Overview: Many of you will have heard of ‘flow states’ – that feeling of being in the zone where we are really focused and productive. In this post, I explore some of the things you can do to increase the likelihood of entering a flow state. Reading time ~ 14 minutes.
Back in 2020, I sat down with Lauren, creator and star of the “Like A Boss’ series (which still holds up really well and is worth a look) to talk about how one prepares oneself for the busy periods of the year (for students, it is the period leading into exams).
We covered a lot of territory and you can see the conversation here, but I wanted to focus this blog post on one of the topics we spoke about – finding flow.
Flow is a state first described and researched by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You can watch him talk about the concept here:
Another term to describe the state is being in ‘the zone’.
When someone is in flow, they are intensely focused and concentrated on the task at hand, they become less self-conscious, they feel more in control, they tend to lose time. It is a state of total immersion where the border between the task and one’s awareness disappears.
It is a desirable state for a number of reasons. It is associated with increases in happiness, creativity, productivity, and means a person is more likely to re-engage with the activity in the future.
Sounds just right for study and exam preparation and assignment production right?
So how does one create a flow state?
Although the state of flow has been well described, the mechanics of getting oneself in a state of flow is not as well described.
That being said, there are some things you can put in place to increase the chances of achieving a flow state.
1. Choose activities that you enjoy and/or are meaningful to you
Achieving flow is often described in the context of productivity – i.e. achieving faster or more efficient work. But flow research actually has its origins in understanding happiness. Flow is a state of high wellbeing and contentment and arises when people are immersed in the activities that bring them the most joy and meaning.
Thus trying to achieve flow states when focused on work that may not elicit much enjoyment is a tough context in which to practice getting in flow states. You are better to focus on activities that you enjoy whilst honing your ability to achieve focused states of immersion. Once you can reliably elicit flow states for desired activities, you can start utilising some of the same strategies to achieve focus during important but perhaps less rewarding activities.
For students this means practising flow state elicitation for enjoyable tasks first before applying it to study tasks (well at least the ones that you don’t enjoy as much).
2. Be specific about the task you are sitting down to do
Make sure the task you are sitting down to do is clearly defined – i.e. there is a clear goal and a clear metric of success. So instead of saying “I’m going to study for exams”, you might instead say “I’m going to gather together all the readings for the topic in the one folder and read the first one and make notes”.
Being specific about the task makes it easier to track whether you are succeeding in your efforts. For example, “take notes from Chapter 3” isn’t too bad because it is clear about the content (Chapter 3) and activity (take notes). However you could make this even more specific- “write down the top 10 most interesting facts from Chapter 3”. That contains the content (Chapter 3), the activity (write down) and an end-point (10 facts).
Also, notice that I used the term ‘task’ instead of ‘tasks’. Flow is harder to achieve when we are attempting to multitask. Pick a single task and dedicate a significant block of time (e.g. 40 minutes) to working on that task alone.
3. Carve up bigger tasks into more achievable chunks
Flow is typically achieved when doing tasks that are just at the edge of one’s abilities. If the task is too easy, you lose interest. If the task is too difficult you might get discouraged. You need to try and match the difficulty of the task to your current skill level.
In practice this generally means breaking up big overwhelming tasks (e.g. ‘study for exams’) into more achievable chunks. This is closely related to the “be specific…” component described above.
So “study for the psychology exam” ends up becoming a coordinated set of small tasks:
- Chapter 7 – notes and flashcards
- Chapter 10 – notes and flashcards
- Study group – testing each other on Chapter 3
This is a really good strategy to remember when you are sitting down to a task and feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of it. Remind yourself to carve off a manageable chunk first to get started.
4. Ensure there is some system of feedback involved
Feedback allows us to see that we are making progress. It can also help us adjust our efforts if the feedback suggests we are going off path.
Not all tasks support easy feedback. But even just seeing words on a page, lines on an artwork, ✔ on a to-do list, photos of objects made can help quantify our output and provide indications of progress.
