We have all likely experienced moments when we lose track of time and become totally absorbed in what we’re doing. It might be as we’re discussing Aristotelian philosophy with a friend, jamming on a guitar in a garage band, coding a website for a client, or playing beach volleyball on a sunny day.
In these instances, we forget about everything else — our stressors, responsibilities, and even our physical needs. All of our attention is fixed firmly on the activity at hand.
This psychological state is known as “flow.” The term was coined by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He studied highly skilled professionals in various fields and discovered that many of them had this experience of losing themselves to the activity they were doing — painting, dancing, playing chess — while at the same time achieving a high level of performance.
Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as a psychological state in which “people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
Aside from being an enjoyable experience, flow affords many benefits as well. Those who regularly experience it tend to feel more satisfaction and happiness in their lives. And when it occurs in the workplace, flow can foster company loyalty as well as higher levels of motivation and productivity.
Yet, it isn’t always evident what types of activities can usher one into a state of flow. Generally, to experience flow the activity you’re doing must be both challenging and something for which we have a certain level of skill.
For example, you’re unlikely to reach flow skiing down a triple black diamond route if you’re just learning how to ski — something like this would be far too difficult. On the other hand, if you’ve been skiing for years, you’re unlikely to experience flow tackling the bunny slopes. Flow occurs when we hit that sweet spot of doing something both enjoyable and difficult-but-not-too-difficult.
So, how can you create opportunities to get lost in a flow state? If your workplace already offers you the chance to reach flow every day, great — but that isn’t the case for everyone. The good news is that you can still “find flow” in your life by regularly engaging in certain hobbies and activities. With that in mind, here are some tips for adding more flow to your life.
Take your interest, personality, and passions into account
Because we each have unique aptitudes, passions, and dispositions, an activity that leads to flow in one person might not do the same for you. That’s why it’s important to seek hobbies or activities that you personally enjoy and for which you are skilled (or for which you can become skilled eventually).
If you like thinking and solving problems, then consider word puzzles or chess. If you are athletic and enjoy the outdoors, consider taking up tennis or rock climbing. Multiple activities can put you in a state of flow — they don’t necessarily have to be related.
The key is to try things that already align well with who you are. Take time to journal about things you have enjoyed doing in the past. Can you identify a theme that underlies all of these activities?
For example, you may find that it isn’t so much physical activity that you enjoy but competing with others. Therefore, joining a soccer club might offer you instances of flow, whereas running around your neighborhood does not. Of course, the very opposite could be true for someone else.
It can be helpful to take certain assessment tests as well as ask others what they think you are good at. Because you are too close to them to see, you might be blind to certain talents or aptitudes that you have — consulting others could point you toward certain hobbies or activities that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Of course, you won’t fully know what types of activities can help you reach flow until you try them. But begin by taking into account your passions, interests, and talents — that will narrow down your options and make for a good starting point.
Be patient and consistent
The truth is that scientists and researchers don’t know exactly why we enter flow. We have a sense of what it feels like and what is occurring in the brain when we do, but it isn’t like we can will ourselves into a flow state whenever we want. It’s something that just, well, happens.
However, we can control certain variables and increase the likelihood that we’ll experience flow. This entails engaging activities that align with our personalities and talents, ensuring our environment is free of distractions, and giving ourselves enough time to settle in and become absorbed in our given activity.
The more you build a routine of doing certain activities or hobbies, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually start to enter flow states when you are practicing them. Of course, if you are really struggling to do an activity or find it downright draining, then it might not be the right activity. In that case, you might need to find something else.
It’s important to give it time and to make sure you are allowing the space to enter flow when you try something new. You won’t reach a flow state if you’re trying to reach a flow state — you’ll have to find an activity that is intrinsically rewarding to you. As long as you are enjoying the activity and feel confident that you can excel at it, then be patient and consistent. Eventually, you’ll likely start to experience flow on a more regular basis.
Seek to grow your skill set
One you have identified activities that you at least somewhat enjoy (even if you haven’t quite experienced flow yet), and feel that you can eventually get good at them (if you’re not already), then keep at it!
Many of the individuals Csikszentmihalyi studied when he discovered flow were world-class artists, performers, and competitors. These people had devoted thousands of hours to mastering their given activity. It appeared that those with mastery of a challenging activity were able to enter flow states more easily.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be a world-class painter or chess player to reach and benefit from flow. Rather, it means that as you get better at something, your likelihood for experiencing flow may increase.
So stick to the activities and hobbies that you’ve identified and build a routine of doing them regularly so that you can get better. For example, you’ll have a better chance of experiencing flow if you commit to playing the guitar a couple times per week instead of only once every two months. An added benefit is that these kinds of hobbies enrich your life and are a great way to prevent burnout.
Who knows? If you commit to engaging a specific activity or hobby to achieve flow long enough you might just be able to turn it into a career. But regardless of where it takes you, the more you “find flow,” the more you will experience feelings of satisfaction and happiness in your life.