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Use the Eight Elements of the ‘Flow State’ to Be More Productive

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You hear a lot about working in a “flow state,” but truly, what the hell does that even mean? At first, it seems like one of those corporate jargon words that gets tossed around, but it’s actually a lot deeper than that. It’s a state of mind that enables you to have that in-the-zone feeling but is also backed up by a whole lot of psychological research.

What is flow theory?

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi came up with this theory in 1970, suggesting a flow state is similar to when someone is floating along, being carried by water: Their brains are working so efficiently they’re just moving straight ahead with no issues, being propelled forward. 

He spent his time interviewing artists and athletes at the top of their game to understand when and how they performed optimally—and how everyday people can tap into a “flow” state, too. He wrote plenty of books on the topic, but the eight main traits of flow that you need to know are below.

The basics of flow theory

Csíkszentmihályi’s work ultimately describes eight clear characteristics of being in flow:

You’re completely concentrated on your task.

You have clarity around goals in your mind and can get immediate feedback.

Time feels like it’s transforming, either speeding up or slowing down.

The work is intrinsically rewarding.

There is a sense of effortlessness or ease.

The work is challenging, but you have the skills for it.

You are not self-conscious; actions and awareness are working together.

You feel you have control over the task.

This might sound familiar if you’re familiar with “deep work,” or Cal Newport’s definition of demanding work done when you’re fully engrossed in it and not distracted. The two concepts are very similar, but to achieve them, there are a few things you need to do. It’s obvious from the list of flow characteristics above that mastery and resources play a big role in whether you can feel you’re in a flow state when working. Obviously, you’ll likely only hit this state if you’re doing something you’re completely prepared for, so don’t aim for it if you’re going to be doing something that requires contributions from other people, resources you don’t have, or skills you don’t possess. 

When you are trying to hit a flow state, plan around when you need to do a major, demanding task. For instance, when planning your 1-3-5 to-do list for the day, your one big task should be one you’re fully prepared and have all the resources for. Keep Carlson’s Law—the idea that any work you attempt to do while distracted will be suboptimal—in mind, too; you can’t work, let alone flow, if you’re being pulled in multiple directions, so schedule the time you’re going to take on your big task to coincide with a time when you have nothing else going on and can give it your full attention. Use timeboxing to allocate this time in your schedule, minute by minute, and, if you can, make your calendar publicly visible so people in your organization know you’re not available.

If you’re working hard on something but don’t feel like you’re achieving any kind of flow state, refer back to the list of characteristics to see what’s missing. Are you distracted? Do you not have the option to get immediate feedback? Are you lacking a necessary resource? Is the work too challenging for your skills or maybe even not challenging enough to keep your attention? Identifying which characteristic you’re lacking most will help you fix the problem and get you closer to flowing your way to major productivity.

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