How to get in the zone: 39 tips to find your flow (and the science behind it)

Harnessing flow state can take your business (and you) to the next level. Today's biggest businesses know it, and they're leveraging flow to their advantage. Facebook and Google, for example, work with specific flow triggers. Toyota and Patagonia have made flow a part of their core philosophies. And the results are impressive. There is an opportunity here for indie hackers to do the same.

I've been researching states of consciousness for years. The topic fascinates me. A few years back, my wife and I even toured a good portion of the US doing embodiment work, part of which consisted of brainwave entrainment that moved people into Theta state — a state which has a lot to do with flow.

So I know a lot about it, but I want to get better at accessing flow state in my everyday work, so I did some digging. Here's what I've learned.

In the zone meaning

Musicians call it being "in the pocket." Rowers call it "swing." Others know it as flow state, the zone, optimal experience, peak experience, and any number of other names.

It's not a new idea. Ancient Greek and Indian cultures spoke about it millennia ago and it became a widely studied phenomenon in the latter half of the 20th century. It's not reserved for athletes and artists either. I've seen it mentioned in regard to programmers, scientists, artists, actors, chess players, surgeons, and on and on — we all have access to this wonderful state.

I have the power

So what is it? Flow is a "...state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity, in which one dissociates oneself from distracting or irrelevant aspects of one's environment."

It's a state wherein a person performs at the absolute peak of their abilities. It is full immersion and deep presence where all else fades away.

The conscious mind takes a back seat, relying instead on the subconscious and the body. Action and awareness become one. Time seems to bend. Difficulty melts into ease and grace. There is a feeling of ecstacy and clarity. It can even be a deeply spiritual experience.

Sounds pretty good, eh?

I think this quote by Celtics player Bill Russell says it better than anything else I've read:

"At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion.

During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘it’s coming there!’ — except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine."

The science of flow

Quite a few things happen in the body when a person is flowing. Let's talk about the science.

Flow is caused by the temporary deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, which is where higher cognitive function lives. It may seem counterintuitive that this would help, but it does. A lot. Because your mind stops being such a chatterbox. Other regions of the brain can also down-regulate. In fact, one study found that the right parietal lobe deactivates, blurring the sense of self as separate.

Your brainwaves move from the fast-moving Beta waves of normal, thinking consciousness down to Alpha which is more relaxed. They continue to get slower until they're at the bottom of Alpha, which is associated with daydreaming, and then they start moving into Theta, which is associated with REM sleep and deep meditative experiences. Flow happens right there at the bridge between Alpha and Theta.

And then there's the cocktail of chemicals that the brain releases when you're in flow, all of which are pleasure-inducing and/or performance-enhancing: norepinephrine (enhances focus), dopamine (enhances focus), endorphins (blocks pain), anandamide (increases insight), and serotonin (feels good).

Benefits of flow

I doubt I need to sell you on why flow is important, but just in case, I'll list a few of the pretty much endless benefits:

  • Higher productivity
  • Improved performance
  • Increased motivation
  • Enhanced creativity and imagination
  • Decreased impulse control (leads to better following of intuition)
  • Better emotional regulation
  • More fulfillment and happiness
  • Greater courage
  • Less self-criticism
  • Feeling of unity, oneness

Another (somewhat surprising) benefit of flow is that it's contagious. People often enter flow state together — it's called "group flow." And it sounds like something that could be worth trying with a cofounder.

While we're discussing benefits, here are a few relevant studies:

In one study of 40 participants, no one was able to solve a brain teaser that required deep creative insight to solve. But when trying it in a flow state, 23 subjects answered it correctly — and in record time.

Another study showed that people from a wide range of fields were 7x more creative in a state of flow. In fact, people even report enhanced creativity the day after being in a flow state.

And in a 10-year study, executives reported being five times more productive in flow.

Dimensions of flow

How do you know when you're in flow? You don't. That's kind of the point — you aren't thinking. In fact, when people realize that they're in it, they'll often drop out of it right then and there. This is particularly true if it's verbalized. I saw quite a few accounts of this, and I've noticed it myself.

But you can see it in hindsight quite easily. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who popularized the study of flow, broke it into nine dimensions, which can act as clues.

The first six are the characteristics of flow state:

  1. Intense concentration
  2. Merging of awareness and action
  3. Decreased awareness of social evaluation or self-judgement
  4. Sense of control over the activity and its outcomes
  5. Sense that time is slowing down or speeding up
  6. Autotelic experience — i.e. the task in itself is the purpose (and reward)

And the final three are prerequisites to flow state:

  1. A balance of challenge and skill. In fact, according to Steven Kotler, the challenge should actually be about 4% greater than the skill level.
  2. Clear goals
  3. Clear and immediate feedback

One thing to note: Flow is an active state. If you're passively absorbed in a TV show and time flies by, it doesn't mean you were in flow.

