused attention on your task – The ability to control and focus your attention is critical.  If you get distracted by anything that is outside of the activity you are engaging in, the flow state will dissipate.

You are working with a specific, clear, and achievable goal in mind – Whether you are singing, fixing a bike, or running a marathon, the flow state comes about when you have a specific goal. You then keep that focused attention and only let in information that fits with the goal. The research shows that you need to feel that you have a good chance of completing the goal in order to get into, and hold onto, the flow state. If you think you have a good chance of failing at the goal, then the flow state will not be induced. And, conversely, if the activity is not challenging enough, then you won’t hold attention on it and the flow state will end.

You receive constant feedback – In order to stay in the flow state you need a constant stream of information coming in that gives you feedback as to the achievement of the goal.

You have control over your actions – Control is an important condition of the flow state. You don’t necessarily have to be in control, or even feel like you are in control, but you do have to feel that you are exercising significant control in a challenging situation.

Time changes – Some people report that time speeds up — that they look up and hours have gone by. Others report that time slows down.

The self does not feel threatened – In order to enter a flow state your sense of self and survival cannot feel threatened. You have to be relaxed enough that you can engage all of your attention onto the task at hand. In fact, most people report that they lose their sense of self when they are absorbed with the task.

The flow state is personal – everyone has different activities that put them in a flow state. What triggers a flow state for you is different from others.

The flow state crosses cultures – So far it seems to be a common human experience across all cultures with the exception of people with some mental illnesses People who have schizophrenia, for example, have a hard time inducing or staying in a flow state, probably because they have a hard time with some of the other items above, such as focused attention, control, or the self feeling threatened.

The flow state is pleasurable – People like being in the flow state.

The pre-frontal cortex is involved – I’ve been trying to find research on the brain correlates of the flow state. So far the research seems slim (if you know of any, please pass it on to me). From what I have read it seems that the pre-frontal cortex is very involved. That would not be a surprise, since the pre-frontal cortex is all about focused attention. Some researchers suggest that dopamine may be involved as well, but there isn’t exact research on that.

Recently I experienced a flow state. I was teaching an Insight Improv workshop. This is a workshop where we use theatre techniques to have people learn and experience insights into their own behavior, the behavior of others, how to communicate and express yourself, and build a strong team. And during the workshop I realized that I was “lost” (but in a good way). I was totally engrossed in the workshop, time had stopped, and I was enjoying myself tremendously (as were the workshop participants).

I’ve decided I want to spend more time in the flow state, especially at work, and I want to help other people experience the flow state as well.  I have some ideas about how to do this, and I’ll be writing more about the flow state (and how I plan to achieve it more!), in upcoming blogs. (If you want to schedule an Insight Improv Workshop for your group email me at: InsightImprovInfo@gmail.com).

In the meantime, write in and tell me about some of your experiences with the flow state.

And if you’d like to read more:

Flow: The psychology of optimal experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990.

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8 Replies to “In The Zone: 10 Characteristics of the Flow State”

  1. Jeff, yes, that’s true… all the digital stimuli make it hard to concentrate. So stop reading my blog! (no, don’t do that!).

  2. Great topic. This was my lesson in Positive Psychology in college. It feels great to find this relevant to my UX profession now.

    Jeff’s comments are interesting. As a mobile tech enthusiast, my smartphone seems to distract me a lot. Ironically, not being distracted by technology is one of the most important tech issues that I’m trying to help resolve.

  3. Hi Ms Miles,

    Sorry if there is a copyright issue. I try to ensure that I am complying with all copyrights with photos at my blog, but apparently this one was not ok. I will pull the photo if that is what you would like.

    Susan

  4. This is very interesting, but everything I find about flow or “being in the zone” refers to an individual. How do you get the team, or my case a chorus, to be jointly in the zone? Is it the same?

  5. Very well explained. As I read the 10 characteristics of Flow State that you have explained above, I realized that I already experienced flow several times. That was the moment where I really felt happy and satisfied with what i did, whatever the outcome. It’s very nice to be in Flow State. Thanks for sharing!

  6. HI Susan:

    You’re right – even now (2016) the literature on brain states and flow is minimal. The idea of deactivation of the prefrontal cortex never made sense to me. But now that there’s more research on mindfulness and the brain, there’s a distinction that helps. In most people, when the “default” network is in play (the areas of the brain that are active when you’re not engaged in a focused, purposeful activity) there is a lot of negative, rather stressful mind wandering.

    But in people who have long practice in mindfulness, the mind is often quiet and focused at the same time when the default network is dominant.

    This also suggests that there is a greater balance of left and right hemispheres – the left PFC capacity for focusing is brought into play, but the self-monitoring activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – which many of us use for judgmental, inner criticism – is much quieted, allowing the right hemisphere’s more creative, holistic processing to come into play.

    Put in much simpler language, when we attend nonjudgmentally, with care and affection, to what is happening in the present, without layering it with all of our interpretations and assumptions, our brain is much more in harmony, and thus we experience ourselves and the world as one flow.

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