A person is in a state of flow when they are totally immersed in a task. When a person is “in flow,” they may not notice time passing, think about why they are doing the task, or judge their efforts. Instead, they remain completely focused.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leader in the positive psychology movement, popularized the concept of a flow state. However, long before he coined this term, similar ideas had existed across the globe in different philosophical systems and schools of thought.

Research suggests that the brain behaves differently during flow and that certain interventions can help a person enter a flow state more frequently. As a result, it may be a useful tool to help with minimizing distractions and procrastination.

In this article, we look at flow state in more detail, including its characteristics and benefits. We also explain how to get into flow.

A young boy in a flow state while painting a rainbow in his room.Share on Pinterest
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The term “flow state” describes a mental state in which a person is completely focused on a single task or activity. They are directing all of their attention toward the task, and they do not experience many thoughts about themselves or their performance. Some people refer to this informally as being “in the zone.”

The concept of flow comes from the field of positive psychology, which is the study of things that help humans thrive. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was an influential part of the movement, coined the term.

Flow has similarities with mindfulness, as both involve a focus on the present moment. However, people often use the term “flow” in reference to situations in which they are being productive, whereas a person can be in a state of mindfulness regardless of whether they are doing a task.

Tasks that tend to encourage a state of flow often share similar characteristics. These tasks may be:

  • challenging, but not so much that they are impossible
  • rewarding, meaning that a person gets a sense of pleasure or purpose from doing it
  • in-depth, involving an investment of some time or energy to make progress

Some signs that a person is in a state of flow include:

  • Focus: It is not easy to distract people in flow from their task. They may not be thinking about anything else. If a person or event interrupts someone in flow, they may feel annoyed.
  • Lack of self-consciousness: Flow is associated with a decrease in “self-referential thinking,” which means that a person in this state is unlikely to be thinking about themselves, their performance, or how others might see them.
  • Enjoyment: People may enjoy the task, encouraging them to immerse themselves in it.
  • Persistence: Some evidence suggests that being in flow can offset the frustration of a difficult task, allowing people to keep going.

There are many situations in which a person might enter a flow state. Any task that absorbs all of someone’s attention but does not overwhelm them could induce it.

The type of activities that trigger flow will vary from person to person, depending on what they find interesting, enjoyable, or challenging. Some examples of activities that might induce a flow state include:

  • playing sports
  • playing games
  • reading
  • creative hobbies, such as playing an instrument or drawing
  • doing crafts and making things
  • solving puzzles
  • gardening

The term “hyperfocus” describes a state that can sound similar to flow. In the context of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hyperfocus refers to intense attention, or fixation, on a task that a person finds interesting. Some experts consider the two terms to be interchangeable.

However, whereas flow is generally a beneficial state, hyperfocus can potentially be counterproductive. A person might become so absorbed in their task that they struggle to focus on anything else.

Another difference is that hyperfocus usually occurs because someone is personally interested in a task or topic. In contrast, researchers have noted that people can enter a state of flow during any type of task, as long as it is challenging or meaningful enough. Such tasks could include work or chores.

During a state of flow, several changes take place in the brain. Studies have shown that the dopamine reward system plays an important role.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that supports feelings of motivation, pleasure, and reward. It can also help suppress bodily sensations, such as hunger. People in a state of flow have higher levels of dopamine, which could explain why they might not notice that they are hungry or tired.

A 2021 mini-review argues that the brain’s locus coeruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system is also involved in flow. This brain system helps regulate decision making and engagement with tasks. During flow, a person must have high levels of engagement with a challenging task that matches their skill level for this system to regulate task engagement properly.

It is unclear whether entering a state of flow causes these changes or whether these brain changes cause or enable flow. It is possible that both are true.

For example, activating the dopamine system might enable flow. Flow might then further stimulate dopamine, creating a cycle.

Researchers have proposed two main theories for how flow affects the brain:

  • Transient hypofrontality hypothesis: In this theory, executive function temporarily declines. This decline prevents a person from actively thinking about themselves, enabling them to immerse themselves fully in the task. Functional MRI (fMRI) studies suggest that there is lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in executive functioning, during flow.
  • Synchronization theory of flow: In this theory, regions of the brain communicate better during flow. A person is better able to control and coordinate their activities, suggesting higher executive functioning. Supporters of this theory point to neuroimaging studies during hypnosis and meditation, which suggest higher levels of activity in the frontal cortex.

Being in flow can be enjoyable in its own right. A person may enjoy flow because they are working on something that is meaningful to them or because it is satisfying to see the project take shape.

Research has also linked a flow state to:

  • better performance
  • fewer distractions
  • less self-judgment
  • greater motivation to complete tasks
  • the ability to spend a longer time on tasks
  • more practice, allowing someone to gain skill and competence

In positive psychology, theorists believe that flow is also important for psychological health and well-being.

People sometimes enter flow unintentionally without thinking about it. However, if someone wants to induce flow, there are a few strategies they can try.

First, it is important to understand that a person cannot always put themselves into a flow state. Instead, it is more about creating the right circumstances for flow. A person can start by thinking about previous occasions when they entered a flow state and the factors that may have helped.

For example, they might take note of:

  • the type of task
  • the environment
  • their mental state at the time

Once someone has a rough understanding of what allows them to enter flow, they can apply this to other tasks. For example, they might realize that they need a quiet environment or that they work better with background noise.

Other strategies that may help include:

  • Allowing enough time: It takes time to enter a flow state. Therefore, it might be easier to use flow for longer tasks rather than shorter ones and to block off a set period to work on them.
  • Minimizing interruptions: Distractions and interruptions make entering a flow state more difficult. People can ensure that they have uninterrupted time to work on something by going somewhere private, turning notifications off on their devices, telling others they will be busy, or blocking out time on their calendar.
  • Practicing mindfulness: The skills that a person uses to become and remain mindful are similar to those involved in a flow state. A small 2019 study of baseball players in Taiwan found that practicing mindfulness improved both performance and flow state in the athletes. Learn more about practicing mindfulness.
  • Adjusting the task: Tasks that are dull, repetitive, or too easy may not induce a flow state. If possible, a person should try adjusting these tasks so that they are more enjoyable, meaningful, or challenging. Conversely, they can break down tasks that are too hard or complex into simplified steps.

A flow state occurs when someone is completely immersed in a task or activity. It is a concept that comes from the field of positive psychology, although people have described it in different ways over the years.

Positive psychologists regard flow as an important part of productivity and consider it beneficial for psychological well-being. People may naturally enter a flow state when they have few distractions, a task feels rewarding, and the task is neither too easy nor too difficult.

It is not always possible to enter flow, especially if a task is boring or too easy. However, with practice, people can try strategies to induce flow more often as a way of aiding productivity.