What makes it possible for high performance athletes, artists, scientists and innovators to effortlessly produce great, creative work?

In certain situations, it seems like these people enter a state where ideas and results just seem to flow naturally.

You may have even experienced it yourself.

You begin an activity, and become so enveloped by it that time seems to melt into the background and all distractions fade away, with you being able to just get the tasks done easily.

This is what psychologists now call a Flow State.

The history of creative flow

The term was coined and popularised by researcher & psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Csikszentmihalyi was researching the impact of incredible loss on people’s ability to find happiness, especially after devastating situations like the Second World War.

What contributed to a life that was worth living?

What he found is that many people, especially those doing creative work, were gaining happiness not from the monetary rewards of the activity, but out of performing the activity itself and building something new.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

Here Csikszentmihalyi explains how he found out about flow.

I have also been fortunate enough to speak on numerous occasions with Prof Keith Sawyer, who was a doctoral student of Dr Csikszentmihalyi and assisted his research into flow and creativity. You can see the original interview I did with him about flow and improvisation here (members only), as well as our recent podcast episode.

What is a flow state?

Csikszentmihalyi describes 7 characteristics of Flow:

  1. Complete involvement in the task, focus & concentration
  2. A sense of ecstasy & being outside of everyday reality
  3. Inner clarity and knowing what needs to be done and how to achieve it
  4. Knowledge that the activity is actually doable and that you have the adequate skills
  5. A sense of serenity, being without worry of yourself and growing beyond your ego
  6. Timelessness, where hours pass as if they were minutes
  7. Intrinsic motivation, where the activity becomes its own reward

Point 7 is especially interesting. It shows that people in a flow state can get great joy from performing this activity. This is also likely to mean the person will spend more time and effort with the activity (often over years), during which time they build on their skills, capabilities and knowledge, which are all prerequisites to later produce highly creative work. It is a positive feedback loop.

What is also interesting is that the likelihood of a person enter a flow state depends on the level of challenge and skill the activity requires, compared to the participant’s current capabilities. “Inducing flow is about the balance between the level of skill and the size of the challenge at hand” (Nakamura et al., 2009)

If an activity is too challenging for a person’s current skill set, this will lead to frustration, anxiety and stress.

If an activity is not challenging enough for a person’s current skill set, this often leads to apathy or boredom.

Flow happens when a person is involved is just at the border between the two, where they have the skills to produce a new and useful outcome, and are pushing themselves to develop them further.

A 2010 research study on classical pianists showed that those in a flow state performed in a state of ease, with lower heart rates, deeper breathing and even more relaxed facial muscles.

This means that as you progress in life, you can continually be in flow states if you keep pushing yourself to develop, but not push yourself so hard that you are working beyond your capability levels.

How does someone develop the skills to develop further and achieve flow? One of the best ways is to engage in Deliberate Practice, where you are working actively to develop specific abilities and review progress, rather than just doing repetitive exercises.

It is also important to use feedback during the activity itself to assess your performance. According to Csikszentmihalyi:

‘’You must subordinate the outcome to the immediacy of the moment, But, as the moment takes over, it needs to be sustained by feedback — you have to have a sense of how you’re doing to continue to meet the challenge. Was the shot good? The color on the canvas right? Friendly competition can help give you something to measure yourself against.”

Additional scientific research on getting into flow states

Distraction is a major issue preventing people from doing their best creative work. This is also true for flow. In Csikszentmihalyi’s other famous book on Creativity, he describes how distractions can take people out of the moment and it can take hours before they are able to achieve flow again. This has been backed up by further research by Nakamura et al., 2009.

The ability to inhibit your self-awareness and self-censorship functions of the brain also facilitates your ability to enter a flow state, as you will not be trying to criticise your actions as they happen. Training in improvisation teachniques, such as those used by Jazz musicians, helps this happen.

Some people are more likely than others to enter flow states. A 2012 research paper by Ullén et al., including Csikszentmihalyi, found that people who often enter flow states are likely to have lower levels of neuroticism, and higher levels of conscientiousness. This may be because people with lower levels of neuroticism may be less likely to be stressed by everyday life or distracted by minutia, and therefore more able to focus on the activity at hand, and people with higher levels of conscientiousness are more likely to spend time practicing activities. What is interesting is that other studies have found a negative correlation between conscientiousness and creativity, with Openness to Experience being the major personality factor.

The amount of confidence someone has before beginning an activity has also been shown to correlate with the likelihood of getting into a flow state.

And finally, research also suggests that there may be benefits to getting into a flow state as a group, rather than alone. Social flow was rated as being more enjoyable by members of a group.

If you find this topic interesting, I would also suggest you check out Csikszentmihalyi’s other breakthrough book on his research of high-performance Creative people who changed their domains: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.