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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work in his seminal book, “Flow,” explains that we are happiest when we are actively stretching our bodies and mind to produce meaningful work. As creatives, we strive for a creative flow state where we are hyper-focused on a goal that challenges our abilities and benefits not only ourselves but also people we care about.

In this post, I will outline what a creative flow state is and how we can induce this more frequently.

Defining a creative flow state

What is flow state and why does it matter

A flow state is when you are completely immersed in completing a task. According to an article by Scott Kaufman in the Huffington Post, “What is creative flow and how to achieve it,” creativity plays a large part.

The goal is to strive to be insanely creative with as much of your work as possible. When you find flow in any task, you are going to be creative with that task regardless.

Researchers studying a group of Japanese students who expressed reaching flow state often stated that they felt more fulfillment with life than those who achieved flow less.

How your brain affects this

Technically, flow is an optimal state of consciousness where you can become so laser-focused on a task that everything falls away. It starts with brainwaves. When our focus moves from normal consciousness our brain waves move from fast-moving beta to somewhere between alpha and theta.

The next part of the equation is temporarily shutting down the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This explains why the sense of self falls out of focus and the task moves into the focal.

Finding a flow state

Focus on one clear thing

James Clear describes in his post, “For a More Creative Brain Follow these 5 Steps, “ an example from the late 1800s when newspapers wanted to streamline how they printed photographs. Frederic Eugene Ives identified this problem and continued to refine a process over a period of ten years to reduce the cost by 15 times and remained the standard for the following 80 years.

Ives demonstrated that the goal should be clear. This will help you identify what to do next, the path forward, and most importantly why you are doing it.

Make sure it is challenging

Challenging (but not too challenging) problems help motivate and stretch our creative abilities. This is something for us to experiment and build our self-awareness around where we currently are, what we can handle, and where we can grow.

If the tasks required to complete a goal are too basic, then we will not put much effort into finding new and innovative ways to do them. On the other hand, if the tasks are too difficult, then we will not know how to start.

Find a goal with tasks that are in the middle ground. The level of difficulty should be just enough to stretch our physical and mental abilities.

Do this with others

You can accomplish a flow state alone. While this is beneficial, research has shown that people find achieving flow state with others more fulfilling. A study from St. Bonaventure University showed that students rated their experience in flow as a team much higher than when they were alone.

Flow states are best experienced with others.

Let ideas breathe

A number of articles on creativity mentioned the essential elements of time and patience. While flow states aim for the optimal feeling of productivity and creativity, some problems and ideas need time for the brain to consider the options. We need the space to process the possibilities.

Forcing flow and trying to squeeze out a solution may lead to nothing useful, fulfilling, or enjoyable.

Budget for these down periods where you can take breaks, change focus, and rest.

Interested in more articles on creativity?
Check out this post on introverts and creativity.
Or this post on productivity and procrastination.

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Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.