New Research Teaches Us How To Harness A State Of Flow
A study reveals two strategies that can help us tap into a state of hyper-concentration.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | September 10, 2023
A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences explores how metacognition, which is the awareness of your own thought processes, can help you use flow states to your advantage.
"Flow" is a state of deep concentration and absorption in an activity that is intrinsically rewarding to you. Essentially, this is what we mean when we say we are "in the zone." You may become so engrossed in a task that strikes the perfect balance between challenge and capability that you lose all sense of time.
"Flow metacognition" refers to a person's awareness of being in a state of flow, and includes beliefs about the state and its consequences, as well as strategies for achieving and maintaining it.
"As flow is more frequently experienced in achievement contexts — study, work, sports and structured leisure — I focused my research on what we call the 'productive side of flow,' that is the opportunity that the flow state offers to enhance one's cognitive productivity and performance in challenging contexts," explains psychologist Giovanni Moneta of London Metropolitan University, one of the authors of the study.
"I wanted to understand what makes some individuals so remarkably capable of entering and exiting a deep flow state depending on the requirements of the situation and apparently without exerting any effort."
The study revealed that tapping into this potent state of mind isn't just about recognizing its existence or extolling its virtues. Rather, it's about mastering specific mental strategies.
In this context, two primary flow metacognitions have emerged as vital for enhancing productivity:
1. Belief In The Transformative Power Of Flow
At the heart of productivity lies a profound yet straightforward metacognition: the unwavering belief that being in a state of flow drives achievement.
This isn't just a fleeting feeling or momentary inspiration. Rather, it's a deep-seated conviction. When immersed in flow, individuals don't just concentrate. Instead, they experience unparalleled focus and clarity, merging with the task at hand.
This state fosters an environment where ideas don't merely germinate, but flourish. And tasks are not simply completed, they're accomplished with heightened efficiency and precision.
This experience translates to tangible, often superior results, setting a higher standard of performance. Grasping and wholeheartedly embracing this belief does more than just inspire — it equips individuals with the mindset to be resilient and proactive, which is especially vital when navigating through challenging situations or confronting unforeseen obstacles.
2. Confidence To Regulate The Onset Of Flow
Beyond the belief in the effectiveness of flow lies the more subtle yet equally critical confidence in self-regulating this state. This metacognition is about taking control — it's not just about experiencing flow spontaneously, but having the confidence to summon this state at will.
The real magic occurs when individuals can enter, maintain and even re-enter flow after interruptions, especially during demanding tasks. For example, in situations where the inherent appeal of a task may be low or the demands seem overwhelming, the ability to consciously harness flow can be a game-changer. It's not just about waiting for the right conditions, but actively creating them.
How Do These Flow Metacognitions Play Out In A Real-Life Situation?
Consider a software developer tasked with debugging a particularly elusive error in a piece of code. Traditional methods have failed, and the pressure is mounting as a product release date looms. Instead of succumbing to frustration, the developer recalls past experiences in which they achieved breakthroughs while in a state of flow.
This recollection isn't just nostalgic, but acts as a catalyst. By genuinely believing in the transformative power of flow, the developer deliberately sets up an environment mirroring past flow conditions: shutting off notifications, playing their favorite concentration playlist and breaking the problem into smaller segments. As the developer immerses into flow, they not only pinpoint the bug but streamline other parts of the code, exceeding their initial goal. This outcome isn't just about the skills of the developer, but the profound belief in the productivity that the flow state can unlock.
For anyone who would like to gain confidence in creating Flow, Moneta provides three suggestions:
- Engage in mindful reflection of your past flow experiences to understand what triggers flow for you. Then, try the skill of reflexivity, where you would recreate the conditions in which those potential triggers will kick in.
- Flow is only one of several mental states — such as mindfulness or reflexivity — that can be defined as "optimal." And, it is not optimal for every single situation. So, as you learn this "metaskill," do not force flow. When in flow, we are less critical of our own work. Hence, the key to success is not to be in flow all the time but rather to enter and exit flow frequently throughout the task at hand.
- Practice the "expert craftsman approach" to problem-solving. Start with an idea, implement it partially into a prototype solution, and then evaluate it critically. Once you do this, go back immediately to the drawing board to either improve the original idea or generate a new one and repeat the process. Switching between ideation and evaluation can compel you to enter and exit flow frequently.
A full interview with psychologist Giovanni Moneta discussing this research can be found here: Can we gain command over our ability to enter flow states?