If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and been surprised at how much time has passed, you were likely experiencing what positive psychologists call a state of flow.
It’s in these flow experiences that you lose your sense of self. Your worries disappear and time slows down, says Sarah Gregg, a life and business coach from Belfast, Ireland.
It is when we are “in flow” that we feel and perform our best, says Gregg, who wrote Find your Flow: The Simple and Life-Changing Practice for a Happier You, a practical journal system based on the science of positive psychology.
Flow, a core aspect of positive psychology, is a universal state that everyone can access, although some people find it easier to master than others, says Gregg, who wrote the journal to help us tap into this optimal state more often.
Although the concept of flow is centuries old, the term flow was coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s. Flow experiences can occur during activities such as sports, music, or even having an interesting conversation with friends.
Gregg describes being in flow as having feelings of ease, harmony and happiness. When you lose your sense of self and you’re not worrying about what you have to do later, that’s flow, she says. Increased happiness and life satisfaction are natural byproducts of increasing the amount of time we experience flow during our work and leisure time.
If we experience flow more frequently, we’ll feel more satisfied, be more successful and have more enjoyment, agrees Rebecca Byers, a New Dundee, Ont. well-being educator who says positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing.
Flow is a state of intense absorption when we are engaged in the moment, and Byers says it works because it’s about building up what’s right with you, not trying to fix what’s wrong. Plus, we will feel more creative and generally have better health and well-being if we learn to tap into the experience.
Country Guide reached out to Gregg and Byers for their tips for increasing the amount of flow we generate.
According to the research, there are five specific conditions that must be in place for an activity to induce a state of flow, says Byers:
- First of all, the expectations and goals must be clear.
- Second, there must be immediate feedback, that is, you can see that you’re doing it right.
- Third, you must have a sense of control over the activity.
- Fourth, you must be free from distractions.
- And, fifth, the challenge level must be in that sweet spot of being neither too difficult nor too easy.
If the activity is too hard, it can make you anxious, while if it’s too easy, you’ll be bored, warns Gregg. If an activity is anxiety-producing, can you break it down into smaller chunks or delegate some of it to others? If it’s too easy, how can you make it more challenging? Can you create a time challenge?
There is a second type of flow that has been termed “unified flow,” says Gregg. This is when you are working towards a big, personally compelling goal and your thoughts, feelings and actions are in harmony with accomplishing this goal. If the way you are spending your time does not align with your personal goals, you can experience an internal split that causes resistance and wastes your energy, she says.
Three years ago, even though she had what seemed like a really good job, Gregg felt frustrated and unfulfilled. This led her to create a structured approach to incorporating the principles of positive psychology into her life, and this in turn became the basis for the Find your Flow journal.
Here are a few highlights of Gregg’s system.
Start your day by writing down three things you are thankful for — these can be as basic as food in the fridge and a roof over your head. The research consistently shows the value of having a practice of gratitude, of noticing the little things and appreciating the beauty of now, says Gregg. Practising gratitude releases “powerful feel-good chemicals in the brain.”
Another benefit of having a gratitude practice is that our brains tend to look for things we already believe, (what’s known as “confirmation bias”) so when we look for things to be grateful for, our brains start looking for more things to be grateful for, creating a positive ripple effect.
The research also shows that if we start the day in a good mood, it tends to last all day. The converse is also true.
For Gregg, this meant breaking the habit of checking her phone first thing in the morning for the latest news and social media posts, which tend to skew negative.
Another component of Gregg’s system is to live with intention by setting three daily goals “you must do” (high-value priorities), three daily goals “you want to do” (high-flow priorities) and creating a detailed schedule for the day.
“High value priorities” are the things you must do while “high flow priorities” are the activities that give you a sense of flow, she explains.
Gregg says this was a step that changed her life. It enabled her to develop the daily habit of ensuring how she spent her time aligned with her purpose and her priorities and it helped her develop healthy boundaries.
In Gregg’s third step, you create visual imagery of what your ideal day will look like, what you will see, hear and feel as you go about your day.
But there is also an important fourth step in Gregg’s daily journal exercises.
Reflect on and note what went well during the day and what could have gone better. And pay particular attention to the times you felt in flow. Such is the key to better health and happiness.
Questions to help you find your flow
(From Sarah Gregg, certified life coach)
- What types of activities make you happy? Are there games you enjoy?
- What leisure activities give your life meaning, purpose and joy?
- What activities make you lose your sense of time and self?
- When do you feel in flow (total engagement) at work? How could you add more of this to your workday?
- What did you enjoy doing as a child?
- What do you do because you love it (not for money or any form of reward)?
Tips for getting in the flow
(From Rebecca Byers, well-being educator)
- Control your attention. Remove distractions. Minimize background noise. Avoid interruptions. Turn off your phone. Don’t multi-task or switch activities too often.
- Choose your activity. Avoid passive time-wasters such as scrolling on your phone or watching TV. Instead, do a puzzle or pursue a hobby that is more likely to induce a state of flow.
- Gamify non-flow activities by setting rules, setting targets with time limits, or rewarding yourself with an enjoyable activity or break.
- Learn what flows. Identify the times and activities that get you into flow and do more of them. You are more likely to experience flow when you are using your strengths.
- Think like a child. Stay curious and stay open to new experiences. Keep learning.
- Find your Flow: The Simple and Life-changing Practice for a Happier You (Rock Point, 2020), book by life coach Sarah Gregg
- Well-being educator Rebecca Byers’ website has tips, videos and other positive psychology resources
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), a book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Animated summary of the Flow concept (YouTube)