Study is generally well suited to embedding feedback. You can track which readings you’ve done, self-test on multiple-choice, prepare flash cards, count words etc.
Essentially you are after some system, no matter how simple, to show in real-time that you are moving forward on the task.
5. Work in biological peak times
Chronotypes are variations between individuals in their patterns of rest and wakefulness. ‘Morning larks’ are most alert in the morning. ‘Night owls’ are most alert in the evenings. You’ve probably noticed differences in yourself across the day as to when you are most/least alert.
Entering into flow states is likely to be easier at times of the day when we are most alert, so you might want to focus your flow experiments during times of highest alertness.
For me that is the morning. I find it easier to do extended periods of immersed work in the first half of the day, with my capacity fading into the evening.
When are you at your most alert?
6. Remove distractions
Flow is an intensely focused state in which the rest of the world seems to drop away, including all those pesky thoughts about self. You can assist this process by removing from your work environment the key things that are likely to distract you or bring you back to a state of self-awareness.
- Other people
- Loud, unusual and/or unpredictable sounds
- Social media and other distracting websites
- Mobile phone notifications
- Powerful smells (hopefully not you)
- Multi-tasking (e.g. trying to do other tasks at the same time)
But it also means not being hungry or thirsty or tired or wearing uncomfortable clothes. Flow states are more likely when you are refreshed, well slept and alert.
Essentially you are trying to reduce the number of things that could feasibly take your attention away from the task at hand.
One potential contradiction to this might be music/sound. Some people find some kinds of music/background sounds to help with concentration. I use BrainFM which I find to be quite helpful for creating a relatively relaxed state of focus. It is hard to say if that is a placebo effect or a genuine modulation of brainwaves.
7. Try to elicit a positive mood going into the task
We generally learn better when in a positive state of mind.
Now, it isn’t always possible to go into one’s studies in a good mood. Our emotions are subject to many forces, some of which are out of our control. And I certainly don’t want people thinking that they can’t work unless they are in a good mood. I get plenty of work done, often in foul moods (as anyone who was around me when I was studying psychology).
But if possible, it is worth trying to elicit a neutral or positive mood state as you head into the task in which you want to achieve flow.
This might involve:
- A brief meditation before starting
- Making yourself a cup of tea or coffee
- Doing a bit of physical activity
- Spending a bit of time in nature or firing up some nature sounds
- Seeing if you can put aside any negative self-talk
- Acknowledging but politely rejecting any
- fears about failure or not being good enough that pop up
- Negative evaluations of the task itself
- Thoughts that you don’t have some control in the situation
- Acknowledging but politely rejecting any
- Some slow breathing exercises
You don’t need to aim for giddy levels of joy. Maybe just a state of calm or readiness or equanimity.
It is worth noting that these mild mood boosts might counter the fact that in the early stages of tackling a difficult task, we are more likely to feel agitated, confused and annoyed (see next point).
8. Push through the struggle phase
In a podcast by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, he described the early stages (15-20 minutes) of a period of focused work as feeling uncomfortable because of the release of certain biochemical associated with arousal and pursuit such as adrenaline and cortisol.
It takes a while before neurotransmitters like dopamine which act more like rewards are present.
In the Studyology program we show students this chart:
It shows that stress levels need to increase significantly before we reach optimal performance levels. Sometimes we interpret those stress sensations as a sign something is wrong, but in fact, its a natural part of the entry into optimal productivity.
9. Emphasise learning over task achievement
Rather than just phrasing tasks as ‘things I need to get done’, try to dig in a little further and think about what that task will actually help you achieve.
This is the difference between saying
“I am going to read Chapter 11 and take notes”
“I am going to read Chapter 11, take some notes and get a firm understanding of liquid dynamics”
Remember, each time you sit down to do a task at University, you are acquiring knowledge and skills that will be important at some point down the track and that make you a smarter and more capable individual.
