Why would you want to get in the Flow?

and 10 ways to tell when you're in it

Get in the flow

If you’re striving to achieve more of the things that matter to you, this Insight – on getting into the ‘Flow’ – could help.

2 to 5 minute read, depending on your speed.

Flow can help you exceed normal limits of work

In another Insight (on busyness), I explored why being somewhat, but not too busy is key to being effective at most things we do.

Research from Yerkes and Dodson (from 1908!) showed, for knowledge workers – as many of us are, that:

  1. If we do too little work, we fail to become effective at the little we do!
  2. As we increase our work levels, our performance quality also rises, but typically, only up to a point.
  3. If we push ourselves beyond that point, our output quality will often fall off.
  4. If we push harder still, perhaps in an attempt to make up for that fall off, we risk a collapse in our performance*

(* That’s called burnout, by the way. It’s a place I’ve been to – and do not recommend!)

It’s also worth noting that peak activity levels vary between people, activities and environments – including the leadership you experience from your manager if you have one.

Who works effectively for a terrible boss? As the saying goes,

People tend to leave bosses, not businesses. 

Now, that’s all good theory in many employed situations, but what’s going on with highly skilled and creative people when they work for very long periods, sometimes into the early hours, apparently without ill effect!

Well, this is the fascinating ‘flow’ phenomenon that I want to explore here.

Flow (often) starts with a purpose

In his excellent book, Drive, Dan Pink suggests that the most attractive work offers us elements of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

By the way, I love to remember these elements by taking the first letter of each to spell AMP which I’m sure you’ll agree is an electrifying acronym 😉

‘Drive’ is one of many books I rate which you can find listed here – in two sections about:

    1. Achieving more – and finding more happiness in life.
    2. Understanding your money and making better decisions about it

Finding (or creating) work with a purpose is really about understanding the benefits you deliver to your customers/those you serve. And, to be fair, most organisations do deliver benefits to their product or service users.

That said, not every organisation (private or public) delivers real benefits at a fair price. And if you don’t believe yours does you should make plans to change your job – or change your customer propositions if you run your own business.

Work that has no purpose is unlikely to survive very long, and that’s especially true in these challenging times.

Yes, I know new jobs are difficult to find right now, so you might need to explore projects outside of your work (or study to make yourself more marketable) until the jobs market improves.

Just taking the first few (tentative) steps towards doing more purposeful work can be extraordinarily uplifting.

I’m also aware that many of us work very long hours already but here’s the thing.

With purposeful activity almost any workload is possible.

It can even be enjoyable!

“Oh, come on”, I hear you say. “Are you serious? Any amount of work?”

Yes, I’m perfectly serious – and there’s plenty of evidence for this too; this is what ‘Flow’ is all about.

What is Flow, in a nutshell?

You’ve probably heard of being ‘in the zone’ or ‘in the flow’ because the idea has been around for decades, but what is it, exactly?

Well, Flow is the mental state we get into when we’re completely immersed in, and absorbed/energised by some kind of activity.

This image, from, Finding Flow, the psychology of engagement with everyday life, should help.

It compares ‘Flow’ to other mental states we might experience according to our abilities and the level of challenge we face while performing a particular activity – whether it’s learning to sail a boat, fly an aeroplane, drive a car, play tennis, play the piano, or write a blog! (that’s not an exhaustive list, BTW)

FLOW and other mental states

And here are some quick observations from me:

  1. Flow is a useful mental state to get into, but you can’t expect to get into it overnight; you need to develop some abilities first.
  2. Give yourself time but not too much time in the Flow. Given the high challenge levels, absorption and lost sense of time, you need to be aware – perhaps set alarms – to take breaks to eat and exercise occasionally too.
  3. Flow is not the same as hyperfocus which is not always a useful state when it distracts you all day with video games or YouTube videos or sidetracks you on one task to the detriment of other more essential work. Yes, we might all be susceptible to hyperfocus too, sometimes but ‘Flow’ is a different and far more productive mental state!

