7 habits to cultivate the flow state
You know that moment when everything just flows? There’s nothing else but you and the experience.
You become the writing. You become the dance. For that brief moment in time, you are yoga. It’s like you and the experience become one, if only for a fleeting instance.
You call it ‘being in the zone’, academics call it ‘accessing the flow state’. It’s something we can slip in and out of.
We know we usually feel good when we’re in this state of being, but how can we access it more frequently?
1. Take a walk or exercise
‘You can walk yourself into a low-grade flow state…it’s a great reset. If you’re doing something creative and you didn’t get into flow and it was frustrating, this is a way to reset and start over” — Steven Kotler
By moving, it seems to help the flow of ideas and our ability to focus.
Studies have shown that exercise switches off the pre-frontal cortex, and essentially allows for our conscious, chattering mind to quieten down.
He says of the routine:
“When we did our first 7-minute sprint, one of the first things I noticed was how clear my head was as soon as I sat down to write. It felt like my inner voice was directly connected to my fingers, and as soon as I “thought” the words in my head, they appeared on the page in front of me. 33 minutes passed in an instant — and then we were right back to doing crunches and air squats and push-ups”.
2. Clear all distractions
“Ninety percent of the most important experiences in life are right in front of you. And instead of distracting yourself from them, as you have been, the Attention Diet will finally free you to face them” — Mark Manson
It’s been documented that you just can’t experience flow if distractions disrupt the experience (Nakamura et al., 2009). That’s why setting digital boundaries is so crucial if we want to experience the flow state more often.
When I went on a 10 day Silent Meditation retreat, not having any distractions for ten days gave me some of the most beautiful moments of my life. Of course, it’s not always easy to digitally detox. Mark Manson gives great tips for cultivating an ‘attention diet’, meaning we only limit ourselves to that which is nutritious for us mentally.
Gretchen Rubin says “I find that I’m much happier if I can achieve this flow state for part of each day. But this requires shutting off my email and my web browser, not an easy task”.
In a world that demands our attention, giving yourself the gift of flow may mean setting strict boundaries, and saying no to a lot of other things.
3. Quiet your mind
‘Most of us live our lives like heads on sticks’ — Steven Kotler
If your mind is spinning faster than a hamster wheel, it’s going to be difficult to get into flow. Having one too many tabs in your brain open actually blocks the flow state. When you meditate or do yoga, you quiet your mind, allowing flow in.
‘Deep embodiment’ is one of the triggers that Kotler mentions, and it’s essentially about feeling with your entire body — not just your mind.
When we become mindful, we not only attune to the present moment with our mental focus, but with our bodily awareness.
4. Try something new
Kotler says we need an element of ‘risk’ to get in the flow state.
Of course, mountain climbers and kayakers are deeply in flow due to the physical risks involved, but you don’t have to jeapordise your life if you’re not a fan of extreme sports.
In short — put yourself out of your comfort zone. Travel somewhere new. Do an activity you’ve never done before. Read something novel.
5. Do what lights you up
“When something strikes a spark of interest, follow it” says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.
The flow state is a state of absorption; so it makes sense to do something that you’re likely to get lost in. It can only show up in the now, and when we can pay attention and focus in the present moment.
6. Be in nature
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order” — John Burroughs
If we’re sat at a computer for 10 hours a day, it’s likely we are stuck in our heads.
Being in nature allows us to become more attuned to the environment around us, a pre-requisite for flow.
Nature is the great reset button for human health, and there is nowhere more calming for the mind. Not only can it make you up to 47% more creative, but it is scientifically proven to boost your immunity and lower stress levels.
7. Trust yourself
Ultimately, getting into a flow state requires two things — surrender and self-trust to the present moment.
No one ever got in flow by over-analysing, just like no one ever swam by deliberating whether it was safe to jump off the diving board or not.
So with writing, dance, painting, speaking to that cute person — whatever it is, just trust yourself, don’t think, and dive in.
As the mighty Chemical Brothers say — don’t think — just let it flow.