6 Flow Activities & Training: How to Achieve a Flow State

flow stateWe’ve all heard of being “in the flow” or “in the zone,” especially from those involved in challenging but enjoyable activities that cause them to lose a sense of time, such as sports and creative artistic pursuits.

But let’s face it, probably most of us struggle to maintain focus much of the time. Is there something we too can do to achieve flow?

Yes, there is. In this article, we will explain the flow state of mind, flow activities, examples of flow in action, and how to achieve it. We also discuss training and coaching programs available to help optimize flow in your personal and professional life, and in the lives of your clients.

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What Is a Flow State of Mind?

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was one of the founding fathers of the positive psychology movement and popularized the concept of the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).

The vast amount of research built on his work has explored how the brain changes when entering a flow state in a way that minimizes distraction, maximizes productivity and performance, and eliminates procrastination.

A flow state of mind spontaneously arises when we become immersed in an activity so completely that we lose track of time. It has similarities with mindfulness because it requires focus in the present moment.

However, the defining feature of a flow state of mind is intense experiential involvement in an activity that requires personal effort and skill (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Mindfulness, on the other hand, does not require focused engagement in an activity.

The flow state is achieved when a person’s capacities are challenged by trying to meet a cherished goal. If the task is too easy, apathy and boredom can set in, but if the task is too difficult, anxiety can arise. Both boredom and anxiety are barriers to flow. Any activity that requires high motivation and concentration to enhance enjoyment can facilitate the subjective experience of flow (Bonaiuto et al., 2016).

In 2005, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi interviewed rock climbers, chess players, athletes, and artists to investigate why people choose to perform time-consuming challenging tasks that offer no extrinsic rewards.

Their study reported that participants shared a similar subjective experience they enjoyed so much that they were willing to go to great lengths to experience it again (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005). Several respondents described a “current” (or flow) that carried them along effortlessly during the activity.

While research has primarily focused on the experience of flow within structured activities such as sports, education, and creative pursuits (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2005), flow also contributes to a sense of wellbeing in other areas of life.

For example, Fritz and Avsec (2007) investigated the relationship between experiences of flow in music students and found that flow was an important predictor of subjective emotional wellbeing. Meanwhile, Mills and Fullagar (2008) investigated student engagement in learning and found that highly motivated learners experienced higher levels of flow.

Flow is also important for healthy aging. Research by Payne et al. (2011) found that older adults experience flow when their cognitive capacity is challenged just enough to engage them fully while avoiding anxiety. Examples include solving puzzles or gardening. Flow may be important for cognitive optimization, lifelong education, and the prevention of cognitive decline.

Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi (2009) went on to explain how the flow state includes eight key dimensions. These dimensions describe the optimal conditions for entering the flow state and its characteristics. Let’s look at these in more detail.

8 Optimal conditions for entering the flow state of mind

  1. Challenge–skill balance is a powerful contributor to flow. As mentioned above, if a challenge is too demanding, we can become disheartened and even anxious. Conversely, if a task is too easy, we get bored. When we experience flow, we are actively engaged but not overwhelmed by a challenge (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988).
  2. Clear goals & unambiguous feedback (often from the activity itself) enable the continuous adjustment of our responses to meet the required demands of the task.
  3. Action–awareness merging involves total absorption in the here and now such that the activity becomes second nature.
  4. Concentration on the task at hand is characterized by focused attention that circumvents external and internal distractions.
  5. Sense of control emerges that makes people feel they are unstoppable or like they can achieve anything (Csikszentmihalyi, 1993).
  6. Loss of self-consciousness results in freedom from self-monitoring, which enhances intuitive engagement to help us achieve our goals with aplomb.
  7. Transformation of time distorts our sense of the passage of time while being completely absorbed in the moment. We might experience time slowing down, speeding up, or as completely irrelevant (Hanin, 2000).
  8. Autotelic experiences (from the ancient Greek autós, meaning “self,” and télos, meaning “result/outcome/end”) are performed for their own sake. They are intrinsically motivated behaviors that trigger the flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Take a look at Steve Kotler’s talk for Big Think on the flow state of mind to learn more.

How to enter 'flow state' on command - Big Think

Now that we have explained what the flow state of mind is, let’s discuss some examples of flow in action.

4 Examples of Flow in Action

Examples of flowBelow you will find four examples of flow in action that have been subjects of recent scientific research.

1. Music

Research into the psychology of music has explored how the flow state arises when listening to music and during musical performance (Chirico et al., 2015). While these two musical activities are very different, flow experiences are common to both.

Loepthien and Leipold (2022) found that flow was experienced more often when listening to music rather than performing because performance requires a high level of skill and social appraisal is involved.

