Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the phrase “flow,” or the flow state, to describe the state of mind in which we are at our happiest. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” he writes in "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience."
When you’re in the flow state, you become impermeable to distractions, lose track of time, and can even lose your sense of self. It’s an amazing feeling. People commonly say flow is one of the most desirable feelings on earth, but it’s also one of the most elusive. It doesn’t have to be, though. Here are five steps you can take to find your flow state.
1. Be mindful.
Practicing mindfulness – being fully aware of and immersed in the present moment – will help prime your mind for the flow state. As mindfulness instructor and clinical psychologist Dr. Mark Basquill explains, mindfulness is a way of “shifting from our constant busy or ‘doing’ mode to ‘being’ mode.” Developing mindfulness doesn’t require a specific time or place. Basquill references the Zen phrase: “Wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” In other words, bring your attention to the present moment, even if the present moment is dull or uncomfortable. You can’t reach an optimized, completely present state of mind like flow if you aren’t paying attention in the first place.
2. Find what you love and do it.
Sounds simple enough, right? When Csikszentmihalyi first started studying flow, it was because he wanted to understand why creative people spent so much time on activities that wouldn’t bring them fame or money but still gave their lives meaning. People who were truly happy – and who tapped into the flow state often – had found an activity that was so enjoyable in itself that they would go to great lengths to continue doing it, regardless of any pay-off. Just as you can’t reach the flow state if you aren’t paying attention, you can’t reach it if you’re apathetic about your work.
3. Become good at what you do.
Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to just find what you love and do it. To tap into the flow state, you also have to become good at it. This isn’t to say you have to be an expert, but as Csikszentmihalyi found in his studies, people who are experienced in their field tap into flow far more easily than those who haven’t put in the time, effort, and practice. As he says in his TED Talk, flow is an “automatic, spontaneous process” which is more likely to happen to “someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.” Time to practice!
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4. Challenge yourself.
In his studies on flow, Csikszentmihalyi measured two things: the amount of skill people felt they had at a certain moment and the amount of challenge they experienced. Here’s what he found: The magic combination for the flow state is when your skills are higher than average and your challenges are higher than average.
In other words, you need to develop a skill, but you also need to push yourself to become even better at it. Don't just sit down and do what you do. Find ways to challenge yourself. As artist and author of "The Artist's Way"Julia Cameron said, "In limits, there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure."
5. Let flow find you.
Understand that something as magic as flow won’t happen all the time. When asked how to tap into flow, Dr. Basquill says he's not sure there’s exactly a “flow state switch” to flip. "Flow states seem to happen to us when passion, the right amount of challenge, and a lot of effort intersect," he says. "When we find something we love, engage in deliberate practice, push ourselves from within, and never let ourselves get bored we make it more likely to experience flow. When we do all that, flow will find us."
In the end, you can set the stage for flow, but what makes it such a fantastic, ecstatic state is just how magically it appears and goes away. Ultimately, the secret of flow is finding what you love, doing it a lot, and being ready for when flow decides to come your way.
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