You are out running in the park. Instead of your mind thinking about the office tasks on Monday, your attention is focused on the act of running and nothing else. You can feel the ground beneath your feet, the tension in your legs and how you are feeling as you breathe in and out. You are somehow completely focused on this and nothing else seems to matter. Suddenly you notice you have been running for twice as long as usual and you are not even tired.

psychology of flow

You have just experienced flow – zone of high performance. The term “flow” was originally articulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “being completely immersed in an activity”. You can experience flow both during physical activity such as sports or during some form of mental activity like writing or art.

Flow is usually accompanied by some or all of the following:

-Concentration and focus on just one thing
-Unusual clarity of purpose
-A sense of control that the task is difficult but achievable
-Some kind of internal satisfaction, gain or reward
-A sense of relaxation and calm
-Loss of sense of how time has passed

You can experience flow in many ways:

At work

You might experience this when you are completely focused on e.g. writing a report with a tough deadline. The process may start with procrastination and several drafts but as the challenge increases with an approaching deadline, the words start to flow and the report is ready well before you thought it was possible.

In physical activity

Some days you just can’t get the tennis serve right and another day as you face a tougher opponent, you execute every first serve as you have never done before.

During study
You are studying for an exam and you study beyond normal hours until you have reviewed the material twice. When you sit for the exam, you experience an unusual confidence that you are going to do extremely well.

In everyday life

You decide to allocate the morning for just one house chore that you have been ignoring for weeks and when it is done you wonder what the big deal was and why you left it for so long.

The big question of course that everyone is interested in is whether it is possible to turn on flow at will.

Csikszentmihalyi explains in his writing that flow generally happens when there is a challenge and it is just about manageable. If the challenge of the task is too low or too high, flow will not happen.

So the trick seems to be to create a challenge that is just a bit – not too much – outside your normal ability or comfort zone and focus on that and nothing else for a period of time.