Modern Life

Tips to help your brain get into “flow” at work

Not just for artists and athletes, achieving “flow” can help your brain — and you — do better work.

By Dana G. Smith — December 1, 2022

Flow has come to be known as a state of peak performance, but its origins lie not in optimization and productivity but in the study of happiness. The concept was first introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the godfather of flow — while conducting research in the 1960s and ’70s on what makes people happy.

As part of his work, he spoke with hobbyists — painters, chess players, dancers, rock climbers — who were passionate about their activity without the promise of fame or fortune. During Csikszentmihalyi’s interviews, a common theme kept emerging: When they were in the right state of mind, the work would just flow out of them as if it were carried by a current. Painters and climbers didn’t have to force anything; their tasks became effortless. Dancers and musicians talked of an almost out-of-body experience where they were unaware of themselves, their surroundings, or the passage of time. They performed the action not for any external validation but because it was rewarding in and of itself.

 When people are in a state of flow, they appear to be in the “sweet spot” physiologically. Heart rate is higher in flow than when a task is too easy, but lower than when it’s deemed too hard. Similarly, cortisol levels are moderately elevated — high enough so that you’re alert and engaged but not so high that you feel overwhelmed. Generally, heart rate variability is low during flow, indicating a higher cognitive load, and breathing rate is elevated, with more deep breaths. 

Though it’s tough to study a brain in flow, psychologists have been able to induce the experience in the lab using video games like Tetris and even by having people solve math problems. 

The key, says Johannes Keller, head of the social psychology department at the University of Ulm in Germany, is to match the difficulty of the task to the person’s skill level. “When participants worked on a mental arithmetic task and the difficulty level was continuously adapted to their performance level, you can actually see it in their brains,” he says.


RELATED: Six strategies to supercharge your brain 


Alex Honnold, the mountain-climbing star of Free Solo, ascends cliff faces like Yosemite’s El Capitan — 3,000 feet of vertical granite — without safety equipment. No ropes, no helmet; only his hands, feet, and brain. What helps Honnold defy gravity (and death)? 

Honnold has said the experience of flow — of having total concentration, when skill matches the challenge at hand and everything else falls away — helped him break the speed record on another Yosemite climb. And it’s the pleasure and satisfaction derived from flow that keep him coming back to the rock. 


Legend has it that flow (and amphetamines!) also aided Jack Kerouac in writing his final draft of On the Road, typing the entire novel on a 120-foot roll of paper in just three weeks. In his advice to writers, Kerouac recommends that they “struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind.” Fortunately, flow is not just for artists or athletes. We regular folk don’t have to climb a mountain or write a novel to experience flow; it can be found while reading a good book, enjoying a deep conversation, playing video games — or even working at the office. 

Flow is the experience of being “completely engaged in a challenging activity,” says Gary Gute, associate professor of applied human sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. When that engagement happens, he says, time is distorted, self-consciousness disappears, and you enjoy the experience so much you want to repeat it again and again. 

Researchers at McKinsey & Company surveyed more than 5,000 business leaders on whether they and their teams have experienced a state of flow. The executives reported that “they and their employees are in the zone at work less than 10 percent of the time,” but when they are, they estimate they’re five times more productive. 

So how can you tap into flow, both at home and in the office, not only to get more work done but to get more enjoyment from it, too?

There are a few specific changes that occur when the brain is in a state of flow. Activity decreases in a set of regions called the default mode network, which gets turned on when the mind wanders. This includes a section of the prefrontal cortex involved in self-reflection. At the same time, there’s increased activity in another part of the prefrontal cortex that’s critical for attention, enabling you to focus solely on the job in front of you. Regions that process feelings of reward also get turned on, which explains how a task performed in a state of flow becomes intrinsically motivating. 

The optimal setup at work 

It’s one thing to get into this mental state while you’re playing a piano solo or skiing a black diamond slope, but what about when you’re staring down an Excel spreadsheet? 

It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi was most interested in how the experience of flow could be incorporated into the more mundane aspects of everyday life. The key is to optimize your external and internal environments.

