What is the flow state?
The idea of the flow state is like what we think of as “being in the zone”. Every step you take follows smoothly after the last one. You act without thinking. Everything is interconnected.
When you’re in the flow state, everything feels easy. Actions just flow naturally after each other.
Flow can happen with pretty much any activity. It can happen with lifting weights, running, reading a book, watching television, playing a video game, playing an instrument, washing the dishes, or just doing work.
Some days I slip easily into a writing flow. I get obsessed with a topic and can write for eight hours straight with barely any rest. I just keep writing. Nothing stops me, and I don’t feel any urge to stop. I get a ton of work done.
One day, I remember getting so passionate about a series of articles I was planning on writing that I wrote for about eleven hours straight. After that, my brain was so fried that I had a fuzzy feeling in my forehead, and I found it hard to concentrate on anything for the remainder of the day.
Other days, I hate writing. I struggle to put in more than fifteen minutes at a time. I have to take a lot of breaks, and find it harder to pay attention and keep on track. I find myself goofing around on social media, reading news sites instead of working, or googling random topics that come into my mind. So it goes.
I’m a huge fan of Taoism, and it's been one of the biggest influences on my personal thinking and philosophy.
Taoism preaches going with the flow, following the state of nature, and being in tune with the universe, among many other things. I recommend picking up the classic Tao Te Ching for an overview of the major concepts, but I also highly recommend the lesser known Book of Chuang Tzu, since it’s highly readable and packed with parables that help explore its ideas in much greater detail.
One Taoist story which has always stuck with me is the story of the archer. As the story goes, two archers are competing to prove who is the best. One is a great shooter when standing still - he can hit targets easily, he has impeccable aim. The other comes in second - he's consistent, but not as precisely accurate.
But a Taoist sage suggests that they try out a different test - they must climb a mountain, stand on the edge of a cliff, and shoot at targets from there. Suddenly, the two shooters are reversed. The first is scared, anxious, his aim becomes terrible. But the second shooter - well, his aim still isn’t perfect, but he’s completely unfazed by his unstable footing. He remains calm and continues to shoot well. Ultimately, the second shooter wins the competition.
I like to think of this as a story about flow. It doesn’t matter if you’re capable of doing good work when conditions are perfect - it matters if you’re able to stick to it, find that flow state, and keep at it consistently. You HAVE to find strategies for coping with distractions, and you have to find ways to maintain that flow.
Consistency beats intensity.
Hell, if anything, that should be the tagline for half of my writing. As I’ve discussed before, mastery of any skill is about the long haul, not the short term sprint. No matter how intense the activity, even the most intense activities (strength training, for example) are about long term thinking.
So how can we master flow? If we could just “turn on” flow whenever we wanted, we’d be superhuman. We’d be able to get everything done easily and without thinking. Of course, it’s not at all that simple.
Chasing Flow State
One important element of flow is that the work or task has to be appropriately structured. Tasks which are “too hard”, or which we can’t easily find solutions for, are likely to be stressful and/or uninteresting.
Imagine if you take a calculus class, and you show up on day 1 to find your teacher handing you the final exam.
Wait a minute, you haven’t learned any calculus yet! Since you have zero actual calculus knowledge, you just can’t do it. You don’t have the skills you need to pass this test. So of course, you’re probably not going to really bother trying to pass. You’d probably just turn in the test uncompleted rather than even attempting to muddle through any of the questions.
And if you didn’t just give up calculus entirely - well, you’d probably go back and go through all the effort of learning calculus in the first place - hopefully with the help of that teacher who tried to mess with you.
Likewise, if something is too easy, you’re not going to be very motivated. Imagine if I was told to write the number 1 over and over again for 10 hours a day - obviously I’d get bored pretty quickly, and look for an alternate solution (like writing a scrap of code to do it for me). But if I was faced with a more appropriately challenging task (like writing a kickass blog post) I’d be more engaged.
Aside from that, easy tasks don’t challenge you. They don’t make you improve. Writing a lot makes me a better writer, but copying out 1’s by rote just makes me better at copying out 1’s. So - if it’s not appropriately challenging, your progress is going to stagnate anyway.
So, to maintain a flow state, one of the most important factors is that it has to be appropriately challenging. It has to be adjusted perfectly to your level of experience. This is why we tend to see progression as a key factor of skill development - slowly adding in difficulty over time so that the challenge of the activity is appropriate for the person involved. Never too much or too little at once. This is seen in exercise as well as in learning new information.
Another important trait of flow is that it has to be engaging. Not only does the task have to be appropriately adjusted to your skill level, but you have to be interested in it. Start talking to me about quantum mechanics and my eyes will glaze over, but start talking to me about barbells or how goofy the Danish language is, and I’ll immediately give you an earful. Ultimately, with tasks that you’re more naturally interested in, you’ll more easily fall into a flow state.
