Flow (A psychological perspective)

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During Csikszentmihalyi’s 1975 meetings, numerous people defined their idea of “flow” using the symbol of a water current carrying them along.

In psychology, a flow state is the state in which an individual doing an activity is completely energized by, engaged in and enjoying the activity.

Flow is considered to be complete captivation in what one does and alters a person’s concept of time.

The flow state shares many features with hyper focus.

Hyper focus includes spending too much time playing video games or watching TV and becoming fully focused on completing the task at hand. In some cases, hyper focus can hinder a person’s potential, which makes them start numerous projects without fully seeing the open ones to completion.

Flow experiences:

There are three common ways to measure flow experiences:

·      The flow questionnaire (FQ)

·      The experience sampling method (ESM)

·      The standardized scales of the componential approach

Flow questionnaire:

The FQ has people identify experiences during which they’ve practiced flow. Another aspect of the FQ is that everyone’s experience in the flow state will vary from person to person.

This factor makes the FQ a useful tool for determining what features characterize a flow state.

However, flow lacks some more concrete aspects that recent studies have sought to address.

The FQ does not examine how focused someone is during a variety of activities.

The FQ also doesn’t factor in how challenging a task is and what impact that might have on the flow state.

Experience sampling method:

The ESM requires individuals to fill out the experience sample form (ESF) at eight random times during the day.

This helps people identify when they are experiencing flow states and what activities lead them into a flow state.

The ESF has categorical aspects, which focuses on controlling the context in which these actions are occurring (these items include: time, location, friendship/desire for companionship).

Because these questions are open-ended, the responses need to be reviewed objectively by researchers.

This helps to avoid any biases in analysis. Scaled parts of the ESF measure a variety of feelings that the individual may be experiencing during flow.

The ESM is more complex than the FQ and seeks to understand how flow plays out in a number of situations.  

Standardized scales:

Some professionals have built their own scales to understand flow states.

The scales created by Jackson and Eklund are the most commonly used in research, mainly because they follow Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow and consider flow as being both a state and a trait.

Jackson and Eklund created two scales that have been proven to be psychometrically valid and reliable.

One is the flow state scale-2 (which measures flow as a state) and the second one is dispositional flow scale-2 (designed to measure flow as either a general trait or domain-specific trait).

The statistical examination of the individual responses from these scales gives a much more complete understanding of flow than the ESM and the FQ.

State of flow:

Many people feel as if they function at their best when they’re in a state of flow.

This happens when they’re fully absorbed in an intellectually stimulating task and are incredibly engaged in what they’re doing.

In general, humans operate at their best when they’re immersed in and enjoying what they’re doing. 

Flow State Triggers

Flow State Trigger 1: Eliminate All External Distractions

In order to be in a state of flow, you will need to eliminate as many distractions as possible.

When you become distracted, you’re being pulled away from achieving flow.

When you can focus uninterrupted for at least 10–15 minutes, you have the chance to get into the flow state.

During this time, it’s best that you put your phone away (either turn it off or put it on Do Not Disturb mode) in order to eliminate distractions that might come from social media, emails and text messages.

Flow is best achieved in a quiet setting because it will allow you to be as focused as possible with minimal distractions.

An environment that helps you concentrate will be most conducive to achieving flow. 

Flow State Trigger 2: Eliminate Internal Distractions

In addition to external distractions, it’s very important to eliminate internal distractions as well.

Every time that you put too much pressure on yourself or are focused on something that’s not the task at hand, you will be pulled farther away from the flow state.

If you’re having problems with internal distractions, try the following: 

1.     Journaling every morning and evening

2.     Meditating every day [for at least 10 minutes]

Flow State Trigger 3: 

Work at your BPT (Biological Peak Time)

Achieving flow is going to be incredibly difficult if you are running low on energy.

In order to achieve flow, it’s important to stay focused on one thing and avoid getting distracted along the way.

Knowing what time of day you work best is extremely important in making sure that you have the best possible chance of entering the flow state.

Some people have success with entering the flow state when they try to engage in something early in the morning.

Another good time of day could be to enter flow after being distracted for a long period of time.

