For those of us chasing moments of extreme focus and hyper-productivity, the ultimate state is called the "flow state," as described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1970. However, the state itself has existed throughout human experience, from persistence hunts of hunter-gatherer groups to arenas of warfare, to meditative states experienced through religious rituals. The flow state is characterized by hyper-focus, where you lose the sense of yourself, time slows down or speeds up for you, and you bend the universe to your will. Fast forward to the 21st century, and outside of high-performance sports and the military, flow states are relevant to the everyday worker or even the keyboard warrior. One could argue that with more distractions than ever before, getting into the zone or entering flow states is a vital life skill for everyone.
Nakumura & Csíkszentmihályi (2001) characterised the experience of flow as comprising an intense focus on the present moment, when action merged with awareness, where there is a loss of self-awareness, an innate sense of control over a situation, where you work outside of time and the activity is intrinsically rewarding. Kotler (2021) defines flow as “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” Curiously, through a phenomenon called “transient hypofrontality,” a person in a flow state utilises a smaller portion of their brain, by effectively deactivating the prefrontal cortex; switching from conscious processing to subconscious processing, while also suspending our constant anxieties and self-doubt (Kotler, 2021). To borrow the parlance of Zen Buddhism popularised in some sporting circles, this is called being in a state of zero mind where you are not overthinking your technique, but rather your training manifests itself as instinct and reflex.
Some of what Csíkszentmihályi identified as characteristics of the flow state can be reconsidered as triggers. Kotler (2021) lists these as "complete concentration in the present moment, immediate feedback, clear goals, and the challenge-skills ratio." A starting point is to set clear goals, defining clearly what you are trying to accomplish. Writing down your goals can be helpful. Achieving clarity means distilling goals into achievable "bite-sized" chunks. Consulting with your manager or a colleague to work out your task or the work breakdown for your project can also be helpful. The next step is to establish an immediate feedback mechanism, often a peer, manager, or coach who can provide regular feedback, enabling you to fail fast or correct course regularly.
The next step is to find your challenge skills sweet spot. You don't want to take on something so out of your reach that you don't know where to start, nor do you want to make it so simple that you don't feel challenged to push yourself. The task needs to draw you in, activate your curiosity, arouse your passion, and drive you. Finally, be distraction-free and enter moments of complete concentration on the present moment, often associated with meditative practices. Focusing on the now liberates your mind from past problems or future worries. Social media feeds, email notifications, and calls should be deactivated. There is no multitasking; you work on one task at a time. Allocate and block out distraction-free periods in your day. This ability to focus is then expanded to sessions of focused work that range from 90 to 120 minutes.
However, you are not always going to be in a flow state. Instead, it works more as a cycle of struggle, release, flow, and recovery, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The Flow Cycle
In conclusion, the flow state, characterized by intense focus and hyper-productivity, has existed throughout human experience and is now relevant to the everyday worker in the 21st century. Achieving a flow state can be considered a vital life skill for everyone, especially with the increasing distractions in today's world. The characteristics of the flow state can be reconsidered as triggers, such as setting clear goals, establishing immediate feedback, finding your challenge skills sweet spot, and being distraction-free. However, it's important to recognize that the flow state works as a cycle of struggle, release, flow, and recovery. By understanding and incorporating these principles, individuals can maximize their productivity and achieve a state of optimal consciousness.
Kotler, S. (2021). The art of impossible: a peak performance primer (First edition.). New York, NY.
Nakamura J, Csikszentmihályi M (20 December 2001). "Flow Theory and Research". In Snyder CR, Lopez SJ (eds.). Handbook of Positive Psychology. Oxford University Press. pp. 195–206. ISBN 978-0-19-803094-2. Retrieved 20 November 2013.