The other day I was working on an art project and was surprised when my husband came into the office and asked if I was going to make dinner or if he should order take-out. I was stunned to discover that so much time had passed while I was immersed in my project - it seemed like just a few minutes had elapsed when in reality a couple of hours had flown by. Have you ever felt like you were so completely engaged in an activity that you lost track of time? If so, then you were probably experiencing what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as flow.
If you have felt like this before, you might liken it to what athletes and performers call "being in the zone." Not only do you feel happy or even ecstatic, your actions seem almost effortless.
"Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void," said the artist Paul Klee. "Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will." What Klee described in this quote is a perfect example of flow. Total immersion in a task, a feeling of complete concentration, and losing track of the outside world are all common characteristics of this state of mind.
Obviously, reaching this state of flow is something many of us would like to accomplish on a regular basis. Fortunately, flow isn't something restricted to just elite athletes, artists, and performers. You can achieve this state during a number of activities such as at work, while engaging in exercise, or while working on a hobby. So what what exactly does it take to achieve a state of flow?
- Your skills need to be well-matched to the task. According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is most likely to occur when your skill level is perfectly aligned to the challenge that the activity presents. So a runner might experience flow during a marathon that they he or she is well-prepared for, or an chess-player might reach this state during a game that presents the perfect challenge.
- In some cases, striving for something that challenges your existing skills can lead to a state of flow. A slight stretching of your skills, or attempting something that is a little more advanced than one's current abilities, can also foster a flow state. For an dancer, this might involve attempting a move that presents a bit of a challenge. For a graphic designer, it might involve taking on a project that requires utilizing a new type of software.
- Have clear goals. You need to have a specific purpose for focusing on the task, such as winning an athletic contest, playing a particular piece of music, or finishing a work project.
- Avoid interruptions. It is important to devote all of your concentration to the task at hand. Multitasking and other distractions will disrupt the flow state.
- It is essential to focus on the process and not the end state. While having a goal is important, flow requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the end product.
Achieving flow can be a pleasurable experience, but it also has other benefits as well. People who regularly enter into this state of mind also report having greater happiness, self-esteem, self-confidence, and life satisfaction.
Image: Michal Zacharzewski