The Flow State

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Can you think of a time when you’ve performed at your very best, where your actions were instinctive, spontaneous, even effortless? 

A time when you were in a trance-like state, totally absorbed in the activity you were doing, and all your fears and worries just floated away? A time when time seemed to fly by, with hours seeming more like minutes?

If you can, then you’ve just remembered a flow experience, and it’s likely that you found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable moment.

Sensory shutdown

Now imagine yourself having a discussion with a friend at a restaurant table, and just behind you is a stranger talking on the phone. In this situation, you have the capacity to listen to both your friend and the stranger. The waiter then comes over and informs you of the special offers, whilst your friend continues to speak. At this point, it becomes impossible for you to interpret what your friend, the stranger, and the waiter are saying, thereby forcing you to ignore at least one of the three.  

But why is this so? Why can’t we understand more than two people talking to us simultaneously? In simple terms, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than approximately 110 bits of information per second, yet in order for us to hear and understand one person requires us to process around 60 bits per second. 

Applying this knowledge of our processing limitations to flow, when we’re totally absorbed in an activity, we simply don’t have sufficient mental bandwidth to detect other things. This is the reason why, when experiencing flow, our worries fade away, and we don’t feel hunger, tiredness or sometimes even pain. Outside the activity itself, everything else, including our sense of time, disappears from our consciousness. 

Put another way, when our skills are fully engaged, we have no spare attention to monitor anything else.

Getting in the flow

The term flow, also referred to as being in the zone, was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, and it refers to our state of mind when we’re fully immersed in doing something we love, feeling both energised and challenged. 

When great athletes are tested to their limit, whilst still playing supremely and automatically, they are in this state of flow. 

When I’m consistently playing my best tennis, I’m also consistently in the zone…but when I think about being in the zone, I’m immediately out of it.

– Monica Seles

This mental state of operation isn’t just reserved for sportspeople, it transcends all aspects of performance, such as playing the piano, acting on stage, selling a car, giving a presentation. We can even experience flow during a flirtatious conversation….if it’s proving to be somewhat of a challenge!  

Flow occurs when the balance between challenge and skill is just right i.e. when we’re sufficiently challenged, and we have the skills to meet this challenge. This can be illustrated by Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model…

Flow Experience

According to the model, control and arousal are two emotional states from which we can easily move into flow – to enter flow from control, we just need to increase the level of challenge, and to enter flow from arousal, we need to develop our skills. 

Conversely, the remaining emotions (relaxation, boredom, apathy, worry, anxiety), are positions from which we’ll struggle to move into flow. 

Therefore, for us to achieve a flow state, Csikszentmihalyi postulates there are three conditions that have to be present…

  1. We must be performing an activity with a clear set of goals, as this provides us with direction and structure to the task.
  1. The activity should give us clear and immediate feedback, which helps us to negotiate any changing demands, allowing us to adjust our performance accordingly.
  1. There needs to be an appropriate balance between the perceived challenges of the activity, and our own perceived skills i.e. we must have the confidence in our ability to complete the activity. 

Knowing we’re flowing

So how do we know when we’re in flow? Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following factors…

    • A merging of action and awareness
    • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
    • A sense of personal control over the activity
    • A distortion of time when performing the activity 
    • A feeling of intrinsic reward when experiencing the activity 
    • An intense and focused concentration on the present moment

A flowing summary

Being in a state of flow correlates with producing optimal performance throughout a range of diverse sectors, including business, the arts, science, education, and sport.

It’s linked to raised levels of self-directed learning, intrinsic motivation, confidence and self-esteem, and competence and mastery.

We produce our best performances when we’re flowing.

So just bear in mind…if you’re experiencing a state of flow during that next flirtatious conversation, your chances are scoring could well be high!

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