The Anatomy of Flow States

A flow state is a zone of consciousness in which someone is fully immersed in the task they're performing. It results in an incredible dopamine rush for the performer and a deep love for the activity that brought it. Ever since it was discovered, flow is widely considered among the peak experiences your consciousness can attain. It's a beautiful mental state that provides a reliable source of joy to an otherwise challenging and volatile life. 

What Does Flow Come From?

It comes from any activity or skill where progression requires your attention and proactive action. Besides that, the activities that bring about flow are wide-ranging in both the physical and mental sphere, although the best forms come from a combination of the two.

Mihaly Csikszentmihályi coined the term in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (affiliate) published in 1990. His theory was that flow is the greatest level of intrinsic motivation-the highest form of reward that is experienced from within. Everyone has felt this level of immersion and no doubt, the satisfaction that comes out of it.

Fun fact: The name flow came from Mihaly's research subjects. Many of them explained the experience with the metaphor of a water current carrying them along a stream.

In 2001, Csikszentmihályi alongside a behavioral psychologist, Jeanne Nakamura wrote an article that outlined the six components that generate the experience of flow:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one's subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding

A range of activities might produce any sequence of these feelings but they all have to be present for it to be counted as flow. 

How Does One Obtain Flow?

The surprising thing about flow state is it's within our control to experience. Most people think that flow is triggered by performing an activity they love, but after further research, the mechanics resemble more of a turntable of dials that can be tuned to create conditions where flow is probable. The two major dials, that largely decide our interest and ability to reach flow in any circumstance, are level of difficulty and personal competency (skill level). The board has a few minor dials to tune attitude, attention, environment, and timeframe however they can be overridden if the larger ones are tuned just right.  

The key is, these dials need to be tuned to align well with each other to set the stage for flow. One vital thing to note is that if your interest level for the given activity is low, then the minor dials have a larger role. If you're excited about the activity already, then it's primarily about tuning the major dials. 

If your interest level for the given activity is extremely low, then you may need help getting started before you can attain any level of flow, so start here. In this article, we're sticking to achieving flow for tasks that you're already interested in. 

Tuning The Majors

“If you want to trigger flow, the challenge should be 4 percent greater than the skills.” - Steven Kotler

There are simple parameters to discover flows' sweet spot. The graph below is a representation of fine-tuning the two major dials, it was first published by Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and Jeanne Nakamura, then made famous in 2014 by Steven Kotler, in his book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (affiliate).

If you're excited about an activity, there are only two intrinsic reasons why you would quit (intrinsic - not from any external responsibilities, but losing interest from within). During your practice and growth, you can leave from frustration due to adversity or from boredom. Discovering the sweet spot comes from two factors:

  1. Having an honest assessment of your competency (skillset) in the given activity. 
  2. Creating a challenge that stretches your ability but isn't so hard that it crushes your current skillset. 

Being honest in your assessment of your skill level is vital. Once you have an accurate assessment, you can begin setting the conditions just right for you to experience flow in each practice session. A good practice then becomes a perfect mix of these conditions which results in flow. This will make it easier to bring you back to that activity daily. It will also give you something you look forward to every day. Don't think flow is only for the experts, it can be obtained incredibly early on in the developmental stages of whatever activity you wish.

When you start, you may need trial and error to gain enough feedback to make an honest assessment of your skill level but this shouldn't stop you from testing yourself. Don't shy away from risk and vulnerability as long as you embrace the feedback, it will lead to achieving flow quickly. 

Final Thoughts

I believe flow is essential to a fulfilling life and I also believe the happiest people are those that have aligned their careers (and lives) with activities that produce flow. In my own experience, I only realized the power of flow to my overall well-being, after starting a new activity (jiu-jitsu). Before this realization, I was always looking for passion and purpose in my career. Something that I was in love with but would also make me rich. Most self-help advice out there today only feeds into this narrative. However, the facts are achieving a flow state makes us incredibly happy over the long term, and instead of spending so much time seeking out an ever-mysterious and rarely found passion and purpose, we can instead focus our effort on creating conditions in our life on which we feel flow. Nothing will ever be so perfect to live up to our criteria for a passion and purpose but if we start by seeking activities where flow exists, passion and purpose might just flow from them. Excuse the pun.

Finally, if you're unable to shift your career into a position where you feel flow, it's not the end of the world. You don't need flow to know you're providing for the world and your family but you should find spots to experience flow in your life. It will only improve your life and is vital to maintaining health and balance. If you happen to discover a skill that pays money and offers flow, then focus your attention on it. Let the rest fall into place. At least, that is something I've discovered and I'm investing in myself with writing... and this piece. Hope you enjoyed it. 

I'll leave you with two quotes from Kotler's book that I found to be good advice on flow. Both Kotler and Csikszentmihályi's books are great and I highly recommend them (the links above are affiliated). 

“And the dark night of flow is an issue that society has not made particularly easy to handle. How many people have stopped playing guitar, writing poetry, or painting watercolors—activities packed with flow triggers—because these are also activities that do not squarely fit into culturally acceptable responsibility categories like “career” or “children”? How many, now grown up and done with childish things, have put away the surfboard, the skateboard, the whatever? How many have made the mistake of conflating the value of the vehicle that leads us to an experience (the surfboard, etc.) with the value of the experience itself (the flow state)?” - Steven Kotler

“Scientists who study human motivation have lately learned that after basic survival needs have been met, the combination of autonomy (the desire to direct your own life), mastery (the desire to learn, explore, and be creative), and purpose (the desire to matter, to contribute to the world) are our most powerful intrinsic drivers—the three things that motivate us most. All three are deeply woven through the fabric of flow.” - Steven Kotler

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