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by da na g. smith
illustrations by zeloot
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The science of flow
Flow has come to be known as a state of peak performance, but its origins
lie not in optimization and productivity but in the study of happiness. The
concept was first introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—the
godfather of flow—while conducting research in the 1960s and ’70s on what
makes people happy.
As part of his work, he spoke with hobbyists—painters, chess players, danc-
ers, rock climbers—who were passionate about their activity without the
promise of fame or fortune. During Csikszentmihalyi’s interviews, a common
theme kept emerging: When they were in the right state of mind, the work
would just flow out of them as if it were carried by a current. Painters and
climbers didn’t have to force anything; their tasks became effortless. Dancers
and musicians talked of an almost out-of-body experience where they were
unaware of themselves, their surroundings,
or the passage of time. They performed the
action not for any external validation but
because it was rewarding in and of itself.
When people are in a state of flow, they
appear to be in the “sweet spot” physio-
logically. Heart rate is higher in flow than
when a task is too easy, but lower than
when it’s deemed too hard. Similarly, cor-
tisol levels are moderately elevated—high
enough so that you’re alert and engaged
but not so high that you feel overwhelmed.
Generally, heart rate variability is low
during flow, indicating a higher cognitive
load, and breathing rate is elevated, with
more deep breaths.
Though it’s tough to study a brain in flow,
psychologists have been able to induce the
experience in the lab using video games
like Tetris and even by having people solve
The key, says Johannes Keller, head of
the social psychology department at the
University of Ulm in Germany, is to match
the difficulty of the task to the person’s
skill level. “When participants worked on
a mental arithmetic task and the difficulty
level was continuously adapted to their
performance level, you can actually see it
in their brains,” he says.
Alex Honnold, the mountain-climbing star of Free Solo, ascends cliff
faces like Yosemite’s El Capitan—3,000 feet of vertical granite—
without safety equipment. No ropes, no helmet; only his hands, feet,
and brain. What helps Honnold defy gravity (and death)?
Honnold has said the experience of flow—of having total
concentration, when skill matches the challenge at hand and
everything else falls away—helped him break the speed record
on another Yosemite climb. And it’s the pleasure and satisfaction
derived from flow that keep him coming back to the rock.
Legend has it that flow (and amphetamines!) also aided Jack
Kerouac in writing his final draft of On the Road, typing the entire
novel on a 120-foot roll of paper in just three weeks. In his advice
to writers, Kerouac recommends that they “struggle to sketch the
flow that already exists intact in mind.” Fortunately, flow is not
just for artists or athletes. We regular folk don’t have to climb a
mountain or write a novel to experience flow; it can be found while
reading a good book, enjoying a deep conversation, playing video
games—or even working at the office.
Flow is the experience of being “completely engaged in a chal-
lenging activity,” says Gary Gute, associate professor of applied
human sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. When that
engagement happens, he says, time is distorted, self-conscious-
ness disappears, and you enjoy the experience so much you want
to repeat it again and again.
Researchers at McKinsey & Company surveyed more than
5,000 business leaders on whether they and their teams have
experienced a state of flow. The executives reported that “they
and their employees are in the zone at work less than 10 percent
of the time,” but when they are, they estimate they’re five times
So how can you tap into flow, both at home and in the office, not
only to get more work done but to get more enjoyment from it, too?
LOW ABILITY HIGH
based on Mihaly
the optimal position
to get into a flow
state. Flow is achieved
when the difficulty
level is matched to a
person’s skill set.
H P I N NOVAT IO N FA L L / W I N T E R 2022 55
There are a few specific changes that
occur when the brain is in a state of flow.
Activity decreases in a set of regions called
the default mode network, which gets
turned on when the mind wanders. This
includes a section of the prefrontal cortex
involved in self-reflection. At the same
time, there’s increased activity in another
part of the prefrontal cortex that’s critical
for attention, enabling you to focus solely
on the job in front of you. Regions that
process feelings of reward also get turned
on, which explains how a task performed
in a state of flow becomes intrinsically
The optimal setup at work
It’s one thing to get into this mental state
while you’re playing a piano solo or skiing a
black diamond slope, but what about when
you’re staring down an Excel spreadsheet?
It’s not as far-fetched as you might think.
In fact, Csikszentmihalyi was most inter-
ested in how the experience of flow could
be incorporated into the more mundane aspects of everyday life.
