The Ultimate Flow State Guide

Part III: 10 Key Elements of Flow State: What happens when we are "in the zone"?
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Matt Swartz
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Chief Flow Officer
April 25th, 2022

Welcome to Part III of the Ultimate Guide to Flow State: Key Elements of Flow State: What's Happening When We Are "in the zone"?

If you missed the previous post I highly recommend you read the previous posts before continuing.

if you're ready, let's continue...

After understanding the importance of Flow, you’d be right to ask – “Ok, but how do I get there?!” The good news is that the research is vast on what is the components of Flow State and what it consists of. In this article we will tell you the 10 key elements present when you experience flow state.

That's the easy part the challenging part is understanding how exactly do we get there. But you will learn more on that in the next article Part IV: The Recess 5 factors of Flow State.

For now let's dive in...

How Do to Measure Flow State?

First, it is important to know there are several empirically validated measures for assessing Flow State. The Flow State Scale is a tool that assesses and measures Flow State for a completed activity or past moment, while the Dispositional Flow Scale examines the frequency with which a person attains Flow in a selected activity. There is also a shorter measure, the Flow Short Scale. These assessments are helpful for the more scientific minded to empirically determine where and when you’ve entered flow. 

That said, most of us are not researchers, so for this article we’ll turn to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, and the work he and other researchers have done to explain the components of Flow. The research varies a bit, depending on the source there are lists of 7, 8, 9, or 10 of these components. In our attempt to be exhaustive we will explain ALL of the 10 Elements of Flow State. It is important to note that not all these components are necessary to attain Flow, but that when in Flow, most or many of these factors are usually present. 

Here is the list of 10 key elements of flow state:

Clear, Appropriately Challenging and Attainable Goals

One of the number one keys of Flow State is that there is a goal to accomplish, the goal is clear, and that goal is attainable. This means that it's clear what components of the goal should occupy our attention – rather than having several possible options and not knowing what to focus on. But that goal also must be appropriately challenging, and we must have a high skillset in that area as well. Think of it this way – If we are white water rafting, Flow is the river helping to guide us to our clear goal at the end of the river (not halfway down the river), but we must know how to paddle and deal with the rapids and rocks that come with it. 

The task seems doable-
A balance between the challenge presented and skill level

While this may seem just like the first point, it’s different – The Goal (destination) is different than the Task (process). In this case, we need to feel the task is possible. It’s the difference between turning in the project to your boss (I have or have not successfully turned in projects like this before) and the task that needs completing (I have or have not created an excel spreadsheet like the one necessary for the project before). While these two are often interrelated, there are times where the Task is too difficult or easy, or our skill doesn’t match the task, even if the challenge and skill match the goal. An example would be if the goal of running a mile is something you’ve done before (goal), but it's snowy out and you worried you will slip (task). It would be hard to be in Flow running in the snow if it makes you overwhelmed.

Immediate feedback

When we are in Flow, we get immediate feedback from ourselves or our environment. This could be some sort of scoreboard, as in sports. Or, this could be a feeling, that might come when we are writing and know what we are writing sounds good. Or this could be another person telling us we are helping them or doing a good job. Either way, the feedback feels encouraging, we don’t have to wait, and we know right in the moment we are on the right track, which keeps us taking steps forward. When feedback is less immediate, as in the case of a larger project, Flow tends to wane unless we find ways of giving ourselves feedback, such as chucking the large project into smaller tasks, or taking breaks to praise our work. 

The activity is intrinsically rewarding
- an autotelic experience

When the task we are performing is enjoyable in of itself, Flow comes much more easily. This is often the case in sports or physical activity, where feel good chemicals activate and we enjoy the experience. This is also the case in art, where making music, painting, dancing, or writing is fun to do. But this could be the case for anything you’re passionate about or enjoy – cooking, math, organizing, or whatever lights you up. Everyone is different, but leaning into the things that bring you joy and are rewarding almost always lead to Flow. 

A feeling of control over the situation and the outcome

It’s hard to find flow when we feel out of control, or like things are happening to us. But when we feel in control of what’s going on, such as limiting outside confounding influences or factors, having experience in what we are doing, or being able to anticipate what the process will look like, Flow becomes more accessible. Moreover, if we have high confidence, or even certainty, in a particular outcome, our sense of control grows, and so does Flow. A good example might be cooking, where we have control over the products we are using and have made the dish before – it might be easy to find Flow. On the other hand, if we are cooking the same meal but we don’t have a necessary ingredient or we haven’t made the dish before so we don’t know how it will work, Flow might be hard, even if you are an accomplished chef. 

Total focus on the activity
– action and awareness merge

In most cases outside of Flow, we must plan our actions or think about our approach. But, when in Flow, there is a feeling of awareness and action merging, such that we are responding and acting without our normal brain chatter. A great example of this is a skilled player who is fully immersed in a game of basketball. Instead of thinking about where to move their body, when to shoot, or who to pass to, it all comes without thought as our body responds automatically. Or, a painter, who can recreate an image without needing to think about what colors to use or brush strokes – it seems to just Flow intuitively, without inner chatter. 

Strong concentration and narrow, focused attention

When we find ourselves in Flow, it’s as if the world disappears and the only thing we are aware of is the task we are working on. Worries of the day leave, and outside distractions can’t even pull us away. Like Dad intently working in his shop, no matter how hard Mom calls down to him to come up for dinner, its as if he can’t hear, because he is so immersed in his Flow. Even just reading a book, we can be so immersed in the story and world, that we find ourselves completely in Flow, oblivious to the world around us. 

Loss of self-consciousness and experience of peace

Flow is such a desirable state because it's often one of the few times in our day where we can feel peaceful, and our inner critic can fall away. When in this state, we interact with flexibility and ease, rather than thinking about how things could go wrong or how we could mess up. We are disengaged from any fear of failure: this doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes or need correction in Flow, but we are able to adjust and adapt as needed rather than worrying or trying to avoid any mistakes. In writing, someone can be in Flow and rather than trying to make every word perfect, they are able to write for hours fluidly with no fear or stress, and either adjust as they go or come back later to edit. 

Lack of awareness towards physical needs

Sometimes, when in Flow, we become so absorbed that we can even forget about our own physical needs. If you’ve ever been so absorbed in a project or activity that afterwards you realize you need to REALLY go to the bathroom, or you haven’t eaten for hours, then you know what I mean. From extreme examples of gamers being so in the zone they don’t leave their couch or desk for hours, or professionals who lose track of their body while working through a project, Flow can absorb us so totally that we become oblivious to even the signals within our own bodies. 

Feeling of Timelessness
- experience of time dilation or distortion

If you’ve ever been working so hard on a project, come up for air, and realized that hours passed when it felt like only minutes, you’ve experienced the time-altering properties of Flow. As focus on the task increases, we lose track of time passing. An example would be playing an awesome game of soccer and being so totally absorbed you didn’t realize the period or game was over. Artists report being absorbed in their work for hours at a time, and barely feeling as if any time has passed when they were fully immersed in Flow. 

Everyone has had at least one of these experiences, so hopefully now you have a better idea of what Flow looks like, and you can also point to experiences you’ve had that match these descriptions. You’ve probably been in Flow without knowing it, which means you can start the work to learn how to get back there more often. While not all of these elements need to be present to be in Flow, the more of these you experience the greater likelihood you’ve experienced Flow. 

While this gives us a good picture of what Flow looks like, none of these tell us HOW to get in Flow. For that, we are proud to share Recess’ 5 Factors of Flow Model, which both provides a picture of the amazing state of Flow, but also a map for how to get there.

Don't forget to check out the rest of The Ultimate Guide to Flow State


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