Meanwhile, Wrigley and Emmerson (2013) explored flow during musical performance, and Sinnamon et al. (2012) explored musicians’ experience of flow by tracking the peak experiences of music students while performing. Both examined personality differences and their impact on flow while performing, and found that students who were intrinsically motivated to make music experienced flow more frequently and intensely.

Also, one review of the music psychology literature suggested that one of the easiest ways to get into the flow state is by listening to music while exercising, which also boosts endurance (Karageorghis & Priest, 2012).

Importantly, the type of music you listen to also affects your ability to enter the flow state. The Berkeley Wellbeing Institute recommends listening to music free from distracting lyrics to evoke flow. Try the video below.

Above & Beyond - Flow state (continuous mix)

2. Gaming

A flow state can be triggered through video gaming. A study by Klasen et al. (2012) found that the emergence of flow during gaming was because of the balance between the ability of the player and the difficulty of the game, concentration, direct feedback, clear goals, and control over the activity.

Also, game designers Jenova Chen and Nicholas Clark developed a game called “Flow” based on Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory and Chen’s (2007) research on dynamic difficulty adjustment.

Their game involves piloting an aquatic organism through a surreal biosphere where players consume other organisms, evolve, and advance their own organisms. Because of the game’s customized challenge–skill balance, less skilled players reported an increase in control over the gameplay that led to greater immersion in the game, which triggered flow.

A study by Rutrecht et al. (2021) found that playing a game called Thumper using virtual reality headsets induced flow more rapidly than two-dimensional gaming on a screen. The total score obtained by players as an objective measure of player performance was positively correlated with flow states, indicating that the more flow participants experienced, the better their performance.

Immersive online gaming has been reported to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression largely due to the flow state induced. However, these effects require further research (Khoshnoud et al., 2020).

If you want to find out more about how gaming induces the flow state and how flow enhances performance, take a look at this video by e-Athlete Labs.

3 Steps to enter a flow state when gaming (science of flow)

3. Learning

Researchers have found that individuals participate in an activity more fully if they find the activity interesting and engaging (Choi et al., 2007; Guo et al., 2016). Online learning research studies have sought to explore how the gamification of learning can improve learning outcomes by making it more enjoyable and interactive (Breuer & Bente, 2010; Hanus & Fox, 2015; Rawendy et al., 2017).

Gamified learning triggers flow by offering a challenging, goal-oriented activity to teach new skills. It provides each individual with autonomy and control over their learning experience (Michels, 2015).

Research has demonstrated a direct link between increased levels of engagement and the introduction of gamification to online learning (Buckley & Doyle, 2016; Hanus & Fox, 2015).

Meanwhile, a poorly designed learning experience interface can lead to frustration or boredom that precludes flow by undermining engagement and learning (Pilke, 2004). Look at this video by EI design for more on how gamified online learning principles can trigger flow.

6 Killer examples of gamification in eLearning - EI

4. Hobbies

Hobbies are a great example of autotelic (intrinsically rewarding) activities; whether it is art, gaming, dancing, or rock climbing, we all have something we love doing regardless of external rewards.

Taking a break from the mundane to engage in creative activities you find enjoyable can boost self-esteem, increase motivation, and enhance wellbeing (Burt & Atkinson, 2011; van Passel & Eggink, 2013). If you struggle to enjoy your downtime, why not try sketching and painting, learning a craft, taking up photography, or trying your hand at writing?

These are just some activities you can get involved in that can help to induce a flow state. The most important thing is to participate in an activity that suits your needs. Almost any activity you find intrinsically rewarding and that requires full engagement can trigger a flow state (Moneta, 2010).

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Flow Activities: How to Get Into a Flow State

The elimination of distraction and multitasking are crucial for triggering a flow state. The key experts on flow all recommend minimizing technology use and social media scrolling because they are highly distracting and send your brain in multiple directions at once. This is cognitively challenging yet unrewarding (Wilcox & Stephen, 2013).

Distraction is the enemy of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Below is a three-step formula recommended by flow expert Steven Kotler (2021) for getting more flow into your life as a whole. The video guide at the end of this section by organizational psychologist Dr. Benjamin Hardy explains these steps in an audio–visual format.

1. Identify your most enjoyable activity

Choose an activity that you find intrinsically rewarding that you become immersed in, as this is the most likely to trigger the flow state.

Some examples could be cooking, gardening, hiking, running, swimming, gaming, yoga, painting, crafts, and so on. Make sure to carve out enough time. Kotler (2021) recommends at least 90 minutes once or preferably twice a week to immerse yourself in the activity undistracted. This trains your brain toward intrinsic enjoyment and the experience of flow.

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2. Identify your most focused time of day

Engage with your most important tasks during the part of the day when your brain is most alive. Some of us are morning people, and others are night owls. Some are at their best after a quick nap. Pick the time when your ability to focus is optimal. Leave your admin and essential tasks for other times.

