A lot of times, work can be difficult, tedious, or downright frustrating. We’ve all had those days that seem to drag on forever: the ideas don’t come, the energy isn’t there, and you can’t seem to stay focused on the task at hand. Those are the days that make you want to throw up your hands and just walk (or run) away from it all.
But as familiar as you might be with that feeling, you’re probably familiar with the feeling on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. You know what I’m talking about—those moments when energy, inspiration, motivation, and environment perfectly combine to get you into a state of ultimate productivity, focus, and fulfillment.
It’s a state that many have come to identify as “flow.”
What is Flow?
One night, I was working on a project I was really excited about. It wasn’t easy work—in fact, it was pretty challenging—but I knew that the project could have a huge positive impact on my company, so I was committed to giving it my best shot.
Free from distraction or constraints (beyond missing my usual bedtime), my mind was able to approach problems from various angles, brainstorm creative potential solutions, and really, truly focus on the work in front of me. As I slipped into flow, the concept of time passing disappeared and the sense of assembling and creating took over my experience. Those focused, quiet hours at the kitchen table with my laptop went by in a happy, productive blur.
That night, it felt like the stars aligned just for me. I was in the zone. I was in flow. All the ideas and pieces fit together perfectly.
A flow state is a recognized part of positive psychology, and similar concepts have been practiced in Daoism and Buddhism for thousands of years. It’s being so wrapped up in something that you lose track of…well, everything else.
The American Psychological Association describes flow this way:
A state of optimal experience arising from intense involvement in an activity that is enjoyable, such as playing a sport, performing a musical passage, or writing a creative piece. Flow arises when one’s skills are fully utilized yet equal to the demands of the task, intrinsic motivation is at a peak, one loses self-consciousness and temporal awareness, and one has a sense of total control, effortlessness, and complete concentration on the immediate situation (the here and now).
There are a couple crucial elements to this definition that will come into play later when I discuss the keys to getting into flow, but first, we have to talk a little bit about focus.
Flow and focus
If we’re going to talk about flow, we also have to talk about focus. Mostly because it’s important to understand that flow and focus are not the same thing.
Let’s break down the distinction.
- Focus can be negative. Flow is always considered positive. Flow is enjoyable. It’s when you’re in your element, doing something you love and are good at. As the above definition states, it’s an “optimal experience.”
Focus, on the other hand, isn’t always a positive thing. You could be focused on the wrong thing at the wrong time. You could focus so closely on a minor detail that the overall goal of the project is lost. In fact, hyperfocus is a symptom of some people with ADHD, as they’re unable to regulate their attention away from a certain thing.
- There can be focus without flow, but there can be no flow without focus. Focus can exist without flow. As mentioned before, you can be focused on something (or multiple somethings) that aren’t going to give you that “optimal experience.”
That said, remember that flow cannot exist without focus. The official definition above describes it as “complete concentration.” If you’re going to get to a state of flow, you have to be focused on what you’re doing. Nothing interrupts flow quite like distractions (which we’ll get to later).
- Focus is the direction. Flow is the action. Or, put differently, focus is where you’re trying to go or what you’re trying to achieve. Flow is one possible way of getting you there. Not only that, but it’s the best possible way of getting you there, since flow is intrinsically enjoyable and feels effortless.
Ultimately, while focus and flow are closely related, they can’t really be used interchangeably. And if you want the “optimal experience” of flow, you’re going to need to learn how to find your focus.
How to find your focus
What you focus on is ultimately going to create what you experience in the world around you. If you are constantly focused on everything that is going wrong in your life, guess what—you’re going to notice even more things that are going wrong. Conversely, if you’re focused on the things you’re grateful for, you’ll be able to experience gratitude more easily. And so on.
This works on a practical level, too. If you focus on cleaning your house, you’ll create a clean house. If you focus on training for a marathon, you’ll run a marathon. And if you focus on finishing that Netflix series…you’ll finish that Netflix series. You get the idea.
But the ultimate question is this: how do you find the type of focus that leads to flow? There are two big answers to this question.
Keep it positive
Like I said earlier, flow is always positive. It’s energizing and effortless. It’s an optimal experience.
So how could you possibly get into flow—a positive state—if you’re focused on something negative?
One concept I talk about often is love versus fear, and which approach will help you create the happy life you undoubtedly want. (Spoiler alert: it’s love.)
In a nutshell: coming from a place of love is going to move you toward something you want. Coming from a place of fear is moving you away from something you don’t want. Love breeds creation, cooperation, possibility, hope, and positive action. Fear leads to destruction, contention, hesitation, and discouragement.
Whatever you’re trying to achieve, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. As you work to remain focused, keep that positive motivation in your mind; it will invite flow and dispel fear.
Thoughts that will help you maintain a positive focus might include:
- “I can do this.”
- “I love what I do and I’m good at it.”
- “I’m capable of overcoming this challenge.”
- “I can’t wait to see what my brain comes up with.”
