The flow state: the brain’s most productive state
There’s an experience many of us have felt called “flow.” This is what psychologists call it, and they deem it essential for doing deep work that is meaningful. It may have been experienced when operating in “the zone.” A time when you were so involved in something that time appeared to stand still, and everything around you just melted away.
This concept is so powerful that businesses worldwide have taken the information and are running away with it, taking aspects of this concept and offering tips and advice on how to achieve flow and therefore be more productive.
A book entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is where the concept originally comes from, but businesses have interpreted this, and the core principles have been missed. Flow is about so much more than being productive; increased productivity is a side effect of flow, but its core principle is about leading a happier, more enjoyable life.
Below will explore the concept of flow in more depth and identify the truth, explaining more why it matters and how you can cultivate flow into your own life, especially whilst studying.
What is flow?
“I developed a theory of optimal experience based on the concept of flow, the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
Flow falls under “Productivity” here, but it could also fall under living, health, studying, psychology, or learning. It’s very difficult to put it under a specific header when it can fall under so many regular experiences. Experiences such as going for a walk, playing sports, calculus assignments, washing your clothes even!
The author of flow, Csikszentmihalyi, and his research team worked on identifying the theory of the flow state. They went about this by watching and talking to people from all walks of life, from all around the globe, to find out about times in their lives when they have felt the most control, the most content, and the most “in the moment.”
They discovered that the specific activity mattered less than you may have thought, it was more the way the experience was approached. Of course, creative, exciting work can easily induce flow states but equally, they found that those who go about daily life with certain struggles can equally induce a flow state. They found farmers, factory workers and those living in intense poverty could experience flow experiences.
The research discovered some self-conflicting things about the optimal experience. The aspects you may think were most enjoyable, such as watching TV, were in fact among the least enjoyable. Many of the most enjoyable moments were usually when the moments were full of challenges and even pain, rather than some of the usual leisure activities, you may presume.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times….The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
To truly accomplish and feel the flow, it is required effort and thoughtful intent. Of course, certain activities can induce a natural flow state, it still needs awareness. Learning to control your consciousness is a part of learning flow. You need to momentarily forget everything else. Instead, focus all your attention on the task or activity at hand to reach flow and fundamentally enjoy a life filled with more meaning and purpose.
The above describes the “what” of flow, but consideration needs to be taken about the “why.” Discovering why flow is so important to living a more fulfilled life in general and doing better work or tasks will be explained further.
Why does flow matter?
“Flow is important both because it makes the present instant more enjoyable, and because it builds the self-confidence that allows us to develop skills and make significant contributions to humankind” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
The phrase “productivity” isn’t mentioned once by Csikszentmihalyi, it is used only once in the entire book when it is mentioned; however, it is used not in the context of study or work. It is about more than this, it’s about more than increasing your productivity and this is where businesses and bloggers are not understanding and are therefore getting wrong.
An output of flow may be that people become more productive, but the book questions this and asks the reader to go further than that. Flow gives you control, and this is what is important to acknowledge. You discover that taking a pivotal role in your life and being “in” even the most mundane of tasks are extremely critical and the reliance of flow is not just upon external events and influences.
The beginning of flow, once discovered allows people to put more emphasis on single-tasking, achieving high levels of productivity. But, this is just the beginning and there is so much more to creating a meaningful presence, it’s owning control of your own life, making an impact on the wider world, and controlling your focus.
How to achieve flow
That was a bit of an airy-fairy section, now we will be reviewed how to implement flow into your life. Of course, it is a philosophical subject in some ways, but practical aspects are easily implemented. Marcus Aurelius, a stoic philosopher, mentions the tradition “one that deals with how to live, with how to be.”
There are some practical aspects and steps to take to achieve flow. There is no perfected science for it, just views and knowledge from Csikszentmihalyi’s findings and others.
1. Don’t Let Yourself Get Hungry
Hunger is a real source of distraction that might not be clear right away. It is important not to go hungry when working into a flow state; hunger will considerably restrict flow. Junk food and high sugar drinks are only able to give people a quick boost of energy, but there will always be a sugar crash afterward, which disturbs the state of flow. Of course, snacking all the time isn’t required either, but there must be a balance to maintain a flow state.
Chris Bailey is an author of productivity books, and in his book A Life Of Productivity he reviews the effect food has on productivity, “when you eat anything processed, the oil refinery in your stomach converts it into a heap of glucose that storms your brain all at once, which causes your energy levels to rollercoaster.”
So you need to consider food that’s of high quality and will release glucose much slower into the bloodstream. Of course, you can’t go wrong with whole foods such as nuts, fruit, vegetables, seeds, lean meats, and avoid foods and snacks with added sugars or sweeteners. Dietary preferences are different, and tastes vary by person, so review accordingly.
2. Avoid Distractions
Our brains and bodies cannot handle distractions; distractions are a complete blocker to flow. Sometimes distractions cannot be helped or avoided, but if you can work to eliminate or avoid distractions, then flow will come easier. Some ideas for helping to avoid distractions might be wearing headphones, closing the door where you are studying, putting your phone out of reach or on aeroplane mode and scheduling uninterrupted time effectively. There is a technique called Pomodoro, explained in the next section.
3. The Pomodoro Technique
In principle, the Pomodoro Technique involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and focusing only on one thing for that given time. This can make a huge difference when you find yourself procrastinating or just not being able to focus on the task at hand. There is no checking social media during the 25-minute time slot, no external communication, and no thinking about what you’re having for dinner. It’s a set 25 minutes and when the timer goes off, take a quick break, around 5 minutes and go back into it.
