Flow, Part 2 of 3: How to Recognize and Incorporate Elements of Flow

The last blog post discussed what flow state is and why we want it.


Flow is the brain’s ability to shut off the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain that includes self-criticism, memory, long-term planning and worry—while doing an intense activity that puts us into a pleasurable, altered-reality state.


We merge with the activity, losing sense of self and time.


Being in the Zone.


It feels good because it gives our thinking, anxious brain a rest, releases the feel-good chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, and causes creativity and productivity to skyrocket.   


Flow state is hard because you have to temporarily shut off the prefrontal cortex. This is known as transient hypofrontality. It turns off the inner critic. Your ego must be totally disengaged.


Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the phrase flow, identified 8 core components:


1. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback.  

You know precisely what’s required to succeed and when you’ve done it, you know immediately you nailed it. Think of a tennis match or solo performance on-stage.


2. High level of concentration on a limited field.  

This is about your consciousness diving deep into the activity. Every day we experience contradictory demands that cause confusion and dissatisfaction. To be in flow, the task must be specific and contained (not overwhelming).


3. Balance between skills and challenge.  

The task must be challenging but slightly inside your reach. If it’s too easy, it’s likely to be boring and routine, prompting lack of interest. If it’s too difficult, frustration, disappointment, fear of failure and anxiety creep in.


Flow resides in between too hard and too easy. Some say the activity is more likely to occur in areas requiring advanced skill of say ten years of expertise or technical knowledge.


4. Feeling of control.  

Not controlling in a dominating or compulsive way, but rather feeling heightened control over your actions. There’s a state of security and relaxation in absence of worry. You feel competent and confident in ability to do the actions required.


5. Effortless Flexibility and Ease.  

Although the activity may look strenuous to an outsider, the work is harmonious and effortless. Everything runs smoothly. Decisions are made as a result of the activity naturally without arduous debate or confusion.


6. An altered perception of time.  

Time evaporates so that hours feel like minutes, or slows down so seconds feel like minutes. In deep flow state, awareness of time is on hold.


7. Melting together of action and consciousness.  

There is complete involvement such that there is no room for anxiety, fear, distraction, self-doubt or rumination. You lose a sense of yourself as separate from the activity. This can expand to include surroundings, such as nature, or with a group (known as team flow).


8. Autotelic quality of flow experiences.  

This means there is a purpose to the activity itself and the performer is internally motivated to perform it. It’s opposed to being externally driven, such as for money, out of fear, or due to outside influence, all which can be short-lived and feel hollow.


Instead, the goal and activity are fulfilling in and of themselves. You do it because it has personal meaning for you, not because your boss or society tells you it’s important.


You don’t need all of these to exist in order to experience flow. Utilize a few for microflow, or as many as you can for macroflow. The more components you involve, the more powerful the experience.

In the next post, I’ll provide a quick method to experience flow immediately and describe how to create more of it in your daily life.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

P.S. Visit www.julieernst.com to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.

Julie Ernst