Unlocking Your Flow State: A Beginner's Guide to Finding the Zone

What's the time? Seems it's already morning...

The quote above is the opening line from a song by Roxette, a Swedish pop-rock duo, called Spending my time. Although it is a love song, I always end up finding the opening verse appropriate for the thing I'm going to write about in this article.

Have you ever been so immersed in something and completely forgot what's the time? Or you felt that the only thing important to you was the task itself?

Well, most of us did, at some point or another. That feeling of being in the zone and fully focused on one task is called the flow state.

Now, as I said, most of us experienced it. We might have been aware of it, or we weren't, but it was present. For me, one of the places where I experience flow state the most is rock climbing. You'll see how in the paragraphs below.

What is a flow state?

The term flow state was first coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975, but that doesn't mean that the sense of it hasn't existed until then. It was widely present in our history, under different names, but it wasn't scientifically researched until Csíkszentmihályi wrote about it.

A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time.[1]

What are the ingredients of flow?

Let's go a bit more deeply into what are the things that create the flow state. According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are several components of it[2]:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
  • Merging of action and awareness.
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness.
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity.
  • A distortion of temporal experience, as one's subjective experience of time, is altered. (In other words - What's the time?)
  • Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding.
  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, other needs become negligible.

All of these aspects can be independent of each other. But to be in the flow state, we need to experience all of them, more or less. This means that when you endlessly scroll through social media and lose track of time cannot be considered a flow state.

How do I experience it?

The time when I'm in the flow state the most is when I'm rock climbing. Interestingly enough, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi as an example of people being in the state of flow mentions rock climbers. 🤭

This is how it all starts. I stand in front of the wall. Tie the rope to the harness. Check my helmet. Put on my climbing shoes. Put chalk on my hands. Ask my belayer (a friend who keeps me safe by taking the rope with a climbing safety device) if everything is okay. I wait for them to confirm. I take a deep breath and say - Climbing. They respond with - On belay (some usual climbing procedure). And I start climbing.

During the climbing process, I tend to breathe as loud, and as deeply as possible. It helps me focus on the climbing, and longer inhales and exhales help me stay calm and full of attention. I am aware of my body, where to put my right and left leg as I progress, and what to hold with my hands. All that while breathing as loud and controlling as I can.

As soon as I stop doing this, the insecurity increases. Then comes the doubt, fear, uncertainty, and swoosh - I'm out of the flow state. And usually, I end up falling.

However, I know I was in the zone when I climb or fall from the route and then start to realize where I am, what is happening, what's the time...

How can you experience it?

The beauty of the flow state is that it differs from person to person. There is no exact recipe, or how to do it. I learned that the harder way.

However, some things can help you lay the foundation. I found the following points rather useful, during, not just climbing, but also, during work, playing go, reading, writing...

  • Remove distractions. Usually, it's enough to put your smartphone in another room. However, notifications from your laptop and different sounds from your surrounding can also be distracting. Focusing mode on laptops (if you're trying to achieve the flow state while working on it), or noise-canceling headphones can be of help there.
  • Control your breathing. A couple of deep inhales and exhales can help you focus better. Also, I learned that the boxed breathing technique helps - breathe in for 3-4 seconds, hold for the same amount, exhale for the same amount, and wait the same amount before inhaling.
  • Use a timer. Use a Pomodoro technique and work for 25 mins, take a 5 min break, and so on. I usually do 30 min work, then a 5 to 7 min break, and repeat it 3 or 4 times.
  • Be persistent. Try and do focused work for one timed cycle (e.g. 25 mins), make this your goal. Then, see how you feel about continuing.
  • Create a routine out of it. Before starting, find something that will put you easily into the zone - a cup of coffee or tea, sitting in a certain position, standing, taking a walk. Whatever comes to mind. You will do this every time you set out yourself for some focused task. It will help you immensely.

(Useful) Sources

Roxette – Spending My Time (Official Video) [Remastered ℗ 2021]
Roxette – Spending My Time (Official Video) [Remastered ℗ 2021]Directed by Wayne IshamProduced by Jeff Tannebring Restored and edited from original 35 mm tap…

The song that I mention above. It isn't tied in any way to the experience of the flow, except I somehow managed to connect the first verse with the flow. It's a nice listen, nevertheless. And I had it in my head the whole time I was writing this article.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow is an optimal state of being in which active concentration and absorbtion in creative activi…

In this book, Csíkszentmihályi writes about the flow state, the optimal experience. He goes into detail about his research and its results. I highly recommend it! The book I read was a Serbian translation, which helped me a lot grasp the whole thing. Hint: if you are reading the Serbian translation, the conclusion from Žarko Trebješanin Ph.D. who reviewed the book, was excellent! When I read that part I felt that I didn't need to read the whole book.

How to Breathe Correctly for Optimal Health, Mood, Learning & Performance | Huberman Lab Podcast
In this episode, I explain the biology of breathing (respiration), how it delivers oxygen and carbon dioxide to the cells and tissues of the body and how is…

The great episode on breathing, from an even greater podcast by Andrew Huberman. If you don't have time to go into scientific explanations of how breathing works, check out the chapters of the podcast. The part about the boxed breathing technique is here.

Rock Warrior’s Way - Mental Training for Climbers - book
A revolutionary mental training program for climbers who want to improve both their performance and their enjoyment of climbing.

Since I'm touching on the topic of rock climbing, I want to mention this book as well. It's about the psychological aspect of climbing, how to conquer the fear of falling, focus more on the climbing process, and be a better not just climber but a person. It is inspired by various self-help books such as Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, and many more.

Comment down below what you think about the article. Have you found it useful and interesting? Have you experienced the state of flow? What got you in the zone?


https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00222216.1994.11969966 ↩︎

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)#Components ↩︎