5 Steps to Cultivate a State of Flow and Positive Emotionality

by Nick Hobson Scientist

Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a task that everything around you seemed to fade into the background, a zen-like focus getting you so “in the zone” that time stood still?

This is flow.

Science has long shown that flow state is the pillar of peak performance. There are numerous benefits associated with being in this state, including enhanced concentration, feelings of control, and improved productivity. But now we’re learning that there is another important outcome that accompanies flow. One that has gone unnoticed: happiness.

Research shows that flow is a precursor to well-being and general life satisfaction. People who are happier find themselves in flow states more often and for longer periods of time.

The originator of flow theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, says that the rewards of flow are inexhaustible and boundless. He argues that during such a state, the activities being done (whether it’s sport, art, business, socializing, etc.) become intrinsically valuable. The acts themselves become worth doing for their own sake. The type of happiness that flow induces isn’t a fleeting hedonism. It’s a lasting sense of personal meaning and fulfillment.

Research shows that flow is a precursor to well-being and general life satisfaction.

And now researchers are keen on finding ways to get everyday normal people to enter into flow through daily activities. Flow and positive emotionality, it’s now believed, can be cultivated. It’s a matter of changing your mindset. Here are five different ways you can get there.

1. Make your intentions clear

Flow is based off the system in the brain called intention memory. Rather than storing information from the past, this memory system allows you to be proactive by planning ahead. To activate it, consider the following:

  • The task needs to challenge you (i.e. make use of your skills). You may think the easier the better, but this can often lead to boredom and apathy (the opposite of flow).

  • The completion of this task should fulfil a goal that is personal to you.

  • It’s key to analyze the steps that will bring you closer to this goal. Try to make sure the actions performed at each step are done deliberately, as opposed to habitually (at least to begin with - in time, with more flow experienced, the activity will eventually become more of a habit).

2. Stick to one goal at a time

Flow is all about implementing one goal at a time. We often convince ourselves that multitasking is the way to do things, but it’s not. It makes us inefficient and leads to countless distractions.

Luckily, research suggests that there is a way to protect you and your goals from all the outside noise. According to the model of motivation, taking an “action-orientation” to your behaviors can help keep you on track towards achieving a single goal. Do the following:

  • Disengage: Whether it’s a negative thought or a conflicting desire, you must disconnect from anything that acts as a barrier between you and your goal.

  • Take Initiative: Turn your intentions (outlined in the first step above) into actions.

  • Be Persistent: Maintain your performance until your intentions are fulfilled. It’s important that you check back in to your initial intentions (first step) because we often lose sight of what we originally planned.

3. Practice mindfulness

Being mindful means you’re focused on the present moment, in a non-judgmental fashion.

A study found that athletes who engaged in a six-week mindfulness training program were significantly more likely to experience flow during their performance. Here’s a few ways to engage in mindfulness:

  • Perform the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. This method is meant to help you relax and draw your attention to the present moment. List five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

  • Practice mindful meditation by using meditation apps such as headspace and insight timer.

4. Develop an autotelic style

People with an autotelic style personality find pleasure in the task itself, rather than using that task as a stepping stone to advance their career, relationships, etc. These individuals can balance work and play, resulting in a greater enjoyment of life. They have no trouble getting into a state of flow. Here’s a few tips to live like an autotelic person:

  • Loosen up: It’s hard to enjoy what you’re doing if you’re constantly stressed out. Allow yourself to relax and be immersed into the activity in front of you. The mindfulness tips will also help here.

  • Be adventurous: Increase your chances of finding what you enjoy by opening yourself up to new experiences. Find new hobbies, talk to new people, experience things that are different than what you’re used to.

5. Find the balance between skill and challenge

To enter a state of flow, you need to find a balance between the challenge level of a task and your skill level. If this balance is not met, you may experience feelings such as anxiety and worry. Find this balance by doing the following:

  • Begin by stating all the steps necessary to complete a task.

  • Then rate the degree of difficulty on a scale of one to five.

  • Next, asses your skill level and rate it. Draw on past experiences if necessary.

  • Now, with your skills in mind, re-rate how challenging you think the task is. Ideally, you want your challenge rating and your skill rating to match.

Nick Hobson
Meet Our Writer
Nick Hobson

Nick Hobson is a behavioral and brain scientist specializing in performance wellness in the workplace. He is the Director of Science and Research at PsychologyCompass, the platform for helping people achieve peak mental performance. In his work, he relies on insights from behavioral economics and cognitive science to quantifiably improve human behavior and performance. He also lectures at the University of Toronto in Canada and has had his research and work covered in outlets like Forbes, Inc., Time, Vice, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Slate, among others.