Flow is an optimal experience—it’s when we feel and work our best. It’s when hours of time pass by and it seems like it’s only been a minute. It’s when we feel that perfect balance between being challenged and working effortlessly.
When University of Chicago professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi began studying flow in the 1970s, the exact mechanisms at play were largely unidentified. Researchers could see that extreme athletes, mad scientists, and crazed playwrights entered a state of flow when they worked, but no one knew why.
But flow isn’t a black box anymore. Neurobiological researchers now understand the chemicals in our brains during flow, what we can do to induce it, and the things we unwittingly do every day that prevent it from happening.
Some tips to achieve flow include:
1. Don’t Tell Yourself You’re Not ‘in the Zone’
In a state of flow, we exhibit “transient hypofrontality,” which means the prefrontal cortex, which controls higher-level thinking like attention and judgement, slows down. “It’s an efficiency exchange,” says neuroscientist Arne Dietrich. “We’re trading energy usually used for higher cognitive functions for heightened attention and awareness.”
Telling yourself “I’m not in the zone” is a high-level, introspective thought, one that really engages the prefrontal cortex. Turns out, it’s hard to shut off that part of your brain when you’re making it work so hard. This means that getting in your head about whether or not you’re in the “zone” is one of the most harmful things you can do.
“It’s a little bit like trying to fall asleep. The more focused you are on losing yourself in the activity, the less you are able to do it.”
2. Don’t Multitask
Flow is about focus. If you’re doing a million things at once, you don’t have flow. Even talking can have really negative effects on our focus. Turns out, we can only be aware of 126 bits of information per second. Having a conversation at an average level “costs” 40 bits/second. That leaves you with the ability to process a mere 86 bits per second. And if you’re also glancing at your email, you can cut that number in half again.
We cannot follow a conversation and do any other mental task at the same time, like writing a letter, playing chess, or playing tennis. Just decoding what other people are saying, even though apparently an effortless and automated process, interferes with any other task that requires one’s full attention.
3. Challenge Yourself
Norepinephrine is released during flow, and also during the flight-or-flight response when we think we’re in danger. Serotonin is our brain’s feel-good hormone, allowing us to block out our most negative emotions, and dopamine is how the brain rewards itself and the “high” you feel after you’ve achieved something great.
All these are released in a flow state, heightening your focus, while at the same time making you feel good about what you’re accomplishing. This cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones allows your mind to do that, giving you the mental abilities to succeed while simultaneously rewarding you for doing so. However, these hormones won’t release if you’re not challenging yourself.
Here’s the Real Kicker about Flow: It’s Addictive!
Flow begets further flow. It can be exhausting—since it’s an energy exchange—but as countless artists, musicians, and athletes will tell you, it’s worth it. And as you become more practiced, and learn the habits and the triggers, you’ll be better able to achieve it, while understanding what’s preventing you from achieving it. Flow is just around the corner, so long as you’re willing to work for it, and put an end to those bad habits that inhibit it.