Flow – the state of optimal performance explained

What is the Flow State? What does Flow mean? Flow has been described in a number of ways and so it is not always clear what people mean by flow and being in flow. Flow is a psychological term that is generally accepted to be a peak mental state where you perform at your best and find the task fulfilling, but in a way that has an added quality about it. This added quality is one of effortlessness.

Others describe it as tapping into a higher power or being congruent, which simply means having all your mental and physical resources pulling in the same direction.

Sustained concentration

Being in flow generally means that you can concentrate on one task for an extended period of time, be highly productive and get more done in any period of time than when in your normal state.

The normal state for most of us is to be thinking about one thing and then quickly losing our focus, or getting distracted. It is said that we lose our concentration every 5 to 10 seconds and keep having to refocus. Most of us live our lives in an environment where there are many stimuli and so it is not surprising that most of us get distracted repeatedly. For example, working in an open plan office is not generally conducive to working effectively as there are people moving around, phones going, printers whirring and that’s before taking into account your own phone, email or other people demanding your attention. The normal state then for many of us is one of trying to remain focused on a task – and working hard at it.

At the end of a day of distraction we can often ask ourselves what we have really accomplished. If we close down our computer at the end of the day to find half written emails, incomplete because we got distracted, or notes on our desk from snatched conversations which we haven’t followed up on, it can feel like we have not been effective at all. Surely there must be an easier way!

Flow State Explained

Optimal experience

Being in flow is that easier way. Whilst the state has been around for a long time, the name hasn’t. It was coined to put a name to the psychology of optimal experience – or put another way, in any given moment it is how to be happy doing what you are doing, how to enjoy it and gain fulfilment from it. The extra added ingredients that make flow optimal rather than merely effective are enjoyment and fulfilment.

The miraculous thing though is that it is possible to access the flow state and gain happiness, enjoyment and fulfilment whilst doing virtually anything! Yes even things that you currently think of as mundane and boring! Wouldn’t that be amazing? To be able to be efficient and effective and fulfilled doing the things that at present you put off and hate doing.

One common example is doing the household chores – cleaning. It can be easy to put them off and build it up in one’s mind as being a big chore, but actually if you were to get into flow and get on with it, you would do it quicker, more effectively, enjoy it and feel satisfied from having done it!

Characteristics of flow

So what are some of the characteristics of the flow state?

Usually there is a clear intention or purpose. The person knows exactly what they want from the situation and this focuses their mind. This is in stark contrast to mindlessly performing a task or even worse thinking how much you dislike it! You cannot get into a flow state by trying not to feel negative about a task, you have to replace it with something else – a purpose. Interestingly the purpose may not be directly related to the task – so you may not have to have a purpose of having a clean house as the purpose behind doing the household chores. The purpose might be to be fully present and experience the task fully, noticing things anew as if it were the first time – this would transform the experience.

Another key characteristic of the flow state is that time seems to stand still or pass more slowly, for example at the end of a task it didn’t feel like a whole hour had passed – looking at the clock surprised you as you didn’t think so much time had elapsed. This was because you were completely involved in the task, absorbed by it and present whilst doing it.

You may well have experienced situations like these, where you had a clear focus and a purpose, you performed a task and time seemed not to be passing at the rate that it actually was – well if so, you were in the flow state. Congratulations, you’ve done it once and you can do it again – all that remains is to work out how to recreate this state for yourself more often.