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What is a flow state of mind and how to reach it

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What is flow state of mind?

We usually refer to flow as being “in the zone”. This mental state is characterized by focus, full concentration, and enjoyment of the activity at hand.

This idea is best summarized by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the first modern psychologist to name and study Flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Although this sounds like something along the lines of your usual self-help doctrine (which if that helps you, then rock on, no judgment), it is actually a theory dating back to the 1950’s that has held up under scientific scrutiny. In fact, Flow itself is considered a scientific term.

Individuals in a state of flow experience physiological changes as well as a number of effects that are highly beneficial in the workplace such as:

  • Intrinsic motivation – the very study of Flow is rooted in autotelic (auto = self, telos = goal) activity; that is, a distinct separation from any reward that may result from a given activity.
  • A distortion of time.
  • Lack of appetite and other bodily needs.
  • A fluid state where problem solving is nearly automatic.
  • The potential to increase your level of engagement at work.
  • A tendency to seek these experiences repeatedly over the medium to long-term.
  • People who are able to tap into Flow on a regular basis are the generally more resilient and fulfilled, even in the face of personal or societal hardship.
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Psychology behind the flow

Levels of neurochemicals such as norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and endorphins increase. Along with these chemical changes, your prefrontal cortex starts to slow down while other parts of your brain speed up, leading to a constriction of focus, according to Steven Kotler, a leading journalist, and author on human performance in Flow states.

These neurochemicals, among other things, are responsible for:

  • Prolonged focus
  • Motivation
  • Promoting lateral thinking (the linking of disparate ideas together) which can lead to increases in creativity
  • Pain relief
  • Keeping you calm and steady
  • Social bonding as well as feelings of togetherness and belonging.

Further, these chemicals are highly addictive. People who are able to enter Flow often become motivated to challenge their skills in the right way to enter flow time and again. This is why flow is referred to as the “source code” of intrinsic motivation.

As we said earlier, when we enter flow, some parts of the brain slow down, while others speed up. There is also an increase in subconscious thinking, which takes less energy and is faster, and a decrease in conscious thinking, which takes more energy and is slower. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for our self-awareness and sense of time, starts to shut down. That is why people in the flow state forget about themselves and lose track of time.

Our brain has limits on how much information it can process at a time which is around 110 bits of information per second. Each task we attempt to perform at one time uses up more and more of this finite resource. If you try and do too many things at once, it’s like having too many tabs open on your browser at one time.

So, as we can see, there are real neurological changes associated with flow states which lead to streamlined focus, creativity, and increased productivity.

How to reach flow state

Flow is a state of mind that virtually anyone can reach. In fact, it is a state that most of us enter into by accident on occasion. However, it most often occurs at the apex of great skill, concentration, and challenge.

Here is some other good news. Since psychologists started studying flow in the 1970’s, they have conducted tests over a massive number of different populations. From professional rock climbers to surgeons, to sheepherders in rural regions, almost all have shown an aptitude for flow. Moreover, they found that even people who have been diagnosed with ADHD can enter flow states.

A few practical tools you can use to help you align your focus include setting timers, using calendars, reminders, alarms, etc. Focus on trying to help clarify where attention needs to be applied.

There are generally three main areas to focus on to grow the ability to enter flow:

  • Mind-body connection. We are all different so building a mind-body connection might look different for everyone. However, a good place to start is with yoga or meditation 3-5 times per week.
  • Right work environment. Being in a workplace that fosters cross-pollination of ideas can seriously contribute to your ability to enter flow. For example, common meeting rooms and spaces where people can to meet and talk about their projects or exchange ideas is something that could be beneficial.
  • Maintain your sense of humor. Don’t let your ego get in the way and be sure to remain curious. Remember, in a state of flow we don’t think much about ourselves

How to enter flow every day

We will focus on two distinct areas. The first focuses on daily actions that will prepare your mind and body to enter flow. The second will focus on what you need to do at work.

During the Day

Create a connection between your mind and body when you first wake up by doing a body assessment. Ask yourself the following:

  • How is my body feeling? Am I sore? Do I feel rested? Assess each part of your body by flexing your toes, then calves, quads, and so on all the way to your neck and facial muscles.
  • How is my mind? Am I stressed? If so, then why? What might be on my mind that I can let go of that isn’t going to help me be positive and productive during the day? If you’re feeling up to it, do some yoga or meditation in order to relieve any potential anxiety and to promote deep embodiment.
  • Practice mindfulness throughout the day. Pay attention to your bodily sensations and posture; make sure you aren’t too sedentary. Occasional breaks to stretch or get your blood flowing are very necessary. If this is hard for you to keep track of on your own, try the Pomodoro technique (25 minute work periods with 5 minute breaks).

