Flow. It’s an experience you don’t really know you’ve had until after it happens. It is an exceptional moment in which you know exactly what we must do, and with harmony, you do it.
The concept of “flow state” is described as complete absorption in a performance. All aspects of the performance are unforced and natural because there is a feeling of energized focus. You are in flow when you are pushing up the final hill of a run or knocking out that last rep of a challenging workout, but it feels effortless. What a wonderful feeling!
Flow was developed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who suggests it happens when you become so completely involved in something that nothing else seems to matter. It’s a feeling of integration in which your physical and mental selves come together and you are at your best.
In one of his books, Finding Flow, Csikszentmihalyi challenges us to use our time doing things that enhance our daily experience, or increase our chance of being in flow. We must be active to enter flow. Being passive and watching TV, using the internet, or relaxing in a bath don’t produce flow experiences.
Playing sports and exercising are ideal pursuits to achieve flow because they require us to use our minds and bodies. They demand a varied level of skill and allow us to work to achieve mastery. There must be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and one’s own perceived ability to reach flow.
For instance, you won’t achieve flow if you are playing tennis against an opponent who is significantly better or worse than you. You must be fairly evenly matched, however, playing against someone who is just slightly better than you is ideal because this challenges you. When successful, you emerge with a bit of technical growth and greater confidence in your abilities.
Another condition necessary for flow is that the activity you are involved in have a clear goal. Winning at tennis or completing a race in a certain time are goals that add direction and structure to the task. In addition, the activity must have clear and immediate feedback that requires you to adjust your performance to maintain the flow state. When running in a race you have feedback both from your body and from where you are in relation to other runners who you want to beat.
Unfortunately, a sense of flow is not easily achieved. When you try to experience it, it is often elusive. You may end up feeling less fulfilled or your performance may suffer because you are anxious and too focused on aspects of your action, while not permitting all the parts to come together in the present moment. Still, research suggests there are strategies you can take that will improve your chances of entering flow. Even if you don’t feel fully immersed and enjoy your experience, these tools will help you live a more excellent life.
Though flow can’t be forced, here are some strategies to help you enter that sweet spot of flow:
- Avoid negative thinking. Low or negative self-perception of your abilities will interfere with achieving a flow state.
- One solution to remedy feeling badly about your skills is to get a coach or take lessons. For example, if you want to lift weights but don’t feel comfortable muscling your way into the weight room with the body builders, work with a personal trainer who can help you set goals, coach you to develop technique, and give you feedback to improve. You’d be surprised how much you can enjoy training once you develop technique and strength—and you might even find your workout fly by as you enter a state of flow.
- Preoccupations of any kind, but especially regarding what people think about you, will inhibit flow. If you’re worried about what you look like, what you’re wearing, or having people judge you, there’s no chance of achieving flow. Obvious solutions are to wear clothes you feel comfortable in, train at a quiet time, or work with a trainer who offers private sessions.
- Eliminate distractions by having a plan for every task you need to accomplish. Apply it to running in a race and this may be as simple as having a pre-race routine in which you know what you’ll wear, what you’ll drink or eat before the race, what music you want to listen to, and how you’re going to get there and away.
- Practice your ability to control your attention and avoid mental barriers to flow. Whether it be worries about the weather on race day, or fear of re-aggravating an injury when training, anxieties will keep you from performing at your best.
- Use meditation or simply say a phrase or mantra to clear your mind before you attempt a challenging task. Spend five minutes focusing on your breath in and out and try to clear out distracting thoughts or worries.
- Consciously focus on your body when training or running. Pay attention to your form, technique, heart rate, breathing, and energy level. Don’t let physical pain overwhelm you. Listen carefully to your coach or trainer’s feedback, but don’t focus on errors or what you’re doing wrong.
- Practice the Japanese principle of Kaizen. Kaizen means “constant and never-ending improvement.” It is a philosophy that small, incremental improvements made consistently will, over the long term, produce large gains.