Flow State: How to Get in the Zone

With all of life’s challenges, it can be difficult to find your flow and go with it. But when we are able to cultivate our presence in the midst of daily activities, we can fully experience the joy of each act.

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As you have very likely experienced through mindfulness practice, our ordinary state is one of mind wandering—a state in which our attention drifts between the present moment and thoughts about past and future. When we practice presence, we begin regularly shifting our attention back to the present moment whenever our mind wanders.

Turning attention into engagement is similar. Think of it as “directed presence” or as cultivating presence in the midst of the activities we engage in, whether it’s brainstorming with colleagues, working out, catching up with our partner, or putting our kids to bed. Psychologists have a name for this state of full engagement. They refer to it as “flow.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the first psychologists to carry out research on this experience, talks about it in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He describes flow as “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.”

Linking Mindfulness and Flow

By definition, you can experience presence any time, anywhere: lying on the beach, walking to your car, or sitting in traffic. It can be either passive or active. Flow, on the other hand, is a purely active state that feels almost effortless. According to Csikszentmihalyi, the ideal conditions for flow arise when “both challenges and skills are high and equal to each other.”

Many top athletes, artists, and intellectuals describe this experience. Greek tennis champion Stefanos Tsitsipas recently described the dramatic shift between when he’s playing normally, versus when he’s playing in a flow state: “It felt like I was in a cage and someone decided to unlock it. I suddenly felt free. Every decision I went for felt right,” he said. “It brings you to another level. You’re not playing with your skill any more, you’re playing with your soul.”

Flow doesn’t always come naturally. We often have to resist the temptation of short-term pleasure to get there.

Buster Williams, the legendary jazz bassist, recalls his experience playing with Miles Davis that led to a heightened state of engagement. “With Miles, it would get to the point where we followed the music rather than the music following us. We just followed the music wherever it wanted to go.”

These descriptions might make flow sound mystical, but you don’t have to be a star tennis player or a legendary jazz bassist to experience a state of full engagement. Whether it’s on a challenging morning run, during an important PTA meeting, or while delivering a presentation at work, flow is something that everyone can access. For example, Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that full-time caregivers were just as likely to experience this state as athletes and musicians. One mother described a state of engagement happening as she worked with her daughter when she was discovering something new. “Her reading is one thing that she’s really into, and we read together. She reads to me, and I read to her, and that’s a time when I sort of lose touch with the rest of the world. I’m totally absorbed in what I am doing.”

FOMO–The Flow of Missing Out?

Csikszentmihalyi and fellow researcher Martin Seligman’s research illuminates the connection between flow and well-being. In one study, his team had 250 “high-flow” and 250 “low-flow” teenagers keep a record of their mood at specific times throughout the day. When the team examined the responses, the low-flow teens spent the bulk of their time in a state of disengagement, and were said to either be hanging out at the mall or watching television. The high-flow teens, by contrast, were more likely to spend their time developing hobbies, academic interests, and athletic abilities.

How did these two groups score on measures of happiness? It turned out that the high-flow group outperformed the low-flow group on every measure of psychological well-being, except one. Seligman writes, “The exception is important: The high-flow kids think their low-flow peers are having more fun, and say they would rather be at the mall doing all those ‘fun’ things or watching television.”

The only disadvantage of experiencing flow was the feeling of missing out on short-term pleasures. Pleasures that fail to produce long-term happiness. Two helpful conclusions can be drawn from this research.

First, engagement is associated with an increase in happiness and well-being. The  more we live in the state of flow, the more we grow and  experience meaningful success. However, experiencing  mental health challenges like depression and anxiety may correlate to a reduced ability to access flow. In a 2022 study published in PLOS One, researchers examined 664 musicians (a population with high rates of anxiety) and the factors that made them more or less amenable to a flow state while performing. The researchers found that the more anxiety a musician reported, the less likely they  were to experience flow.

Secondly, flow doesn’t always come naturally. We often have to resist the temptation of short-term pleasure to get there. When we do, we set the stage for this exquisite experience of total absorption in the task at hand.

3 Essentials for Flow State

As Csikszentmihalyi and subsequent flow researchers have identified, three main conditions are needed to experience flow:

1. A clear and purposeful set of goals for your activity, which helps channel your attention.
2. A subjective sense of balance between the challenging nature of the activity and your skill-level to navigate it, which leads to feeling absorbed in the activity.
3. Clear, immediate feedback telling you how well you’re progressing and where you can improve.

To create these ideal