At work

Use these tips based on information from Harvard psychologists of things to be mindful of at work to enter flow:

  • Break routine. Challenge yourself to make sure you are in a state of stimulation and not boredom. For example, take a different route to work or speak up in a meeting even if you are a little unsure.
  • Try new things everyday life. Choose work or assignments that can provide you with new feelings, experiences, and insights. When you leave work every day, ask yourself “What have I learned today? Do I feel that I have room to grow my skills in my current capacity?” If the answer is no more often than yes, then you may want to start looking for new options.
  • Don’t let mistakes discourage you. You are likely to be at your best when you focus on what you want to accomplish or experience and don’t allow mistakes to be distracting. Just start getting those ideas down! Go back and edit later or send your ideas to a trusted friend or colleague.
  • Accept the fact that being nervous is normal. It means you are challenging yourself, won’t get bored and will be more likely to enter flow.
  • Healthy competition. Being in a workplace that encourages competition (to a healthy degree) stimulates personal growth and change and can lead to great results.

Finally, you can also “hack” into Flow by having a good understanding of your strengths and skills. Remember that Flow is attained when there is an appropriate balance of arousal and control when using your skills to overcome a challenge. If your task is too challenging you’ll go too far toward arousal and you enter anxiety; If it is too easy you’ll sway too far toward control and become bored.

Fight boredom with flow state

Well, if you’re bored then you’re most likely under-stimulated. Either your mind or body are suffering from a lack of vigor.

Some symptoms of boredom include:

  • Feeling sleepy or fatigued due to lack of activity.
  • Restlessness.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Inability to focus.

To combat these symptoms it is recommended that you:

  • Stand up and stretch every so often, or even go for a short walk.
  • Visualize what might happen if you don’t do the task you are working on
  • Grab something to eat or drink. Preferably something healthy and crunchy like an apple, celery,  carrot sticks, etc.

If you always feel bored at work, you probably are overqualified for your position. Or sometimes, it is just nature of our current task that causes boredom and you just need to get it over with.

In these cases, you can turn it into a game where you use your personal strengths. For example, if you are a particularly social person, or you derive meaning from social interaction, then try and figure out a way to weave this into your job. Or, if you’re doing data entry try to see how many numbers you can memorize at one time, then go back and check your work. Options are unlimited, just get creative!

On one of his TED Talks Dr. Martin Seligman describes a woman who loves to interact with people and who worked as a grocery bagger while in college. In order to break up the monotony, she made it her goal to make each social interaction with a customer the highlight of their day. In this way, she was able to challenge herself based upon a skill that she enjoyed working on and to enter flow. This is a simple example, but you get the idea.

How to dissolve stress with flow

If you are stressed, most likely you are overstimulated. You’ve got too much to do and this prevents you from being productive and creative. You need to relax. Find what works for you be it a nap, breathing exercises, or yoga. Let’s take a closer look.

You’ll know that you are overstimulated because of symptoms such as:

  • Irritability. Even things that should not annoy you are getting on your nerves. Maybe you’re getting too many Emails or someone in the office is making some annoying noise. You just want it to stop.
  • Racing thoughts that you can’t seem to slow down.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with all the tasks to you need to complete.
  • Fast, shallow breathing and/or a rapid heart beat.

To combat these symptoms that are harmful to the flow state it is recommended that you:

  • Take a short power nap between 10 and 30 minutes. We’ve seen this in the headlines in recent years, and it really works. So try it!
  • Start meditation or yoga. There are tremendous benefits. Plus, this will have long term effects on your ability to be calm and stress free. Further, Csikszentmihalyi himself noted the similarities between Flow and yoga in that they “both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration.”
  • Break down your task into manageable chunks. By doing this you’ll have a good plan to adhere to and you’ll be able to visualize the steps you need to take.
  • Make a to do list. Create an action plan to understand what exactly is causing your anxiety. Sometimes once you write it down, you’ll realize you’ve been more stressed than you needed to be in the first place.
  • Prioritize. Ask yourself, what is the most important thing I can do right now? This will help you to prioritize if you feel you’ve got too many tasks.
  • Focus on your strengths. Think about managing balance between your skills and the challenge of the current task.
  • Ask a colleague for help. Maybe you need to create some synergy with a trusted teammate, or maybe you need some skills that are unique to that person.

Remember that some stress is a good thing as long as you don’t let it paralyze you. The key is to manage this stress and to use it to your benefit.

Help your teammates find flow

It is crucial for an individual to feel as if the work at hand is contributing to a bigger picture. When people agree with their leadership and the direction of their organization they feel motivated for the right reasons.

Here are some key conditions you, as a manager, can use to foster flow in the workplace:

  • Ensure your team understands their own personal goals as well as those of your team or organization. It can be very helpful to set smaller, more achievable goals, on the way to the bigger objective
  • Provide immediate feedback when possible. Course corrections are essential to flow because they provide incentives to your employees
  • There must be a balance between your employee’s skills and the challenge in their assignments
  • Allow employees the opportunities to practice and improve their skills. Encourage persistence and curiosity, two key characteristics of those able to enter flow
  • Make sure your employees feel valued, but emphasize the importance of their work as well

Welltory Team, 23 Dec. 2021

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