Now here’s an interesting fact: many of the flow states we encounter in our lives are artificial. In fact, most entertainment activities are perfectly designed to flow artificially.
Sports, for example, aren’t perfectly predictable - but they’re designed to be appropriately challenging (we’re playing against another team of human opponents who are at the same theoretical level of skill) and they’re time bound and structured in such a way as to make it easy for the game to flow naturally.
A movie isn’t particularly challenging, but it’s engaging - and it’s typically designed to create a certain kind of action (plot structure), to flow naturally from one event to the next while cutting out all the boring stuff in between.
If I had to watch a movie version of the Transformers where I had to watch all the robots driving around to get to places so that they could fight things, I’d care even less about the series than I do. Instead, the movie cuts out the “boring” parts of the narrative to focus on the important, action-packed ones - creating a better-than-life artificial flow.
Video games are often designed with flow in mind as well. Players are carefully introduced to increasing difficulty and ever more complex mechanics little by little instead of dumping a lot on the player all at once. This gives you the possibility of progressing, mastering the mechanics one by one, and maintaining a steady flow state. Meanwhile, the plot keeps you interested in the characters or events so that you stay engaged.
Entertainment is designed to challenge us in a certain way so that we enjoy it. Compared to the normal stress of our jobs and our lives, having this artificially-created flow can be an easy and enjoyable way to pass time, let stress clear, and keep yourself engaged.
This also explains why we sometimes let our entertainment get the better of us. Video game addicts and tv show addicts are addicted to these things partly because they were intended to be addicting - designed to be as maximally enjoyable as possible. Flow gives entertainment its addictive qualities.
The following diagram should give you an idea of the topics we've just discussed.
Your Flow Checklist
Ultimately, how can we turn flow to act in our favor?
First, we need to understand that flow isn’t always predictable. Like our willpower, the ability to fall into a flow state for our activities increases and decreases over time. This means that we should learn to recognize when we’re flowing. From there, we can try to reverse engineer what makes our flow tick - best practices we can use in our work to maximize our personal flow.
Second we need to make our best efforts to follow our flow. Once we establish best practices for entering flow, repeat them. If you’re in a flow, stick with it for as long as you can so that you can get as much done as possible. If you’re NOT in a flow, learn not to beat yourself up for it - it’s not a personal fault - but instead focus on doing what you can to fall back into it.
For example, I like to light candles when I'm working at my desk. This simple action reminds me that it's time for work, and acts as a signal that helps me get into a state of flow. Likewise, I remember to blow out the candles as a way of signalling that I'm done with my work and that it's time to end my flow.
Third, we need to recognize ways that we can fall into negative flow - getting caught up in television, video games, and other forms of artificial flow which are immediately appealing and can inspire states of flow, but which aren’t beneficial to our long term interests. This is one we all struggle with sometimes - myself included.
Fourth, when you're in negative flow, you need to find ways to disrupt it. Learn to tell yourself no. Learn to stop in a timely manner, rather than ending up sinking hours into something you only wanted to spend a half hour doing.
Fifth, you should recognize that sometimes, it’s not easy to create a natural flow state without the help of someone else. The great thing about having a teacher or coach is that they know your skill level and can provide for you exercises which are appropriately challenging for you.
This means that you can more easily achieve a state of flow versus learning alone - where you’re often left confused and struggling to put together pieces of a skill or knowledge set that you don’t understand. Even textbooks on a topic that you self-teach are infinitely better than just randomly trying to learn associated skills, which will quickly lead to frustration.
Flow is not something that you can master, realistically. But it is something that you can improve. It’s something that you can take into your decision making process. It’s something you can do your best to plan for. Improving flow means improving your productivity, your learning capability, and your exercise performance. Improving flow means living your best life.
- Flow refers to a state of "being in the zone" where you can become fantastically engaged and productive, doing the best work, learning, or performance of your life.
- Flow is closely related to various Taoist concepts, and I highly recommend reading more about Taoism to get some more perspective.
- Flow is easier to achieve when tasks are appropriately challenging, rewarding, productive, and engaging. This means that the aid of a teacher, coach, or mentor can be absolutely indispensable in terms of structuring your work to be maximally "flow friendly".
- Additionally, flow can be a bad thing, if it causes you to get engaged in activities that aren't productive or useful. This includes many forms of entertainment, which are designed to be engaging in order to create artificial flow.
- Learning to use flow more easily is a skill like any other. Use the tips contained in this post to get an idea of how to maximize positive flow and minimize negative flow.