Have you ever hit that point in your morning run when the world melts away? Or vibed on a creative project for three hours that felt like three minutes? You were probably experiencing a flow state. The term flow state started with psychologist Mihal Csikszentmihalyi who helped us better understand and categorize peak mental states like being in the zone or feeling a runner’s high.
Dr. Chris Bertram, director of applied neuroscience at EXOS and an associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley explains, “regardless of the type of activity, flow-inducing experiences tend to share certain characteristics, such as a sense of effortless control, complete concentration on an inherently rewarding task, unusual distortions of time (speeding up or slowing down), and a merging of thought and action.”
Let’s explore how this phenomenon has become the latest buzzword in fitness culture. Below we answer your burning flow state questions to help you find it, embrace it, and excel.
How can flow state help you?
Here’s the benefit you might not realize you needed: quietening your prefrontal cortex. While your prefrontal cortex can help you weigh the pros and cons of decisions, it’s not always helpful for high performance.
That’s where flow state comes in. When Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Limb looked at the brains of jazz musicians with functional magnetic resonance imaging, he found their prefrontal cortex was much less active when they were playing improvisational pieces versus standard pieces.
“When that deactivation happens, it turns out the mind is free to explore new patterns without the usual voices of doubt and self-consciousness creeping in, and the brain is better able to process information subconsciously, and more quickly,” says Dr. Bertram.
So the next time you’re facing a difficult problem, inducing a flow state can help you think outside the box and come up with a creative solution without getting in your head about it.
How can you activate flow state?
Luckily, calming down your frontal lobes doesn’t require you to be a skilled jazz musician. “More recent research suggests that similar benefits can be obtained through bouts of moderate physical activity (such as a 20-minute walk) or even more quickly following four to six minutes of intense activity,” says Dr. Bertram.
Once those frontal lobes are quiet, Dr. Bertram says the next step is to incorporate flow triggers into your workspace. First, start with a clear and unambiguous goal.
“If you’ve been procrastinating on a big project, try setting a timer for 90 minutes and decide to accomplish a specific quantity of work. This won’t alone start flow state, but it will help you remove uncertainty that can stand in your way,” says Dr. Bertram.
The next step is your environment. “Flow follows focus. And what kills focus? Constant distractions and interruptions,” says Dr. Bertram. “Once you’ve set your goals, do whatever you can to eliminate the potential for distraction.” This means shutting off your phone, closing extra browser tabs, and even closing the door to your office.
So, the next time you’re fighting the afternoon fog, or going for a new personal best at the gym – make sure you are clear on your goals and have eliminated the distraction barriers. Then you’ll be ready to tap into your flow state. Letting your prefrontal cortex take a break might just be what you need to make a breakthrough.