It was the final of the 2015 women’s soccer World Cup. Fifteen minutes had passed and already the USA was leading Japan 3-0. Two of the goals had come from Carli Lloyd who had scored twice in the first five minutes of the game. Lloyd received the ball in the middle of her own half. She took one touch then another, caught up with the ball on the halfway line, glanced towards the goal, then belted the ball down half the length of the pitch.
Japan’s goalkeeper, Ayumi Kaihori, was off her line. As the ball soared towards her, Kaihori back-pedaled, stretched an arm, and fell back on to the grass. The ball careered past her and into the net.
It was one of the most audacious goals ever scored in a World Cup final and made Lloyd the first player to store a hat-trick in a World Cup final since Geoff Hurst in 1966.
Asked about that goal five years later, Lloyd explained what went through her mind. “It was a moment where I was just in the flow,” she said. “You know when you see all these great athletes that whatever they try, they make. And you know that was just kind of that moment and I wasn’t afraid to try it, I wasn’t afraid to do it.”
It’s a moment that we see again and in sports and feel occasionally during creative work. Everything vanishes until there is nothing but you and the task. You’re doing exactly what you want to do, and it’s all happening at exactly the speed you want it to happen. You’re in the zone, in a state of flow, and nothing could possibly go wrong. When you finish and look up, you find that you’ve produced work that you didn’t know you were capable of producing, and it was as though you didn’t even try.
So what exactly is a state of “flow” and how do you get into it when you need it?
What Is Flow?
The road to an understanding of flow starts with an understanding of flying saucers.
It was the mid-1950s, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was at a ski resort in Switzerland. The snow had melted and he didn’t have enough money to buy a cinema ticket. A notice in the newspaper told him that there was to be a free talk that evening about UFOs. If he couldn’t go to the cinema, Csikszentmihalyi thought, he could at least hear about aliens for free.
The speaker was Carl Jung, and instead of talking about alien abductions and kidnapped cows, Jung explained how a European psyche traumatized by war was projecting a new threat into the sky. The talk inspired Csikszentmihalyi to move to the United States to study psychology. As he focused on a study of happiness, he interviewed artists, scientists, and other people who dedicated hours towards doing things that brought little material reward but which seemed to make them happy. One leading American composer described being in “an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist… My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there watching it in a state of awe and wonderment.”
Csikszentmihalyi, who would turn his research into a book about flow, explained the process as a form of intense focus. The human nervous system, he argued is only capable of processing about 110 bits of information per second. Listening to and understanding a speaker requires about 60 bits of information per second which is why we can’t listen to and understand two people speaking at the same time. Someone who is completely engaged in a creative process doesn’t have enough attention remaining to monitor how their body feels or worry about their problems at home. They are aware of nothing but the task at hand.
“He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired,” Csikszentmihalyi said in a 2004 TED Talk. “His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended.”
In a state of flow, we are only aware of what we want to do and all of our attention is trained on doing it.
Other studies have found that reaching that state of flow even has physical effects. A 2010 study into the psychophysiology of flow during piano playing found that blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing rate all fell as musicians entered a state of flow. The intense mental focus that characterizes flow changes the physical body.
The results can be remarkable. Not only do we feel more relaxed, we also report greater life satisfaction, higher productivity, and more valuable achievements. A composer can complete a musical piece without wondering which note to play next. A writer can find the words dropping on the page automatically and easily so that a passage in a book seems to write itself. A footballer can forget that she’s playing the most important game of her life, in front of the biggest audience of her life, and have the courage to take a shot that would generate ridicule if it fails.
3 Steps to Finding Flow
So how do we find flow? Can we enter it at will or are we fated to hope that we fall into the state just as we need it most—only to find that we never do?
Some people do seem to be more prone to achieving flow than others. In a 2011 study, Csikszentmihalyi and a team of colleagues found that proneness to flow was negatively correlated with neuroticism and positively associated with conscientiousness. Neuroticism, the researchers argued, is emotional, variable, and generates sadness, all of which can produce attentional lapses and a reduced sense of control and skill. People who scored highly in conscientiousness, however, tend to find flow more easily. The same study also found no relationship between intelligence and flow. So while it helps to be conscientious and not neurotic, you don’t have to be smart to enter a state of flow.
There are, however, three things you can do to increase the chances that you’ll slip into a state of flow as you work.
The first is to choose the right task.
One key factor in entering flow is task motivation. Many of the people that Csikszentmihalyi interviewed when he first researched flow were doing work that brought little if any material reward They were creating art or playing music because they wanted to. They were self-motivated to do things that they knew they would enjoy. You might enter a state of flow in the middle of a run or surfing a wave if those are things you enjoy doing. You’re less likely to enter a state of flow as you’re doing your taxes.
You should also choose a task that you know how to do. A professional soccer player in a state of flow knows exactly how to kick a ball to ensure that it travels with the speed and in the direction that they want. They don’t need to think about which part of the foot needs to strike the ball, at which angle, or how to hold off a defender at the same time. Their skill and ability means that they’re not distracted by doubts about whether they’re performing the right action in the right way or by trying to remember what they learned about the task. Their focus is entirely on making sure that they’re doing what they know they should in the manner they’ve already learned.
You’re unlikely to achieve flow until you already know how to do the task you want to do. Flow is a reward that waits at the end of practice.
You then need to remove all external distractions.
Flow is a state in which distractions have less effect but that doesn’t mean that distractions can’t intrude and break the flow. Close the door, especially if the kids are in the house. Turn off your phone or place it in a different room. You might even want to close the curtains to stop an attractive view from pulling you away from the screen or the canvas. There’s a reason that so many writers and artists say that they do their best work in the silence of the night: when the rest of the world is asleep, there’s much less that can distract them from their work.
Sounds can help too. In On Writing, Stephen King describes playing loud heavy metal music as he writes. The lack of harmony acts like white noise, blocking out the world while also giving him energy. Noise-cancelling headphones and the sounds of crashing waves or classical music might be more enjoyable.
You can also try teaming up with others. In one surprising study, Charles Walker of St. Bonaventure University recruited volunteers and asked them to play paddleball both alone and in pairs. He counted the duration of their volleys and the number of drops they experienced during a ten-minute game then asked them to rate both their sense of joy and their sense of flow. Walker found that not only did people still experience a state of flow while playing with others, they also rated the pleasure of that flow more highly than the flow they experienced alone.
Other people might be distracting but if you’re all focused on the same task, you can all experience flow together more intensely than you would have experienced it working separately. That teamwork might not work for everyone or for every activity. But when athletes on a team enter a flow together not only does that team become much harder to beat but the joy of playing is even greater.
Other researchers have compared flow with mindfulness. Both, they argue, reduce blood pressure and heart rate, and both involve an inward focus and a presence in the here and now. Some studies have found that music played in a state of mindfulness is more enjoyable to hear than music played without thought.
It’s also easily accessible. There are plenty of books and lessons that explain how to achieve mindfulness at any time. But losing the worries of the outside world isn’t quite the same as the kind of complete focus on a task that characterizes flow. Mindfulness is an awareness of the experience of a moment not a focus on the acts that make up that moment. Mindfulness requires thought; flow is the absence of thought during action.
So while there are things that you can do to increase the chances falling into flow while you work—be conscientious; practice until you can act without thinking; remove distractions; and flow with others—you will always be dependent on all of those elements coming together at the same time to push you into the zone. Or you can stand at the halfway line on a soccer pitch at the World Cup final and notice that your opponents’ goalkeeper is out of position.