Whether you’re a teacher, designer, software engineer, business leader or small business owner, creativity is the holy grail that helps us solve problems, innovate and progress.
This probably isn’t your first rodeo, and in your search for ways to boost your own – or your team’s creativity, you’ll have had plenty to choose from. Sleeping, exercise, sports, washing dishes, taking time to reset, dialing up the diversity in your organization or even moshing at festivals – they’re all worth a go. But if you’ve got room for one more, then neuroscience has a secret weapon you should try: the flow state.
Flow is a state of mind where we feel ‘in the zone’. It lets us unlock our potential and stretch ourselves to achieve more. It’s got fundamental benefits for our wellbeing and happiness too, but research suggests this mysterious psychological phenomenon also has the potential to boost our creativity at work, at home and in almost any aspect of our lives.
What is flow and isn’t it just mindfulness?
Although academics have been exploring flow-like factors since the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1990 that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the father of positive psychology, saw flow in action and figured out how it worked. His research created a chain reaction of research studies that are, even today, proving the link between this powerful state of consciousness and our ability to work better, play better and feel better.
Here are the factors Csikszentmihalyi believes are fundamental to inducing a flow state:
- Challenge-skills balance: The activity must match your skill level. Too difficult and you’ll trigger stress, too easy and you’ll trigger boredom. Ideally it should be slightly beyond your current ability so you can stretch yourself.
- Clear goals: Flow is all about tackling a challenge, then succeeding or falling short but learning from it, and going again. Aiming for something small and achievable is best.
- Unambiguous feedback: Flow isn’t a trance-like state where your mind wanders. Here, you are aware of your goal and your progress towards it, and you have the control needed to continually optimise your performance in real time.
- Total concentration: It might be possible to experience flow without goals or feedback, but focus is a must-have if you want to get in the zone.
Once we’re in a flow state, there are many things we might experience. We may feel completely immersed in the activity, with no sense of time passing. Yet we’re still aware of what’s happening and in control of our actions. People experiencing flow will often lose their self-consciousness, freeing them to experiment and take risks without fear. Finally, we may feel intrinsic satisfaction and happiness. The doing of the activity is the reward itself.
I’ve used the word ‘may’ because like many psychological phenomena, flow is subjective. It’s hard to predict and hard to measure. There’s no on/off switch or certificate issued on entry. Flow is a continuum, ranging from shallow (or micro) to deep (or macro). And only you can know if you’ve experienced a flow state.
Even now, 20 years after Csikszentmihalyi published his seminal theory, flow remains an emerging field where much is uncertain, including the definition of flow state itself. But one thing is certain: We each experience flow in different ways. Studies of flow states in athletes tell us that although 80% experienced intense concentration, and felt completely absorbed in what they are doing, only 30% felt a loss of self-consciousness or lost track of time.
Whatever your zone feels like to you, another certainty is that your brain chemistry radically changes, boosting your ability to take risks, solve problems and generate meaningful new ideas.
What does flow actually do?
Like many areas of positive psychology such as mindfulness, the list of benefits we get from inducing flow states is pleasingly long. At a basic emotional level, a flow state helps us to feel at one with ourselves, it gives us a sense of fulfilment and enhances our happiness.
Then there are the productivity and performance angles much-loved by companies and elite sports people. Remember those 10,000 hours needed to master a skill? Make that 5,000 if you regularly find your flow, says leading flow researcher Steven Kotler. Through passion, total immersion and focus, and by stripping away the mental barriers that block us from delivering our best, flow helps us amplify our strengths and access optimal performance.
But if, like me, you’re happy with your 25-minute 5K and you’ve made peace with your dadbod, there are still other gains you can unlock. And the key is in the silencing of our inner critic who holds us back. In a flow state, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, our ‘inner voice’, is temporarily put on mute. That opens the door to risk-taking, flexible thinking and new ideas. In other words, creativity.
Neuroscientists have shown that creativity isn’t a single thing. There are many types of creative thinking, we are all different and that goes some way to explaining why creativity is a very difficult skill to teach.
