Time flies when you’re having fun.
I am sure that every once in a while each of us experiences a time when we are so engaged in an activity that the surrounding world does not seem to exist. We are enjoying what we are doing so much that we forget about the passing time and hours feel like seconds. This is how being in flow feels like.
What is flow?
Flow is a state of total immersion in an activity. It is also referred to as ‘being in one’s element’ or ‘being in the zone’. Flow occurs in different situations for different people. Some of us experience flow when we practise sports, some – when we use our creativity to produce a work of art, and others – when we try to solve mathematical problems. But what all these moments have in common is that we use our skills and our energy to the utmost.
When we are in a state of flow our thoughts are focused only on the current activity and we do not waste our energy on thinking about anything else. We don’t think about everyday matters and problems, and can raise above our everyday worries. What is more, we might even forget about our physiological needs; we don’t feel hunger or thirst, and going to the bathroom seems like a waste of time.
How to experience flow?
According to Mihail Csikszentmihalyi*, a psychologist who recognised and named the concept of flow, it is impossible to reach this state without putting any effort. Flow is a reward for taking initiative and for engagement. We experience flow more often when we are actively engaged, not when we spend time on passive activities. So instead of watching sports on TV we should start practising them, or instead of watching adventure films we should search for excitement in real life.
Csikszentmihalyi also thinks that there needs to be the right balance between skills and challenge. Challenge needs to be achievable yet not too easily. If there is too little challenge we soon start to feel bored and unmotivated. For example, some of us might find answering work e-mails extremely unchallenging and therefore will never be ‘in element’ when writing e-mail responses. On the other hand, if there is too much challenge, we feel anxious, frustrated and even defeated. This is how I feel when I try to solve a higher level of sudoku puzzles.
The challenge also needs to involve our skills. We might use the skills that we already have and concentrate all our knowledge and energy on a given task. Or we might expand our existing knowledge and reach another level of know-how.
Examples of flow
I am ‘in the zone’ when I write my blog posts. I really stop paying attention to time and to my needs, and am often surprised when I look at the clock. The other time when I experience flow is when I coach. I love meeting my clients, love the conversations we have, and it happens that we go overtime without even realising it. I can also totally ‘zoom out’ when preparing to coaching sessions; designing activities for my clients, searching for new coaching tools, reading articles or researching put me in my element.
People can experience flow not only when engaged in activities requiring highly developed skills but also when engaged in everyday activities. Some of us will be happiest when cooking, gardening, meeting friends or spending time with a family. Others will be in their element when writing a philosophical essay, giving a presentation at work or preparing a sales report.
What to do to be in flow more often?
If you, like me, would like to experience being in your element more often, try to engage more in activities that you are skilled for and that offer a pleasant outcome. Stay curious and be open to new experiences. Remember that flow is a reward for your engagement, creativity and attention.
If you unsure which activities give you greatest pleasure, start observing yourself. Identify the activities that make you feel accomplished and fulfilled and which give you a lot of energy. Then make sure to assign some time every day for these activities. The more often we experience moments of flow, the happier we feel. No one wants to fall into apathy.
When was the last time you experienced flow? What did you do? How did it feel?
*To find out more about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his concept of flow refer to this TED talk: