Creative State of Flow

How to Achieve the Creative State of Flow

Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you lost track of time or even your surroundings? A bomb could of gone off (figuratively) and you wouldn’t have noticed?

That’s called “flow” – a state of consciousness where we experience a task so deeply that it truly becomes enjoyable and satisfying. For me this usually happens while I’m reading, writing, or developing software. For you, it could happen during any number of tasks — golfing, cooking, hiking, etc.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the architect of Flow and after decades of researching the characteristics of the “optimal experience” (a fancy word for enjoyment) he wrote Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience. A guide that shows us how to add more enjoyment in our lives by increasing the time we spend in Flow.

The Conditions of Flow

Flow can be achieved by anyone with any task, as long as the conditions are right. I usually get into a state of Flow while writing. I listen to music through my headphones and after a few minutes I really get into my work I’m oblivious to my surroundings.

Sometimes I can’t type fast enough. Other times I type so s-l-o-w-l-y and the words don’t come easily. But, either way, I’m in a state of Flow. According to Mihaly there are eight characteristics to an optimal experience:

  1. You’re challenged by the task at hand. This seems to be the ‘prime directive’ to achieving Flow and can actually prevent you from being in a state of Flow. The difficulty of your task has to be “just right”. If the task is to easy, you’ll get bored and eventually stop. If the task is to difficult, you’ll get frustrated and eventually stop. Either way, you loose.
  2. The ability to concentrate is key. If there are to many interruptions or it’s noisy, you won’t be able to concentrate on your task. No concentration, no Flow.
  3. You have clear goals to achieve. Goals establish a mechanism to measure your progress and provide a sense of achievement. People in Flow achieve their goals.
  4. You receive immediate feedback. Either your ball landed in the cup or it didn’t. You know immediately if your goal was reached or not.
  5. Your worries and frustrations of everyday life recede into the background. This perhaps is one of the greatest benefit of Flow. You’re busy concentrating on your task and the rest of your world just “goes away” for a short while. Even though you’re challenged, you end up relaxed, satisfied and you achieved something meaningful (all this, and it’s legal too).
  6. Your sense of self disappears (only for a while). When it re-appears, you’re refreshed with an even stronger sense of self.
  7. You have a level of control over your actions while performing your task.
  8. You loose track of time and feel great when you’re done with your task.

The Paradox of Leisure Time

With all the “modern conveniences” available today, we have more free time than ever before. But, with all this free time, people rarely reported being in a Flow state.

What is the largest single pastime for Americans? Watching TV. It’s a national obsession – sports, soaps, reality TV, it doesn’t matter, we’ll watch anything. The interesting thing is this – Flow is rarely achieved while watching TV!

I wonder if it has anything to do with your brain being more active while you’re sleeping than when you’re watching TV? Even though we have plenty of free time, our single most leisure activity is producing the poorest quality of enjoyment. If you’re looking to take one small step to improve the quality of your life – then turn off your TV.

The State of Flow at Work

Engaging in a challenging activity is a primary condition to achieve Flow and for many of us, this occurs while at work. You’re given a task or you volunteer for a project that’s just beyond your current skill level. Deep down you know you can do it and maybe it’s a stretch. But it’s the challenge that intrigues you and ultimately expands your knowledge.

This is how one grows – expanding your skills by continuously challenging oneself and moving to that “next level”. It’s at work where the opportunity to grow occurs most frequently. There is nothing wrong with this. My point is that we need to find activities outside of work where we can achieve Flow.

Your Personal Plan for Flow

  1. Find a challenging activity. This could be anything. Reading, suduko, learning a language, cooking, or even playing a video game. Whatever you decide to do, just do it.
  2. Commit to yourself. Remember, you’re doing this for one person and one person only. Yourself. This is your chance to finally get on the road to happiness and accomplishment.
  3. Set a series of realistic goals. By setting goals you automatically know the level of skills needed to accomplish those goals and you provide yourself a framework for achieving a sense of accomplishment. Just as a video game has levels that you try to achieve, so should your activity. Define the levels, work to achieve them and realize your goals.
  4. Turn off the T.V. “Everything in moderation” is what my father used to tell me – so it goes for TV. Some is good, a lot is bad. Give yourself a chance to get into a Flow state by turning off the TV.
  5. Remove any interruptions. It nearly impossible to be engrossed in an activity when you’re bombarded with interruptions. I tell my kids “Please don’t interrupt me unless you’re bleeding or a dinosaur is crashing through our house”. They usually giggle and give me the time I need.
  6. Track your progress. Create a simple way to track your daily progress. Place a mark on a calendar, write a short entry in a journal or scratch a line in your bedroom wall.
  7. Enjoy your experience. Achieving flow takes determination. But remember to enjoy your experience along the way. As they say “it’s the journey that’s important”.

Have you achieved a state of Flow today?

34 Responses to How to Achieve the Creative State of Flow

  1. Matt says:

    I’ve always called it being in the zone and it’s an amazing feeling when it does happen. I find that our lives (or mine at the very least) is filled with too many distractions and pieces of information that are thrown at me. I was better able to get into the zone (or flow) when I was a teen than I am now.

  2. I experience flow whenever there is a challenge that really interests me. I become so engrossed in the problem that time just seems to fly by.

    It wasn’t really about setting goals or commitments. I was actually in a flow state yesterday reading about Gnoticisms, which was a distraction from what I was trying to accomplish (I was reading through the Gospel of Matthew and started looking up certain things on wikipedia).

    It seems that your explanation of flow is a gradual process that can be broken up over time. For me, it has always been spontaneous single serving of intense concentration.

  3. For me it’s always been reading and writing. But I wonder whether it’s a good/bad thing when one can’t reach flow consistently. Is it a big deal if, while doing the same activity, sometimes you’re “in the zone” and sometimes you’re not?

  4. John Wesley says:


    To a certain degree I think reaching flow is out of your control. If you don’t have the right energy, you can’t force it to happen. But you can increase your odds with the techniques Victor has suggested as well as being well rested.

    For me it usually happens during creative processes when I am building something — writing, coding, etc., and often just thinking and doing nothing at all.

  5. Vic Stachura says:

    I would not be concerned if you don’t reach flow every time you do the same activity. Each of us have variations in how we feel on any given day, and that has an impact on our performance.

    My point in the article is that we should plan for activities that allow us to reach flow and not wait for flow to ‘just happen’.

  6. randy says:

    I am comforted by reading this article, however, my wife calls it one track minded. She sees it as a negative thing. I have these same feelings of enjoyment, self respect and satisfaction when completed with the task at hand, but how to I truely know its not what my wife says?
    Thank you for your time and your supporting information.
    ps Im not using this as ammo to combate what my wife says, I just am looking into other aspects that can truely be factors in my lifes day to day activities. thanks again

  7. CL says:

    I definitely have Flow when doing physics research. All of it. Exactly. Step by step. I concentrated on my clear goals, I lost track of time, I completely forgot about myself, nothing else mattered, and when I would get in the car at 3:30 AM to drive home, everything would be fantastic.

    Great article.

  8. John Wesley says:


    I understand where you are coming from. Sometimes when I was in flow or just concentrating on something intensely, my former girlfriend would get the impression I was ignoring her because I would be unresponsive.

    The truth is, I didn’t mean to ignore her, I was just so enveloped by the task at hand that it was like the rest of the world didn’t exist. This has pro’s and cons but overall I think this type of concentration leads to the most creative thought.

    Many people are oriented differently. They are very good at multitasking but don’t concentrate as intensely. Perhaps your wife’s complaints are the result of her not completely understanding your state of mind.

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  10. Matt says:

    Randy – this is one of the generalized differences between men and women. Women tend to multi-task while men are more likely to single-task.

    Interesting that you also achieve Flow from software development. I work as a software developer and on a good day when I keep it going for hours, I’ll leave after work incredibly energized and in a state of bliss!

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  12. Flow, in other words having a sufficient skill set to manage a challenge. That is what gives us our sense of achievement and encourages us to go on. We feel useful. We feel stimulated. With no challenge we are bored. If we are overwhelmed by the challenge we are just frustrated. The activity becomes its own reward. Language learning, done properly, takes it one step further. The learning process can be enjoyable, and yet you end up transformed into a person with an additional cultural personality, able to express yourself in another language and to understand people of another culture better. Intelligent language learning, self-directed language learning activity ( i.e. as opposed to sitting passively in a language class) is an excellent “flow” activity

  13. Al at 7P says:

    Great summary about flow (as defined by Csikszentmihalyi).

    To me it’s very similar to zen, minus the meditation and some of the existential aspects of Buddhism.

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  15. Rob says:

    As a seasoned gamer, I have experienced “flow” numerous times over the years, and the zen-like feeling it gives is absolutely incredible. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize that you are in the flow state, at which point you are no longer in it. (Since you regain your sense of self by merely thinking about it)

    But while it lasts, it’s highly enjoyable. For all of the negative reputation that games recieve, it’s the most reliable way I know of to reach the flow state.

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  24. Great Article, all highly accurate stuff. I believe that one of the major ways to truly cultivate the life you want is to identify the triggers that put you in flow, and to consistently work towards creating ones that induce that state within you – Flow and Achievement work so well together, they need to make a word for it! – Flachievement!

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  28. Mathew says:

    Stunning post !

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