The most important thing is that you figure out what time of day works best for you so you can achieve the best flow state possible. 

Flow State Trigger 4: Listen To (The Right Kind Of) Music

Music can really help you become extremely focused and, therefore, highly creative.

When you listen to music repeatedly (or to repetitive types of music such as techno, traditional music or dream music) it will help you to reach a state of flow.

Listening to music with headphones in allows you to minimize outside conversations and internal distractions as well.

Certain types of music can put your mind at ease and guide it back to focusing. Sometimes, when people don’t listen to music, it becomes easier for them to get distracted.

Using music as a tool to achieve flow can be extremely helpful, but keep in mind that its helpfulness can vary from person to person.

Flow State Trigger 5: Work on One Very Specific Task

When you don’t know what task you’re going to focus on, there’s a high likelihood that you will not enter the flow state.

Be sure to identify what task you’ll focus on in the moment that you’re trying to achieve flow. Additionally, working on too many tasks at once is disruptive to achieving flow.

Ensuring that you have only one task to work on will help you move into flow with greater ease and fewer distractions. 

Flow State Trigger 6: The Task Must Be Challenging Enough, But Not Too Challenging

If you want to experience flow, the task that you are working on must be inspiring enough for your brain to be fully engaged, but not too challenging as this will lead to anxiety, stress and will ultimately prevent you from achieving flow.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book about the idea of the flow state and he encourages people to be in this exact area in order to achieve flow.

Flow State Trigger 7: Have A Clear Outcome or goal

Whenever you lack a goal or outcome that you want to achieve, your mind will have a hard time focusing.

Be sure to decide what you would like to achieve in order to prevent yourself from encountering barriers to flow.

When you have a strong outcome in mind or vision, you are mindful of what distractions can enter your work space and are more likely to avoid them while you work.

Lacking a clear outcome also proves difficult because you will not know when you’re truly done with the task at hand.

Your vision will guide you to focus, and your focus will guide you toward flow.

Flow State Trigger 8: Strategically Consume Caffeine

Chris Bailey, the author of Hyper Focus, wrote that mindfully consuming caffeine can help you concentrate on your work and enhance your ability to focus.

Consuming up to 200 milligrams of caffeine per day (about 2 cups of coffee) may help you work more diligently, for longer periods of time and have better short term-memory while working.

All of these characteristics will help you in attaining flow state. Consuming more than 400 milligrams should be avoided because this will increase anxiety and reduce your focus.

Drinking coffee mindfully, such as having a cup right before you wish to practice achieving flow, will help you keep focused before achieving flow.

Additionally, if possible, try to avoid having any caffeine after 5 PM in order to ensure that the quality of your sleep and your focus remain as strong as possible. 

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FAQs on Flow:

Can anyone experience flow?

Yes! Anyone can experience a flow state.

If you are in the right environment and are fully engaged in what you’re doing, you have a high likelihood of experiencing flow.

Making sure that you’re concentrating on the task at hand is one of the most important steps to achieving flow.

How do I enter a flow state?

There are several factors that go into achieving a flow state.

Some of the most important factors are environments, distractions and the nature of the task.

If you’re in an environment that you can be productive in, free from distractions and you thoroughly enjoy what you are doing, then you’re on your way to entering a flow state.

Of note, different factors affect different people when they are about to enter flow.

It’s important to focus on what works for you.

Do I need to be in a certain location in order to experience flow?

While you don’t need to be in a certain location to experience flow, it’s important that you find a space where you feel you will be both relaxed and productive.

Striking this balance is especially important in finding a place where you can achieve some of your best work, which often happens in a flow state. 

Interested in Learning More? Check out these books on Flow:


  • Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), Flow, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The Measurement of Flow in Everyday Life: Towards a Theory of Emergent Motivation. In Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental Perspectives on Motivation. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Geirland, John. Go With the Flow. Wired.
  • Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, Shane J. (2007), 11, Positive Psychology, Sage Publications, Inc.
  • https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenkotler/2014/02/09/flow-states-answers-to-the-three-most-common-questions-about-optimal-performance/#645621f365be

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