Flow, Part 1 of 3: What Is Flow State and Why You Want It

Think about times you’re so engrossed in an activity you lose your sense of self and time. You become one with whatever you’re doing. The rest of the world disappears. It might be a work project, an athletic challenge, building something with your hands, or helping a neighbor.


You spend all day without noticing whether you’re hungry. You forget personal problems and work stress. You don’t think about your net worth, medical concerns or worries about the future.


Researchers call this ecstatic state Flow. A sense of being outside ordinary reality where you merge with activity.


Some call it the secret to happiness and what makes life worth living. It transcends creating material wealth. The goal and process are pleasurable and fulfilling.


For me, I love researching and writing about a topic I find interesting and compelling. I’ve always felt like a born writer. Regardless of skill, I simply love doing it. I can spend hours losing myself in the process. An entire day passes without eating or fretting.


In studying what makes people feel happy and alive, Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found artists and scientists describe a mental state in which they’re performing an activity, fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, complete involvement and enjoyment in the process.


“Flow” is being in a rapt state of consciousness where we perform our best and everything else fades away.


This is not meditation or mindfulness. Mindfulness (unless it is something you’ve been doing perhaps all day for 10 years) does not produce flow.


Mindfulness can make you more conscious so you recognize when you are in a state of flow. That in turn may make it easier for you to recognize when you’re in it and decide you want to stay there. So instead of answering the phone/text/email, you consciously continue and extend your flow state.


Here’s the scientific explanation of flow. Our brain can only process limited information at a time—which is why it’s hard to listen to more than two people talking at once. When engrossed in a task, our brain shuts down parts of our brain we aren’t using. We disengage the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that plans.


Lowering cognitive load, we have more energy to focus on the task at hand. This enables the implicit mind to take over, allowing more brain areas to communicate freely and engage in creative process.


Chemically, when in flow, norepinephrine and dopamine flood into our brain. Dopamine, the pleasure chemical, feels good when it’s released, like when we eat a chocolate chip cookie or have sex. It also helps us focus by amplifying curiosity.


Norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood flow, causing us to feel more alert. It releases glucose into the blood, providing energy.


Norepinephrine also plays a role in mood and ability to concentrate. When levels are high, you feel good. When it’s really high, you feel really good, whereas lack of it is associated with depression and ADHD.


Other than feeling great, flow has real-life benefits. Studies show those in flow experience a 500% increase in productivity and a 200-500% boost in creativity and learning. Companies who prioritize flow get an immense amount of creative work done.


We’re talking quality with quantity. Spending your day answering emails, returning calls, attending meetings and shuffling paperwork is not working in flow.


Practically speaking, if you learn to get into flow, or recognize when you’re in it and can sustain it, you’ll experience a profound increase in personal fulfillment and output.

Losing yourself in a task reduces stress and enables you to get more done. You achieve overall results instead of just completing busywork.


In the next post, I’ll explain how to recognize and incorporate elements of flow.

—Julie Ernst, CCJD

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

Julie Ernst