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Flow State

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.

The concept of flow state is at first glance, the thing of comic book storylines and superpowers. I mean come on, hyper-awareness and remarkable accuracy? Improved strength and stamina? Clearly this is the stuff of saturday morning cartoons and fictional plotlines, right?

No, Trainwrecks this is in-fact NOT the stuff of fiction. This is a combination of mathematics, biology, timing and dedication. When we see basketball stars doing incredible things on the court we are often witnessing someone in their flow state. Ever wondered how particular people are able to show up and make so much magic happen people literally nickname them for it like Earvin “Magic” Johnson? Johnson spent much of his career achieving and maintaining a state of flow by practicing for hundreds of hours upon hours at playing basketball. Johnson overcame odds within his own life to become an NBA star which gave him reference experiences to build his confidence. Magic Johnson set realistic goals and once he achieved those, he set even higher realistic goals based off the success he drove in his life. Magic Johnson is a man who understands flow state.

Flow state is something we all strive to achieve even though we are often vaguely even aware of what we are actually doing. Nonetheless, the level of focus and hyperawareness unlocked by achieving “flow” is intoxicating when it is felt. The concept of “how did they do that?” moves from fantasy into reality. When I see my fellow martial art students performing routines we must learn, I often observe the varying levels of confidence and practice in comparison from one student to the next. While I will agree there are a number of factors which contribute to the state of “flow,” I cannot reasonably argue one factor to be independently more important than one or the other. Focus, attention to details and a level of familiar function are all factors that commonly contribute.

Literally any function we perform in life can be developed to achieve the psychological theory of flow state. “Flow theory” commonly identifies three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain the flow state.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one’s ability to complete the task at hand.

From my own observations, the biggest hurdle to getting things done let alone achieving flow is the simple decision to show up. Showing up to difficult situations, showing up to competitive activities, showing up to games, showing up to the gym, showing up to an intimidating but otherwise rewarding business opportunity. We often get so hung up on this fantasy of being “really good” at something we talk ourselves out of the fear of failing and we don’t even show up to the wide range of possibilities available.

According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi some of the challenges to staying in flow include states of apathyboredom, and anxiety. Being in a state of apathy is characterized when challenges are low and one’s skill level is low producing a general lack of interest in the task at hand. Boredom is a slightly different state in that it occurs when challenges are low, but one’s skill level exceeds those challenges causing one to seek higher challenges. Lastly, a state of anxiety occurs when challenges are so high that they exceed one’s perceived skill level causing one great distress and uneasiness. These states in general differ from being in a state of flow, in that flow occurs when challenges match one’s skill level. Consequently, Csíkszentmihályi has said, “If challenges are too low, one gets back to flow by increasing them. If challenges are too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”

What this means is the harder we get out there and work smart at something we are motivated about, the better we will become at performing within that skill set. It is kind of simple if we think about it. When we dedicate ourselves to practicing something until we finally get it right, we advance from amateur to dedicated. When we practice something and learn the process so much we not only get it right but rarely get it wrong we advance from dedicated to expert level.

What are some of your experiences in flow state? What are your Trainwreck stories that pushed you up that great big hill? Flow state is not a goal or an environment. It is a process. Once we learn to achieve flow we can learn to maintain it and believe me, that is when the real party begins and I encourage you to share your experiences below.

You’re Welcome. Internet.

External Links:

A&E Television Networks (2004), “Magic Johnson Biography” retrieved from:

Csikszentmihályi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A. (ed.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

Flow State:

This post as well as a lot of things I’ve gotten done today was inspired by:
Assets (feat. The Kemist) by Yellow Claw & Tropkillaz

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