First and foremost, create a physical space where you’re able to focus. An office where people are frequently interrupted and distracted is a problem from the point of view of finding flow, says Zsadany Vecsey, who worked with Csikszentmihalyi and others to create Fligby, a gaming solution that teaches people how to be better business leaders using the principles of flow. “That kind of focus is missing, normally, in the modern workplace.” 

Some of the biggest flow-killers at work are emails, notifications, and other distractions that shatter your concentration. Multitasking hinders flow, too, because your attention is divided. If you need to get into flow, close your email and Slack or set to Do Not Disturb, tell a manager or coworkers that you won’t be able to respond immediately for the next hour or two, and put your phone on silent and out of sight if you can. Also try scheduling meetings for either the morning or afternoon so you can block off the rest of the day for deep concentration. 

It’s important to pay attention to your physical and emotional state, too. If you’re physically uncomfortable — tired, hungry, needing to use the bathroom — it can be difficult to ignore those sensations and lose yourself in a task. Similarly, if you’re feeling emotional, whether it’s positive or negative, you probably won’t be able to disengage and focus on the work.


If you’re struggling to leave your emotions at the door when you sit down to work, try meditating for five or 10 minutes. Concentrate on your breathing and let the emotional thoughts pass through without focusing on them. Or try a grounding exercise like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Bring your attention first to five things you can see, then four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and finally one thing you can taste. These exercises should snap you out of your thought spiral and bring you into the present moment. 

Finding meaning is key to achieving flow at work

The other half of the flow equation is the work itself. The two opposing states to flow are apathy and anxiety; when the work is too easy, you feel bored and disengaged, but if it’s too hard it becomes overwhelming and stressful. The activity must fall in the sweet spot of your skill set. And as you get better over time, the task needs to become more challenging to keep you in a state of flow. Alex Honnold didn’t start off climbing mountains without ropes. But as he got better and better with decades of practice, he kept seeking out more difficult climbs to keep himself engaged and interested. 

If a task is too easy (or boring), try making a game out of it. “[Set] a goal and subgoals as ways of making the work more challenging and to improve your skill,” says Gute. “[Make it] a little game that you play with yourself to try to find more engagement, meaning, and interest in the work that you’re doing.” 

You should also have a clear idea of your desired outcome, both short and long term, and be able to evaluate how you’re doing. Flow has been described as optimal high-speed decision-making, with each choice effortlessly flowing from one to the next. You know exactly which musical note to play or which chess move to make. There are clear goals every step of the way, and there is immediate feedback that the choice you made is the right one.

Make the wrong move in chess and your piece will be captured; play the wrong note and your ear will hear it. 

Keller says that these three main requirements for flow — a task that fits your skills, a clear objective, and real-time self-evaluation — are all related. “You cannot experience a perceived fit of skills and task demands without clear task instructions and without the ability to identify whether you’re making progress,” he explains. 


It’s also easier to enter a flow state if you find the work meaningful. If at first glance a task appears boring, approaching it with curiosity and a desire to learn might reveal intriguing elements that can spark your interest and help you become more engaged. Or try thinking about what the wider impact of your work might be. 

“If you know who is using your services or products, what the impact will be on their lives, and how you can actually help them or support them, that will definitely increase the internal motivational level,” Vecesy says. 

Flow isn’t always something you just fall into — it’s a skill like any other that you can work at and cultivate. In other words, sometimes it’s up to you to find the flow, and it may be less about the task itself and more about your attitude toward it. 

It’s this aspect of flow — the practice of trying to find enjoyment and fulfillment even from everyday activities — that led Csikszentmihalyi to believe that living in flow was the secret to happiness. His research showed that the more f low people have in their lives, the happier they are, possibly because their work becomes intrinsically rewarding. 

So the next time you’re putting together a PowerPoint deck or working on an annual strategy plan, try to make the task a little more interesting or meaningful by keeping your focus in the moment, making a game out of it, or probing why the activity is valuable. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it.


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