Have you ever heard of someone being in a state of “flow”? You may have heard it used to describe the state of a professional athlete, or perhaps a dedicated student. But what does it really mean?
Flow occurs when a person’s challenges and skills are appropriately matched. It’s linked to an optimal state of development and functioning. Neuroimaging shows better controlled and more efficient attention that occurs during flow, even though it may feel “effortless”. On the contrary, boredom occurs when the challenges are too easy compared to one’s skills; and anxiety occurs when the demands increasingly exceed one’s capacities for action.
Under flow conditions, a person can be described as “in the zone”. For instance, while writing a paper, your mind has psychologically reached the point where your challenges and skills are matched to proportion, and you feel you’re able to fully immerse yourself in the writing process, things almost seem to just “come to you”, and you feel like thoughts are naturally flowing to you.
Similarly, an athlete may reach a state of flow when their physical challenges appear to meet their level of skill. The work doesn’t feel easy, nor overwhelmingly hard, but provides the right amount of challenge to feel an immense amount of satisfaction and enjoyment out of the activity. Again, athletes may be described as being “in the zone”, fully immersed into their sport, and things may just “feel right”, like they’re “on top of their game”.
Reaching a state of flow, can often be described as having the following characteristics:
- Intense focus and concentration on what one is doing in the moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness, (ie. loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor)
- A sense that one can control one’s actions
- A sense that time has passed faster than normal
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
Researchers think that a mindful, non-judgmental approach may be necessary for flow to occur. In other words, certain personality traits may be associated with a greater ability to achieve flow or quality flow, such as curiosity, persistence, and low self-centeredness to name a few. That’s not to say that if you don’t identify with these traits you won’t ever reach flow. The environment you’re in and the way you approach things can also influence your ability to reach flow.
To become more engaged with daily life, perhaps one can try finding and shaping activities and environments that are more conducive to experiencing flow; or identifying personal characteristics and attentional skills that can be tweaked to make flow more likely. A great place to start is choosing activities that you’re really interested in, as it’s essentially a “pre-requisite” for the appearance of flow.
So the next time, you feel like you’re “in the zone” during an activity, you’re actually in a “state of flow”.