Who developed this ‘flow’ idea?

As with many things in Psychology, I imagine we’ve known about Flow as an experience (esp. in Eastern thought systems like Buddhism- but described in other terms) for thousands of years.

However, the acknowledged main academic work on ‘flow’ was started in the 1960s by an American-Hungarian Psychologist called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

That’s not an easy name to pronounce, so I’ll refer to him as Mihaly here. 

Mihaly researched this area because he was fascinated by artists, other creators, designers and developers, who become so immersed in their work that they sometimes disregard the need for food, water, or even sleep!

The word ‘flow’ came from interviews Mihaly conducted with these artists in 1975, in which they compared their experience of intense work to that of being carried along by fast-flowing water.

And that makes a lot of sense, right? Even if you’ve never done anything like this, it’s obvious that you can’t ‘step off the boat’ at these times.

You have to press on and deal with the challenge in your face!

Flow, waterfall

The difference with ‘flow’ as a mental state is that we’re not just carried along by something like a water current; we also create the current that carries us.

Mihaly published his ideas in a best-selling book, ‘Flow, the psychology of optimal experience’ in 1992 which is listed on my books IRATE page here.

This chart, from that book, illustrates the idea of a flow channel as being the best area to aim for – as we build our skills.

Flow channel

This is the Goldilocks zone if you like.

If you find yourself bored by your challenges as your skills increase (from A1 to A2 in the diagram), you need to increase the level of challenges you take on (to A4)

Alternatively, if you take on too big a challenge for your abilities, and find yourself getting anxious, you need to focus on improving your skills. (A3 to A4)

Like most brilliant ideas – it’s deceptively simple, right?

What Flow is not

Apologies if this states the obvious but just to be clear…

‘Flow’ has nothing to do with ‘going with the flow’, a phrase used to describe an easy-going attitude.

‘Going with the flow’ is not so much a state of mind as a ‘carefree’ attitude which is unlikely to help us create much of value.

That said, there’s no harm in being ‘laid back’ and ‘going with the flow’ sometimes – and then switching to a more productive ‘flow’ mental state to get stuff done, at other times.

We’re human after all; we need to rest sometimes – and we might also have many roles to play in life.

10 ways to tell you’re in ‘Flow’

Mihaly identified ten factors typically associated with ‘Flow’.

You don’t need all ten to be in it; you’re just more likely to be in it if several of these factors apply.

The ten factors are:

1. A clear goal, aligned with our skills and abilities.

2. Concentration and focus on a limited subject field, requiring us to delve deeper into it.

3. A loss of self-consciousness: actions and awareness merge to become simply fast-flowing actions.

4. A distorted sense of time and a sense of surprise at how long we spent on the task.

5. Unambiguous feedback: success and failure in our activity are immediately apparent prompting us to correct our work while we do it. (Incidentally, if writing is your ‘flow’ activity, try using an AI grammar checking tool, like Grammarly, to get this clear feedback as you write) 

6. A balance between ability level and challenge: the activity is in the Goldilocks zone.

7. A sense of personal control over the activity.

8. A sense of intrinsic reward from the activity

9. A lost awareness of hunger, or fatigue.

10. A sense of being absorbed into the activity as our awareness focus narrows.

How to get into the Flow

Mihaly’s first book is wonderful if you’re interested in the years of research behind these observations, but I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, it’s not an easy read guide to being happy!

My suggestion, if you’ve not yet experienced being in the ‘flow’, is to simply start working vigorously on something that you care about – using the skills that you have.

You might just find yourself in the ‘Flow’ before you know it!

And if there’s something you want to do that you’re not yet skilled at, start learning those skills soon, and get help from a coach if you need it. 

It would be a pity to miss out on the experience of ‘Flow’ and an even greater shame to achieve a lot less than you’re capable of.

Most of us can achieve more than we think.

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