At its simplest, creativity is the act of using our imagination to make something new. It’s the place where your existing knowledge collides with new information and something original happens. The creative process is ‘intentional invention’, and according to numerous surveys, it’s the number one skill human beings need to succeed. From school children to CEOs, coding to crosswords (and even Call of Duty), creative thinking can be a superpower that transforms virtually every aspect of your life.
The creative benefits of flow
It all sounds pretty good so far. But how do we really know that flow exists, let alone boosts creativity? And what type of creative thinking can it actually stimulate?
From trials conducted by psychologists and also from brain imaging technology, we’re sure that flow is real. Aside from professional sports, the link between flow states and creativity has been explored in painting, music, dance, theatre and that renowned bastion of creative thought, Tetris.
In one Australian study, participants were asked to solve a difficult puzzle and none succeeded. When researchers ran the test again having artificially induced a flow state, over half solved the puzzle. In 2018, academics in China and Taiwan tested the impact of flow on creative output using VR painting and found that those who were in flow created work that was much more ‘novel’. Research by the Flow Genome Project has found that participants were up to seven times more creative.
And if you expect creativity to drop off once you exit your flow state, here’s an extra incentive for you. Harvard professor and creativity expert Teresa Amabile has discovered that as well as being more creative during flow, we’re more creative for several days afterwards, too. The more we flow, the more we flex and grow our creative muscles.
Observing human behavior and judging the novelty of paintings is certainly one way to measure creativity. Seeing what happens to our brains when we’re in the zone, though, is whole other ball game.
The science behind flow and creativity
From MRI scans on the brains of improv jazz players, cellists, freestyle rappers and other flow-loving folk, we now have solid evidence of the neuroscience behind flow.
During what scientists called the ‘flow phase’, the brain releases a unique cocktail of neurochemicals that includes dopamine – which we already know is linked to heightened creativity – norepinephrine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins. Together, they generate a specific combination of alpha, theta and gamma brainwaves that allows us to access subconscious processing, experience immersion but with control, and enhanced ability to think up new ideas.
But there’s more, and this part may be the most surprising. In a flow state, our brains effectively switch off the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for logic, perception of time and moderating our behavior. This frees us from the limiting fear of ‘what if’. “The inner monologue that can hinder creative expression” says Kotler, “is rendered silent.”
So, although you might think we need to use more of your brain to boost creativity, in fact we use less.
How to enter flow states
Flow isn’t something we can trigger at will (although according to DARPA, placing electromagnets on your head does exactly that). Yet we can increase our odds by starting off with the right mental state, environment and preparation.
- Choose a task you enjoy: Your chances of reaching flow are greater if you’re passionate about the task at hand, it feels meaningful or you feel a sense of purpose. The brain is wired to pay closer attention in these cases, and focused attention is the magic that makes flow states happen.
- Do it for the love of it: True flow states can’t be bought or hacked. You have to want to do the activity yourself, not because someone else needs you to.
- Challenge yourself: Pick a task that’s too easy and your brain will be bored. Pick one that’s too difficult and your brain’s stress response will block flow. Pick something hard that you’re already pretty good at, but which requires you to stretch yourself.
- Use clear goals: By choosing a specific, small step to be achieved during the session, we reduce cognitive load, increase motivation and focus better.
- Prepare mentally: Stress, distractions and interruptions are the enemy of flow. Find a quiet space, try some breathing or visualization techniques to create some positive energy. If you’re low on energy or focus, wait for a better moment.
- Get mid-game feedback: Once you’ve set your objective, remember to check your progress along the way and adapt in real time.
- Be patient and persevere: You’re unlikely to crack flow states in a day. Experiment with different variables, track what happens each time and try again.
Relax, not everyone’s a natural
Although, as Csikszentmihalyi discovered, everyone can access flow states, some of us are more ‘prone’ to achieving it than others. If you’re a focused or goal-oriented person, or you have a strong degree of self-belief, the chances are you’ll find it easier to enter flow states, or you may experience deeper flow than others who don’t share your characteristics. If you’ve got an ‘autotelic’ personality – you enjoy doing things just for the sake of it – or you have an innate openness to experience, those will help too.
