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Flow States & How To Access Them

In an earlier article in this series exploring my Stress Resilience Blueprint I wrote about the dimensions or components of well-being as set out in Positive Psychology's PERMA model – the three key elements being emotional positivity, engagement, and meaning or purpose. In this article I'm going to look more closely at engagement, and in particular the quintessential form, the experience of flow.

We've all had an experience of flow at some point in our lives – times when we got so deeply absorbed in what we were doing that we forgot about ourselves, and just experienced an effortless doing. Yet at the same time there's an intense feeling of being in control, of agency, and even being at our best. Flow experiences are often peak experiences.

Flow experiences are enjoyable, but we're not necessarily happy in the sense of feeling positive emotions or pleasure. A lot of people experience flow in their work – for example imagine a surgeon concentrating for hour after hour.

But the more we experience flow, the happier we are in the sense of being satisfied with your life. We'd all like to experience flow as much as possible, but how do you access the state of flow?

Straight away we have a problem because if you're deliberately and consciously looking for flow, if you're asking yourself am I getting any nearer, then by definition you're not in flow – you're self-consciously aware. How can you deliberately lose self-consciousness?

Flow arises out of certain conditions. What we need to do is focus on setting up those conditions, then let flow look after itself. Primarily that means looking at the nature of the activity we're doing, and how we relate to it.

Steve Kotler and Jamie Wheal, founders of the Flow Genome Project, have done some really useful work in delineating the conditions needed for flow. Kotler wrote a book about flow, “Rise Of The Superman”, which I'd recommend. A lot of what I have to say here comes out of their work.

I want to draw out eight preconditions for flow. Accessing flow depends on choosing an activity, and structuring it in a way that as many of these eight apply as possible.

1. Intense Focus

Flow itself may feel effortless, but it's almost always preceded by effortful concentration. We need an activity that demands concentration in order to do it well. Examples are surgery, sports, coding (software developement), playing music. The more we need to focus externally (i.e. on the activity) the better our chance of losing that self-consciousness (because none of our attention is left over for it).

2. Clear Goals

Moment by moment, it must be clear what we need to do next. For example, when playing tennis, we need to position ourselves to play a shot, then hit the ball over the net into the court. Ideally the goal is evolving moment by moment. Once we complete one shot, we need to get ready for the next.

3. Immediate feedback

It needs to be immediately apparent whether what we are doing right now is working. Playing a musical instrument gives immediate feedback because we can hear wrong notes.

4. Challenge

The level of challenge or difficulty that the activity presents must match our skill level – too easy and we get bored, too hard and we get anxious or despairing.

5. Creativity

It helps if we have a sense of control or choice, and that we are expressing ourselves in some way. So we are expressive, though not necessarily original.

6. Consequence or risk

This is related to having a clear goal. We need to want to achieve success in the moment by moment doing. If it doesn't matter either way, it's hard to rise to the peak of flow.

One way to achieve this is by engaging in risky activity – for example extreme sports like snowboarding or white water canoeing. But it doesn't need to be actual physical danger. Social risk can do it – e.g. playing music to an audience, or playing in a team.

7. Sensory richness

This is related to creating focus. It's easier to focus when the activity offers lots of rich sensory experience – ideally multiple senses such as visual, auditory, bodily feeling.

8. Environmental richness

This is related to the last point. An activity that is unpredictable and offers a lot of novelty is easier to focus on.

Conclusion

The more we experience flow, the more life satisfaction we have. By definition we can't deliberately do flow, but we can set up conditions that favour flow. We need to focus on the activity, and let flow look after itself.

In practical terms, it's a matter of finding the right activity, one that embodies the conditions I've listed and naturally engages our interest.

In our work we can't necessarily choose the activity, but we might be able to look for ways to enhance the preconditions for flow. For example, we can often choose to focus on our sensory experience, e.g. while driving. There's always a richness available, if only we choose to be mindful and open. The problem is, the mind all-too-easily assumes it's seen it all before, and goes into automatic pilot mode.

Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools for increasing well-being, and in part it works by expanding the opportunity to experience flow. In an article coming soon in this series, I explore how to make mindfulness practice more flow-like.

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