The Flow State Explained (and the 7 Steps to Achieve Flow)

The flow state. You’ve most likely heard of it, but how does one go about achieving it? It is within the reach of our daily routine? Or is it so elusive that it only happens by chance? While some flow researchers believe there is an exact formula to achieving flow in your everyday life, others believe it’s a happy accident that can’t be regularly duplicated. Below, we offer an expert’s definition of the flow state, explain how to incorporate more flow into your daily life, and reveal some of the primary impediments to this lust-worthy state.

The Beginnings of Flow

In 2004, positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, gave a Ted Talk on “What Contributes to a Life Worth Living?” The answer, it turns out, had nothing to do with material success or an increase in household income. Instead, it had a lot to do with the experience of flow. After studying and analyzing numerous professionals in the creative fields of art, music, and sport, Csikszentmihalyi concluded that when there is the right balance of competency, enjoyment, and challenge, these creatives would experience a sense of ecstasy where their sense of self (and sense of time) gave way to an alternative reality where “existence is temporarily suspended.”

A musician Csikszentmihalyi interviewed described the experience as:

“[Being] in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I have experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment. And [the music] just flows out of itself.” 

In other words, it’s when you’re completely absorbed in the task at hand, you don’t have enough attention left over to monitor how your body feels, you’re not aware of whether you feel hungry or tired, and your ego-driven identity disappears from consciousness.

Modern Flow Findings

Steven Kotler, executive director of The Flow Research Collective, was recently in conversation with Jason Wachob on the Mindbodygreen Podcast to discuss how flow can contribute to increased productivity and performance in our everyday lives.

Macro-flow vs. Micro-flow

Kotler explained that there are two kinds of flow: macro-flow and micro-flow. He defines macro-flow as an optimal state of consciousness where mental and physical performance peaks. He follows that flow is found in those moments of total absorption where everything else, including your sense of self and sense of time, seems to fade away. (I.e. those moments when you seem to ‘get lost’ in your work, favorite activity, hobby, etc.).

He also noted that the farther along you are towards mastery of your craft (whether cognitive or physical), the easier it is to get into the flow state. This sentiment echos Csikszentmihalyi’s findings suggesting that in order to experience this type of ecstasy in your work, you have to be highly skilled at what you’re doing; Csikszentmihalyi posited that it takes 10 years of technical knowledge and emersion within a particular field to be able to obtain the type of flow needed to add to the field in positive way.

How Flow Begets Flow

During his interview on Mindbodygreen, Kotler noted that flow begets flow, and regularly entering a state of flow can help us focus in other [non-flowy] areas of our lives:

“It’s essentially a kind of a focusing skill…the more flow you get, the more flow you get…You get into flow skiing on Monday, it means you’re gonna get into flow Wednesday at work a little easier.” He followed that “flow resets the nervous system, flushes the stress hormones out of your system. So getting into flow on Monday, is going to calm you down, [and] you’re going to preform better all week.”

Steven Kotler, Mindbodygreen Podcast

Want more flow?

Do more of your “primary flow activity”. I.e. that thing you picked up as a kid that made time seem to disappear and gave you joy. Kotler notes that we all have a primary flow activity that we picked up as kids, and as we get older and have more responsibilities, we (unfortunately) stop doing that activity.

flow state while skiing

The Seven Conditions of Flow

For Csikszentmihalyi, there are seven conditions required for flow:

  1. Complete absorption in the task at hand
  2. A sense of estacy where you’re outside of your everyday reality.
  3. Clarity about what you’re doing and how well you’re doing it
  4. Knowledge of your own competency for the task at hand
  5. A sense of serenity where your ego driven identity disappears from consciousness
  6. Loss of the sense of time
  7. Intrinsic motivation – where the process itself becomes the reward. In other words, when what you’re doing becomes “worth doing for its own sake”

As We Get Older, Do We Experience Less Flow?

The general answer is that, it depends, in large part, on whether your goals or your fears are running your life. Kotler noted that our individual reality is shaped, in large part, either by our fears or by our goals.

If you run out of goals, (I.e. you reach your goals of having a spouse, a house, and kids), then fear starts to take over (because you feel like you have more to lose) and safety and security become paramount. Furthermore, as we get older we may experience lack of meaningful work. (I.e. you have a job you’re not curious about that doesn’t pursue a passion of yours). This can lead to depression and anxiety as “we’re built to go big” and not going big, is “incredibly bad for us.”

How to Avoid the Fear Trap?

Develop your intrinsic motivation centers of curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, mastery—which also happen to be flow triggers:

“Curiosity is designed to be our basic fuel that builds into passion, passion is designed to be attached to a cause greater than ourselves and become purpose, once you have purpose, your body literally wants the autonomy, the freedom to pursue that purpose, and once your pursuing that purpose, you want mastery, the skills to really pursue that purpose.”

Steven Kotler, Mindbodygreen Podcast

The Role of Nature in Flow:

Kotler noted that, “nature is packed with flow triggers” and that one of the biggest causes of depression is a lack of exposure to nature. He followed that one of the biggest suppressors of creativity is also a lack of exposure to nature. Thus, it makes sense that an easy creativity hack is to look at a wide outdoor vista (I.e. the sky, a mountain range, the ocean, etc.).

the role of nature in achieving the flow state

The Four Stages of Flow

In The Rise of Superman, Kotler uses modern science and his background working with extreme sport athletes to meticulously outline the four stages of flow. In doing so, Kotler makes a significant point: that flow is just one step in a four-part flow cycle and it’s impossible to experience flow, without going through the other three steps. 

Stage 1: Struggle

Struggle is the loading phase. This is when we’re absorbing various inputs and external information. This stage looks like: 

  • Fact gathering;
  • Analysis;
  • Physical training;
  • Meditation, and;
  • Concentrated study, etc.

During the struggle cycle, chemical changes take place in the body to increase focus and alertness. Tension and frustration are also bound to arise as the effort we are exerting seems unsustainable and our problems unsolvable. However, maintaining focus and a sense of calm is critical to getting through this phase and into the second stage of the flow cycle: release.

Stage 2: Release 

Release simply means relaxing and taking your mind off the present problem for long enough to allow stress hormones to decline and feel-good chemicals to take their place. 

By maintaining an attentive yet relaxed mind, you’re better equipped to absorb various inputs and move more seamlessly from the struggle phase into the release phase.

Stage 3: Flow 

After the release phase, comes the flow phase: moments in time where your mind and body are seamlessly integrated. Resulting in intuitive action, original thought, and total absorption in the present moment. The flow stage is what makes the struggle worthwhile. This is when analytical thinking is replaced by intuitive knowing. However, to keep one’s ego in check (humility is also critical to flow), it’s important to note that this intuitive knowing and resulting original action is not done by you, it’s done through you. 

 Thus why some authors describe the flow state as a fleeting connection to the divine and universal energy that is always present yet rarely accessible. In other words, while in flow, the quantum world has a brief opportunity to express itself through you and the results are often original, previously unimaginable, and otherwise out of this world

Stage 4: Recovery 

Finally, we have the recovery phase where rest and re-grouping is key. In today’s world, taking time to let your body and mind recover from a heightened state of action and awareness is crucial to avoiding burnout. 

Recovery can take the form of: 

  • Rest;
  • Self-care, and;
  • Mind and body nourishment. 
recovery from flow state
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