Flow is an immersive experience of focused thought, forgotten time, and is absent of self-consciousness (1). The mind acts as an adaptive camera lens, widening and focusing in response to new information. You’re most likely to slip into flow state when success is possible, but not a given. It’s the feeling of potential - that soon you’ll master something new and you might think, “I got this.”
Flow state isn’t just a great experience, it’s a way to increase connection to personal goals, feel more positive and energetic, and offset the burden of self-control (2).
Grow your flow
Before beginning a task, find a way to challenge yourself. What specific thing can you improve on in the next hour? Maybe you can perfect the musicality of a passage on the piano, or challenge yourself to think about a tough math problem in several new ways. Choose goals that are about improving your skills, not about your performance relative to others (3). Set goals that might be just out of reach.
People of the interwebs are always going on about how we live in an age of distraction, bombarded by the beeps and boops of technology, bazillions of advertisements, the faster pace of our lives, and the growing population. Maybe we are more distracted, maybe we aren’t. Either way, we could all benefit from practiced concentration.
Distraction is the enemy of flow state. This experience is something that requires deep mental processing. By splitting attention among tasks, you could be cheating yourself out of an experience that can make your goals more fulfilling and connected to your psychological needs.
But never fear! You can practice concentration skills through meditation and other immersive tasks like reading books made out of paper. Research shows that we process things on paper more deeply than when we read them on screens (4). Treat your concentration ability as a valuable skill that requires maintenance and practice.
Put down your phone, turn off the TV, tell whoever you live with to leave you alone (in a more tactful way, obviously), and tell your pet ferret (probably named Phineas) that fetch will have to wait.
Be patient with yourself, and be consistent. If you’re used to succumbing to distraction, then it will take practice and time to overcome that habit. You also can’t force flow, all you can do is set up your environment and actions to support it. If you practice, trust that flow will happen.
P.S. If any of you are getting a pet ferret, please name it Phineas because that is a seriously awesome name for a ferret, boy or girl.
1. Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K. E., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., Csíkszentmihályi, M., & Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 167-172.
2. Muraven, M., Gagné, M., & Roseman, H. (2008). Helpful self-control: Autonomy support, vitality, and depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 573-585.
3. Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.
Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Bronnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61-68.