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4 Steps to Achieve Flow

December 10, 2021 by Amanda Reill

by: Amanda Reill & Britt Fulmer

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”  - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

4 Steps to Achieve Flow

Think back to the last time you were so engrossed in a task that you lost all track of time. You forgot to eat, your surroundings fell away, and it was just you and the task in front of you. This state most often occurs when you feel challenged, yet confident in your ability to manage the challenge. This balance of skill level and challenge is what experts call "Flow." Positive psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, coined the term to describe a mindset of complete, unyielding focus. 

What does it mean to be in a “flow"?

Csikszentmihalyi began studying the characteristics that define flow in his pursuit of defining happiness. What he stumbled upon instead is a state of being that both encourages happiness and bolsters well-being.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the following characteristics are some of the main hallmarks of flow: 

  1. Complete focus. This is defined by intense concentration that eliminates all other distractions. 
  2. Time is altered. This characteristic often feels like time has slowed momentarily but flown by after the task. 
  3. Intrinsically rewarding. Intrinsic rewards require intrinsic motivation - the kind of motivation that comes from the joy of completing the task. 
  4. A balance between challenge and skills. The challenge is neither too difficult nor too easy. It enables you to use the best of your skills and abilities to complete the task. 
  5. Action and awareness become one. There is no feeling of self-consciousness or doubt. 
  6. There is a feeling of control over the outcome of the challenge. 

Flow is something that anyone can achieve, but the particular tasks that spark the experience for each person are unique. Some find the optimal experiences for flow in physical activities, while others might find it in cognitive challenges. In coaching, the key is to help your client identify what activities induce flow in their lives. 

The importance of flow

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, the PERMA Model outlines the five key characteristics that enable a person to flourish and thrive. One of these elements is Engagement. According to Seligman, engagement is one's ability to become fully immersed in the tasks before them. It means being fully present in the moment. Seligman acknowledges that this concept is very much like that of Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow. 

Engagement is critical for flourishing. An abundance of research highlights the importance of employee engagement for productivity, student engagement for good grades, athletic engagement for enhanced performance, and so on. The reason for this lies in the use of our character strengths. People who use their top character strengths more frequently are more likely to report falling into a flow state. And there is a ton of research that demonstrates how strengths-use is tied to well-being and happiness. 

In addition, engagement and flow lead to outcomes (e.g., productivity, good grades, strong performance, positive feedback) that provide us with a sense of accomplishment and pride. These positive emotions (the P in the PERMA Model) also result in one's ability to flourish. 

How do you get into a flow state?

1. Reverse engineer what lights your fire.

We may think we know our general interests and passions, but sometimes being provoked with the right questions can reveal things that were right under our nose. Consider these questions to help your clients identify their ideal flow experiences:

  • When was the last time you felt like you were “one” with the task at hand?
  • What were you doing the last time you realized a lot of time had passed without your realization?
  • What topic could you converse about for hours?
  • When was the last time you were doing something and thought, “Wow, I’m actually good at this…”?

2. Pay attention to your mind and body.

A critical factor in achieving flow is your ability to identify what time of day you're at your best. For some, this is early in the morning before distractions take over, while others thrive late into the night. Some find they need perfect silence, while others require background noise or music. It comes down to identifying the time of day you feel most engaged in your work. If your client isn’t sure which time of day they’re most productive, consider encouraging them to experiment.  For example, you might encourage them to complete the same task several days in a row at different times and report back which produced the best result.

3. Don’t be afraid to enjoy your work.

If your client is employed at a job that isn’t currently optimizing their happiness, help them discover which of their daily tasks they can enjoy. Encourage them to adopt mindfulness techniques to become aware of their enjoyment. This practice can create more fulfillment in situations where we cannot change our reality (if we cannot change jobs, for instance), but we can change our mindset.

4. Practice.

Now that your client has worked through the first three steps, help them determine some strategies to regularly experience flow. This might include shifting their schedules, testing different kinds of music, and developing ways to eliminate strategies. The key here is experimentation! When something works, ask your client to note why they believe it worked. When something doesn't work, encourage your client to try something new. Creating the optimal experiences for flow to occur is a puzzle that will require ongoing tweaks and adjustments. 

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