As many others, I have often worked long into the night and until the early morning. Nowadays, it is rarely because I have to. There is rarely a pressure for me to work until 4am or the expectation for that sake. Most often when I sit up late at night, whether in the office, at a hotel room or in my apartment (when I am occasionally at home), it is something else that drives me. Something internal that makes me forget about time and about how I should get more sleep than what is now left of the night.
Since I was little, I have had the experience of being “completely sucked into” certain things I was doing, whether that was drawing (a passion of mine when I was younger) or nowadays when I am working on the growth of our companies. It feels as if time just fast-forwards whilst I am being highly productive. My pen (or the cursor on my computer) leads itself.
Not until a few years ago, have my interest in psychology led me onto the phenomenon of flow or flow state. I am sure most people have experienced this highly productive state, even without being aware that there was a term for it. As with so many other things, once I got a term for it, it becomes “a thing” and once it is a thing, it became something that I can pursue and explore further.
I will use this post to share some of the insights I got from researching about flow state, particularly on how to reach it (which seems to lack research) and what the consequences are for the person experiencing it.
Flow state, the quick background, and the consequences
Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term flow in his book Flow – The Psychology Optimal Experience – Steps Toward Enhancing The Quality Of Life. He describes flow as being “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
The consequences of being in a flow state are predominantly positive. The effect of flow state comes in one or more of the following three forms:
- Affective form – i.e. related to the intensity of arousal or motivation derived from fulfilling the task
- Cognitive form – i.e. mental abilities and processes related to knowledge such as problem solving, comprehension, memory etc.
- Physiological form – i.e. the full concentration of all body functions to the given activity (have you ever wondered why many top athletes perform best under pressure?)
All of which can influence the quality of your output positively both during and immediately after the flow state. While the increased quality of output could be a motivation for reaching flow state in itself, the feeling of being in flow is by many described as being so intoxicating that it becomes the main reason people want to reach flow.
In his TED talk, Professor Csikszentmihalyi emphasises an interview with a successful American composer describing the feeling of flow state as: “[He doesn’t need external input to compose], he needs just a piece of paper where he can put down little marks, and as he does that, he can imagine sounds that had not existed before in that particular combination. So once he gets to that point of beginning to create […] a new reality; a moment of ecstasy. He enters a different reality. Now he says also that this is so intense an experience that it feels almost as if he didn’t exist.” While the world around you may feel blurry, a flow experience is usually described by:
- Focus and concentration
- A sense of ecstasy
- Great inner clarity
- Believing that the activity is doable
- A sense of serenity
- Intrinsic motivation for completing the task
I am sure that most people have tried this experience of focusing so much on one task that the external world seems to blur.
[The flow state] sounds like a romantic exaggeration, but actually, our nervous system is incapable of processing more than about 110 bits of information per second.
In order to hear me and understand what I am saying, you need to process about 60 bits per second. That is why you cannot hear more than two people. You can’t understand more than two people talking to you. 
The shortage in processing capacity also describes another familiar phenomenon:
When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, [you don’t] have enough attention left over to monitor how [your] body feels, or [your] problems at home. [You] cannot feel even that [you are] hungry or tired. [Your] body disappears, [your] identity disappears from [your] consciousness, because [you do not] have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do something well that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time feel that [you] exist. So existence is temporarily suspended and [you brain] works by itself. 
How to reach flow state
We have all tried reaching flow state at one or more occurrences in the past. Reaching flow state is desirable both when it comes to productivity and joy of working with a challenge. Given the increased quality and quantity of output, there is no doubt that we can benefit from being in flow state in many cases. This leads to the big question: What can we do to reach flow?
How to reach flow state is still a rather unexplored area of research. Scientists have tested the likelihood of reaching flow state in different environments and while there are certain factors that increase the likelihood, some seem to be so basic, that reaching flow state without them is impossible.
- Clear goals
- Immediate feedback
- Skill-demand compatibility
Clear goals and immediate feedback
The first two parts are relatively easy to grasp. The task needs a goal and you have to easily know whether you are progressing or not. It is best if the task has a finite goal, but to my experience, it is also possible to reach flow with a task as long as the desired direction is clear. I have reached flow state in projects where there is no logical ending – i.e. a painter can feel flow, even though the painting may not be “done” at a specific point.
Csikszentmihalyi first described flow as a specific match between the skills of the person and the challenge he faced. If the match is wrong, the feeling will be boredom, relaxation, anxiety or any other of in total seven non-flow states (see diagram). However, in a certain mix of skills and challenge, the flow state can occur. Skills vary from person to person so no single task will allow all people to reach flow state. In the same way, a task that may cause flow today, might not have caused it yesterday and may not cause it tomorrow as your skill level develops over time.
Underlining the importance of matching skills and challenge, a set of researchers made a group of people play the video game Tetris. Three groups got a different challenge level each. The first group got one designed to instil boredom; the second one to instil an overwhelming challenge and the last one to adapt to the skill set of the player. Not surprisingly, the last group experienced the highest degree of involvement in the game.
No silver bullet
Fulfilling all the above preconditions will not necessarily put you in a flow state. The readiness of an individual to reach flow state differs from person to person and some people may not be able to reach it at all. The readiness differs because the potential to control his or her consciousness differs from person to person.
Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness, for some people attention is directed from the outside, by stimuli like external emergencies and the demand of work and family. Others direct their psychic energy guided by goals and values that they have simply taken from their cultural environment without reflection. 
If certain features decrease the likelihood of reaching flow, the big question is how to increase the likelihood.
People who need only a few external cues to represent events in consciousness are more autonomous from the environment. They have a more flexible attention that allows them to restructure experience more easily and therefore to achieve optimal experiences more frequently. 
While it may be difficult to measure if a person is directing their attention predominantly towards internal or external factors, research has isolated a number of traits common in the people who are more likely to experience flow state.
- Internal locus of control – i.e. believe that you can control your own life
- Autonomy orientation – i.e. the degree to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined
- Action orientation – i.e. a proactive as opposed to a reactive personality
9 things you can do to increase the likelihood of flow
With the prerequisite conditions outlined, the big question remains “what can make me more likely to reach flow state?”. Firstly, you need to make sure that you fulfil the requirements explained earlier:
- Ensure a good skill-challenge match. Alternatively, go for something that will challenge your current skill set – e.g. raise the bar
- Have clear goals. You can use sub-goals if the main goal is very large and seems incomprehensible
- Focus solely on the task and avoid interruptions. Shut the outside world off with a noise cancelling headset if your surroundings seem distracting
- Ensure you have enough time. Flow state is rarely reached straight from the start. Make sure you have enough time to reach it
Secondly, you may find some of the following tips useful:
- Be regularly physically active. The state of the psycho-physiological system is more likely to affect the period an individual is able to stay in a state of flow. Multiple people have described the feeling of control and will to action following activities such as running, yoga or martial arts
- Train your ability to focus attention. “Attention is what makes things happen in consciousness”. A common way to train focus of attention is meditation
- Listen to music. Listening to music can help get you in a certain higher mental state enabling flow
- Be creative. Some people describe how being creative stimulates flow. Some of the commonly described ways are through e.g. arts
- Be fresh. Exhaustion, fatigue, or self-regulatory resource depletion is likely to inhibit your readiness to enter a state of flow
What have you done to reach flow state and are there any particular techniques that have worked for you?
Please share your experience in the comments below
-  Engeser, Stefan: Advances in Flow Research
-  Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly: Flow – The Psychology Optimal Experince – Steps Toward Enhancing The Quality Of Life
-  Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly: Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
-  Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly: Flow, the secret of happiness (TED talk)