Put aside 90 minutes each day to engage with the most important task of the day. Kotler (2021) encourages you to take breaks during this time. When I coach writers (Nash, 2021), I encourage them to take five-minute breaks every 20 to 30 minutes that involve moving away from the desk, such as yoga stretching, making a drink, or doing a small chore.

Remember, refraining from internet surfing during breaks is essential.

3. Choose a daily recovery time

Ensure you have a segment of time every day when you completely detach from work and technology. This is called recovery time (Kotler, 2021). You may do this by spending time with loved ones, watching a movie, walking your dog, or meditating. You might enjoy a combination of these things.

We’re all different, and each of us has different ways of recovering from a busy day. This will help you wind down and sleep well, ensuring you’re primed for the following day.

Again, detaching from the internet during your recovery time is essential. The aim of these three steps is to retrain your brain to enhance focus and optimize performance when flow is required.

If you can reorganize your week and working days to include these three steps, you will start to experience more flow in everyday life. You will enjoy a higher quality of life by being more focused on what’s important to you while minimizing distraction. For more guidance, see Dr Benjamin Hardy’s video below.

How to enter flow state quickly? - Dr. Benjamin Hardy

Flow State Training – Coaching & Courses

Below are three top flow state training and coaching programs worldwide.

1. The Flow Research Collective

The Flow Research Collective was founded by writer, educator, and flow expert Steve Kotler and offers “neuroscience-based training to help you accomplish more, in less time, with greater ease” (Flow Research Collective, n.d., para. 1).

Their training is aimed at businesspeople, leaders, and knowledge workers to help them improve their performance by understanding and triggering flow. The coaching program boasts many famous and high-achieving alumni.

You can read more about them on their website.

2. Flowcode Coaching Academy

Flowcode coaching programs are divided into five main academies: sports, corporate, life coaching, didactics (for teachers), and group fitness.

Founded by sports psychologist Dr. Rick Sessinghaus, the Flowcode Coaching Academy trains coaches and individuals to reach their peak performance using the latest neuroscience on behavioral change. They offer a free seven-day introduction to the Flowcode method to introduce you to the principles of flow.

Learn more about their programs on their website.

3. The Flow Centre

The Flow Centre offers coaching to individuals one-to-one and also training to organizations. You can also train with them to become a flow coach.

They have representatives in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. They especially focus on coaching elite athletes and businesspeople worldwide. Their coaches all have a background in sports, and some in both sports coaching and business.

You can learn more about their programs and services here.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have more free resources on flow and the flow state available at PositivePsychology.com, including the following articles:

In addition, we have these two worksheets available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©:

Exploring Flow Experiences

This is a tool for bringing awareness to the moments of experiencing a flow state. The worksheet describes the key dimensions of the flow state and invites your client to consider any experiences they have had in the past when they have experienced flow. You then explore the specific conditions that triggered flow before planning a flow experience using the next tool.

Creating Flow Experiences

This homework tool helps you design a flow experience with your coaching or therapy client that invites more flow into their lives to increase wellbeing and enhance their quality of life.

First (perhaps using the tool above), ask your client to identify any activities that they have experienced with elements of flow, such as total immersion, losing track of time, a loss of self-consciousness, and high motivation to continue in the activity. Then ask them to identify their top three flow experiences and design one by considering its feasibility and the conditions and skills required to participate and trigger flow.

Regular experiences of flow lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and enhance a client’s capacity to experience flow more often.

17 Productivity & Work Efficiency Exercises

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others become more productive and efficient, this collection contains 17 validated productivity and work efficiency exercises. Use them to help others prioritize better, eliminate time wasters, maximize their personal energy, and more.

A Take-Home Message

The flow state is much coveted by those looking to optimize their performance in a range of contexts, including sports, the performing arts, and business.

It can also strike us on unexpected occasions when we are fully immersed in an enjoyable activity in the present moment, free of time concerns.

However, in our highly distracted 21st-century digitally connected culture, retraining our minds to focus in a distraction-free environment takes conscious effort. I hope you’ll agree that the sense of fulfillment that arises from the flow state means it’s worth making the necessary changes to harness this optimal human experience.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Productivity Exercises for free.

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Comments

What our readers think

  1. Reader

    The tips to get into the state of flow are pedestrian at best. Identify your most enjoyable activity, find most focused time of day, and take rest. Really? You might as well have said, “Find flow in things you find flow in, at a time when flow is possible, and take a break afterwards”.

    Reply
  2. Cath

    Great review and response to Flow States. As a Diversional Therapist the experience of Flow in the context of recreation and leisure is a core theory informing responses to sociopsychobio health experiences.

    Reply

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