You are an illustrator, a writer, a knitter, a sculptor, a skater, or a marathon runner. What do you all have in common? You all want to achieve flow state. Why? Because flow state is where you immerse yourself into your activity, your mind and body quiet, and the world around you falls away. The joy of the process fills you and you do your best work. For a creator, it’s a little slice of heaven. And you want it to go on and on. Do you know how to achieve it or are you chasing flow state?
What is Flow State?
Flow state is a process. It’s an immersion in an activity that persists, ignoring hunger, fatigue, and the outside world. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered it and coined the term in the 1960s.
But flow state is more than a woo-woo emotional state that creatives chase. It’s a neurobiological state, too.
Who can Achieve Flow State?
I’ve spent a fair number of words on the idea that everyone is creative. No matter what it is you do for the joy of it, you are creative.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, anyone can achieve a flow state. It doesn’t matter if you’re a welder or a dancer, an athlete, or a painter, a knitter or a baker—anyone can achieve flow state.
Have you ever been doing your thing and lost track of time? Looked up and realized your family ate without you? That is flow state.
The Neurobiology of Flow
According to Psychology Today, our brainwaves (neuroelectricity), our brain’s chemicals (neurochemistry), and our prefrontal cortex (neuroanatomy) change when we are in a flow state.
You’ve heard of beta waves. They are the fast-moving brainwaves that are present during normal waking consciousness. When we are in a flow state, our brainwaves slow way down from beta waves to a borderline area between alpha and theta waves.
Psychologists associate alpha waves with day-dreaming. Theta waves only show up just before you fall asleep or you are in REM sleep (the stage of sleep where you dream).
But a change in brainwaves is just one step toward achieving flow state.
Deactivation of the PFC
You won’t achieve flow state unless your brain temporarily deactivates your prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is where higher cognitive functions happen. Higher cognitive functions like evaluating, organizing, and reaching goals. It’s also where large parts of our sense of self are created.
Deactivating your PFC makes you lose your sense of self. It also temporarily shuts down the part of your brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This is the self-monitoring and impulse control areas of our brains. And it is where your inner voice of doubt and disparagement comes from.
While the neuroelectrical and neuroanatomical changes are happening, your brain is also being flooded with the “feel good” and performance enhancing chemicals: norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin.
The Perfect Storm
These three changes happen at the same time. If one change doesn’t happen, flow state does not occur. With all three, your imaginative thinking, pattern recognition skills, and ability to think “outside the box” increase. The three changes create a perfect creative problem-solving storm.
How to Induce a Flow State
The ways to trigger a flow state are myriad. You may have to experiment with different methods. Keep trying until you are able to induce a flow state on demand.
Set yourself up for success.
Choose work you love.
Set a one-task goal.
If you feel your skill level isn’t up to the task, practice. Research has shown that the flow state is more likely when the task difficulty and skill level are closely matched.
Allow yourself to stretch, to believe that you can do better.
Choose the time and place.
Plan to work during the time of day when you are most productive.
Reduce external distractions.
Eliminate internal distractions. Take ten minutes and list all the things that you “should” do or you are concerned about. Then put the list aside to look at again after you finish your task.
Set up a trigger.
Follow a specific routine or set up a ritual.
Use music to help you focus.
Try meditation. Or yoga.
Use the Pomodoro method. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes. Focus solely on your task during that time. When time is up, take a five-minute break, then set the timer again.
Try a specific scent.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Symptoms of Being in Flow
You are completely focused on the one task in front of you.
You forget about yourself and others around you.
You lose track of time.
You feel calm and in control.
You are creative and productive.
You feel happy even if you don’t reach your goal. It was the process that filled you with joy.
You Aren’t Chasing Flow State Any Longer
Flow state will probably sneak up on you. When you come out of flow state, record what you did immediately before you started working. Try the same thing again the next day.
It will take time and practice, but eventually you will enter flow state with little effort.
Even then, there may be days when flow state doesn’t come easily. Fall back to one of your successful triggers. And if that doesn’t work, don’t despair. You aren’t chasing flow state now because you believe in yourself. Perhaps your skill level isn’t up to the task and you need to level up. Or you may not have shut off the inner distractions and need to take care of something else before you can enter flow state. Go through your list. And be confident that when you fix what needs to be taken care of, you’ll step right back into a flow state.
What will you do to trigger flow state during your next creative work period?