What Is ‘Flow-State’ and Why Does it Matter?

When was the last time you recall being so immersed in a task that you don’t notice external factors or time passing you by? All of a sudden you peer at your watch and two hours have whizzed by and you feel a smug sense of satisfaction about the amount of work you have achieved. Conversely, you might be familiar with the experience of flicking through tasks, vaguely concentrating on each piece of work but finding you are too distracted to really become absorbed in the project. It can feel like you have too many Google chrome tabs open in your mind and you’re switching between them all chaotically. The former experience describes an ideal state of “flow” whereby we become so immersed in a particular activity that we feel a sense of “energised focus” and complete involvement in the task we are undertaking. The latter state is the opposite of this experience in which we are inattentive and unproductive, unable to be completely engaged in a task ultimately to our detriment. Research has highlighted the link between flow-state and contentment, as well as the problems associated with our inability to focus on the present moment and the task at hand.

The human brain is a fascinating and highly-developed component of our architecture (a generous description developed by said brain. Humble bloke). Its advanced nature allows us to think beyond our immediate needs and the stimuli in front of us, and consider previous events and potential future occurrences that haven’t even happened yet. This allows us to adapt and learn from our previous behaviours and mistakes, make important decisions about our future, be able to communicate effectively to maintain relationships, and to set goals and plan for the future. On the flip side, it also means that we are burdened with the ability to ruminate on our mistakes and perceived failures, and to worry about what may or may not happen to us in the future. It is a ubiquitous human experience to repeat unhelpful scenarios in our minds, causing us to feel stressed and and anxious. Whilst there is some benefit in preparing for potential future scenarios, the repetition of occurrences that aren’t guaranteed, as well as the fixation on past events, has no utility. It becomes a maladaptive pattern of behaviour whereby the present moment is too often overlooked for moments outside of our grasp and control.

When our thoughts are aligned with what we are doing, studies suggest we are at our happiest. This isn’t just the case for significant moments such as birthday celebrations, holidays and graduation ceremonies, but also rings true for menial tasks such as washing the dishes or grocery shopping. Researchers Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth discussed their research on this topic in an evocative journal article titled “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”. In their study, participants would receive various notifications on an app on their phone throughout the day. Through this app, they were asked what they were doing, what they were thinking about and how happy they were at random intervals. In accordance with our pre-existing beliefs about the benefits of flow-state and present-moment awareness, the study showed that we are happier when our mind is focussed on the particular activity we are doing. Even when we are envisioning a pleasant experience such as holidaying in Barbados, we are still happier when we are immersed in the task in the present moment, even if it is simply cleaning the bathroom.

Most of us now acknowledge the brain’s default tendency to reflect on past occurrences and ponder over potential future outcomes, and that our attention is often directed away from the moment we are experiencing. Inextricably linked to the idea of present-moment awareness is the concept of “flow-state”, which highlights the need for us to reclaim our focus in a way that allows us to be so immersed in our tasks that we don’t notice the passing of time. It’s in moments like these where it’s almost as if we are in a vacuum, transcending temporal and physical barriers whereby all that appears to exist is the task in front of us. In flow-state, our complete attention is directed towards a task that we are particularly passionate about. We experience heightened creativity and the ideas are flowing freely in a way that allows us to concentrate solely on completing the activity. You can often feel a bubble of excitement and bliss, and it can often create an underlying sense of purposefulness and contentment.

Often we experience flow during a task that is intrinsically rewarding and one that challenges us. Whilst it may be a difficult task, we feel a sense of control over the outcome and believe that we have the capabilities and skills to persevere and complete the task. Flow-state may occur in different contexts for everyone, for example when we are playing our favourite sport, surfing a wave in the ocean, writing an article, or sketching an artwork. Whatever the environment or context, I am sure you can pinpoint a moment where you have experienced this state and recall the complete focus and sense of achievement felt subsequently.

It’s important we acknowledge the benefits of living in the present moment, as well as experiencing as many moments in “flow” as we can. Living our lives in the present moment, including experiencing more moments in flow, has the power to increase our levels of happiness, focus and creativity, whilst also affording us a greater sense of purposefulness and achievement. On a practical level, we are able to achieve more through our heightened levels of concentration, and therefore we are advancing a little more each day until we reach our intended goals. This can only leave us feeling satisfied and fulfilled, motivating us to engage in more challenging and meaningful tasks until the happiness is essentially cyclically.

In order to increase our present-moment awareness, we need to actively divert our attention when it is wandering away from the task in front of us. Identifying immediate physical sensations and trying to articulate how they feel is one particular method of maintaining focus. For example, if you are walking outside, you might notice the light breeze across your face, or the warmth of the sun on your skin. You might pay attention to your shoes as they press against the pavement. Meditation is also an excellent way to maintain our focus on the here and now. It directs us to focus on our breathing and the sensations associated with it, and to gently bring ourselves back to our breath when we find our thoughts wandering. It will require a lot of mental effort to constantly bring ourselves back to the present moment, so it’s important to do this in a kind and non-judgemental way. The goal should simply be to improve our levels of focus on the present moment, and not to criticise when we inevitably find our thoughts wandering but to merely bring them back to the present as much as we can.

Now that we have also identified what flow-state is and the associated benefits, we can focus on increasing our experiences of flow and being in the zone as much as possible. To do this, it will be useful to think about tasks or hobbies in your life that you find meaningful yet challenging and to explicitly set a time to do these activities every single day. You should also try and have a clearly defined goal so allow your attention to be focussed for a set period of time. For example, you may experience flow when you are playing a competitive tennis match, and the flow state will continue until the game has finished and you have (hopefully) beaten the other player. Ultimately it’s important to choose something you enjoy doing and that challenges you (but not too much) and it will often require you to remove many of the modern day distractions that preclude meaningful flow experiences.

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