Have you ever done work and felt a kind of out of body experience? That feeling where your brain has taken over and the thing you are doing seems to have done itself?
There are times when I’m so in the middle of writing that it feels like I’m not even thinking the words. They are simply flowing out of me and into the keyboard, writing themselves. Then I come out of this trance-like state and what do you know? On the page are all the words I need.
I mentioned this in passing in my podcast conversation with Lucy Orton and she explained that was I was experiencing is flow.
According to Mithali Csikszentmihalyi, the founder of flow theory, flow is the moment where we lose our self-consciousness when our skills best meet the challenges of an activity.
It is out this that flow is considered a state of being where we are at our most productive and there has been a lot of research into how we can activate this within our minds.
It certainly explains a lot. Like how I tend to get deep into a task when I’m listening to music. Although it needs to be a very specific kind of music.
What happens is I stop listening to what’s going on in the background and focus solely on what is happening in my head.
Part of it is this idea of deep thinking. That we need to zone out and really get into our work, to have space to think deeply about something without the distractions.
Cal Newport termed this state as deep-thought in 2016 as:
“The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.
On its own, deep thought is not enough to bring in a state of flow but it is an incredibly useful way to consider how we create space for these deep-thinking exercises. Flow is an intense level of concentration on a particular task — it tends to happen at will.
Deep thought, however, is taking the practical steps to organise your work in such a way that you are not trying to multi-task. You are giving one thing your fullest attention without any distractions.
Let’s pause for a moment here to consider our daily distractions and why these are preventing us from reaching a state of deep thought and flow when we need it most. Certainly having meetings in the day are a huge distraction. You need to prepare for the meeting, get your head in the game and so in the run-up to a meeting, it’s probably not the best time to get into the flow.
But there are other big distractions like our phones and email. My flow tends to take place when I’ve left my phone in my bag, silenced the clatter of Slack and pings of email.
It is why I write on an App called Bear. I’m lost in the writing page and not tempted to check on anything else. My mind stops wandering.
Getting into the state
It can be hard to get into this kind of state. We have so many shiny things going on around us, taking our attention away from what we want to do that we don’t often get into this state of flow.
In fact, I’d even argue that the state of flow is something that cannot be predicted. It isn’t what we can plan for. There are many times when I have blocked out some ‘writing time’ in my diary to put together my blog, newsletter and what I consider ‘joyful writing’. Only for when I sit down to do it — the moment never arrives.
Yet other times, I can be sat somewhere noisy and bustling only to find myself whisked into turning out a few hundred words. Often it happens by chance when I’m having a play or when I don’t have a plan. I’m just sticking my fingers to the keyboard or pencil to paper and seeing where it will take me.
You can get in the state of flow while writing up a well-researched article with interviews and other voices as well.
It’s a bit like magic, in that it happens when it wants to. But usually, because some conditions are right. I’ve already mentioned the lack of distractions. This helps but is not a determining factor. Noise and chaos could go on around you when you’re in the flow.
Gold and Ciociari explain that flow occurs when there is a perfect balance between challenge and skill. The absence of this in our everyday lives means that chasing this “zone” is difficult. You need a clear goal — like writing an article and for that to need enough of your skill to fully absorb your mind. It’s not limited to writing but to any task that needs a level of skill.
Getting in the flow is different to the idea that your mind will wander when doing mundane tasks to problem solve or come up with new ideas.
Csikszentmihalyi, (1990), identifies nine components of achieving flow:
1. Clear goals that align with your skills
2. High level of concentration on a limited activity
3. A loss of self-consciousness
4. Distorted sense of time
5. Clear and immediate feedback
6. Balance between skill and challenge
7. Personal control over the activity
8. What you are doing is rewarding and you enjoy it
9. Your focus of awareness is narrowed down.
I’d like to dig a little deeper into how music can help us get in the flow.
Over lockdown, we saw a rise in apps and websites giving access to office or coffee shop noise. The white noise fills up the silence of the background. Nothing we do is ever truly silent so these familiar background noises can set in place what we need to zone out.
White noise is often recommended to help newborn babies sleep. The sound of the vacuum or washing machine is meant to help bring about or keep babies in deep sleep. Now, anyone who has a baby will know you need to accept your sleep is a distant dream for about a year. But that white noise helps the brain recognise the familiar sounds of being in utereo.
This brings us to the use of binaural beats. A binaural beat is:
“generated when two tones with slightly different frequencies are presented to each ear. The difference between these tones is processed inside your head, allowing you to perceive a specific beat.”
Research suggests that binaural beats affect our neural activities. It means it can influence our behaviour states. A study of 24 adults, with half listening to binaural beats during sleep and half not, found that the group who had the beats had a longer period of deep sleep. Interestingly, this deep sleep period is the one that is linked to creating and storing memories.
It may well be that the skill element for creating true flow comes from accessing memory and developing it well.
Let’s also look at isochronic tones:
“Isochronic tones are single tones that come on and off at regular, evenly spaced intervals. This interval is typically brief, creating a beat that’s like a rhythmic pulse. They’re often embedded in other sounds, such as music or nature sounds.”
It may well be that what helps trigger my flow is an isochronic tone rather than solely a binaural beat. The repetitive nature of the music trains my brain to go into the zone. It would be interesting to understand whether this is impactful for someone who doesn’t like to work with music and how they find getting into the flow.
If you’d like a playlist to get you started there are some good suggestions here.
There is a lot of advice online explaining ways you can get into the flow. They focus on actions you can do, an atmosphere you can create. However, I believe the key to getting into flow is enjoyment.
I enjoy writing and listening to post-rock therefore when the two are combined and it’s a subject I’m excited about then the flow follows easily. Were I to be presented with a maths problem in the same conditions, I think I would be easily distracted and procrastinate.
What enjoyment can you bring to your day when you need to get your head down and get some work done?