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Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow

States of mind


In a recent comment to my post Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated, Kaizan said, “I think the concept of flow as Csikszentmihalyi describes it is fantastic, but I didn’t really follow him as to how I was meant to apply it to my life.” It’s a good point: psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched and depicted flow beautifully, but actually finding flow takes some work. Here, based on what I know about flow so far and on my own flow experiences, is a starter “how to” list for getting into flow.

First, not every activity should be done in flow. Flow requires being able to concentrate on one particular task or related group of tasks for a substantial period of time without having to switch gears. This can happen alone or with other people, but if anyone or anything is going to need to pull your attention away from the task–ringing phones, kids needing help with homework, pets needing to be let out–it will tend to disrupt flow. That doesn’t mean a person can’t have a phone, kids, or pets, just that whenever there are potential distractions, getting into flow means making sure as well as you can that distractions are taken care of: the kids have someone else to go to, the dog has already been out, and there are no telephone calls you’ll need to take, for instance.

Flow also requires that you know what you’re doing. It’s a balance between control and challenge: if you’re just barely getting a grip on a new skill, you won’t have the control you need. That doesn’t mean you can’t get into a flow state when learning or practicing, but the ways I know of to do that are either 1) mastering the basics first, or 2) getting into flow about learning, not about the activity itself. For instance, if you’re just starting out with guitar, you could conceivably get into flow in terms of learning chord patterns if you have good learning skills, but you wouldn’t be able to immediately get into flow with actually playing the guitar.

Experiencing flow also means needing to carefully set clear goals that provide a challenge. Even thoroughly washing dishes before a deadline, believe it or not, works as one of these kinds of goals: washing dishes well but quickly is a challenge, and the ticking clock makes your goal clear and also provides another essential element:

Feedback. You need to be able to know how you’re doing as you proceed. This may be as simple as dishes washed, whether or not you’re playing the music as written, or seeing the wall you’re framing fit perfectly into the space allotted for it. This feedback needs to be immediate, something you’re getting in real time. Any activity that can’t provide that in-the-moment feeling of “Wow, this is going great!” probably can’t be done in flow.

That’s it. Surprisingly, the task being doesn’t have to be something you would usually consider fun. You don’t have to be a world-class expert at it, and you don’t necessarily need complete peace and quiet. Flow can be achieved filing papers, making a sales presentation, playing “Fur Elise” on the piano, sketching, vacuuming, teaching, brainstorming, organizing … or anything else that meets the following simple requirements: you are able to focus on it; you have a clear goal; it’s challenging yet within your abilities; you’ve already learned the basics; and you can see how you’re doing as you go.

So not everything can be done in flow–but then, not everything should be: sometimes being more responsive, relaxed, mindful, open, or social is called for instead. But as an element of a healthy lifestyle, flow provides an unmatched opportunity to operate at the our highest level while enjoying every minute.

In future posts, I’ll be following up with some descriptions of my own flow experiences, some information about applying flow to different kinds of activities, and possibly an interview or two about other people’s flow experiences.

Photo by Jim Natale



  1. Mike Munsil  •  Aug 17, 2009 @8:57 am

    Liberty Hall amply demonstrates the concept of flow. We use it to better our writing.

    Regarding your 3 main points:

    1) Skill level above the basics – LH as to be looked for, and that usually happens when beginning writers are unsatisfied with beginners’ forums. I’ve also created a minor challenge to entry that requires at least a minimal level of commitment and certainty on the part of the applicant, or they don’t get in.

    2) Clear Goal and Challenge – Write a story in 90 minutes flat! We’re all about challenges! This last weekend was our 200th consecutive flash challenge. (Flash challenge=write a complete story in 90 minutes from a prompt)

    3) Feedback – entrants into a Flash challenge are required to provide feedback on others’ stories, within 2 days.

  2. Luc  •  Aug 17, 2009 @9:14 am

    Mike, thanks for posting that information. There are some great tools on that site.

    About the feedback part, while I think that the kind of feedback a person gets from others reading the story after it’s written is a powerful and important tool for writers, the kind of feedback that’s needed for flow, to the best of my understanding, is moment-to-moment feedback while you’re doing the activity. Offhand, the only way I know of for writers to get that is to have developed their internal sense of what makes a good piece well enough that they are engaged by their own piece as they write it. Feedback after writing can help develop this sense more keenly, I suspect.

  3. Shirls  •  Aug 17, 2009 @2:46 pm

    Luc, would you say this is the same as getting in “the zone”? Usually only experienced by me in the month of November when doing Nanowrimo and no-one dares interrupt me if I’m writing. I never thought of applying it to mundane things: that’s an interesting concept.

  4. Luc  •  Aug 17, 2009 @3:15 pm

    Hi Shirls,

    Yes, everything I’ve read and heard about flow fits very well with experiences I’ve had of being in the zone where I get a ton of writing done. The interruption thing seems to be a major issue. I think if I had the option of turning off the outside world whenever I liked, I’d be in flow quite a lot, although I don’t know that I’d necessarily choose to be that cut off even if I weren’t. I’m trying to determine if there are things that can be done to get into and stay in flow despite interruptions, but so far I have no definite information on that.

    Do you do anything differently for Nanowrimo (that’s National Novel Writing Month for anyone who hasn’t heard of it already) other than letting people know you need to work undisturbed?


  5. Guy Stewart  •  Aug 18, 2009 @8:11 am

    GREAT subject — absolutely follow up on this!

    As an aside, perhaps you could solicit the “in-the-flow” experiences of some of your readers and have a couple of “guest” spots on the subject; then link them all together and archive the whole thing. One “limit” might be to ask that the sharer provide an article, reference, aphorism or quote that “inspired” them to seek flow or that illuminated the experience. That way, your data base on flow will grow as well as anecdotal evidence.

  6. Luc  •  Aug 18, 2009 @9:30 am

    Thanks, Guy. I’m pretty fascinated by this subject, too. I’ve started to find some people to interview on the subject. One of the interesting things is that flow is something that many people (everyone?) gets into on at least an occasional basis without even necessarily having a concept for it, so there are a lot of “natural” flow experiences we can talk about in addition to the ones we create on purpose.

  7. Shirls  •  Aug 20, 2009 @5:01 am

    Luc, being in the flow when I do Nanowrimo makes me a totally different person from the accomodating, kind person I habually am. I say no to requests for my time, refuse invitations and become horribly selfish. I don’t watch TV and banish my beloved audiobooks in the kitchen so I can stay in my own story world. I guess its all about focus and very unpopular it makes me too.!

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