Flow: The Psychology of Being in the Zone

Psychology research suggests that "flow" activities can help keep us healthy and happy. Here's how to find yourself in the zone more often.

Ever watched a brilliant painter at work? A world-class musician in performance? A sportsman at the peak of their powers?

It’s as though they work on instinct, isn’t it? The hard things seem easy. They’re at the top of their game, immersed in focus, but everything seems so downright automatic.

But here’s the good news. While we might not all reach such dizzying heights of performance, we can all foster a similar type of experience.

Most of us know this idea as “being in the zone”. We’ve all felt it at some point or other. But a psychologist by the name of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has dedicated his career to understanding this idea in more detail.

He calls this experience the “flow state” – and there’s more to it than meets the eye.

What Is the Flow State?

In the field of positive psychology, “flow” is described as a state of complete immersion and enjoyment in an activity at hand. It’s a state of energised focus and involvement, where nothing else seems to matter.

Aside from a simple sense of autopilot and high focus, flow has several important characteristics that distinguish it from regular focused work:

  1. Flow transforms our perception of time. Ask a painter how long they’ve been working on their piece when they finish, and they may give wildly inaccurate underestimates. Flow absorbs us in our work to the point that time takes on a different form. It absorbs us so much that everything else happening around us temporarily diminishes in importance.
  2. Flow provides meaning and purpose. Flow provides the optimal state for what psychologists call intrinsic satisfaction. In other words, the activities, in and of themselves, provide meaning and purpose. They give a sense of satisfaction that is almost impossible to match through financial incentives alone. Indeed, studies have shown that when deprived of flow, even for just a few days, we exhibit higher levels of anxiety and poorer health.
  3. Flow provides a sense of personal control. In a flow state, we call the shots, we control the outcome, and we receive immediate feedback for the work we’re doing. When we’re done, we see the immediate fruits of our efforts. Flow provides the autonomous work that motivates the most. It allows us to influence the outcome and see the potential to succeed.

Flow, then, is not just found in any activity that feels automatic. Activities that induce a flow state are unique in their capacity to make us happier, more creative, and more motivated.

And thankfully, these qualities are not exclusively reserved for elite performers.

The Goldilocks Zone: How to Find Flow

So how do we identify activities that induce a flow state?

According to Csíkszentmihályi, we’re most likely to find the flow state when we are wholeheartedly performing a task for intrinsic purposes – i.e. for a sense of meaning and purpose as opposed to solely being motivated by extrinsic factors like financial incentives.

Now, if you stare into a bright light all day for a living (that’s most of us, by the way) you might begin to think that rules your job out.

But not so fast. You may be more likely to find those intrinsically motivating tasks outside of the office, but that doesn’t make the day job a write-off. There is some serious value in seeking out flow tasks in the area where you dedicate most of your waking hours.

Of course, that means finding autonomous, enjoyable, and focused tasks. But it also means seeking out tasks in the ‘Goldilocks Zone’.

In astronomy, the Goldilocks Zone is basically the range of distance within which planets have the right temperatures for water to remain in liquid form – neither too hot nor too cold for life. But the term has in recent years been adopted in business and management.

‘Goldilocks tasks’ are neither too easy nor too hard. If a task is too easy, we’ll get bored and lose interest. If the task is too hard, we’ll get anxious and frustrated – and ultimately, we’ll give up.

We need to find that sweet spot. And if we want to induce the flow state, Goldilocks tasks provide the optimal level of difficulty to retain our focus and enjoyment.

Deliberate Practice: How to Maintain Flow

But there’s a catch. As we repeat a Goldilocks task, our brains work overtime to make that task easier and easier with every repetition. Inevitably, the task eventually becomes more automatic and probably less satisfying with it.

In short, our Goldilocks Zone shifts. And it follows that once we’ve found work that induces a flow state, it’s not necessarily a deal for life. We need to refine tasks and ratchet up the difficulty.

In essence, this is what Anders Ericsson meant by the term ‘deliberate practice’.

Deliberate practice is a systematic approach to practice which aims to target weaknesses. Tasks are neither too easy nor too difficult, but they gradually move us closer to expertise by shifting the difficulty with our progressing Goldilocks Zone.

This incremental refinement of our tasks is the essence of self-improvement. It’s what takes us from enjoying the flow state as a novice to enjoying the flow state as an expert. It enables us to induce a flow state throughout the life cycle of skill acquisition.

The Asymptote: How to Embrace Flow for Life

So, once we have achieved mastery, once we have reached the peak of our performance, how do we continue to embrace the flow state?

At the heart of the answer to this question is a reality: we never reach mastery. Mastery is a process, not a result. We extract joy and satisfaction from its pursuit, not from its realisation.

In Drive, Daniel Pink sums it up neatly. Mastery, Pink says, is an asymptote. For those unfamiliar with the mathematics jargon, an asymptote looks something like the below.

What it shows is that the pursuit of mastery is infinite. We can get closer and closer to that line, but we can never touch it.

Recognising and embracing this idea is central to getting the most improvement and satisfaction from tasks. It’s also central to finding the flow state for life. Without it, we risk sucking the enjoyment from activities.

Conclusions on the Flow State

Let’s wrap up with a few important conclusions.

First, people seem to be happiest and most creative in a state of flow. Like a form of meditation, flow allows everything else to dissolve into irrelevance. We become one with the activity.

Second, the flow state is an optimal state for intrinsic motivation. When our work facilitates flow, no other carrot compares. Flow breeds engagement and mastery. And beyond our basic needs, that exceeds the motivational potency of financial incentives.

Third, to experience a flow state, we should identify Goldilocks activities. We find flow when work is neither too hard nor too easy. Flow flourishes when we are stretching ourselves enough to intrigue and engage, but not so much as to demoralise.

To sustain these flow activities over the longer term, we should embrace the ideas of deliberate practice and mastery as a process.

What Next?

So where does that leave us? What’s the practical takeaway here?

Well, if you take one idea from this article, make it this. If you’re struggling for motivation, energy, and purpose, look for your flow activities. Observe their effects on your state of mind. Be ruthless in finding a way to introduce more of them in your life.

Why? Because the science tells us that these activities help keep us healthy and happy.

And that’s something we should all flow towards.

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