How to get in the zone and find your flow — flow state triggers

Now, the big question. Most of us have tapped into flow here and there, but how can we do it on demand?

Let's start with some practices that can make flow more accessible in general.

  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and sleep.
  • Familiarize yourself with the task that you want to complete. If you're familiar with the task, your subconscious can take over.
  • Practice being in flow. The more you enter it, the more available it will be to you, so keep trying. Note: Activities that commonly induce flow include swimming, table tennis, running, cycling, rock climbing, and martial arts.
  • Create a pre-flow routine, much like athletes do before games and competitions. Move around, listen to music, visualize — whatever gets you focused.
  • Meditate. This gets you accustomed to quieting the conscious mind and letting the subconscious mind come to the fore.
  • Visualize. It impacts attention, perception, memory, and motor centers in the brain.
  • Practice focusing on one thing — e.g. your breath, an image, etc.
  • Get comfortable with failing. Otherwise, you can't risk anything. And risk is helpful for flow.

When you want to get into flow state, prepare your environment:

  • Plan your day so that other tasks are out of your mind.
  • Carve out a big block of time for flow. I like to set aside two hours. Set an alarm so you don't have to worry about the time.
  • Time it right. Figure out when you can drop in most easily. Many of us will be at our most energetic at around 11AM and 6PM, so those can be good times for flow. But our circadian rhythms vary so keep track of what works for you.
  • Remove distractions. This is probably the most important thing.
  • Have all the tools handy. Have them right in front of you so you don't have to go looking for them.
  • Choose a task that you love.
  • Choose a task that has high stakes.
  • Make sure the task is challenging, but doable.
  • Make sure the task requires creativity.
  • Break it down into multiple pieces If feedback isn't immediate like it would be in a sport, break your goal up into tasks so that you can see progress as you go.

When your environment is ready, try to get into the flow:

  • Know your goal.
  • But focus on the task, not the goal.
  • Turn on the jams. You can try specifically-designed music like Brain.fm and Endel focus music. Classical music can be good too. Try to avoid lyrics that will pull you out of the experience. And go with something that you're very familiar with so that you barely notice it.
  • Do your pre-flow routine, per above.
  • Relax your eyes.
  • Straighten your posture.
  • Focus on your breath. Before starting, breathe deeply a few times and really focus on the breath to become present.
  • Try not to verbalize things in your head.
  • Don't talk with anyone.
  • Don't try too hard.
  • Have fun.

And when you're done:

  • Journal about it.
  • Evaluate what worked and what didn't.
  • Iterate.

Having trouble getting in the zone?

If you're having trouble, you might be over-stimulated (anxiety, stress, overwhelm, etc.), in which case, you need to slow down your nervous system. Try breathing, taking a break, or resetting in some other way. Or you might be under-stimulated (bored, depressed, lethargic, etc.). Move your body, drink water, and eat something, then set a more challenging task.

Group flow state triggers

Steven Kotler, put together a list of flow state triggers. They're included in the how-to steps above, with the exception of his triggers for group flow. If you're trying to do this with a cofounder, team, etc., make sure the following requirements are met:

  • Team has shared goals
  • Team knows the risks
  • Team has a sense of familiarity with each other
  • Team participates equally
  • Team has constant communication
  • Team listens closely to each other
  • Individuals say "yes" a lot

Staying in the zone

Staying in flow state once you're in it is touchy. As I mentioned above, the moment you think about being in (or staying in) the zone will probably be the moment where you lose it.

If you do have a thought like that, don't verbalize it. Try to dismiss the thought and drop back into the task as quickly as possible. You might be able to stay in it this way.

But, if you drop out, then you can always try to get back into it by stilling your mind again. Or, if that's not working, try going through the steps I outlined above.

Keep up the practices mentioned above that make flow more accessible — they should also increase your capacity for staying in it.