On the flipside, if you are what psychologists term ‘neurotic’, if you’re overly critical of yourself or you suffer from anxiety, you may find it harder to induce a flow state, though it is by no means impossible and in fact you might even benefit more from experiencing flow.
It’s worth setting realistic expectations too, because flow isn’t an easy win. There’s no short cut to success. For every online guru who claims there’s a hack that guarantees flow every time, there’s a dedicated, motivated sports person who satisfies all the conditions yet seldom finds their flow.
It’s also worth repeating that flow is a spectrum of feelings. Depending on how many of the so-called conditions for flow are present, you might only experience shallow flow, yet even shallow flow can still enhance your creative thinking. And because flow plays in the same sandbox as self-confidence and positivity, any juice you can get is well worth the squeeze.
Finding your flow at work
In many sectors, creativity is the buzzword of our time. Yet much of it happens in group settings, and we know that flow is primarily a solo mission. So, does it have a place in the modern working world?
It does, and actually it has had for some years. Computer science professor Cal Newport is credited with a concept called ‘deep work’: “the ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task.” Sound familiar? Deep work cautions against the impact of distracting technology and explores the creativity and productivity edges we can gain from prioritizing deep working in our day.
We already know that among the conditions needed to induce flow, sustained focus and the removal of distraction are super important to being fully engaged in what you’re doing. Given the nature of the office environment, is it feasible to integrate flow states into our working day?
Controlling your environment for optimal experience is easier for remote or hybrid workers, but even in the workplace, there are tactics you can try, albeit unconventional (which we like), in order to achieve a flow state. Teresa Amabile famously told of a time-pressured employee “who moved to the room where the boxes were stored and stayed there for the entire day, really getting into a flow state” of uninterrupted creativity.
Android developer Michael Sim has his own hack for dialling up flow state creativity.
“Focusing on one task makes it so much easier to enter a state of flow. In a state of flow, there is no cognitive energy left over to think about anything else. You’re entirely focused on your work. The intense concentration can lead to work feeling almost effortless. It doesn’t make sense to do something for 15 minutes and then do something else. That’s not how it works if you are trying to reach a level of creativity.”
Creating a serene space, eliminating interruptions and clearing your schedule are certainly levers we can pull. As challenge-skill balance is a core condition, the activity we choose is another lever. Of all the print ads or digital banners a designer may be asked to create in a year, some may be so easy that any attempt to get into flow would be futile. Yet other projects may pose just the right degree of challenge for a flow experiment.
Finally, go find your intrinsic motivation, your purpose. If you’re looking for a creative boost, don’t expect to find one if you’re only doing something because you’re getting paid.
A surprising way to maintain your creative flow
In honor of the positive power of creative flow, I’m going to assume you’ve read this article, practiced inducing flow and got further down the path to creative nirvana than I have (I blame my 4-year-old – he is not conducive with flow).
You’ve mastered how to enter flow on a regular basis, and you’re more creative in your work. How do you make sure its sustainable over the long run. How do you nurture what researchers call your ‘long-haul creativity’?
Kotler has an unusual suggestion, inspired by writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s approach to his work. At the very moment we reach peak flow and are basking in the glory of our optimal creativity, we stop! Exit flow state, close laptop, come back tomorrow. It makes no sense, but then perhaps it does?
“By quitting when you’re most excited, you’re carrying momentum into the next day’s work session. Momentum is the key. When you realize that you left off someplace both exciting and familiar — someplace where you know the idea that comes next — you dive right back in, no time wasted, no time to let fear creep back into the equation, and far less time to get up to speed.”
Go find your flow and create
If you made it this far, you clearly have the focus needed to find your flow, and I wish you luck on your journey. Because pure, focused, self-motivated, positive, totally absorbed flow states might be the catalyst you need for your next career leap forward, or just a personal best on Tetris.