Learn to be present
Nothing disrupts focus like letting your mind go time traveling, but it’s harder to avoid than you might think. In fact, one study suggests that 47% of our waking hours are spent thinking about what is not going on around us. Not only that, but those same researchers reached the conclusion that a wandering mind is not conducive to happiness.
Being present is important for focus. When you’re thinking about the past (regrets, mistakes, misfortunes) or the future (worries, uncertainties, fear), you’re not going to be able to focus on what is right in front of you. On the other hand, when you are present and aware of what is happening right now, it will be easier for you to get in the zone.
Being present is also key to emotional connection, which makes it a very important part of strong relationships. But you can also have a similar emotional connection to your experiences, and as long as that emotion is positive, this will also help you get into a state of flow.
Here are some quick tips for being more present:
- Practice meditation
- Remove distractions (notifications, alerts)
- Practice sensory observation (what can you see, hear, smell, etc. now?)
- Take deep breaths
- Check in with your body (are you hungry, tired, thirsty, etc.?)
The Keys to Flow
With an understanding of focus under our belts, we can now better discuss the keys of flow: the practices and principles that are going to help you achieve a state of flow more easily and regularly.
First, remember: flow is more of an art than a science. Sure, there are some tried-and-true methods for inviting flow, but unfortunately, it’s not a simple cause and effect equation. Everything from your mood to your mindset to what you ate that day could affect your potential for flow, so don’t beat yourself up if you’re trying everything and still having a hard time getting there. Just do what you can to set the scene, and then go with the flow (sorry, had to).
Do work you love.
Going back to our fear versus love idea, flow is always going to be attracted to love and avoidant of fear. Because flow is an optimal, positive experience, you have to be doing something you love in order to experience it.
Look, I understand that it’s not very realistic to expect you to actively love your job all the time, but learning to recognize something you love about it—even if it’s just the fact that you’re good at it—is necessary if you’re ever going to get to a flow state. So find the good and hold on to it.
Another idea closely related to focus, distractions are death blows to a state of flow. If you’re constantly switching tabs to check your email, picking up your phone to check social media, having to ask the kids to turn down their music (again), or sitting under an air vent that has your teeth chattering, you’re not likely to get to flow.
Close your tabs. Turn off your notifications. Schedule kid-free time to work. Always have a sweater with you. Do what you can to eliminate all distractions around you, so you’re free to focus and flow.
Work at the right time, for the right amount of time.
Some people are morning people. Others…are not. It’s true that many successful people seem to swear by their early morning work sessions that often lead to a state of flow, but guess what? That doesn’t work for everyone. And you shouldn’t try to force yourself to work in the mornings if your brain is much more active and creative at night. Determine when you are at your peak, and use that information to your advantage.
Similarly, you need to work for the right amount of time if you’re going to get to a flow state. Flow isn’t usually something that happens within 5 or 10 minutes, especially when you’re first practicing reaching a flow state. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time (I would say an hour at least) to get there. Ideally, once you get to a flow state, time won’t matter anyway.
Increase challenge and/or increase skill.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who is credited with naming the concept we currently know as flow, includes a discussion of the balance between challenge and skill in his discussion of flow. In order to be in flow, he says, these two things need to be in balance. To put it more simply:
Too much challenge + not enough skill = anxiety
Too much skill + not enough challenge = boredom
Skill = challenge = flow
Csikszentmihalyi actually created a spectrum to add a little more nuance to this idea:
We can use this spectrum not only to determine where we currently are, but to help us make adjustments to get to a state of flow.
For example, if your skill level is very high, but the challenge is very low, and you’re experiencing boredom or relaxation, it’s time to give yourself a more challenging task. If your skill level and challenge level are both so low that you still don’t care about reaching the goal (apathy), then you need to work on increasing both.
Finding the right balance of skill and challenge is what is ultimately going to get you into a flow state. The good news: you can continually raise the bar of your flow state so that it adjusts along with you and the challenges you face.
Like any art, getting to and staying in a state of flow requires practice. For many of us, flow has occurred as a welcome surprise, rather than something that was deliberately pursued. But honestly, don’t you want to pursue it? Don’t you want to be in that optimal state as often as possible?
Practice getting into flow. When it happens, make note of what helped you get there. What time was it? Where were you? What were you listening to? Who was with you? What were you working on? Making these observations will hopefully help you recreate a state of flow at another time. Once you start to recognize patterns, you’ll be able to get into flow when you need to—a skill that will increase not only your productivity, but also your happiness.
Flow is one of those things that helps us feel like what we’re doing is worth it. Whether you’re a full-time professional or a full-time parent, a state of flow can help you feel like you’re living the life you were meant to live, one full of purpose, meaning, and ultimately, happiness.
The next time you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, redefine your focus and start working towards getting back in the flow. Life’s a lot easier—and more enjoyable—when you can.
Find your focus and start working toward a life you love, with Design.org.
Take our assessment to get started with our free coaching service, which will help you identify, design, and create a happier, more meaningful life.