What does it mean?
Flow has been described in so many different ways that it’s not always clear what people mean by being in flow. Yet we intuitively know when we are, and when we aren’t.
It’s something I’ve been noticing in myself, as for some time I’d been feeling very much ‘out of flow’. Nothing felt right. Life was awkward, I was awkward and out of place. Then, for no apparent reason, something shifted and now I have begun to feel very much back ‘in the flow’. Things began happening so much more easily. I woke up the beauty of life around me again and things just felt right.
So how can we best describe this flow state and how do we go about obtaining it when we don’t have it? One thing’s for sure, it’s more painful to be out of it, than in it.
The normal state for most of us is to think about one thing and then quickly lose our focus or get distracted. As humans we tend to lose our concentration every 5 to 10 seconds and have to refocus. Much of this is down to the fact that most of us live our lives in environments where there are many, many stimuli, so it’s hardly surprising that we tend to get repeatedly distracted.
As an example, when I worked in an open plan office, whilst I found it a fun environment to be in because I love being surrounded by other people, it was utterly distracting. Open plan offices are not generally conducive to working effectively. People move around frequently, their phones ring, printers whirr and that’s before you start even thinking about the noise and distraction of your own phone, email and some of those people demanding your attention. The normal state for many of us in these circumstances is to try and remain focused on one task and work hard to remain in the zone for short periods of time. And at the end of a day of distraction, we can often find ourselves asking what have we really accomplished? It’s the most frustrating feeling, yet we put ourselves in that situation time and time again. If we close down our computer at the end of the day to find half written emails, incomplete notes on our desk from snatched conversations which we haven’t followed up on, it can feel like you’ve spent an entire day being pretty much ineffective.
So what’s the answer to finding our flow?
The miraculous thing though is that it’s possible to access the flow state and gain happiness, enjoyment and fulfilment whilst doing virtually anything, even things that you may think of as mundane and boring. Wouldn’t that be amazing? To access the ability to be efficient and effective and fulfilled doing anything, even chores you put off because you hate doing them. When we’re in flow, we do things quicker, more effectively, enjoy the experience and feel huge satisfaction. The key is to accept the task in hand and not build up a resistance to it. The moment we build up a resistance or deny the presence of something or deny your resistance, is when the difficulty begins.
Characteristics of flow and how to achieve it
So what are some of the characteristics of the flow state?
Flow is generally accepted to be a peak mental state where you tend to perform at your best and find tasks fulfilling in a way that have an added quality about them. This added quality is one of effortlessness. Others may describe it as tapping into a higher power or being congruent, which simply means having all your mental and physical resources pulling in the same direction.
Usually there is a clear intention or purpose. You know exactly what you want from a situation and this focuses your mind. Sounds simple, and is in some cases, but in others, it can actually be pretty difficult to work out.
This is in stark contrast to mindlessly performing a task or even worse thinking how much you dislike it, or worse, fear it. You cannot get into a flow state by trying not to feel negative about a task; you have to replace it with something else – a purpose.
Interestingly the purpose may not be directly related to the task. Rather it might be to be fully present and experience it fully, noticing things anew as if it were the first time. This tends to transform the task in hand – try it, it really works!
Another key characteristic of the flow state is that time seems to stand still or pass more slowly. For example, at the end of a task you look at the clock and feel surprised by how time had elapsed. This is because you’ve been completely immersed, absorbed and present whilst doing it. If you think about it, you’ll realise you’ve experienced situations like these, where you had clear focus and purpose and performed a task where time seemed to stand still. If so, you were in the flow state.
Music can be a great addition to getting ourselves into flow state. Something that inspires you, gets you going, calms you, lifts you up – whatever you need, appropriate for the task in hand.
Environment is also key to getting into flow, or peak state. Ensure you’ve set this up. So if you’re cleaning and want to get into the flow, then perhaps music is called for. If you’re trying to complete a project at work and want to do it whilst in the flow, consider what your environment needs to look like into order to achieve this. Again, music may help, so might going to a quieter room where you can focus. Or perhaps finding a spot outside, if that’s possible.
Once you’ve drawn your attention to the concept of flow and experienced it for yourself a few times, you should find that you can replicate it again and again. It will take practice and focus, just like anything, but once you’ve discovered this way of being, then the old way of doing things will seem, well, just a little archaic.