Everything You Need to Know About Flow

Imagine being totally absorbed in an activity you enjoy. Time melts away. You lose your sense of self-consciousness. You're in the zone.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi popularized the idea of "flow," the state of mind you enter when you're engaged in something rewarding and completely engaging. Some of the characteristics of flow are:

  • You're absolutely focused.
  • What you're doing and what you're thinking merge together.
  • You lose track of time.
  • You lose your self of self-consciousness.
  • What you're doing feels rewarding for its own sake.
  • You feel like you have control over what you're doing.

This is the state artists and athletes enter when they're creating and performing at the highest levels. But anyone can access flow with the right combination of factors.

The time you're most likely to enter flow is when you're doing something challenging that you're good at.

When you're doing something challenging that you're not good at, you're likely to just get frustrated. And when you do something you're good at that's not challenging, you'll probably get bored pretty soon.

But when you meet a challenge you're prepared for, that's when the magic can happen.

For example, research has found that older adults with higher cognitive skills are more likely to enter flow in cognitively demanding tasks while older adults with lower cognitive skills are more likely to enter flow in cognitively undemanding tasks. The sweet spot where your abilities are being fully used but not stretched past their limits is the place you're most likely to enter flow.

The activities in which you're most likely to enter flow are also the activities that are most integral to who you are as a person. To put it another way, the activities most conducive to flow for you tend to be the ones most important to your social identity.

This knowledge is helpful in two directions. First, if you want to achieve flow, look to the activities that define who you are. And second, if you want to develop a stronger sense of who you are, look for activities that help you achieve flow.

Almost any activity has the potential to help you experience flow, if it's something you find rewarding. For example, one study found that many people experience flow while quilting.

Another study looked at which everyday work and leisure activities were most likely to lead to flow in a sample of 250 Spanish psychology students. A few patterns emerged:

  • Activities that were individual and structured were most conducive to flow.
  • Sports and reading were especially likely to lead to flow.
  • Studying was especially unlikely to lead to flow.

Not everyone is equally likely to experience flow. A recent study found people with a certain version of a gene that affects how you process dopamine experience flow more often. However, the difference turned out to be relevant only for work activities, not leisure activities.

So if you want to get into the zone, look for activities that are challenging but doable, that take advantage of your skills. These are the things that will at times seem effortless to engage in and will help you realize who you are as a person. And if you don't know where to start, maybe take a stab at sports, reading or quilting!