The key is to optimize your external and internal environments.
First and foremost, create a physical space where you’re able
to focus. An office where people are frequently interrupted and
distracted is a problem from the point of view of finding flow, says
Zsadany Vecsey, who worked with Csikszentmihalyi and others
to create Fligby, a gaming solution that teaches people how to be
better business leaders using the principles of flow. “That kind of
focus is missing, normally, in the modern workplace.”
Some of the biggest flow-killers at work are emails, notifica-
tions, and other distractions that shatter your concentration.
Multitasking hinders flow, too, because your attention is divided.
If you need to get into flow, close your email and Slack or set to Do
Not Disturb, tell a manager or coworkers that you won’t be able to
respond immediately for the next hour or two, and put your phone
on silent and out of sight if you can. Also try scheduling meetings
for either the morning or afternoon so you can block off the rest
of the day for deep concentration.
It’s important to pay attention to your physical and emotional
state, too. If you’re physically uncomfortable—tired, hungry,
needing to use the bathroom—it can be difficult to ignore those
sensations and lose yourself in a task. Similarly, if you’re feeling
emotional, whether it’s positive or negative, you probably won’t be
able to disengage and focus on the work. J
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If you’re struggling to leave your emotions at the door when
you sit down to work, try meditating for five or 10 minutes. Con-
centrate on your breathing and let the emotional thoughts pass
through without focusing on them. Or try a grounding exercise
like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Bring your attention first to five things
you can see, then four things you can feel, three things you can
hear, two things you can smell, and finally one thing you can taste.
These exercises should snap you out of your thought spiral and
bring you into the present moment.
Finding meaning is key to achieving flow at work
The other half of the flow equation is the work itself. The two
opposing states to flow are apathy and anxiety; when the work
is too easy, you feel bored and disengaged, but if it’s too hard it
becomes overwhelming and stressful. The activity must fall in the
sweet spot of your skill set. And as you get better over time, the
task needs to become more challenging to keep you in a state of
flow. Alex Honnold didn’t start off climbing mountains without
ropes. But as he got better and better with decades of practice, he
kept seeking out more difficult climbs to keep himself engaged
If a task is too easy (or boring), try making a game out of it.
“[Set] a goal and subgoals as ways of making the work more chal-
lenging and to improve your skill,” says Gute. “[Make it] a little
game that you play with yourself to try to find more engagement,
meaning, and interest in the work that you’re doing.”
You should also have a clear idea of your desired outcome, both
short and long term, and be able to evaluate how you’re doing.
Flow has been described as optimal high-speed decision-making,
with each choice effortlessly flowing from one to the next. You
know exactly which musical note to play or which chess move
to make. There are clear goals every step of the way, and there
is immediate feedback that the choice you made is the right one.
Make the wrong move in chess and your piece will be captured; play the
wrong note and your ear will hear it.
Keller says that these three main requirements for flow—a task that fits
your skills, a clear objective, and real-time self-evaluation—are all related.
“You cannot experience a perceived fit of skills and task demands without
clear task instructions and without the ability to identify whether you’re
making progress,” he explains.
It’s also easier to enter a flow state if you find the work meaningful. If at
first glance a task appears boring, approaching it with curiosity and a desire
to learn might reveal intriguing elements that can spark your interest and
help you become more engaged. Or try thinking about what the wider impact
of your work might be.
“If you know who is using your services or products, what the impact will
be on their lives, and how you can actually help them or support them, that
will definitely increase the internal moti-
vational level,” Vecesy says.
FLOW ISN’T ALWAYS something you just
fall into—it’s a skill like any other that you
can work at and cultivate. In other words,
sometimes it’s up to you to find the flow,
and it may be less about the task itself and
more about your attitude toward it.
It’s this aspect of flow—the practice of
trying to find enjoyment and fulfillment
even from everyday activities—that led
Csikszentmihalyi to believe that living
in flow was the secret to happiness. His
research showed that the more flow
people have in their lives, the happier they
are, possibly because their work becomes
So the next time you’re putting together
a PowerPoint deck or working on an annual
strategy plan, try to make the task a little
more interesting or meaningful by keeping
your focus in the moment, making a game
out of it, or probing why the activity is valu-
able. You might be surprised by how much
you enjoy it.
Flow has been
one to the next.