Often we just view university tasks as something we need to do to get a good grade. And whilst grades are important, they aren’t actually the knowledge and skills we will be using in our life. Remember that
This focus on the bigger picture of what we are learning can make it easier to stick with and get engaged in tasks. We become more mindful of what it is we are learning at a deeper level. We imbue what we are learning with more meaning.
10. Set a timer
Rather than focusing on the time (which can end up being a distraction), simply set yourself a goal of working for a predefined amount of time (I like 40 minutes) and set a timer to go off when that time has elapsed. You can put ‘timer’ into Google search and it will give you a basic timer.
A timer is also a useful reminder to not try and engage with any other activities during the timed period. “For the next 40 minutes, I am going to focus solely on this blog article”.
I’ve heard varying opinions on optimal work times ranging from 20 minutes through to 90 minutes. I tend to err on the side of slightly longer work times, because it often takes 15-20 minutes to really get any early traction on a difficult task, so I tend to organise my work times in blocks of around 60-90 minutes. You may need to experiment to see what works best for you.
11. Practice getting in flow states with enjoyable activities
This is really just a re-iteration of point #1.
I find that I am more likely to achieve flow states when working on stuff that I enjoy versus activities I find a little dry or boring. So it is more likely to happen when I am doing art versus administrative work.
So why not practice trying to achieve the state when doing enjoyable tasks?
Once you get familiar with the psychological state itself, you might then be able to return to it easier with less interesting tasks.
It is the same idea as getting people to practice relaxation techniques regularly, so they get familiar with what it feels like to be ‘relaxed’, and they can more easily return to that state during periods of high distress.
Do you need to be in flow to do good work?
No, you do not, which is good because I don’t think I spend a great deal of time in flow, especially when I am working on tasks that I don’t really enjoy. I tend to spend a lot of time slightly distracted or switching between tasks. I checked my email multiple times whilst writing this blog post.
I believe that flow is a state worth pursuing, but not relentlessly to the detriment of just sitting down and doing the work. There are some days where I (we) just have to accept that I am likely to be easily distracted, but if I keep bringing myself back to the things I need to do, I will still get some good work done. This means you still need to pay attention to allocating sufficient time to getting tasks done. You can’t guarantee that you’ll just be able to drop into a flow state on command.
Flow is not necessary for getting stuff done, but it can increase one’s engagement with work, improve the experience of work and help achieve greater productivity.
How will I know if I have achieved flow?
We don’t tend to be aware we are in a flow state, when we are in it, because much of that self-questioning and self-awareness kinda disappears during a flow state. It is why you don’t see many sports stars loudly exclaiming ‘i’m in the zone!” – such self-awareness would likely indicate the opposite.
We are more likely to realise afterwards that we were in a flow state, when we emerge from an intense period of concentration and focus.
It feels a bit like waking up after a daydream.
This has implications for achieving flow states.
You can’t really just will yourself into a flow state. Instead you need to set up the necessary conditions for a flow state to emerge (see suggestions above) and be open to it happening if it does, but accepting if it doesn’t.
How long does flow last?
This is a bit like ‘how long is a piece of string?’ but I do notice that people often have the perception that a flow state lasts hours and hours. They have an expectation of being able to do a mammoth 8-hour study session without distraction.
In my experience, flow states can range from a few minutes, through to a couple of hours maximum. I tend to be happy if I can have at least a few relatively short (e.g. 30 minutes) flow states throughout the working day.
There is a good student focused flow article over at https://collegeinfogeek.com/flow/
I also like the article over on Zen Habits – 9 Steps to Achieving Flow (and Happiness) in Your Work : zen habits
Also, check out this Harvard article on improving concentration (a related concept) – Tips to improve concentration – Harvard Health
James Clear also writes on improving ‘focus’ – Focus: A Brief Guide on How to Improve Focus and Concentration (jamesclear.com)
Get a virtual co-worker – not someone that you are interacting with, but someone who is, like you, looking to spend the next 50 minutes focused on the job at hand – Stop Procrastinating, Boost Productivity & Get Focused on Work – Focusmate