Athletes say they're "in the zone," and musicians say they're "in the groove." And if you've ever been deeply engrossed in an activity and you don't notice time passing, you know that feeling too. It's called flow state. It's when you're so completely present and engaged in an activity that the rest of the world seemingly disappears.
Flow state plays a role in our mental and physical well-being, but the stresses and concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic have made it more difficult for many people to find flow in daily life. There are plenty of ways to rediscover your flow state – and recent research suggests that mind-expanding substances like cannabis and psilocybin can help.
Flow State Defined
Falling into flow state is easy when you're completely engaged in an activity you enjoy. When the key elements of a flow state come together, time can slow down, and you're so focused on the activity you're oblivious to everything else. Senses become heightened, and there's a feeling that the body and mind are working in sync. So much so that you don't even have to think about what you're doing.
Much of our modern understanding of the flow state comes from the pioneering work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who explored how becoming immersed in creativity, play, or any other engaging activity could contribute to overall fulfillment and happiness in life.
Being in the flow is often associated with creative work or athletics, but it can come from many other things, too. Whatever they are, flow-state activities usually have a few characteristics in common:
They're activities you enjoy doing and where you excel
Flow activities are often directed at a goal. This could be an athlete training for a competition or an artist working to complete a painting. But flow state can also come from the pleasure of the process itself, without an end goal in mind.
It pushes you to use your skills at the highest level. The activity is neither so easy that you get bored, nor so difficult that you get frustrated and give up. But it usually adds a new challenge that pushes you a little beyond your comfort zone.
It requires intense concentration, and this complete focus on the task at hand produces better work and higher performance.
It creates a sense of clarity, so that you know just what to do without consciously thinking of it. The mind and body work in sync to carry out tasks.
Actions "flow" without the mind's negative chatter. During flow state, self-doubt, self-criticism, and uncertainty disappear.
At the end of a flow state, people usually feel invigorated, exhilarated, and self-confident – and the benefits can last well beyond the experience itself. Research reveals that regularly spending time in flow state can boost self-esteem and lead to a general sense of well-being and accomplishment that affects all other areas of life.
Getting Into the Flow
For most people, flow state happens during the course of pursuing something enjoyable. But psychologists following Csikszentmihalyi's work, along with a long list of life coaches, therapists, and others working to unravel the secrets of human potential, have outlined some specific steps anyone can take to get into the flow of what they're doing. Among their suggestions:
Create a ritual around the activity you're doing. Rituals "prime" the brain to start the activity and direct awareness toward it. Rituals can be as simple as getting coffee and turning off the phone, or laying out supplies – whatever signals dedication to the work at hand.
Don't multitask. If the activity has multiple parts, choose the most important one and focus only on it.
Reduce or eliminate distractions whenever possible before you begin. That might include closing your office door, turning off the phone, or telling people you won't be available for a period of time.
Figure out the time of day when you're at your most productive, and try to do the flow activity during that time.
These practical steps can set up conditions for a flow state to happen. But researchers studying flow state have also learned that practices that encourage focus and concentration can also help people to experience flow. Meditation, mindfulness and focus-enhancing substances such as cannabis and psilocybin can also help people find flow and reap its benefits.
Meditation and Mindfulness Can Encourage Flow
Flow and meditation share some commonalities. Like flow, meditation works best when you eliminate distractions. And both meditation and mindfulness involve total focus on the present moment, and a detachment from negative thoughts.
For those reasons, meditation and mindfulness practices can help people improve focus and concentration, and those practices could make it easier to find the flow in other activities, too. But new research reveals that chemical compounds such as cannabis and psilocybin may play an important role in opening up the mind to flow.
Cannabis & Flow State
The many compounds in the cannabis sativa plant work with the body's endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors found throughout the organs and tissues, for a variety of beneficial effects. In particular, CBD and THC can work together with receptors in the brain to boost focus and concentration, which are essential for flow state. The most popular strains for helping with focus and mood include:
Harlequin, a sativa-dominant strain with a CBD to THC ratio of 5:2. This strain is also popular for pain relief and boosting mood, and it helps with finding focus during daily tasks.
Cinex, another Sativa strain with a considerable amount of THC, produces a "clearheaded high" and is popular among artists and other creatives.
Mother's Helper is a perfectly balanced (1:1) hybrid strain often used to relieve symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. This strain supports focus and motivation, but its high THC content can also increase anxiety.
Breaking Down Barriers with Psilocybin
Psilocybin is the active ingredient in "magic mushrooms" beloved of yesterday's hippie trippers. But now researchers are discovering how these chemicals can disrupt activity in areas of the brain related to self-consciousness and the ego. That creates the sense of expanded consciousness that's also present in flow states, when people "lose themselves" in favorite activities.
Jaime Wheal and Steven Kotler are at the forefront of altered states of consciousness for greater productivity and life satisfaction. Their book, Stealing Fire examines how careful use of psilocybin and other psychedelic substances can boost creativity, fuel aspirations, and help people achieve more than ever before.
These substances affect brain areas connected to learning, memory, and the awareness of the self. In small doses, they form new connections between these areas and disrupt existing ones. According to Wheal and Kotler, that breaks down the barriers to experiencing flow in all areas of life.
In a recent presentation, Wheal notes that the potential for flow is in everyone, and this natural "altered state" has profound benefits for body and mind. The constant uncertainty of the COVID pandemic may make it harder to find your flow, but today's new research reveals ways to rediscover that magical state anytime you like.