The Flow State - Lucid

The Flow: How We Get In The Zone

I sometimes wonder how the top athletes and sportspeople do what they do with such precision, accuracy, power and focus. An archer nailing the centre of a target, a table tennis player hitting a 30 shot rally in just seconds or a rally driver gliding through a Finnish forest, missing trees and rocks by mere inches.

Recently I came across a TED Talk by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist who theorised the ‘Flow’ state in the 1970s. The Flow is a state of mind where one becomes disconnected from the surroundings and completely immersed in the task in front of them. The idea of Flow isn’t new, it’s a well-known part of human psychology for many ancient civilisations and is colloquially known as being ‘in the zone’ to others.

The Flow State - Rally - Lucid

Rally drivers often feel the ‘Flow’ whilst racing, due to the extreme skills required and sensory experience.

For Csikszentmihályi, Flow is achieved when you are completely focused and motivated to succeed. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In addition to this, Mihaly states:

“During Flow, the emotions are not just contained and channelled, but positive, energised, and aligned with the task at hand. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”

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It’s this state of joy that defines Flow. In a normal ‘get shit done’ mindset we are motivated to complete a task, however this isn’t always a pleasurable sensation. When Mihaly interviewed various artists, musicians and athletes, they all paid reference to a sense of overwhelming enjoyment during their Flow state. One composer was quoted in a 1970s interview saying:

“You are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel although you almost don’t exist… My hand seems devoid of myself and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there in awe and wonderment.”

Process and Satisfaction

One precursor to why Flow exists may be found in our own inability to process information quickly, as psychologists have found that one’s mind can attend to only a certain amount of information at a time. According to Csikszentmihályi, humans can process “110 bits of information per second”. That may seem like an adequate amount, but simple daily tasks take quite a lot of information. Just decoding speech takes about 60 bits of information per second. That is why when we’re having a conversation we cannot focus our attention on other things.

The Flow State - Composer - Lucid

Performing in the Flow state also provides an overwhelming sense of gratification. This relates to the extremity of what is being achieved with so little self-awareness, creating immediate feedback which the person enjoys. One’s capacity and desire to overcome challenges in order to achieve their ultimate goals not only leads to the optimal experience, but also to a sense of life satisfaction overall.

Being in the zone isn’t about completing tasks or performing work. It’s a higher state where we cast aside our immediate surroundings, sounds and relationships, and enter a place where one hundred percent of our being is committed to an action. Csikszentmihalyi highlighted in his TED Talk that during his research, the most common scenario where one reached Flow was when the challenge that presented itself was equally met by the skill they possessed.

Conditions for Flow

You can achieve a Flow state during any activity or whilst performing any task; there is no limitation to the who or what.  It is most likely to occur when you are wholeheartedly performing a task or activity for beneficial purposes, such as when competing in a competition or when performing the arts. Passive, general life activities such as watching TV, taking a shower or taking out the washing usually do not promote Flow experiences.

Flow theory proposes three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.
  2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback.
  3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and their own perceived skills.

When in a Flow state, any one of the following six scenarios or ‘factors’ may be present:

  1. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

The Experience Fluctuation Model

In the 1980s, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the 8-channel model of Flow which visualises the possible scenario where Flow is most likely to occur. The Experience Fluctuation Model depicts the channels of experience that result from different levels of challenges and skills.


This graph illustrates one further aspect of flow: it is more likely to occur when the activity at hand is a higher-than-average challenge and the individual has above-average skills. The center of this graph represents one’s average levels of challenge and skill across all activities an individual performs during their daily life. The further from the center an experience is, the greater the intensity of that state of being (whether it is flow or anxiety or boredom or relaxation).

Finding Your Flow

You may have experienced the Flow state at some point in your life; during sports, whilst gaming, or maybe whilst performing the arts or music. Getting into the zone can be an enriching part of your day, especially as it can lift your happiness levels and general well-being. In the end, sometimes it’s the loss of reflective self-consciousness that helps us disengage from reality and de-stress, so even if you find your Flow state whilst online gaming – just let be and enjoy it!

If you’ve got a spare 18 minutes, I’d strongly recommend watching his presentation (at x1.25 speed).

In case you couldn’t tell, we at Lucid are passionate about body betterment, neuro-enhancement, productivity & focus. To be kept up to date on any other blogs or infographics, add yourself to our community mailing list.
Hendrik Kruizinga

Hendrik is the Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer at Lucid. He avidly pursues great design, experiential products and the a daily dose of betterment.