Entering flow states — where time seems to stand still, yet you feel like you’re moving faster than the speed of light — is something most people never feel.
According to MihalyCsikszentmihalyi in his book Flow, flow is “the optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how amazing it feels. You feel like you have freakin’ superpowers.
The problem is, most people don’t feel this way. Ever. Many people are just sleepwalking through life without ever feeling this intensely focused energy that allows you to accomplish 10x the work in the same amount of time as someone else.
“Flow states” have been popularized by sports and the media. You’ve probably heard athletes describe the feeling of succeeding on the field — gold medalists, Tour de France winners, and World Cup champions have all repeatedly recounted how often they were in flow states for their winning performances.
But how can you consistently reach this peak mental performance and enter flow states throughout the week?
How can you ignore distractions, cut out the noise, and get your body to enter this magical, intense focus that the world’s most successful athletes use to become the best?
Here’s how you can train yourself to shut out distractions and enter flow states regularly.
Learn the Best Times of the Day To Enter Flow States. Then, Make a Strict Routine.
“When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” -Steven Pressfield
Consistently following routines creates physiological energy spikes.
When you sit down to work at the same time every day, your body gets used to the patterns. Soon, you stop wasting energy on decision-making and everything becomes automated. You wake up, eat, and work at the same time pretty much every day.
When you consistently follow these routines, this discipline will unlock powerful mental performance. When all your energy is spent on the task at hand, your body can operate at its peak capacity.
Dr. Michael Breus describes this in his book, “The Power of When.” He explains there are specific times when you are most primed for nearly every task — having the greatest sex, waking up, when to see a therapist to immediately get to the root of your issues, etc. — and people are divided into “chronotypes.”
There are 4 main chronotypes (you can take a short quiz here to see which one you most align with). Each type has a very specific timetable for entering into peak flow states.
Many people never really know what it’s like to operate at peak capacity. They don’t know how liberating and fun it is to do 10x the work in the same time period!
Learn about yourself. Find out if you get your best work done at 5AM, 1PM, or midnight.
If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.
-Neal Stephenson, best-selling science fiction author
Remove the Junk (People/Things) That Are Holding You Back
“It is better to look suffering straight in the eye, acknowledge and respect its presence, and then get busy as soon as possible focusing on things we choose to focus on.” -MihalyCsikszentmihalyi
One time during an NBA game I was watching, 2 players on opposing teams were obviously in a serious battle of who’s-better. It wasn’t just about physical dominance — it was about the inner, mental game.
“Boy, Embiid (one of the players) really has a lot of mental real estate in Westbrook’s (the other player) head!” one of the sports broadcasters mentioned. It was obvious Westbrook was bothered and losing the mental game. His team would go on to lose.
I always liked that term, “mental real estate.” Who or what is taking up space in your head that should not be there?
As soon as you remove that junk, you’ll be able to enter flow states much better. It’s exhausting trying to “not think” about something — if I tell you not to think about pink elephants for the next 5 minutes, what’s the only thing you’ll be able to think about?
Intstead, focus on accepting people, places, things, and situations as they are. Once you accept something as it is, you can move on and be productive.
A good idea is to start doing this — journaling or meditation are good methods — in the morning. Whenever anybody wakes up — Tony Robbins, Barack Obama, Beyoncé, you — they are filled with “fluff” thoughts on largely unimportant things. Every day, we’re exposed to tens of thousands of advertisements, distractions, and trivial tasks trying to get free mental real estate in your head.
You must get these thoughts out before you can see clearly focus on what truly matters.
“You cannot allow the actions of others to define your reality.” -Steven Pressfield
You Choose What You Focus On
Acclaimed author Cal Newport once wrote in his book, Deep Work:
“Network tools [social media, email, the Internet] are distracting us from work that requires unbroken concentration, while simultaneously degrading our capacity to remain focused.”
A lot of people wake up and immediately look at their phone, full of a dozen “urgent” notifications psychologically engineered to capture your attention. This immediately puts you in a reactive state of mind, from the minute you wake up.
You can choose what to focus on, though. Don’t be reactive, be proactive. You decide what you focus on and where you attention goes. Don’t let the Internet, your phone, the news, or anything else dictate your life.
Instead of living a reactive life, choose to focus on the right things — learning, growing, and using your mistakes as fuel to grow into someone smarter. A lot of people spend most (or all!) their free time back on their phones, living in a reactive state. Ironically, this type of personal time can actually be about as stressful as work. In the words of MihalyCsikszentmihalyi:
On the job people feel skillful and challenged, and therefore feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. In their free time people feel that there is generally not much to do and their skills are not being used, and therefore they tend to feel more sad, weak, dull, and dissatisfied. Yet they would like to work less and spend more time in leisure.
Csikszentmihalyi is saying work is a positive environment because there are specific goals and priorities that naturally keep you focused.
But “free time,” for all its freedom and lack of schedule, can actually become agitating for many people.
“You can’t change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.” -Jim Rohn
training yourself to consistently enter flow states is hard. Many people need a total lifestyle change to achieve this. Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, wrote that he had to experiment with replacing his laptop with a typewriter and trade in his smartphone for a newspaper so he’d break his addictive behavior with technology.
You might not need to go out and buy a typewriter to stop using Facebook so much (or maybe you do!). But it’s clear that replacing old, negative, “reactive” living with highly focused flow states is worth your time.
Cal Newport wrote, “Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.” Designing your life around solving hard problems in flow states is deeply rewarding, and just damn fun.
If you want to completely ignore distractions and enter flow states consistently, you have some work to do.
Remove emotional blockages. Learn what environments and timetables prime you for intense focus. Consistently act and train your mind to expect this.
Choose focused learning, not distracting entertainment.
“It is by being fully involved with every detail of our lives, whether good or bad, that we find happiness, not by trying to look for it directly.” -MihalyCsikszentmihalyi