Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in your work that, hours later, you’ve been shocked to discover you’ve missed your lunch break? Maybe you’ve had a conversation with a good friend, suddenly realizing that the sun has come up. Or, maybe you’ve gone for a run and realized that, this time, every step feels effortless. If so, you’ve experienced the flow state.
Everybody has experienced flow at some point in their lives — it’s the condition of being “in the zone,” where you become so engrossed in a task that you lose your awareness of your surroundings and of the passage of time.
Identified by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, flow occurs when an individual is engaged in a task that has just the right amount of challenge for the individual’s level of skill. Too little challenge, and the task seems boring. Too much challenge, and it seems stressful. But there’s a sweet spot.
According to Csíkszentmihályi’s research, the human nervous system can only process about 110 bits of information per second. When all of that processing power is taken up by the task at hand, there’s no room left for an individual to maintain their sense of self. The result is an intense concentration on the present, a merger of action and awareness, a loss of self-consciousness, a sense of control, a distortion of time, and a sensation that the task is intrinsically rewarding — in other words, flow.
Obviously, flow is a desirable state of mind. But unfortunately, you can’t just turn it on like a switch. According to author and co-founder of the Flow Genome Project Steven Kotler, the idea that you can be either “in” or “out” of the flow state is an out-of-date belief.
“When people want more flow in their lives, the number one thing we can tell them is that there is a flow cycle,” he says in his Big Think+ video. “What we now know is that flow is a four-part cycle, and you have to move through all four parts of the cycle before you can return to the flow state itself.” According to Kotler, these four phases consists of struggle, release, flow, and recovery.
Become smarter faster through flow
The benefits of regularly entering the flow state are abundant. First, the flow state is inherently enjoyable, and it’s good for your mental health. People who experience the flow state frequently have a lesser likelihood of being depressed or anxious, and numerous studies have confirmed that flow increases positive affect, a term psychologists use to describe the experience of feeling or emotion.
But its benefits aren’t limited to just feeling better and enjoying your work more. Flow has been shown to be correlated with higher performance in a wide range of tasks. In chess, music, sports, visual arts, writing, and other tasks, higher measures of the flow state accompanied higher quality performances. It’s also been linked to greater scientific and artistic creativity. In fact, the absence of self-consciousness in this state means that creators in the flow can be surprised by the very product they’re in the midst of creating.
It’s easy to see how becoming better at tapping into flow at work and in life could serve as something of a superpower. It’s a quality that many top performers share, and for individuals who want to become smarter faster, it’s an indispensable tool.