In relation to flow, this technique helps you to get started, one of the biggest barriers people encounter when getting into the state of flow. It is impossible to enter a state of flow at will, it is something that has to be practiced and needs time to enter into it, so this small time frame allows practice. Getting started by using this technique, then as time goes on it may be that you’re working past the timer and remaining focused.
There are apps such as TomatoTimer that can help with this.
4. Try not to Multitask
Everybody naturally wants to multitask, and why wouldn’t we? It’s the best use of our time, right?
Many of us believe that, but science tells us otherwise as our brains do not work in this way. There is such a thing called the cognitive switching penalty, which means we naturally cannot perform multiple tasks at once with a conscious mind. The “switching” part means that every time you change course of what you are doing, or the task being carried out, it will take time to get back into the previous task.
A flow state relies upon one task being pursued at a time, all with intense focus; multitasking opposes this and therefore, a flow state cannot apply.
5. Sleep is Key
Sleep is so vital for keeping up excellent physical and mental health. In order to reach a flow state, you cannot be tired. Most people find it harder to focus if they’re tired; they’re usually easily distracted and therefore cannot get into a state of flow with ease. A good night’s sleep will enable you to be more alert and allow more focus in the day as I’m sure most of us have experienced how fresh we feel after a good night’s sleep.
The amount of sleep as well as the quality of sleep count for a lot. Spending ten hours in bed, but tossing and turning throughout the night is no good. It needs to be quality in order for you to perform. There’s so much information out there to help get a better night’s sleep, read up on it!
5 ways to develop flow whilst studying
Some general ideas have been mentioned about how to bring flow to life. There are some everyday situations where you can develop flow even further that will be mentioned. Some are situations involved with your studies; some are for other everyday aspects of life.
We have all been in boring classes, whether it’s the subject being discussed or the lecturer who is monotone with no interaction. How is anyone expected to maintain interest and focus at all times? It’s best just to switch off anyway or endure it, right?
Csikszentmihalyi suggests a few methods that you can use during these times to remain engaged. These are called “microflow activities” and include:
- Doodling, with pen and paper
- Pick a particular word that might be used in the lecture and count how many times it’s used
- If you are talented enough to know another language, take notes in that language
- Use your pen and twiddle and make tricks, but absolutely do not click, this is annoying!
By carrying out these methods, it becomes more of a flow state of being.
2. Study time and Homework
Studying takes effort and when it is done right, it is a task full of opportunities of flow. One of the classic ways we study is reading lecture slides in preparation for exams, but this is a method where we can be easily distracted. Therefore it keeps us even further away from flow. To switch into flow when preparing for exams, a better example would be creating and using flashcards, which are more natural with flow.
Homework is the same, most students rush to finish their homework as a deadline is given. To slow down and get truly involved in the assignment and immerse yourself into it allows a state of flow. Actively immersing yourself in the process, is the key. This can be for any subject at all, just invest in the process.
A way of doing this may be through the idea of gamification, something that Csikszentmihalyi recommends. This involves attempting to make a game out a boring activity. This way it creates more interest in the activity and therefore, may make it more manageable to complete.
Examples of this might be to see how many words you can write in a given time (suggest 25 minutes, as above!) or how many questions you can answer correctly in a given time.
The boring work still has to happen, but it’s your reaction to it that can be affected. There will be times when you don’t want to, so it’s worth reviewing some of the tips already mentioned in order to support you through it.
3. Tests and Exams
These areas of study do not naturally lend themselves to a state of flow. Managing and monitoring time is essential when you don’t want to get so absorbed into a certain something that you lose track of time in exam conditions. But equally, it can be beneficial to be immersed into the test for a short period of time. For example, suppose your answer requires a small essay or longer written response. In that case, it can be beneficial to try and get into a similar flow state as when writing a long essay, where the focus is really required, and something really robust can be given as an answer due to the focus given.
4. The Work Environment
Csikszentmihalyi describes an “autotelic personality,” which is “the ability to create flow experiences even in the most barren environment.” If the work being done appears to be dull on the surface, he explains that anyone is able to take on this “autotelic personality.”
Jobs such as sorting out the mail on your feet all day can get really boring, but inventing games such as guessing what’s in the parcel, what’s written in the card or how many could be sorted during a certain time. Even such small activities can help keep your focus.
5. Free Time
Free time can often be harder to enjoy than work and study, it may seem ridiculous, but there are so many options! Everyone feels the need to sit back and let off some steam once they’ve worked hard.
Csikszentmihalyi explains it in this way. “Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities, they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.”
Therefore it would appear that getting some structure and organization in your free time would be beneficial. Of course, this doesn’t mean that every minute of free time has to be planned into a calendar, but it could be considered to spend free time on a valuable quest. What is it you enjoy and get pleasure out of? Cycling, walking, playing with your pets, learning a new skill.
It is unrealistic to spend every moment of free time on something productive, Netflix and social media are of course, part of everyday lives. It’s even better when these areas can be enjoyed with an element of social interaction!
Flow should be used as a resource for helping towards a better life, not just as a tool to become more productive. This should have given you a bit more of an idea about flow, and flow alongside the other techniques mentioned throughout should help you to achieve more throughout your studies and everyday life.