Best books on flow

If you're interested in learning more, here are the best books I've found on the topic:

  • Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal: "New York Times bestselling author Steven Kotler and high performance expert Jamie Wheal spent four years investigating the leading edges of this revolution—from the home of SEAL Team Six to the Googleplex, the Burning Man festival, Richard Branson’s Necker Island, Red Bull’s training center, Nike’s innovation team, and the United Nations’ Headquarters. And what they learned was stunning: In their own ways, with differing languages, techniques, and applications, every one of these groups has been quietly seeking the same thing: the boost in information and inspiration that altered states provide." My take: I can personally recommend this one — super interesting.
  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport: "Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship."
  • The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler: "Drawing on over a decade of research and first-hand interviews with dozens of top action and adventure sports athletes such as big–wave legend Laird Hamilton, big–mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and skateboarding pioneer Danny Way, Kotler explores the frontier science of “flow,” an optimal state of consciousness where we perform and feel our best."
  • The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler: "We are capable of so much more than we know—that’s the message at the core of The Art of Impossible. Building upon cutting-edge neuroscience and over twenty years of research, author Steven Kotler lays out a blueprint for extreme performance improvement and offers a playbook to make it happen."
  • Living in Flow: The Science of Synchronicity and How Your Choices Shape Your World by Sky Nelson: "When we align with circumstance, circumstance aligns with us. Using a cutting-edge scientific theory of synchronicity, Sky Nelson-Isaacs presents a model for living "in the flow" - a state of optimal functioning, creative thinking, and seemingly effortless productivity."

And a few books by the man who brought flow into the mainstream:

  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness, unlock our potential, and greatly improve the quality of our lives."
  • Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "Take a routine chore and figure out how to do it better, faster, more efficiently. In short, learn the hidden power of complete engagement, a psychological state the author calls flow. Though they appear simple, the lessons in Finding Flow are life-changing."
  • Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "Drawing on 100 interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists to politicians and business leaders, poets and artists, as well as his 30 years of research on the subject, Csikszentmihalyi uses his famous theory to explore the creative process. He discusses such ideas as why creative individuals are often seen as selfish and arrogant, and why the tortured genius is largely a myth. Most important, he clearly explains why creativity needs to be cultivated and is necessary for the future of our country, if not the world."
  • Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "The book reveals how business leaders, managers, and even employees can find their flow and contribute not only to their own happiness, but also to a just and evolving society. It identifies the factors crucial to the operation of a good business: trust, the commitment to fostering the personal growth of employees, and the dedication to creating a product that helps mankind."

Over to you

Are you able to enter flow intentionally? I'd love to hear your tips in the comments!

How often do you get into flow state?
  1. Never
  2. Once a year
  3. Once a month
  4. Once a week
  5. Every day
  1. 3

    Amazing article, I need to dig into the topic more -- thanks for sharing!

  2. 3

    Your posts are amazing as always.

    1. 1

      Thanks Falak, I appreciate it! Glad you got something out of it 😃

  3. 3

    This is amazing James! I've been obsessed with Flow ever since reading the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This is one of the best write ups/summaries I've seen on it. Thanks for the book tips too - a few there I haven't come across yet excited to dig into!

    1. 2

      That's kind of you to say, thanks! 🙏

      Yeah, flow is fascinating. Is there anything I didn't include that has worked for you?

      1. 2

        The thing that stuck for me was the graphic of Mihaly's 'flow channel'. You've captured it with your write up so the graphic is just a plus.

        1. 2

          Nice, that's a helpful graphic. Thanks!

  4. 2

    Hey @IndieJames! Great write up on a topic dear to me. I've been on a mission to bring the flow state to the masses. This year I've put together a course http://induceflowstate.com to teach makers, developers and creators how to activate the flow state on demand.

    Just a couple of weeks back now I discovered Steven Kotler had created a similar course “Zero to dangerous”. I thought as an indie maker this would kill my course dead in the water 🤯 ha ha! but I did some digging around and was floored by the price (and similarities). I wrote about it here:

    Overall, I am happy I’ve discovered others are teaching 'flow training' and their approach is so similar. It assures me that my self-discovered techniques are solid and their are opportunities for us indie hackers 🤘

    1. 2

      Sounds like a cool course 🙌

  5. 2

    Hey @IndieJames, love this post! I actually want to take this opportunity for a shameless plug. I hope you don't mind.

    I'm the creator of a podcast called Flow State (https://anchor.fm/flow-state). I created this podcast to help people experience exactly what you've described in this post. To help people get into a zone. The show format is 30 minutes of music, 5 minute talk break, followed by another 30 mins of music. This follows a basic Pomodoro technique to help you sustain your effort. The music is also hand selected every week - instrumental, electronic music that should help you calm down and focus.

    Again, hope you don't mind the plug here, but I figured people who are reading this would probably be interested in this - enjoy :).

    1. 2

      Cool idea — sounds like a great resource 💪

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