Have you ever been so caught up in a project that you’ve happily toiled away for days with zero thought of food, water and the outside world? If you're nodding along, then you’ve probably experienced what’s known in the psychology world as ‘flow state’.
This mysterious mental state is when we're most at our most creative and our most productive – making it particularly useful for film-makers, musicians and anyone else trying to get deep in the artistic groove. Sound interesting? Here's what it is, and how to get there...
Medical dictionaries define flow state as, “an altered state of consciousness in which the mind functions at its peak, time may seem distorted, and a sense of happiness prevails.”
Although the idea of getting ‘in the zone’ has been around for thousands of years (Taoists refer to it as ‘wu wui’ - the act of doing without doing), it wasn’t until 1975 that the term ‘flow’ was used. A Polish psychologist with the catchy name of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was researching how artists would get lost in their work, when he noticed how a lot of them described feeling like they were being 'carried effortlessly in a current of water' when they were at their creative peak.
Mihaly found that this ‘flow’ was a common thing for not just artists, but also chess players, basketball players and pretty much anyone who was pushing themselves.
Whilst this might all sound a little dubious and mildly pseudo-scientific, flow has been acknowledged now by bonafide, lab-coat wearing scientists as 'a thing'. The common myth that people in flow state use more brain power that normal has also been debunked. Instead, it’s thought flow is actually down to the opposite—a part of the brain shutting off.
Perhaps the loudest voice on flow today is that of Steven Kotler, a writer from Chicago. How he came to study the subject so closely is a pretty bonkers story that involves his near death and subsequent savior by what he later recognised to be flow. Here he explains how it works...
“In flow, parts of the brain aren’t becoming more hyperactive, they’re actually slowing down. The technical term for this is transient hypofrontality. Hypo, it’s the opposite of hyper, means to shut down, to deactivate. And frontality is the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that houses your higher cognitive functions, your sense of morality, your sense of will, your sense of self."
In flow, the chunk of your brain dedicated to your inner-critic is on mute, so you can get on with doing things without any nagging self-doubt. Mckinsey, a management consultant firm, carried out research over a ten year period which found that executives were five times more productive in flow.
The first thing you’re going to need is an actual objective, as Kotler points out: “clear goals tell us where and when to put our attention. When goals are clear, the mind doesn’t have to wonder about what to do or what to do next—it already knows.”
These goals also makes it a lot less difficult to break past the proverbial blank page as, without stating the obvious, it’s a lot easier to do something when you know what you’re trying to do.
Another tip for breaking into flow is to turn off that phone for a bit and get rid of all distractions. Whether you’re composing a song, editing a film, painting a masterpiece or just writing a 1200 page epic to rival Infinite Jest, you’re going to struggle to get into the zone if you’re scrolling around on Instagram every five minutes.
This is obviously a hard one in these tech-addicted times, but if you try and master a bit of restraint, you’ll get into the groove a fair bit easier.
Next up, scare yourself. Whilst a lot of flow-based chat seems to stem from surfing and various other Point Break-style action sports, the body isn’t fussy about what sort of risks you’re taking. So in the same way a rock-climber will get into the flow-state by dangling from a precipice thousands of feet above the ground, a film-maker could scare themselves a bit by dangling their dead expensive camera out the window of a high-speed locomotive.
Okay, the rock-climber might get a bit more of a buzz, but the idea is the same—step out of your comfort zone and you’ll be forced to focus harder.
It’s also good to break from routine and change your environment. The Pixar studios were famously designed with a massive atrium in the centre to promote what Steve Jobs called, “unplanned collaborations.”
Obviously you don’t have to go this far and call up your... er... local atrium supply firm, but something as simple as riding your bike a different way to work, or brushing your teeth with your other hand (this sounds a bit strange but it does apparently work) should keep things interesting and stop your brain from getting too complacent.
If all this still sounds like too much effort, there's always this handy shortcut from the flow-state don-dada Steven Kotler... "You want the cheapest flow hack in the world? Twenty minute run. Cup of coffee. Marijuana. That order. It's the exact same neurochemical cocktail as flow. Simple."
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