In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being “in the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
You may have heard this idea celebrated by everyone from startup founders to Navy SEALs - and there’s a good reason for it. Flow is a principle that can be leveraged universally, and continues to withstand the most demanding of environments and applications.
Despite its recent surge of social capital, flow state is an idea that originated back in 1990. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Russian author, coined the term and explained it in exceptional detail in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. [Order it here]
The phenomena of flow is accessible in a narrowly defined region where both our behavior and environment align to trigger a state of hyper-focus.
Everything we choose to do sits somewhere on the spectrum between intense boredom and extreme anxiety. Flow state is accessible in the middle. Flow is brought about when we’re applying ourselves at the limit of our current abilities:
We’re not bored, we’re engaged.
We’re not anxious, we’re challenged.
The longer we spend in flow state, the more our actions compound - we’re also able to incorporate new skills quickly, expand our tolerance for anxiety, and increase our appetite for new challenges.
Struggling to find flow? You can likely pick a reason below:
- Under-challenged (coasting, not taking any risks)
- Over-challenged (stuck, biting off more than you can chew)
- Misaligned (detached, doing something you fundamentally dislike)
How to cultivate flow state?
- Identify the challenges that keep you engaged
- Engineer an environment to experiment with them
- Double down when you feel traction
For context, I can access flow state when working on anything related to Visualize Value. The challenge of articulating an idea in a way that gives it additional depth is extremely satisfying - but it’s built on top of a design skillset I’ve been investing in for a long time. If you asked me to do the same thing with a set of tools I hadn’t spent years working with, it’d be a different story. I’d panic and give up.
Expanding this project to include this newsletter is an example of moving further to the right of the spectrum illustrated above. Slightly out of my comfort zone, but gratifying enough to hold my attention, and help me develop and incorporate new skills, while slowly eliminating irrational fear and doubt that accompanies trying new things. In most cases, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Now, go get yourself in the zone.