How To Get Into A Flow State

8 essential ingredients for more magical experiences.

Learning how to achieve flow state is a great way of accomplishing your goals while having fun. It’s also hypnotic.

But first what is flow state?

In Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, Hungarian-American scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines this state as:

Concentration is so intense that no attention is left over to think about anything irrelevant or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.

The good news is you don’t need to become a scientist to tap into this state. Like many, I found a state of flow while writing, working out and working on challenging projects at work without interruption.

These days, I spend an hour or two in pursuit of a flow state while listening to ambient music or noise so I don’t get distracted.

I’m often happiest when I’m immersed in one single task like editing a manuscript or embarking on a long training run. In this state, seeing real measurable progress toward an outcome I can influence feels reassuring and affirmative.

I’d love to be able to extend a state of flow throughout the entire day, but it becomes tiring. Still, anyone can tap into flow state for an hour or two each day and work on what matters most.

It’s kind of like baking a cake; you need the right ingredients.


1. Zero Interruptions

If you’re working on a task and get interrupted, it takes up to 23 minutes to refocus.

I’ve got three small children, including an eighteen-month-old, so cultivating zero interruptions to write is difficult and not always a good idea.

I either get up before the kids or work when they leave for school. I also rely on noise-cancelling headphones and listen to ambient music without lyrics, such as “Rainfall” by Joe Baker, or other ambient albums and tracks suggested by the Flow State newsletter.

If I can write without interruption for an hour, I can usually get into a state of flow whereby all sense of time and effort fades away, as Csikszentmihalyi prescribes. This state lasts between 30 and 120 minutes. After that, I either need to take a bathroom break or stretch my legs.


2. A Hard But Manageable Task

A few years ago, the walls inside our house were chipped and covered with little fingerprints from the kids. I’d more free time than money, so I decided on a whim to paint the downstairs walls.

I hate DIY, and at first, I felt overwhelmed by the variety of paints, brushes and tools to choose from, to say nothing of the preparatory work that goes into painting a house. I know some would find this DIY task easy, but on day one, I felt like I’d taken on more than I could manage.

By day two, I remember thinking, “This isn’t so bad.” On day three, I decided to paint upstairs too.

It’s easy, if hardly rewarding, to pass a few hours checking email, clicking on social media notifications and reading the news. On the other hand, it’s all but impossible to solve a complicated javascript challenge without help if you’ve never learned to code. So pick a single task (personal or professional) that lies a little outside of your comfort zone.


3. Deep Concentration

If you want to concentrate for an extended period, it’ll help if you slept well, ate and don’t have major worries on your mind. The Pomodoro Technique works well for cultivating blocks of deep concentration.

Deep concentration comes more easily in quiet environments where you have all the tools and information you need to get to work.

You should be able to work on a single task for at least 60 minutes without having to stop because you need to talk to somebody, go to a meeting or multitask.

If, like me, you have a job or a large family, you’re probably going to have to be pretty creative about how you structure your day. Context-switching, like stopping to check email or attend to a minor household drama, will ruin the cake.


4. A Clear Goal

Usually, I try to hit a target word count or finish an article while cultivating a state of flow. If I’m training, I aim to run five or ten miles or complete a certain amount of lifts in the gym. I track my progress using a word count tracker or a spreadsheet listing my articles, and I use a GPS watch and an app to track my miles or lifts in the gym.

What do you want to achieve during a state of flow, and how much is possible in 30, 60 or 90 minutes? Whatever your answer, consider how you can track progress toward this mini-goal so you compare today’s session against yesterday’s.

Witnessing progress, or watching the cake rise, is fun.


5. Immediate Feedback

When your session ends or a time sounds, can you track your progress? The online coding platform Codecademy gamifies acquiring this skill. It rewards students with badges and rewards when they complete a track or a challenge.

I don’t always hit my ideal word count, finish a run as quickly as I’d like or hit all my lifts. I use this information to adjust the following day. Perhaps I need a longer break, more sleep or a more realistic goal.

Consider if you rely on a digital tool for feedback — like a fitness tracker or spreadsheet totalling the day’s output — or if you need to ask a colleague or coach for help.


6. Deep, Effortless Involvement

Ideally, the project at hand should feel immersive. For example, if you’re enjoying a long conversation with a good friend, you’re probably not stopping to check the time or catch up on what’s trending on Twitter.

But what if you’re working by yourself? Well, shuffling the chair, looking out the window or getting up to brew more coffee are the hallmarks of distraction rather than immersion. Similarly, feeling rushed and under pressure won’t help.

I rely on a few tools to prompt immersion. Check out the Flow State newsletter and this free album of ambient rainfall by Joe Baker. Like other writers I know, I tried listening to music with lyrics while working, but this distracts from whatever I’m focused on.


7. Control Over Your Actions

Consider practicing back-squats at the gym. A lifter will rack the barbell and load it with weights. Assuming their technique is okay, they’ll either hit or miss the lift. If they hit it, the lifter can load more weights onto the bar. If they miss it, they’ll ideally reduce the amount of weights on the barbell, try again or end their session.

Showing up consistently will enable lifters to achieve that back-squat eventually, and that’s something any lifter can control.

I like writing as a task where I’ve control over actions. It’s me alone with the screen or notepad. I can press a button or move a pen across the page and watch the words come out. I can also pick an easy task and load the barbell or make it more challenging.


8. Concern For The Self Disappears

Much like with meditation, it takes a few minutes for the mind to settle and external worries to fade. It’s all but impossible to get into a state of flow if you’re tired, hungover, stressed or arguing with someone. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Occasionally, I get mild migraines if I’ve been working too hard. The last time this happened, I tried to push through on a work project because of a deadline. Even though painkillers numbed the migraine, I found it difficult to concentrate, and the quality of my work dropped off. So, I gave up until the migraine passed.


Cultivate Flow State Today

Learning how to achieve flow state, like baking a cake, is part art, part science. With practice and a little rigor, you can apply the right ingredients and cultivate flow state at will for an hour or two each day.


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