“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, 1990).

Happiness is not a specific goal to be attained, more a result of when we are in what renowned psychologist, Csikszentmihalyi, first described as the flow state, or as athletes refer to as being in the Zone. However, as his quotation above suggests, we are not as happy when we are doing nothing as when we are challenged and enjoying being absorbed in a demanding task.

Perhaps, therefore, humans set goals to advance performance and compete against themselves (and others) in physical and mental endeavours to artificially create this state. After all, it is not the winning that counts, but the participation.

What is flow exactly?

Being in flow reflects being totally immersed in an activity and importantly, enjoying it. Time appears to stand still; or speed up. Whilst extremely productive, the effort is not hard. This helps to explain why people comment for example about a creative activity, saying that “it just flowed through me”. The exertion may seem easy, however achieving the state of flow takes preparation.

Why should we want to experience being in flow?

In today’s busy and hyper distracting environment, it is potentially more challenging to enjoy intense focus and attention on a regular basis. Overworked, overwhelmed and stressed, leaders are constantly bombarded with a range of digital communication and new challenges around leading and managing a team of direct reports on multiple continents. With people working from home, whether for a company or their own business, there are also many, different distractions to deal with that this new working environment poses. It could be argued that we are therefore less likely to get into the flow state as easily or quickly as our predecessors and must consciously prepare for it. Every time that we are distracted from a task, we exit the potential flow state.

However, being in flow is not about increasing productivity: this is just one of its positive outcomes. Being in flow reflects contentment and enjoying an optimal experience, which researchers have found is often from activities that are at great cost or pain to the individual and that others might describe as “work”. Therefore, flow reflects a state of mind and achieving it helps to give meaning.

Indeed, experiencing the flow state is thought to increase confidence, learning and give a sense of being in control and as it involves being totally in the moment, mindfulness too.

The brain in flow

Contrary to what may be initially supposed, when the brain enters the flow state, activity in the brain slows down, especially in the Pre-frontal cortex (PFC). This creates transient hypofrontality i.e. temporary decreased deregulation of activity (blood flow) in the front part of the brain where the PFC is located (just behind the forehead). Transient hypofrontality has been proposed to be behind all altered states of consciousness from dreaming, endurance running to those drug-induced (Dietrich, 2003).

In addition, performance is heightened due to changes in the neurochemistry. For example, norepinephrine & dopamine are activated which help you to feel good and increase intrinsic motivation, plus, enhance creativity by supporting pattern detection, thus creating new insights in the brain. Learning is increased due to the massive amplification of neurochemicals so that the brain in effect thinks “this is important, save for later” and therefore, encourages hardwiring and memory formation.

Flow seems to occur between the alpha and theta electrical brainwave frequencies which reflects the dreaming / daydreaming style of consciousness. The surge of Gamma waves, which at approximately 40 Hertz, is the most intense and fastest signal in the brain, reflects an insight (an “aha! moment of thinking) and is thought to only be invoked during the theta state.

3 brain-friendly strategies to help achieve flow

Induce risk

Physical, emotional or social risk supports the likelihood of the flow state as awareness of all the senses is heightened and attention is fully-focused.

Deep embodiment

Self-confessed “flow junky” Steven Kotler (2018) describes adrenaline adventurers having deep embodiment as their brain attends to unnatural daily experiences for ground-living humans, such as being up in the air, or g-force. These novel situations grab the brain’s full attention. Doing and a single task focus are important components of being in flow.

Break for your brain

Research has shown that solving a challenge by insight is faster than endlessly analysing the issue, something that I was relieved (!) to demonstrate live in my workshop via an impromptu “experiment” with delegates at the International Coach Federation conference in London (2011). Relaxing and not thinking about the problem assist in promoting insight in the brain. Consequently, having a break and doing something else, such as going for a walk or a run, are helpful to create subsequent flow, when returning to work on the challenge.

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