In a TED Talk called Flow — The Secret to Happiness, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explains that when you’re fully involved in the process of creating something, your brain doesn’t have enough leftover capacity to monitor how your body feels. The chatter in your head fades away, and you forget if you’re hungry or tired. Flow (or flow state) is an out-of-body focus that I can only describe as a state of ecstasy in which everything makes sense and you feel zero friction.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi and his team interviewed thousands of people in order to identify the key components that define the flow state. These seven points summarize how the people interviewed would describe flow:
Many of you have reached out via Twitter and asked how I hit flow and stay in it. Keep in mind that this is how I put myself into flow state. Everyone is different, and what works for me may not work for you.
As a precursor, I’m just going to briefly hit on the different supplements that I take to enhance cognitive function. Once upon a time, I had really bad brain fog that I was afraid would never clear up. These are supplements I’ve taken for years that have helped me regain mental clarity and perform at my cognitive peak.
Your environment has the power to significantly affect your work. The people, noise, and energy in a space can totally make or break your focus.
To keep my brain stimulated and the ideas flowing, I try not to work from the same space two days in a row. I use Spacious, a startup that turns high-end restaurants and wine bars into co-working spaces before they open for dinner service. They have 12 locations in New York (it’s also in SF) and it’s only $95/month. If you sign up, use my code AMCCUNE 😊
Something else that I’ve learned about myself is that I produce subpar work when I’m in a space with a lack of natural light. Whenever I can, I work near windows. If it’s summer, I try to work outside. I find that this helps open up my body, reduce stress, and prevent brain fog.
Ah, my favorite part! For me, music is the most critical part of hitting flow. With the wrong music, I can’t hit flow. With the right music, I can sink into a deep out-of-body focus within seconds.
In general, I try to work to music without lyrics. Before entering flow, I’ll usually listen to hip-hop to put myself in a zone; but I’ll switch to one of my go-to playlists, as lyrics demand partial brain capacity and distract from reaching a fully focused state.
I almost always work to mixes that last 60–120 minutes. This gets rid of the temptation to distract yourself by changing the song. It also seems to be the perfect amount of time when you’re in flow, as the end of the mix is a natural time to take five.
If you need new earbuds, these are the ones I always use when working from my computer. The quality is great and they cancel noise well.
90% of what I listen to is deep house. If that’s not your thing, you’re totally missing out, but hopefully you’ll find something you like. These are the main mixes I listen to while working (obsessed with the first at the moment):
This part may seem a bit meticulous, but I’ve really found my setup to be a crucial part of being productive. Sit on a firm chair with your laptop on a table. Move your chair in so your elbows are close to your sides while your hands are on your keyboard. Scoot your butt to the back of your chair and sit up straight, feet planted flat on the floor — posture is key.
I’ve found that it’s much more difficult for me to hit flow when I’m on a couch or when my legs are crossed. I’ve also found that it’s difficult to focus when sitting in a chair with wheels, as I have a tendancy to spin and move around, which distracts me from working. The perfect setup is different for everyone, so find what works for you.
So you have the environment, the music, the setup — now what?
Stretch. Reach your arms above your head as high as you can, leaning from side to side. Release. Push your shoulder blades back and hold. Release. Twist around your chair and stretch your lower back. Stretch out your legs. Point your toes and stretch your ankles. Roll your head in a circle and stretch out your neck. Get your blood flowing. Take a deep breath and sigh. A few more. Force oxygen into your lungs. Damn, this feels good.
Okay, now reset your posture. Music on. Head is in the zone. Priorities are straight. You’ve opened a new browser window so you don’t have 13 tabs demanding your attention. Or you have your sketchpad out, or whatever you’re focusing on. Your phone is on airplane mode. Let’s crush this.
Close your eyes. Listen to the music. Move if your body tells you to. Feel it, whatever it is. Think about what you need to accomplish. Get there. All the way there. Nothing can distract you. This is your zone and you are in full control. We’re ready to rock. You’re in flow.
Reaching flow is like launching a rocket into orbit. It’s hard to get there, but once you hit it, it’s relatively easy to stay. Okay, maybe that was a dumb analogy, but you get the idea.
As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi said, once you’re in flow, your brain doesn’t have enough leftover capacity to monitor how your body feels. I go hours without eating and get dehydrated. I sit in weird and uncomfortable positions without taking notice. The next thing I know, it’s five hours later and I’m hangry, totally dehydrated, and my leg is asleep because I’ve been cutting off the circulation for the last half hour. Again, listen to your body. Check back in with yourself once in a while.
Be diligent about eliminating distractions as you work in flow. Keep in control. If you’re getting notifications from a specific program, close out. If your mind starts to wander, that means you’re not fully invested in what you’re currently working on — bring it back. Keep your focus frictionless and your mind a blank slate, unless it’s related to the task at hand.